17 April 2020 Blogs, Academic, Community College, Faculty, Librarian, Student/Researcher

Remembering James Hatch, Archivist of Black Theater

How a unique partnership created extraordinary research and learning opportunities in Black studies

By Will Whalen, Director, Global Content at Alexander Street, A ProQuest Company

Editor’s note: Will Whalen, the Director of Global Content at Alexander Street, recently recalled meeting scholar and historian James (“Jim”) Hatch who died on February 14, 2020. The subsequent partnership between Professor Hatch and Alexander Street Press resulted in a profound collection of primary materials on the history of Black Drama.

I met Jim Hatch around 2002. Our team at Alexander Street Press had been doing some initial research on the potential of doing a Black Drama collection. On nearly every anthology or bibliography published on the subject, Jim's name was there, either as author, editor or contributor. It was clear that for anyone looking to do meaningful work on the history of Black theatre artists in America, Jim Hatch was the person to talk to.

We decided to try to find him.

I learned that he was a retired professor from City University of New York, living in Manhattan. I called and asked if I could come see him. He said sure, adding that if we were going to begin work on the project that I described to him, we had better be prepared to do it with care.

This was a tight community of people, he explained. They weren’t going to settle for something that wasn’t done right.

Jim and his wife, Camille, lived in this huge spacious loft in SoHo that they'd bought in the 1970s that was by then worth maybe 10 times what they'd paid for it. They had it set up almost like an archive in one section. There were file cabinets full of photographs, clippings, posters, all variety of documents, and a large, sort of closet with original typescripts and manuscripts on shelves. Plus, cans of film all around.

It was a striking place – one where graduate researchers would often request appointments to come visit.

Jim agreed to help us out as an advisor on the Black Drama collection, provided that we went about it the right way.

In retrospect, I don't see how it ever could've been done without him. He knew everyone, knew every body of work by and about each of them. In some cases, he'd tracked down artists after their careers had slowed down and they'd been nearly forgotten – and they might well have been without Jim’s intervention. Jim interviewed some of these writers near the end of their lives, capturing remarkable oral histories, and likely saving some scripts from being lost for good.

He had a Rolodex with the contact information for all of the people we would need to connect with – not just active playwrights – but often their granddaughters, grandsons and other surviving relatives.

He told us where rare unpublished scripts could be located, once we'd secured the proper rights. Some were in his loft, some only at the Schomburg Center, some at Howard University's library, some likely stashed away in people's attics or garages.

Jim and Camille were both accomplished artists themselves. Jim was kind and modest, somewhat reserved, while Camille was full of energy, a great storyteller and very funny. They were a lovely couple and complemented each other well.

Among many other activities, they edited and published an annual periodical called Artist and Influence, filled with interviews, essays, photographs and poetry. The interview transcripts were sometimes taken from events they hosted in their loft. My impression of these events is that they would record a live interview with their subject – usually a historical or artistic figure – in front of an audience of 20 or so friends. There would be a cocktail party before or after the interview.

All of the items that the couple cataloged, preserved, saved, rescued, created, etc., are now at Emory University. Jim and Camille allowed us to include the full run of their 25 volumes of Artist and Influence in a later collection we produced, called Black Thought and Culture. That was another project we could not have done without the education and advice we received from Jim and Camille.

The work that Jim did in publishing and preserving the work of Black theatre artists was critically important. I imagine he would deny this and would deflect the attention to the playwrights instead, but the value of his contribution can't be overstated.

I wish I could've sat in their loft one more time and listened to him and Camille tell stories all afternoon. It was a memorable place and they were two memorable people.