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Black Theatre

Black Theatre: Ritual Performance In The African Diaspora

Paul Carter Harrison
Victor Leo Walker
Gus Edwards
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Temple University Press
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  • Book Info
    Black Theatre
    Book Description:

    Generating a new understanding of the past—as well as a vision for the future—this path-breaking volume contains essays written by playwrights, scholars, and critics that analyze African American theatre as it is practiced today.Even as they acknowledge that Black experience is not monolithic, these contributors argue provocatively and persuasively for a Black consciousness that creates a culturally specific theatre. This theatre, rooted in an African mythos, offers ritual rather than realism; it transcends the specifics of social relations, reaching toward revelation. The ritual performance that is intrinsic to Black theatre renews the community; in Paul Carter Harrison's words, it "reveals the Form of Things Unknown" in a way that "binds, cleanses, and heals."

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-0115-1
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
  3. Praise/Word
    (pp. 1-10)
    Paul Carter Harrison

    In 1996 Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright August Wilson dropped the gauntlet on skepticism about the validity of Black Theatre. His keynote address, “The Ground on Which I Stand,” delivered at the eleventh Biennial Theatre Communications Group National Conference at Princeton University, became the occasion for Wilson to remind us that the term “black or African-American not only denotes race, it denotes condition, and carries with it the vestige of slavery and the social segregation and abuse of opportunity so vivid in our memory.” And because of the unrelieved “abuse of opportunity and truncation of possibility,” it becomes imperative to alter...


    • Introduction
      (pp. 13-17)
      Victor Leo Walker II

      The termstheatreand drama will be used throughout this section and throughout this book as terms that are inclusive of ritual, ceremony, carnival, masquerade, testimonials, rites of passage, the blues, improvisation, “Negro spirituals,” spoken word, hiphop, storytelling, and other performative modes of expression rooted in the ancestral ethos of black Africans in the Diaspora. That is, we regard these terms as encompassing much more than the conventional disciplines that, according to the Nigerian philosopher, playwright, and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, “Western European man later reduced to specialist terminologies through his chronic habit of compartmentilisation.”¹ The Western paradigm of the...

    • Roots in African Drama and Theatre
      (pp. 18-38)
      J. C. de Graft

      In a book on Haiti published in 1929, W. B. Seabrook gives an eyewitness account of a Voodoo substitution sacrifice which I have always found most fascinating, as illustrating the awesome relationship between role-playing and sympathetic magic.¹ The worship of the Voodoo god Damballa Ouedo would seem to require periodically the sacrifice of a human being, and in the distant past humans may actually have been so sacrificed. Since it is not likely that the law would connive at such a practice in any modern society, however, the custom may have started of substituting a goat for the human victim....

    • The African Heritage of African American Art and Performance
      (pp. 39-63)
      Babatunde Lawal

      The term “African American” reflects the two-ness of the black experience in North America, denoting what W.E.B. DuBois aptly described as adouble-consciousness, that is, a sense of being an African and American at the same time, “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.”¹ It is a dynamic interface of the old and the new—the past and the present. As Ronne Hartfield puts it,

      The experience of African peoples in America is inherently and profoundly characterized by the act of looking backward. If we do not look back, we cannot know who...

    • Agones: The Constitution of a Practice
      (pp. 64-87)
      Tejumola Olaniyan

      The historicity of contemporary black (African, African-American, and Caribbean) dramatic practice is unintelligible outside the agonistic interactions among three main competing, more-or-less coherent discursive formations: the hegemonic, colonialist Eurocentric; the counterhegemonic, anticolonialistAfrocentric; and an emerging post-Afrocentric, which subverts both the Eurocentric and the Afrocentric while refining and advancing the aims of the latter.¹ The emphasis here is on the sociality of the discourses as concrete practices within contested and contestable spaces. For instance, the Eurocentric discourse on black drama is thinkable only within the materiality of the rise of Europe, the conquest and enslavement of African peoples, colonialism, neocolonialism,...

