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News — African American Texas playwrights take center stage

The editors of "Acting Up and Getting Down," Texas State professors Sandra Mayo and Elvin Holt.
The editors of "Acting Up and Getting Down," Texas State professors Sandra Mayo and Elvin Holt.

RELEASED March 11, 2014

SAN MARCOS, TX—This month the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University launch the newest book in their literary series: Acting Up and Getting Down: Plays by African American Texans. The volume’s editors, Texas State professors Dr. Sandra Mayo and Dr. Elvin Holt, selected works by seven distinguished playwrights for this groundbreaking achievement in Texas letters—one of the first anthologies of its kind.

To offer a deeper understanding of the subject, the Wittliff presents an exhibition with the same name from March 18 through August 1 of this year.

“We have a rich history of black theatre here in Texas but it is not well known,” said Mayo, director of Texas State’s Graduate Studies for the Department of Theatre and Dance, an associate professor of theatre, and a black theatre specialist. She and Holt, who is a professor of English and a specialist in African American literature at the university, have worked for years to research African American theatres in Texas, conducting interviews and rescuing thousands of vital documents that help preserve this unique and important history.

Mayo donated these substantial papers and documents to the Wittliff, and the Acting Up and Getting Down exhibition organizes many of the manuscripts, playbills, photographs, and posters into a tangible narrative of the origins and development of black theatre in Texas. Brought to the fore are contemporary theatre companies, important venues and their technical crews, directors, literary talents, and outstanding plays that have entertained and inspired audiences across generations.

Eugene Lee

Eugene Lee

The exhibition also highlights the achievements of Eugene Lee, a Distinguished Alumnus of Texas State who is also the University's Artist-in-Residence. Lee is a nationally acclaimed playwright and actor. His plays have been performed in such venues as London's Royal Court Theater. As an actor, he has appeared on Broadway, television, and film.

Lee's play Killingsworth is featured in the anthology Acting Up and Getting Down. He generously loaned many materials to the Wittliff Collections for display as part of this exhibition.


Steve Davis, curator of the exhibition, is also editor of the Wittliff’s Southwestern Writers Collection series of which Mayo and Holt’s anthology is a part. Published by the University of Texas Press, Acting Up and Getting Down brings together seven African American literary voices that all have a connection to the Lone Star state. Capturing the intensity of racial violence in Texas, from the Battle of San Jacinto to a World War I-era riot at a Houston army camp, Celeste Bedford Walker’s Camp Logan (1987) and Ted Shine’s Ancestors (1986) provide fascinating narratives through the lens of history. Thomas Meloncon’s Johnny B. Goode (1997) and George Hawkins’s Br’er Rabbit (1977) navigate the cultural legacies of blues music and folktales. Eugene Lee’s unflinching drama, Killingsworth (1987), uses a mysterious death to peel back the layers of a dysfunctional but loving family. Lee, a nationally acclaimed playwright and actor, is a Distinguished Alumnus of Texas State who is also the artist-in-residence at the university. Other dramas, Driving Wheel (1992) by Sterling Houston, and When the Ancestors Call (1992) by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, explore families divided by issues of sexuality and child abuse.

Both as an exhibition and as an anthology, Acting Up and Getting Down directs the spotlight on creative achievements that provide vital insight into the African American experience in Texas while helping to complete the American story as told onstage.