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Performing Blackness offers a challenging interpretation of black cultural expression since the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Exploring drama, music, poetry, sermons, and criticism, Benston offers an exciting meditation on modern black performance's role in realising African-American aspirations for autonomy and authority.
Artists covered include:
• John Coltrane
* Ntozake Shange
• Ed Bullins
• Amiri Baraka
• Adrienne Kennedy
• Michael Harper.
Performing Blackness is an exciting contribution to the ongoing debate about the vitality and importance of black culture.
Mimesis and methexis in Black Arts theatrical theory
The Revolutionary Theatre must take dreams and give them a reality.
Amiri Baraka, "The Revolutionary Theatre"
Modern African-American drama — the beginnings of which we might heuristically locate in 1964, with the first performances in New York of Baraka's bracingly experimental plays Dutchman and The Slave and the writing alongside them of his explosive theatrical manifesto, "The Revolutionary Theatre" — arises in the fluid space between dream and reality, measuring their distance as a mode of historical critique while seeking their reconcilation as a means of cultural realization. At once resistant to prescriptions of social circumstance — the is of experience as confirmed by inherited conventions of "truth" — and eager to refashion stage representation as a vehicle for insurgent desires — the must of a reconfigured dramatic praxis — the African-American theater movement that emerges under the aegis of Black Arts innovation vividly embodies the double economy that we have sketched in the contrast between Ellisonian and Barakan figurations of performative blackness. For modern black drama seethes with impulses both radical and recuperative, visionary and strategic, iconoclastic and redemptive. Such vectors of de- and re-constructive energy are, I hope to show, only seemingly contradictory, determining as they do a matrix of theatrical exploration that sets thematic passion — the "dream" of a liberatedblackness — and formal purpose — the agency of a refashioned "reality" — into dynamic, dialectical partnership.
The increasing visibility and influence of drama among the African-American arts during the Black Arts Movement has a clearer etiology than is usual in aesthetic evolution. During a period of expanding black (self-) consciousness, historical awareness, and public assertiveness — a time in which the rhetoric of collective identity and aspiration was quickly translated into stunning, often violent action — the African-American artist naturally sought a mode imbued with the structure of communal, and efficaciously political, activity. Hence, in modern black poetry (of which, as we shall see in Chapter 4, the Coltrane Poem is exemplary) we find a subtle yet unmistakable shift from valorization of the written word as signature of an achieved liberty, from what Robert Stepto has called "the Afro-American pregeneric myth of freedom and literacy," to privileging of the voice as both musical and oratorical instrument of rebellion. Hence, too, the appearance in African-American literary theory of overt ideological struggle and of the "black aesthetic" school with its emphasis on "extra-literary" values and opposition to the perceived formalism of academic criticism. Cognate with the emergence in African-American philosophy of what Lucius Outlaw terms an "antifoundationalist" quest for specifically "black theorizing" that is "itself a form of social praxis," black aesthetic and expressive inquiry made purpose the measure of speculative insight, realization the touchstone of reflexivity. In such an atmosphere, the rapid development of theater, an extremely political, because preeminently social medium, was inevitable.
As black artists soon recognized, the very essence of theater is its immanently collective experience, and in very practical terms, its affirmation or challenge of the audience's codes of conduct, their mechanisms of survival, their shared necessity, outrage, and vision. Theater can tap and redistribute custom and ceremony; it can generate violent energy (the French Revolution is sometimes said to have really begun when the opening night audience of Beaumarchais' Marriage of Figaro reacted angrily to the depiction of aristocratic life) or neutralize the impulse toward action. In political terms, then, theater can, when skillfully employed, become a powerful weapon for regulation of communal values, or, conversely, for radical change. Unlike written literature, it makes no demands of literacy or privacy; as the impulse toward agitprop street events and the proliferation of community-center/theaters during the era of the Black Arts attests (The Black Arts Repertory Theater/School [BART/S] of Harlem; The National Black Theatre, or Sun People's Theatre, also of Harlem; Concept East of Detroit; East Cleveland Community Theater; La Mont Zeno Community Theater of Chicago; Watts Repertory Company of Los Angeles, to name but a few), theater may become an enlivened synecdoche and galvanizing site of the self-defining national culture envisioned by its practitioners.