    • What the Twilight Says: An Overture
      (pp. 88-107)
      Derek Walcott

      When dusk heightens, like amber on a stage set, those ramshackle hoardings of wood and rusting iron which circle our cities, a theatrical sorrow rises with it, for the glare, like the aura from an old-fashioned brass lamp is like a childhood signal to come home. Light in our cities keeps its pastoral rhythm, and the last home-going traffic seems to rush through darkness that comes from suburban swamp or forest in a noiseless rain. In true cities another life begins: neons stutter to their hysterical pitch, bars, restaurants and cinemas blaze with artifice, and Mammon takes over the switchboard...

    • Caribbean Narrative: Carnival Characters—In Life and in the Mind
      (pp. 108-114)
      Gus Edwards

      Historian Isidor Paiewonsky, in his bookEyewitness Accounts of Slavery in the Danish West Indies, describes the performative heritage and practice of Caribbean blacks from the Virgin Islands during their time of forced servitude. He describes the African drum music and the violent dancing, which planters came to fear as a source of rebellion and eventually outlawed. He also describes the tradition of “‘lunatic balls’ in which the imagination ran riot and the costumers and decorators outdid each other in preparing the weird, the grotesque, the comic, and satirical outfits for the masqueraders and the setting for the ball.”¹ Elsewhere...

    • Rebaptizing the World in Our Own Terms: Black Theatre and Live Arts in Britain
      (pp. 115-128)
      Michael McMillan and SuAndi

      It wasn’t until the mid 1970s that the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), the bastion of “balanced” broadcasting, decided it was time to take off the airThe Black and White Minstrel Show. This program, based on the first American theatre tradition, says more about the hegemony of a colonial fantasy constructed in the nineteenth century as part of a racist ideology than about the black subject. In this Eurocentric discourse, we were always more body than mind, and black cultural traditions were represented as homogeneous, marginal to the European canon, and unsophisticated derivatives of Western forms and traditions. This historical...

  5. PART II: Mythology and Metaphysics

    • Introduction
      (pp. 131-139)
      Victor Leo Walker II

      The essays in this section on Mythology and Metaphysics seek to explain, through select African diasporic epistemologies, the connection between performative rituals and the phenomenology of myth and metaphysics as the culmination of the dramatic experience. The epistemological underpinnings of these essays are rooted in the belief that “ritualis the affective technique common to most theatrical exercises in the Black world…. It is, rather, a creative elixir—Nommo force—that activates the dramatic mode…. Embedded in this mode are references to…mythsand significations that define the collective moral universe.”¹ Ritual drama rooted in theNommoforce of myth...

    • The Fourth Stage: Through the Mysteries of Ogun to the Origin of Yoruba Tragedy
      (pp. 140-152)
      Wole Soyinka

      The persistent search for the meaning of tragedy, for a re-definition in terms of cultural or private experience is, at the least, man’s recognition of certain areas of depthexperience which are not satisfactorily explained by general aesthetic theories; and, of all the subjective unease that is aroused by man’s creative insights, that wrench within the human psyche which we vaguely define as “tragedy” is the most insistent voice that bids us return to our own sources. There, illusively, hovers the key to the human paradox, to man’s experience of being and non-being, his dubiousness as essence and matter, intimations of...

    • The Candomblé and Eshu-Eleggua in Brazilian and Cuban Yoruba-Based Ritual
      (pp. 153-166)
      Marta Moreno Vega

      Candomblé and Santería are two of the many African-derived, Yoruba-based religions that emerged in the Americas and continue to have a major impact on the lives of New World Africans. The re-creation of these religions in the Americas can be traced to the overwhelming population of Yorubas of West Africa and their influence on other ethnic groups brought to the Americas during the more than four centuries of European slave trade, from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. This essay focuses on the sacred philosophy and aesthetics of Yoruba descendants as manifested in the continued practice of Candomblé in Brazil and...

    • Legba and the Politics of Metaphysics: The Trickster in Black Drama
      (pp. 167-180)
      Femi Euba

      The trickster in black culture, whether represented in animal form (as tortoise, spider, or monkey), or as a divinity such as Esu-Elegbara or Legba in West Africa, has often been used to convey an important moral or cultural message, implied in the action the trickster describes. Through the message, an individual, family, community, or society is made aware that certain dangers, possibly fatal, may arise if the message is not heeded. The message consequently reaffirms and transmits cultural mores from generation to generation.

