James Hatch, archivist of black theater, dies at 91

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James Hatch, archivist of black theater, dies at 91
“The Roots of African American Drama: An Anthology of Early Plays, 1858-1938”.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- James V. Hatch, a historian of black theater who, with his wife, artist and filmmaker Camille Billops, created a vast archive of interviews with black actors, singers, writers and artists, died Feb. 14 in Manhattan. He was 91.

His son, Dion Hatch, said the cause was Alzheimer’s disease.

James Hatch, who taught English and theater at City College for three decades, was the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including “The Roots of African American Drama: An Anthology of Early Plays, 1858-1938” (1990), which he edited with Leo Hamalian, and “Sorrow Is the Only Faithful One: The Life of Owen Dodson” (1993), about the black poet and playwright.

His area of scholarship sometimes raised eyebrows because Hatch was white.

“I was born in Iowa, and the only thing I knew about black people was what I read in books — Mark Twain,” he said in an interview for an exhibition called “Still Raising Hell: The Art, Activism, and Archives of Camille Billops and James V. Hatch,” mounted at Emory University in Atlanta in 2016.

“I wanted to find out, Who were all the other people that didn’t live in the Baptist church in Oelwein, Iowa?” he added.

“I got good cooperation from almost all black people,” he said. “Some of them were jealous — ‘White man, what are you doing writing about our history?’ ‘I’m trying to learn it. Help me!’ ”

Certainly the person who helped him the most was Billops, who was black and whom he met in 1959; they began a romantic relationship and married in 1987. For years their loft, purchased in 1973, in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan was a gathering spot for artists, academics and others.

“We invited everybody here: friends, students and white folks, gallerists and curators,” Billops told Topic Magazine in an interview for an article published just before her death last June.

The two began amassing their archive, not only recording interviews with prominent and not-so-prominent black artists and performers, but accumulating play scripts, handbills, photographs and other materials. They published a number of the oral histories in the journal Artist and Influence; 20 volumes of the journal appeared from 1981 to 2001.

Much of the archive is now at Emory; another cache is at City College. Pellom McDaniels III, curator of African American collections at Emory, said by email that the couple’s work “has had a monumental impact on the practice and execution of theater specialists, art historians and scholars for decades.”

James Vernon Hatch was born on Oct. 25, 1928, in Oelwein, a small city northeast of Des Moines. His father, MacKenzie, was a mason, welder and boilermaker, and his mother, Eunice, was a homemaker.

Hatch earned a bachelor’s degree in 1949 at the University of Northern Iowa and did postgraduate work at the University of Iowa, where he encountered black intellectuals like playwright Ted Shine. He received a master’s degree there in 1955 and a doctorate in 1958.

In 1958 he took a job teaching theater arts at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he struck up a relationship with a black pianist and composer, C. Bernard Jackson. The two collaborated on a musical, “Fly Blackbird,” which addressed race relations and civil rights; it was staged in Los Angeles in 1961 and had a run in New York the next year.

“In the course of that, I learned a lot about black culture and attitudes and why things happened,” he said in the interview for the Emory exhibition.

He also met Billops, who was the stepsister of a member of the Los Angeles cast. Hatch had married Evelyn Marcussen in 1949 and had two children; the marriage ended in divorce in 1965.

Hatch, who joined the City College faculty in 1965 after a stint as a Fulbright lecturer in Egypt, became an expert in the history of black theater, not only rediscovering overlooked works but unearthing the black origins of elements that had been appropriated by white playwrights and entertainers, including those who found fame by performing in blackface.

“The names of the Big Four white minstrel men — Christy, Rice, Emmett, Bryant — were widely known and written about,” he wrote in the introduction to “Lost Plays of the Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1940” (1996), which he edited with Hamalian, “but who knows the slave musicians, street performers, church singers and riverboat roustabouts whose songs and jokes and dances were stolen by the white minstrel men?”

He called out stereotypes in plays and movies like “Gone With the Wind,” whose Mammy character is “still pushing the image of Blacks-as-retarded at our neighborhood theaters and in our living rooms,” he wrote in the introduction to “The Roots of African American Drama: An Anthology of Early Plays, 1858-1938,” another project with Hamalian.

Hatch wrote a number of plays in addition to his books, and he and Billops collaborated on several films. Most notable among those was “Finding Christa” (1991), a documentary about Billops’ decision to give up a daughter she had had before she met Hatch, and her reunion with that daughter 20 years later. The film won the grand jury prize for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival.

Hatch took emeritus status at City College in 1996. In addition to his son, who is from his first marriage, he is survived by a daughter, Susan Blankenship, also from that marriage, and a grandson.

McDaniels took a version of the “Still Raising Hell” exhibition to a middle school in Atlanta (though the name was eventually changed to “Speak What Must Be Spoken” because a principal didn’t want the word “hell” in large letters on the wall). A sixth grader asked him what it was about.

“I explained to him who Jim and Camille were,” McDaniels recalled, “and how throughout their lives they challenged the gatekeepers of the New York art scene and encouraged their students and colleagues to speak truth to power.”

The boy studied the exhibition, he said, “then looked at me and stated, ‘I’m going to raise hell all my life.’”

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