The emergence of a dynamic, articulate, and prolific African-American theater movement during the mid-1960s has been duly and variously noted by many scholars. Apart from sharply focused comments on individual playwrights, this criticism has tended to be concerned with the drama's nationalist values or with the evolution and continuity of its moral and narrative ideas. As a consequence, some comprehensive, insightful images of modern black drama have begun to take shape: we now glimpse clearly its messianic, didactic, and mythical lineaments. If, in the critical pursuit of thematic understanding, the drama has been too often subject to facile schematization or even distorting reduction, there yet exist now viable formulations of the black theater movement's basic ideological suppositions and effects.
Nevertheless, it is striking that — as has too often been true in interpretation of black literature generally — so little regard has been paid to the structural dimension of the playwrights' interrogation of ideology's implication in performative style and decision. It is its detractors who most consistently call attention to the drama's form; by them, it has been made to appear `instinctive' or `audacious' in the most reductive sense — unshaped, fragmented, unreflexive, and indulgently improvisational, centered only by reliance upon stereotyped action and tendentious narrative. Sympathetic observers have, until recently, done very little to correct this image, for they, too, seem to believe that modern black drama is something that, formally, simply happens, oblivious or perhaps deliberately antithetical to shaping concerns of aesthetic and imaginative design, as befits its antipathy to oppressive systems and reified structures.
This inattention to the crossing of iconoclasm and formal experiment is indeed ironic for, as is the case with African-American music, the self-conscious development of organizing principles in black drama is the very essence of its visionary quest. Such undervaluing of structural factors may be understandable when one considers that exegesis of black drama, even more than that of black poetry and fiction, has been forged in a climate of polemical strife, marked by immediate demands of elucidation or affirmation, and hence has too frequently limited itself to a narrow conception of ideological issues. But beyond pressures of occasion, most particularly the drama's intrinsic exposure to instantaneous public scrutiny, modern black drama's disavowal of conventional theater's disposition to aesthetic distance — a resistance that, we shall see, is constitutive, yet various and supple — has understandably evoked in its readers a corresponding resistance to formalist inquiry that isolates the subject in space, removing it from historical context. Following the drama's own rebuke to alienated, or disinterested, observation (the choice of Marxist or Kantian terms being itself a matter of perspective upon varieties of Eurocentric estrangement from engaged enactment), criticism has perhaps confused empathetic involvement with a call to interpretation governed by thematic, characteriological, or propositional concerns. Scrutiny of the playwrights' own struggle to define terms for the new drama, however, reveals a continuous, complex effort to imagine theatrical forms capable of containing "revolutionary" content, to clear ground for a topos of performance that dissolves stark distinctions of vehicle and tenor, modality and meaning.
Abiodun Jeyifous, in an historical, fundamentally thematic, critique of black writings on African-American drama conducted in the twilight of the Black Arts Movement, acutely defined the change in the modern (post-1963) era as a shift from the commentary of "Negro Sensibility" — a blend of "western bourgeois esthetic criteria and a sentimental racial awareness" — to the advocation of black "consciousness" — an avowed synthesis of dramaturgical and ideological presuppositions. As Jeyifous suggests, this desire to unite a radical theatrical idiom with a new political vision caused the modern playwrights to direct their theoretical as well as their practical efforts toward developing what Amiri Baraka first termed a "postwestern form." It is into this still comparatively untravelled and uncharted territory of theoretical form — what might be accurately termed the "self-staging of black theatrical consciousness" — that we must travel in our exploration of black theater during the Black Arts era, for an analysis of the modern black theater movement's major speculative documents will reveal just how intimately (and necessarily) intertwined have been ideological and formal innovation in the drama's search for a revolutionary mode of collective enactment.