      The trickster’s action therefore places the trickster in an important role in black culture

      with serious implications...

    • Art for Life’s Sake: Rituals and Rights of Self and Other in the Theatre of Aimé Césaire
      (pp. 181-208)
      Keith L. Walker

      “Poetry and Knowledge” is considered to be Aimé Césaire’sars poetica, his theoretical statement on the nature of poetry.¹ No similar statement by Césaire on the nature of theatre has been published. But Césaire’s poetry, prose, plays, and interviews are full of statements that point to a conceptualization of theatre not as the traditional drama of the well-made play but rather as a therapeutic ritual of community engagement for social and psychological transformation.

      Aimé Césaire. What is a poet? According to Rimbaud’s definition, a poet is a visionary; consequently, the poet who has as a defining characteristic, the capacity to...

    • Sycorax Mythology
      (pp. 209-226)
      May Joseph

      Sorceress, queen, slave, mother, witch, and revolutionary—Sycorax ruptures the narrative of visual modernity with her vociferous howls of dissent in Shakespeare’sThe Tempest. A mythic representation mother earth, virgin nature, or the maternal spirit, Sycorax embodies a radical revisioning of gendered power within nationalist struggles. Until recently a neglected figure in Shakespeare’s final play, Sycorax offers a provocative critique of the erasure of women as political participants in the modern state. She draws our attention to the history of colonial conquest and national liberation, which have consigned women to the shadows of modern nation formation. Recent feminist reflections on...

    • Conjuring as Radical Re/Membering in the Works of Shay Youngblood
      (pp. 227-235)
      Joni L. Jones

      Making art affords one the opportunity to create that which did not previously exist. Likewise, the act of conjuring brings into being something that would not otherwise have occurred. Conjuring, then, has a direct kinship to art, as both seek to release their vision upon the world.

      Conjuring makes use of natural properties—herbs, roots, blood, soil, water, hair—and the appropriate ordering and repetition of words that activate thease, or life force, of the material elements. Conjuring’s reliance on the power of words gives it a very particular union with theatre. This connection is not lost on playwright...

    • Archetype and Masking in LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman
      (pp. 236-244)
      Victor Leo Walker II

      Amiri Bakara uses archetype and masking in creating the characters who people his play Dutchman. The play is a political statement about the need for social action against racism and the racial assimilation of African Americans into white society. The character Clay is depicted as an African American assimilationist, and Baraka suggests through his demise that assimilation is destructive to the individual as well as his race.

      In the wake of the Harlem Renaissance, W.E.B. Du Bois advised the culturally invigorated “New Negro” to respect art as a potent vehicle for sociopolitical empowerment, claiming “all Art is propaganda and ever...

  6. PART III: Dramaturgical Practice

    • Introduction
      (pp. 247-250)
      Paul Carter Harrison

      A play-wright, by definition, does not write a play, but rather constructs a dramatic event. This dramatic event is a construction of characters in a time/space mode that has elasticity and is guided along a road map or plot with a heightened poetic language that creates a spectacle in the process of revealing the hidden meaning, the mystery, of an event. Space is the place, intoned the late meta-musician Sun Ra, the spectral navigator of an intergalactic arc-kestra. Designation of place, however, requires a language with cultural signifiers that are transformative, that is, never subordinated to the fixed boundaries of...

    • The Dramaturg’s Way: Meditations on the Cartographer at the Crossroads
      (pp. 251-256)
      Deborah Wood Holton

      When you think or hear the word dramaturg, what comes to mind? The dramaturg is gaining prominence in the professional theatre and I welcome the chance to explain what a dramaturg does. The dramaturg is a cartographer of the dramatic landscape and is responsible for mapping the intellectual, physical, and metaphysical terrain, naming what she sees and relating her vision of the playwright’s intention to the director. Practically speaking, she is the academic link to the professional theatre and as such she engages in research and textual analysis. She is an advocate for the playwright, assisting in the clarification of...

