Katherine Dunham

Pages from the Arts: October 2017

In this month's review of performing arts books, we look at a biography of dance great Katherine Dunham, a memoir from set designer David Hays, and the script of Application Pending.

published Wednesday, October 11, 2017

In Pages from the Arts, we review books that relate to what we cover on the site: theater, opera, classical music, dance, comedy, spoken word and film/TV with a stage connection. Look for our opinions on biographies, memoirs, histories, work about practice and theory, coffee table books and other tomes. These will be curated and mostly written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, Acquisitions Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. Ritchie also reviews books for the websites of the Dallas Public Library, Theatre Library Association, and the American Library Association’s GLBT Round Table, plus other publications.

Pages from the Arts will also include reviews from other TheaterJones contributors, and we encourage our readers to suggest and submit reviews, too. If you're reading a newish (let's say less than a year old) book that falls into a performing arts category, email editor Mark Lowry at and let him know you'd be interested in reviewing it. If you have written or contributed to a book that fits the mission, let him know that too, especially if there is a North Texas connection.

If the book is currently available at the Dallas Public Library, we'll offer that information.

In this edition of Pages from the Arts, 




Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora

By Joanna Dee Das

Oxford University Press, 2017

ISBN 9780190264871

276 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public LibraryCLICK HERE


By all measures, Katherine Dunham was a remarkably “many-hatted” woman—dancer, choreographer, educator, author, anthropologist, and social activist. In these troubled times, it’s good to be reminded of an artist who strove for global unity and multicultural understanding in her work and life, and this new combination biography/historiographic study offers just that reminder.

However, a disclaimer: this book is not an easy read. Joanna Dee Das integrates Dunham’s life story with a deeper analysis of her work vis-à-vis her determination to embody and represent the African dance influence throughout the world, and the portions devoted to the latter theme can be slower going. But there is ample “straight biography” in the mix, making this book a solid introduction to the committed mover and shaker that was Katherine Dunham.

Dunham was born in Chicago in 1909, but would be raised in suburban Glen Ellyn. Both writing and dance became strong interests for her in childhood. While still in high school, she opened a dance studio for African-American children.

As an anthropology student at the University of Chicago, Dunham learned that a large portion of black culture in America had its roots in the so-called “African diaspora,” with the latter word defined as: “the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland.” She eventually focused her academic studies on dance ethnography, winning several travel grants towards further study. These opportunities would take her to points in the Caribbean where she examined customs, religion and native dances of the areas. Haiti in particular would become a favorite locale and Dunham’s second homeland.

Back in America in the 1930s, Dunham had a choice to make: become a full-time academic anthropologist specializing in dance studies, or turn to dancing herself. She opted for the latter, and that decade would see Dunham in performance on Broadway and in Hollywood. While still a college undergraduate, she had already founded the group Black Negres, one of the first black ballet companies in the United States, but after making the permanent life change from academia, she switched to modern dance with her so-called Negro Dance Group, specializing in African-based performance.

Katherine Dunham

This troupe, starring Dunham, would appear at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and as part of the Federal Theatre Project, among others. Along the way, Dunham created her own works based on African and Caribbean themes and techniques. Her dancers became part of the 1940 all-black Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky. Over the next few decades, the group would perform in other film musicals and tour extensively overseas.

On the personal side, her long professional association with set designer John Pratt led to their interracial marriage in 1949, and they later adopted a daughter.

In 1945, she founded the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theater near New York’s Times Square. Eventually considered one of the best institutions of its type, the school offered courses in drama, humanities, cultural studies and much more. Its famed attendees would include Jose Ferrer, Eartha Kitt, Sidney Poitier, James Dean, Shirley MacLaine, and Warren Beatty, among many others.

During this time, she developed the instructional method known as the Dunham Technique, still utilized in today’s modern dance coursework. Beginning in 1959, she also displayed her writing ability via several volumes of autobiography and anthropological articles for academic journals. And in 1963, Dunham became the first African-American in 30 years to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera.