Such scrutiny of disquisitions by theatre practitioners on the nexus of concept and medium serves not just as prologue to the next chapter's exploration of the era's staging of philosophic and political vision in three singular yet representative dramas — Ed Bullins's Clara's Ole Man, Adrienne Kennedy's The Owl Answers, and Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. It is itself a way of attending to the dialogic and contestatory enactment of that vision, as these treatises themselves constitute one of modern black art's most effective performance genres. For the Black Arts theater manifesto employs strategies of voice, characterization, and rhetorical presentation that self-consciously dramatize alternative aesthetic and political positions. Particularly in their shifting constructions of audience and styles of address, these texts — by turns meditative and exhortatory, descriptive and lyrical, prescriptive and celebratory — conjure the performance dynamic that they champion, evoking the adversarial and participatory possibilities central to the envisioned drama's mise-en-scène. By becoming themselves crucibles of cultural postures that inflect alternative theatrical values, modern black theatre manifestos seek deliberately to compel a response of repudiation or embrace that makes readerly performance not merely an effect but the essential aim of their tactics. As such, these texts stage their general conceptual ambition of enfolding theory and praxis through the generative agency of performative meaning.
I should make clear from the outset that these documents together describe an arc of development that, as the focus of our exploration, belies descriptions of the Black Arts Movement as a static, homogenous, and monologic formation. Restive and textured, black theater manifestos comprise diverse images of dramatic intention that cohere as a dialogue on presence and mediation, authenticity and signification. Specifically, the path of modern black drama's self-staging describes a curve which moves dialectically from quasi-naturalism and a defining obsession with Euro-American institutions toward the shaping of uniquely African-American mythologies and symbolisms, flexibility of dramatic form, and participatory theater within the black community. Spiritually and technically, this movement is one from mimesis, or representation (whether of a condition, ideology, or character), to methexis, or communal "helping-out" of the action by all assembled. It is a process that could be alternatively described as a shift from display, the spectacle observed, to rite, the event which dissolves traditional divisions between actor and spectator, self and other, enacted text and material context. And through this process, the black beholder has been theoretically transformed from a detached individual whose private consciousness the playwright sought to reform, to a participatory member of communal ceremony which affirms a shared vision.
At the same time, these contrasts of mimesis and methexis, exposition and ritual, can function only as strategems for denoting relative emphases and provisional directions within the movement's self-articulation. For modern black theater, considered as a collective endeavor, seeks ultimately not to jettison but to transmute mimesis, liberating it from its association with coercive reproduction — what Derrida terms the "mimetologism" anchored to a Platonic regime of the "proper" that is stabilized by refusal of revisionary play — and redeploying its potential to organize a Scene of Instruction from which supplementary, even insurgent, images of `the real' can be fashioned. In one sense, this `thinking through' of mimesis, posited as the basis for dramatic representation from Aristotle to Benjamin, signals a kind of `end to theater' as conventionally understood: where mimetic modes of action and perception founded that theater's purchase upon presence and consequence at the price of submission to an `originary' (thus offstage) authority, modern black drama would rupture this metaphysical closure to forge transformative mechanisms of identification and meaning-production. Like the feminist "mimétisme" explored by Elin Diamond, it seeks to displace white mythology's "scene of representation" by piercing its normative boundaries with alternative instruments of legitimation.
In this regard, modern black theater shadows antimimetic urges familiar in Euro-American dramatic (post)modernism, which likewise threaten to dissolve stage traditions in the interests of a broadly emancipatory protest. Yet where antithetical veins of enactment within Euro-American drama (be it Artaudian, Absurdist, or even Brechtian in inspiration) represent a discursive struggle within western canons that often pits defamiliarization against custom, culture against freedom, along lines dictated by the self-disabling logic of the avant-garde, African-American modernist performance works to align disruptive play with cultural reconstruction, resituating rather than deconstructing the subject as an agent of historical ferment. Most particularly through an effort the renovate vernacular expression as a mechanism of ideological critique and communal revaluation — but not least in its insistence that annulment of the distance between stage and audience serve reconception not abrogation of the project of culture — modern black theater diverges from its Euro-American counterpart in retaining commitment to remembrance and history even as it annuls inherited mechanisms of social reproduction. Its refiguraton of mimesis, and the concomitant espousal of postnaturalist presentational techniques, seeks not an exit from history but a means of remaking historical consciousness: the urgency of that revisionary demand in turn yields novel images of theatrical space, expression, and perception. In effect, modern black drama asks whether mimesis cannot be reconsistuted outside the closures of mimetologism, such that its passage toward strategies of methexis can be seen as a quest for a reformed mimesis.