    • Introduction to Moon Marked and Touched by Sun
      (pp. 257-272)
      Sydné Mahone

      When I consider the status of African-American women playwrights within the social context, my first thoughts wrap around the high-profile ascensions of black women in the larger American society. Call the roll on recent “first black woman” titleholders: Toni Morrison, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature; Dr. Joycelyn Elders, surgeon general; Illinois Democratic senator Carol Moseley Braun; Sharon Pratt Kelly, mayor of Washington, D.C.; Dr. Johnetta Cole, president of Spelman College; Queen Latifah, ruler of her own rap empire, the Flavor Unit; Oprah Winfrey, the only African-American woman owner of a television studio, the wealthiest black woman of...

    • Kennedy’s Travelers in the American and African Continuum
      (pp. 273-284)
      Paul K. Bryant-Jackson

      I have been in dialogue with the plays of Adrienne Kennedy for many years; although words are not to be entirely discounted, images represent the essence of the dialogue. Images form the core of Adrienne Kennedy’s theatre. Kennedy achieves her greatest impact in the arresting, though critically resisting, images that surround her major protagonists as they endlessly and restlessly move along a continuum of time, matter, and space. InFunnyhouse of a Negro, Sarah’s hair continues to fall out as she moves along an African/European/American cultural and historical continuum. InThe Owl Answers, Clara’s metamorphosis into an owl replicates Sarah’s...

    • Mojo and the Sayso: A Drama of Nommo That Asks, “Is Your Mojo Working?”
      (pp. 285-295)
      Andrea J. Nouryeh

      Aishah Rahman’s play,Mojo and the Sayso, was inspired by a real-life incident that enraged New York City’s black community in the early 1970s. Clifford Glover, a tenyear-old African American boy, was shot by a plainclothes police officer while he was walking with his father near his home in Queens. The police department claimed that the officer mistook the boy for a robber when he ran after being ordered to stop. To the family’s and community’s dismay, the officer was cleared of any wrongdoing. After a three-year investigation, the New York City police department paid his mother reparations for wrongful...

    • Ritual Poetics and Rites of Passage in Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf
      (pp. 296-310)
      Jean Young

      In the choreopoemfor colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, playwright Ntozake Shange combines storytelling, conjuration, healing ritual, testament, and incantation, all drawn from an African spiritual and cultural ethos, to stage the healing and rebirth of seven women of color who are represented by the various hues of the rainbow. At this site, the spiritual and cultural practices of black people of the New World are staged and made manifest as syncretic influences of New World culture and folklore and traditional African spiritual systems and worldview. As Chester Higgins Jr., author of the bookFeeling...

  7. PART IV: Performance

    • Introduction
      (pp. 313-315)
      Gus Edwards

      It is necessary to eradicate the misconception that African and African American theatre is an exotic variation of Western European theatre and must therefore be governed by its general principles and aesthetics—a notion has prevailed both in academic circles and in the popular mind for nearly a century. “We are not white theatre in black face,” playwright Ed Bullins (along with many other black theatre artists) has been saying since the 1960s.¹ Yet in the minds of the general public this impression still exists because the so-called opinion makers in the mainstream press refuse to acknowledge our differences, whether...

    • Form and Transformation: Immanence of the Soul in the Performance Modes of Black Church and Black Music
      (pp. 316-331)
      Paul Carter Harrison

      As Africans in the New World, black performing artists are faced with the daunting challenge of how to sing the liberating song of our ancestors in a hostile, alien land. Having been dislocated from the site of our ancestry, memory of the liberating song demands an inquiry into our spiritual origins.

      In most of the world’s cultures, the creation of all existence is believed to originate in the hidden activity of a Supreme Being. This hidden activity is often referred to as “the Word,” spoken or gesticulated. In the West African nation of Mali, the Dogon people’s version of the...

    • The Sense of Self in Ritualizing New Performance Spaces for Survival
      (pp. 332-344)
      Beverly J. Robinson

      The two ritual elements universally common to theatre are dance (movement) and storytelling (oral tradition). Ritual can be defined as a recurring pattern of action that represents the desire to begin life anew, and the need to find some way of expressing that desire. If a sense of self based on identity and heritage could endure the Atlantic crossing from Africa to the Americas and Caribbean shores, then the memories of home of every African bound for slave labor over the age of ten would be the rituals. These rituals, sacred and secular, would include knowing the names of your...