In 1964, Dunham became an “artist in residence” at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, and established the Performing Arts Training Center in the neighboring troubled city of East St. Louis, with hopes of using the arts to combat poverty and urban unrest. With its 1,000-student enrollment, the Center became home to a student dance company and museum devoted to African art, and offered classes in ballet, drumming, and much else. Dunham officially retired from performing in 1967.

Dunham continued seeking projects and initiatives with the aims of fostering black pride and raising awareness of the worldwide roots of dance, and received several awards for her artistic and societal achievements, including a Kennedy Center Honor in 1983. Katherine Dunham died in 2006, just short of her 97th birthday.

Joanna Dee Das tells Dunham’s multi-faceted story in great detail, with footnotes galore, and with much emphasis on the choreographer’s overseas travels and experiences, the latter both positive and many less so. The writing style is undeniably dense at times, but since Dunham’s own life was itself so rich and complex, the book’s in-depth, analytical tone seems somewhat justified. As Das summarizes in her final pages: “Through self-knowledge and a perpetual willingness to learn from others, [Dunham] modeled how to be a socially conscious artist over the course of a lifetime…When one avenue closed, she broke ground on another. Onstage and off, Dunham choreographed the change she wished to see in the world, and we are better for it.”

A challenging book, to be sure, but also a deserved tribute to an exceptional, woman, artist, and citizen of the world.



Setting the Stage: What We Do, How We Do It, And Why

By David Hays

Wesleyan University Press, 2017

ISBN 9780839577214

190 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public LibraryCLICK HERE



Legendary Theatre Hall of Fame set and lighting designer David Hays has a mental Rolodex encompassing a veritable Who’s Who of theatre legends and watershed productions, along with his own founding of the National Theater of the Deaf in 1967. What a creative legacy, and what memories.

In his charming combination memoir and anecdotal set design textbook-cum-life primer, all laced with sly humor and the occasional witty barb, Hays opens our eyes to the magic and thought processes behind taking a bare stage and mystically converting it into just about anything, thanks to some wood, paint, and imagination. It will also introduce readers to some truly remarkable theatrical movers, shakers, and their productions.

Here we find, among many others: Jose Quintero, Jason Robards, Garson Kanin, Tyrone Guthrie, Elia Kazan, Lincoln Kirstein, George Balanchine, Robert Whitehead, Maureen Stapleton, Colleen Dewhurst, Neil Simon. Hays worked for and with them all. As for productions, as scenic and/or lighting designer, he contributed to Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1956), The Tenth Man (1959), All The Way Home (1960), Gideon (1961), No Strings (1962), Hughie (1964), The Gingerbread Lady (1974), and innumerable others, both on- and off-Broadway. In his spare time, Hays also fashioned sets for the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet. A man of infinite variety, also possessing a gift for the written word.

His brief chapters are somewhat chronological, occasionally meandering in time, but within each section, Hays illustrates a particular aspect of his craft and/or experience as a theatre professional. Accordingly, each segment concludes with “What I Learned” and an “Exercise” for would-be scenic design folks to tackle themselves. He shares nuggets of acquired wisdom along the way: “The designer is hired as an inventive partner, and all ingredients, including the anticipated strength of an actor, should be stirred into the pot.”

While many of Hays’ productions became successful classics, he often reflects on the less-than-satisfying ones as well: “Another lighting designer was hired for The Night Circus, and he responded by heaving bright light onstage willy-nilly. The result resembled a police line-up and my set was ruined, but you heard the playwright’s words---surely why the play closed so quickly.”

Here’s one of his observations, close to my own heart, about a particular theatre on whose design he consulted: “I campaigned for more ladies’ stalls in the audience restrooms, because I’m distressed to attend the theatre at Lincoln Center or on Broadway and see dignified women with festive togs and full bladders standing in long lines in the lobby, while the men quickly go in and out.” My hero, David Hays.