Considering the long-observed will to self-enactment embedded in African-American life and traditional art — the "poise for drama" displayed in minstrelsy, the dozens, toasts, the call-and-response pattern of musical and religious performance, and the signifying improvisations of the street — we might have expected an untroubled flowering of dramatic innovation set in motion by contemporary political exigencies. However, given the need to articulate a radical contemporary vision of ideal-become-practice, the problem of form for the black dramatist is not so simple, the translation of dissident idea to dramatic action not immune from the sometimes ironic pressures of mediation. Though freer than the prose writer from the restrictions imposed on black vocality by the silent finality of a fixed text, the playwright must still face the task of creating a black theatrical idiom with the materials proffered by various dramatic conventions, each of which retains sedimented histories of stylistic and thematic implication. The modern black drama movement emerges, even in the space of specifically African-American theater, as an intricate encounter, by turns appropriative and antagonistic, with an inherited theatrical tradition in which audience and performer are kept distinct, narrative develops with sequential clarity, and character is explored as either exemplification or mockery of an historic investment in individual destiny. Such drama, whether it be that of a neoAristotelian liberalism (vide Hansberry) or its emblematic mirror in what Geneviève Fabre terms "the theater of experience" (vide Hughes or Baldwin), assumes an apparently objective perspective on the "organic" evolution of personality and social structure, and understands randomness, disorder, anarchy, and simultaneity in experience as either threateningly unnatural or redemptively demonic. Its affirmation (as in the American tragic tradition from O'Neill to Miller to which it owes a fundamental allegiance) is of a painfully earned autonomy; its revolt (as in Expressionist or Absurdist drama, which it occasionally emulates or echoes in the pageant dramas of Hughes, the blues scenes of Baldwin or Childress, the elliptical fantasies of Edgar White, and the phantasmagoric eruptions of Hansberry's late plays) is a self-deprecating gesture of alienation, at base another form of willed isolation. Long fueled by the energy of revolt, mid-century African-American drama remained uncertain how to proceed from dislocation to rearticulation, from exploration of incoherence within traditional paradigms of dramatic experience to restoration or institution of what Yeats called "the ritual of a lost faith." We might say that the modern black playwrights, recasting their predecessors' instinct to transpose available theater conventions into recognizably African-American circumstances, committed themselves to thorough reconsideration of the limits, costs, and even pleasures of such adaptive methods, prioritizing discovery of a language of shared symbolic struggle and thus, ultimately, of material liberaton over the requirements of dramatic propriety as defined by canons of personal determination. Most especially, their stance vis-à-vis received form was guided by a search for an idiom of the communal self that is both prior and consequent to individual expression, a ritual of faith not lost (as Yeats supposed) but suppressed, burdened, and variously displaced.
America needs a killing.
America needs a killing.
Survivors will be human.
Michael Harper, "Deathwatch"
Inevitably, then, contemporary African-American theater's iconographic, thematic, and narrative (historical) concerns have led to inquiries into the nature of the dramatic experience itself. It is the continuity of dramatic theory, in fact, which allows us to see the apparently contrasting genres of the movement (didacticism, naturalism, various kinds of allegory, serious and comical rites, and, especially, numerous hybrid reconfigurations and attempted syntheses of these) as necessary and interdependent elements in a general reform. It is perhaps fitting, in light of the growing scepticism before received modes (including writing itself), that the first significant (and still most influential) manifesto was written by a figure with an already established reputation as poet, novelist, and essayist. Baraka's "The Revolutionary Theatre" self-consciously enunciated the guiding principles for a renegade, insurrectionist drama. Its tone, in typically Barakan fashion, is at once prophetic, apocalyptic, and hortatory. While foreseeing a theater "peopled with new kinds of heroes," the essay principally advertises the revolutionary theater as a "theater of Victims" which, despite superficially echoing the pathos of his forerunners' dramas of individual ruin and bafflement, will force upon the black onlooker images that kindle revelatory anger and liberating violence:
The Revolutionary Theatre must EXPOSE! ... It should stagger through our universe correcting, insulting, preaching ... [it] must Accuse and Attack anything that can be accused and attacked. It looks at the sky with the victims' eyes, and moves the victims to look at the strength in their minds and their bodies.