    • Barbara Ann Teer: From Holistic Training to Liberating Rituals
      (pp. 345-377)
      Lundeana M. Thomas

      In 1965 noted African American poet and playwright Langston Hughes perceived “a very great need for a serious theatre in the Harlem Community…a theatre in which the drama and the folk arts of the Negro people might be presented before the very audiences out of whom this drama is born.”¹ Hughes was not the first to recognize this need. According to James Hatch, “In 1926, W.E.B. Du Bois was to produce playsabout, by, forandnearNegroes. In 1965, LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka] demanded a theatreabout, with, for, andonlyblack people.”² Ed Bullins,among others, also called for...

    • Bopera Theory
      (pp. 378-381)
      Amiri Baraka

      Theatre in the United States is obstructed in its development by the same forces that obstruct the general positive development of human life and society. Frequently we are stalled by our very amazement at the rulers of this society, shrieking for years of their “superiority,” when one has only to look around to see what a mess they have made of everything and what a bizarre lie this “superiority” is. Even lower animals cause less trouble to the planet. But the superstructural control of intellectual development is critical to our penetration of socially dynamic aesthetic theory in this country, with...

    • From Hip-Hop to Hittite: Part X
      (pp. 382-387)
      Keith Antar Mason

      i cannot write this essay about the Hittite process unless i confess that our stories are in our flesh in our genetic memories in our ancestral callings and responses on landscapes where jazz looks ahead and becomes hip-hop an angry son who wants more than what his father settled for in his lifetime i must confess that i did always know that i was interested in the flesh of my body and the bodies of other brothers because i watched the shaming the torture and the murders and like the last surviving victim in a cliché-filled horror movie i always...

    • Members and Lames: Language in the Plays of August Wilson
      (pp. 388-396)
      William W. Cook

      The recent Oakland Schools case on black English (1996) and its precedent in Wayne County, Michigan (1979), have drawn public attention to a long-contested issue in African American letters. What is at stake is the nature and status of that particular version of American English spoken by some members of the African American community, and the function of that language in public discourse, particularly in those arts that purport to be part of an African American aesthetic.

      James Weldon Johnson, writing in 1921, commented on his view of the limitation of that special form of American speech: “Negro dialect is...

    • Porque Tu No M’entrende? Whatcha Mean You Can’t Understand Me?
      (pp. 397-399)
      Ntozake Shange

      Before we can honestly address multiculturalism, we must address the chauvinism of the English language. Since medieval times English speakers have characterized other languages, like Italian and French, as dandified and lacking depth, or as incomprehensibly erudite, while in fact English is a greedy, swallowing language that appropriates words and gestures as an infant at the nipple sucks milk. Without examining our relationship to the English language, we cannot honestly “hear” the “other” speak, we cannot become intimate with what we do not respect. What we deem as “foreign” we cannot take to our hearts. As the Brazilian novelist Lydia...

    • Performance Method
      (pp. 400-406)
      George C. Wolfe

      As a child growing up in Kentucky, in retrospect, I realize I was surrounded by all sorts of folk art that was African at its base. Even though I was groomed to be a very middle-class Negro person, this folk/African art was very much a part of my world. Much of what I’ve become emanates specifically from that world, a world in which my grandmother kept snakes in a jar of formaldehyde by the front door to keep out bad spirits. I mean, the seeming incongruity of my grandmother’s living room—a couch with hand—crocheted doilies, pictures of Jesus...

  8. Afterword: Testimony of a Witness
    (pp. 409-414)
    Eleanor W. Traylor

    Forty-three years have passed since, from the Broadway stage, the Younger family abandoned its vermin-infested flat on Chicago’s South Side, heading out for the hostile but greener, airier Clybourne Park in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Today, virtually in the spot where the old tenement stood, sits the elegant house of the ETA Creative Arts Foundation, the home of a fully endowed, board-protected, bank-guaranteed, community-loved and supported black theatre. Here playwrights, invited to take advantage of the opportunities of the place, engage in “conversations with the future.” One or all of them will undoubtedly envision, for dramatic enactment,...

  9. About the Contributors
    (pp. 415-418)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 419-419)