While I would have enjoyed hearing more about his experiences with the National Theatre of the Deaf, and a few of Hays’ more technical design discussions are challenging to absorb, this is a thoughtful, enjoyable reminiscence by a man who’s seen it all in the area of technical design but still remains optimistic for theatre’s future.

As he concludes:  “What’s the future of scenery in all this? Holograms? Will we wear special eyepieces to supply backgrounds?...No—cheer up!....We can tell stories…That is why we are here. ..Let’s hope for perceptive directors who can wisely advise fine performers and then get the best light and angles on them, who will work with us, the designers, to give them the perfect place to be. What is the perfect place? For me, that will always be in the same room with us, at the same time.”

Setting the Stage offers delightful time with a remarkable man.



Application Pending: A Grown-Up Comedy About Kindergarten Admissions

By Greg Edwards & Andy Sandberg

Stage Rights Publishing, 2015

ISBN 9780692558522

35 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public LibraryCLICK HERE



In 2000, Becky Mode brought us the hilarious one-man romp Fully Committed, in which a harried New York restaurant reservations clerk deals with a cascade of demanding and perversely humorous phone inquirers begging for a literal seat at the table(s) “tonight.” The show was revived last year on Broadway and starred the superb Jesse Tyler Ferguson with his panorama of voices over the space of a breakneck 90 minutes. A winning comedic premise, to be sure.

Segue to 2015, and we have Application Pending, in which playwrights Edwards and Sandberg tap into the same core concept: this time, their victim is a harried kindergarten admissions person dealing with a phone cascade of—you guessed it—demanding parents, among others, fighting for seats in the sandbox for their precious (not to mention Einstein-level gifted) pre-school darlings.

Coincidence? It really doesn’t matter, when the end result is so brilliantly satiric and enjoyable.

Poor Christine, a single mother with her own parenting concerns, has been thrust into the sorry role of “head of admissions” at an extremely elite Manhattan private school on the very day that applications are due for the following year. For 75 minutes, our suffering heroine juggles the voices of young applicants themselves, plus school administrators and all those devoted parents clogging up her phone lines. In short, it’s a riot, also offering humorously pointed commentary on the cutthroat milieu that has become the standard children’s (!) school enrollment process in these harried times. As the script’s front cover informs us: “For some, it’s kindergarten. For these parents, IT’S WAR.”

Application Pending was world-premiered off-Broadway in 2015 in a production directed by Andy Sandberg and starring Christina Bianco as Christine and, well, everyone else. It plays at Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre Oct. 19-Nov. 18, with Janelle Lutz in the lead. Prepare to laugh, cringe, and be amazed.


» Pages from the Arts appears on the second Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones. 




  • February 2017: A Mary Martin biography, Joel Grey's autobiography, Jack Viertel's book about the structure of musicals, and a book about playwriting by T.J. Walsh of Trinity Shakespeare Festival
  • March 2017: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
  • April 2017: Two biographies of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, namesake for the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; a story of African-American opera singer Ryan Speedo Green; a chronicle of a summer repertory production of Much Ado About Nothing; and gorgeous book (and CD) for musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
  • May 2017: A book about Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, a portrait of how Venezuela's El Sistema became a model for publicy funded music education, and a biography of the late comedian Joan Rivers.
  • June 2017: Three memoirs from classical musicians: Andrea Avery's Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano; Min Kym's Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung; and Marcia Butler's The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir.
  • July 2017: Dominic Dromgoole's chronicle of taking the Globe Theatre's Hamlet to nearly 200 countries; a new biography of dance/choreoraphy legend Gene Kelly; and the script of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat.
  • August 2017Biographies Sam Sephard and stage and screen actress Teresa Wright; and the script of David-Lindsay Abaire's Ripcord. 
  • September 2017:A biography of Sarah Vaughan, an informative journey through theatrical history, and the scrip of Martyna Majok's play Ironbound
 Thanks For Reading

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Pages from the Arts: October 2017
In this month's review of performing arts books, we look at a biography of dance great Katherine Dunham, a memoir from set designer David Hays, and the script of Application Pending.
by Cathy Ritchie

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