(Amiri Baraka, "The Revolutionary Theatre," 210-11)
Baraka's call is for a theater of uncompromising "assault" upon all that appears inimical to realization of black power. Doubling and troping Artaud's "theater of cruelty," which passionately rejects "our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signalling through the flames," the "revolutionary theatre" strips accretions of learned and imposed obligation to bare the essential gesture of "authentic" blackness. Evoking an Artaudian concentration of historical energy upon the present-ness of rigorous spectacle ("We are preaching virtue again, but by that to mean NOW ... [in] this consciousness epic, what's happening" — "210, 212), Baraka seeks to reverse the longstanding relation of theater and catharsis in black drama, purging the theater itself of tragic residues. Indeed, the envisioned theater, propelled through the essay by a series of forceful transitive verbs — crack, kill, stagger, force, flush, reshape, move — becomes itself the Artaudian actor, the living, priestly instrument by which culture is vitalized in a rite of purification that retrieves the root violence of the sacred. Or, more exactly, it is to be a theater without actors as such, propelled by forces that erase imprisoning outlines of personality, deconstructing individuals into attestations of mutual fatalities: "Our theatre will show victims so that their brothers in the audience will be better able to understand that they are the brothers of victims" (213). Thus, the aim of its aggressive exhibition is to "expose" the audience's own complicity with "artistic dallying with forms" that render them conventional "actors," miming sterile formulae of official scripts rather than forging identifications that elide the difference between witness and participant.
Like the Artaudian vision, then, the "revolutionary, theatre" seeks to discredit habits of presentation and spectatorship that merely image but fail to promote cultural upheaval and revolution ("The Revolutionary Theatre should force change; it should be change," reads the manifesto's first incendiary pronouncement — 210). In its insistence on welding response to responsibility ("ethics and aesthetics are one" — 212), and in its urge to "reshape the world" as a specifically "social" praxis (212), "the revolutionary theatre" departs from the "disinterested" rigors of Artaudian gesture. No less concerned than Artaud to "cleanse" stage space and theatrical perception of its oppressive opacity in the cause of a repotentialized and possibly postdramatic ceremony of collective release (210, 215), Baraka nevertheless projects a mode of performance that requires narrative clarity and precision, a succession of harsh representational moments, as it seeks to identify the exact institutional causes and effects of present conditions: "The Revolutionary Theatre is shaped by the world, and moves to reshape the world ... It is a social theatre ... we will change the drawing rooms into places where real things can be said about a real world" (212). The violence it would display and inflame is a product of uncompromising distinctions between the "reality" of black desire and the fantasms of "tired white lives" (213) that negotiate the gap between staged and "actual explosions" (214), collapsing "victim" and "brother" into a pluralized agent (an initial "they" being transmuted into the essay's insistent "we") through the critical depiction of "what we are." The theater Baraka here envisions — notwithstanding its alchemical affectivity ("turned into the lights [of Revolutionary Theatre's] black nigger magic, ... if the beautiful see themselves, they will love themselves" — 210) — is therefore a drama of the corrective, homeopathic, and pedagogical word.
At the heart of the revolutionary theater is the programmatic, and pragmatic, thrust of the then uncanonized "black aesthetic":
... what we show must cause the blood to rush, so that pre-revolutionary temperaments will be bathed in this blood, and it will cause their deepest souls to move, and they will find themselves tensed and clenched, even ready to die, at what the soul has been taught. We will scream and cry, murder, run through the streets in agony, if it means some soul will be moved.
