Black Melodrama

Spring 2025 Honors Seminar ~ Histories/Topics

Spring 2025 Honors Seminar ~ Histories/Topics

Professor Kristen Wright
THEA_UT 801.003 ~ 4 credits
Tuesdays 2:00-4:45 pm

For Black writers, melodrama has been an important vehicle for moral commentary on the historical outrages of slavery and lynching, and the contemporary barriers that Black women face in the workplace. Emerging in 18th-century France to teach moral lessons in the wake of religion’s loosening grip on public life, melodrama first emerged in the US in 19th-century theatre before migrating to film and television in the 20th and 21st centuries. 

The course begins with a theoretical overview of melodrama, framed by the work of Peter Brooks and Susan Gilman, who coined the phrase “American Race Melodrama.” We will read 19th-century anti-slavery melodramas like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Escape, and The Octoroon in addition to the 20th-century anti-lynching melodramas of Georgia Douglas Johnson and Angelina Weld Grimké. The course also includes contemporary work that “queers” melodrama, including Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon. We conclude by examining reality TV and contemporary melodramas starring Black women like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder.

By examining a wide range of melodramatic texts, films, and TV shows spanning the 19th century to the present day, students will study the ways race and difference inform melodramatic expression across centuries and media.