Leslie Frost, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“Don’t Be Mean" And Other Lessons from Federal Theatre Project Children’s Plays


Whimsical and imaginative moments lighten the generally didactic and unabashedly earnest children’s plays of the Federal Theatre Project (1935-1939). Written, staged, and performed by adults, and with a mission to employ out-of-work theater professionals, the plays, were designed to educate and entertain. They were performed on theatrical stages, as well as in parks, hospitals, and orphanages and were popular with adults and children. Many were topical and a smaller number were overtly political. I am particularly interested in exploring how the idea of children’s play inflects plays immersed in Popular Front ideology. There were dancing penguins and polar bears in an anti-fascist play where looming shadows of soldiers with guns threaten children’s dreams. Brightly costumed roller skating beavers opened a Marxist fairy tale where the evil Chief menaces poor kids from the city: “I’m going to teach you the biggest lesson there is! And the lesson is – for a hundred years – you’re gonna get killed every day starting tomorrow!” Threatening tigers were bopped on the nose by an intrepid boy “just like Joe Louis” in a re-imagined The Story of Little Black Sambo. How does this all play out in the highly charged political atmosphere of the WPA?


Leslie Frost is a teaching associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In Dreaming America: Popular Front Ideals an Aesthetics in Children’s Plays of the Federal Theatre Project (2013) Frost traces the how the tumultuous politics of the late 1930s shaped the stories and staging of Federal Theatre Project (1935-1939) children’s plays. In 2016, Frost adapted and produced the Federal Theatre Project’s It Can’t Happen Here for an anniversary staged reading at Historic Playmakers Theatre at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is currently working on a project centered on New Deal U.S. Post Office murals.

Cosponsored by the Advanced Training in Greek Poetry Translation and Performance Workshop.