The Barakan word, implicitly aimed toward creation of a unified black audience from the disparate fragments of "pre-revolutionary temperaments," is visceral and muscular, not introspective or disembodied (his "new kind of heroes" are not to be "the weak Hamlets" — 214). An intrinsically corporeal language, his dramatic idiom will implicitly model freedom from the tyranny of preexisting `scripts' by its immediate concreteness. Seeking to heal the division between utterance and expression, between the materiality of speech-effect and the anteriority of `authoritative' writing, the revolutionary theater correspondingly reimagines `character' by communicating directly with the audience's anatomy. The heroes of his theater, like the African-Americans who are to observe them, are to be galvanized, not immobilized, by their materialization as "victims" whose redemption lies in shocked recognition of their own privation and potentiality: "Possibility is what moves us" (213).
Thus, Baraka ostensibly abjures the mournful tonalities inherent in the notion of an aggrieved heroism, the amoral pathos of inescapable and intolerable personal catastrophe. Having set in motion the bloody spectacle of victimization, Baraka recoils from the possibility of our stressing emotional commitment to the character who dies at the expense of attention to the action in which he struggles. He fears the establishment of a rhythm of tragic identification in which the ceremony of sacrifice is drowned more in pity than in blood. He fears, that is, the dissolution of revolutionary theater into the melodrama of liberal metaphysics and the recuperative economy of Aristotelian (dis)closure. And so the revolutionary hero (and the protagonists of Baraka's own early plays, Dutchman and The Slave, are striking instances) ultimately appears in "The Revolutionary Theatre" under a precariously double aspect: the sense of wasted individuality is to be dispelled by a joyful, if ruthless celebration of freshly conceived values. The hero is simultaneously forged and consumed by the sacrificial dynamic that defines the revolutionary theater's refusal of the very psychic structures it is designed to "expose." In turn, self and group converge, but do not quite coincide or cohere; the latter's ethos survives as implicit compensation for destruction of the former. Thus, while the essay is by implication a summons to unification, its admonitory "moving" of the black "victim" finally produces — or, at least, cannot fully forswear — a structural and emotional distance between the "theater of assault" and its supposed beneficiaries.
This problematic view of the hero and his audience is accompanied by a subtle, but definitive, dualism with regard to form. Baraka clearly desires a didactic and visionary theater that renounces the tepid naturalism of fourth wall ("drawing room") modernism, yet he is also committed to a kind of social realism, to a "preciseness [of] method" and a "social theatre ... where real things can be said about a real world" (my emphases). An antifoundational polemicist with a distinctly Hegelian tinge ("This should be a theatre of World Spirit" — 212), he dreams of fusing "history and desire" (212) as physic for a continuing DuBoisean double consciousness, and proposes for his dream a violent test: subjective passion and concrete realism are the twin poles of his imagination. Baraka seems to sense here that the more intense the desire for heightened vision the more one must be pulled back to confrontation with the tangible, material world that appears doubly as essence and illusion. The key to this ambiguous realism (and its faint undertone of ambivalence in both provoking and mistrusting identification) is Baraka's recognition that what is at stake in revolutionary action is precisely the power to define "the real" itself: in the Barakan calculus, what one seeks is "the real world," antidote to the stifling "appearances" (codes) of "this `real' world." Accordingly, "The Revolutionary Theatre" envisions landscapes of the "consciousness epic" which are yet contiguous with the agony-and blood-drenched streets of its heroes. When act and art — "ethics and aesthetics" — are indeed "one," the fracture in "the real" will have been mended: "We are witch doctors and assassins, but we will open a place for the true scientists to expand our consciousness." (215).
As we will see when we revisit the visionary realism of Baraka's temper in Chapter 5, "The Revolutionary Theatre" played a critical role in the evolution of Baraka's own performative ethos; for our purposes here, it is enough to note that the treatise (and the drama he wrote contemporaneously — especially Dutchman, The Slave, and The Toilet) has had profound effects upon subsequent theories. Of these, Ed Bullins's "The So-called Western Avant-garde Drama" and K. William Kgositsile's "Towards Our Theater: A Definitive Act" are closest both chronologically and conceptually to Baraka's piece. Even in their titles, one discerns traces of yet another subtle birfucation in "The Revolutionary Theatre"'s project: on the one hand, a dominating emphasis on quickening the African-American audience as instrument of its own deliverance; on the other hand, a continually resurfacing concern with Euro-American contexts of enactment (the new theater's enemies, Baraka's manifesto concludes, are "most of you who are reading this" — 215). Baraka, of course, was notorious both for the audacity with which he severed allegiance to his white ("downtown") artistic fraternity, moving uptown to found the BART/S, and the lingering impulse to cast final looks back in anger even as he was polishing the prophetic style of his black nationalist appeal. Taken together, Bullins's and Kgositsile's manifestos suggest that this divided attention is only partly a manifestation of double consciousness, and might rather be understood as elemental to allied necessities of critique and divination subtending the new drama's revisionary agenda.
Bullins's essay illuminates the mounting preoccupation in the final pages of "The Revolutionary Theatre" with mainstream culture's reaction to the new black drama, expanding upon Baraka's caustic espectation that "Americans will hate the Revolutionary Theatre because it is out to destroy them and whatever they believe is real" (214) and offering extended comparisons between Euro-American and African-American "worldviews." Bullins castigates modern Euro-American theater for its concentration on Freudian and existential dilemmas that, he contends, hold a mirror up to its own tortured psyche but not to the world of significant actions. Their "reality" is, as Baraka had implied, no reality at all; it is a frightening projection of "disbelief" and, ultimately, of despair. This squandering of meaningful experience, Bullins asserts, has resulted in the drama's loss of "plot and story and character," by which he means a naturalism that supersedes the anxieties of self-alienation. Bullins's essay thus calls attention to the threat to subjectivity posed by modernism's interest in identity as an aggregate of conflicting drives, a disruption of narrative logic that bespeaks a general cultural disorder in the aftermath of world war and the collapsing ironies of imperial ambition.
On this view, Euro-American art is, above all, belated, an art in which a strange, dissipated action (or its mere memory) has supplanted the vital, if sometimes disturbing investigation of shared presuppositions that made the appearance of "character" possible. Bullins is thus essentially determined to preserve the primacy of African-American theatrical narrative in an era of global performance experimentation that augurs displacement of revolutionary change by a fetishizing of psychic deconstruction. The tactile ferocity with which he concludes his essay conveys his desire for a new black theater that rejects the pervasive cultural decay implicit in western theater's flight from its own origins and promotes a black-oriented "realism" that remains visionary as an agent of moral legitimation:
To paraphrase Brother LeRoi Jones [Baraka]: It is a post-American form of Black theater we Black Artists should be seeking. It is Black Art that is like a dagger pointed at the vitals of America, and through the rips "we" (US) can enter the New Epoch.
(Ed Bullins, "The So-called Western Avant-garde Drama," 145-6)
Kgositsile's "Towards Our Theater," which foregrounds from the gitgo the collective pronoun that Bullins's manifesto ultimately invokes, represents a significant departure from the concern with Euro-American values and mainstream response: its sentiments concern black people only. Yet, like Baraka's, Kgositsile's program for black theater is based on a stringent critique of black culture as presently constituted:
The desired and desirable will be seen through elegant image and symbol abstracted from life. The undesirable, the corrupting, the destructive, will be portrayed in a grotesque manner, its sinister qualities driving us to the mercy killing of the villain.
(K. William Kgositsile, "Towards Our Theater: A Definitive Act," 147)
This discourse, as announced by the essay's first word — TESTIFYING — is the homiletic exercise of a righteous preacher, one whose text is dictated by focused nationalist principles and the imperatives of a cultural jihad. Though Kgositsile speaks briefly of a "theater of poetry`" that combines "image, rhythm, and symbol," he clearly desires a sharply sententious, if sternly didactic, drama that confronts the audience with appropriately idealized or demonized figures instead of soothing it with theatrical illusion or complex ("poetic") representation. Kgositsile seeks ultimately a morality-play presentation devoid of "decadent" lyricism and driven by a programmatic firmness that castigates, worships, alienates, or affirms in unequivocal fashion. And, indeed, a good deal of black drama contemporary, with "Towards Our Theater" is much as such a manifesto would establish: polemically, if impatiently, narrative, characteriologically reductive, and politically emblematic.
Thematically Manichean, "Towards Our Theater" nevertheless courts hybridity in form even as it would secure new dramatic norms through an abjection of anything excessive to a "desired" blackness. And this vibration within the formal embodiment of well-policed content suggests how even in the most ardent nationalist theory, determination of authenticating procedures cannot be divorced from often overdetermined exigencies of signifying practices. As Bullins's rejection of western experimentation involves reclamation of a classic representational logic, uneasily welding a potentially passifying naturalism to a putatively activating inspiration (a tension we shall see at work later in Bullins's tragi-visionary play, Clara's Ole Man), so Kgositsile's amalgam of grace and carnage compels the black dramatist to entertain dramatic means that must be themselves objects of murderous intent. In these tracts, then, we perceive an anxiety underlying the evident embrace of bold presentational tactics: a clearly felt (if uncertainly expressed) fear of dependence on the materialism inherent in pure realism. For in realism the hero's milieu takes a preponderant part in shaping his destiny; all actions, decisions, and feelings are enveloped by an awareness of extraneous determination, all sense of freedom is hedged and devalued. The hero (like Baraka's Clay) might declare the madness of reality, but reality must finally stand, little affected, above his "plight." The paradoxically didactic "realism" of Bullins and Kgositsile, like that of Baraka's more complex overture, is clearly not a concentration of events so much as a movement of the (revolutionary) psyche. Moreover, it is not the activity of an individual but a more general action which all share by analogy. It is a realism that absorbs, and narrates, the literal only to transfigure and ostensibly transcend it.
This theater, which seems to master the African-American audience even as it elevates it, to dominate it with sententious images of "a real world" even as it distills it as the singular focus of theatrical theory, is truly the dramatists' objective correlative to a deeply subjective vision in which the antithetical call to liberating violence pressures, and is pressured by, concrete ideas of "form." Indeed, as suggested by the invocations of disconcertingly incongruous genres (naturalism, allegory, symbolism), these early manifestos cohere precisely in the common tension between their passionate proclamation of the primacy of content over form and their incessant drive toward a just accommodation of meaning and technique. Their purchase on reality, the means by which they sought to depict a subject-matter more "truthful" than that of either the conventional or avant-garde mainstream, was that of moral concern. That was both their strength and limitation. For such "realism," quite apart from any restriction of heroic action, could not advance its claims very far as long as it simply replaced superficial topicalities with an instructional seriousness. What was needed beyond thematic clarification and a rejection of available notions of form was a more complex realization of the structural implications of the new revolt. Hence, the didactic element had to be textured, which meant not that it had to be eliminated but that it had to become more reflexively responsive to the need to unpack contradictions in black theater's evolving attitude toward representational praxis, specifically toward the abiding conflict — and potential alliance — of mimesis and desire. Nevertheless, the effect of the early modern, predominantly "destructive" theory was overwhelming: by destroying complacent dependence on current ideas of dramatic structure, and by thus opening up a vast new field of subject-matter, these advocates of what we might call "moral mimesis" opened the floodgates for a spate of new formal, as well as thematic, possibilities.
Not long after Bullins's and Kgositsile's declarations were published, several tracts appeared which began a shift toward this more complex concept of black theater. At the core of this crucial phase of development in modern black theatrical theory was a willingness to turn contradiction into a constituent element of a revised mimesis. Disturbing the assumption that dramatic resolution must take place only either inside or outside the theater itself, theorists pressed an alliance of perception and play that began to change the very construct of theater as a space apart from community. If this was already a conceptual ideal of "The Revolutionary Theatre," later manifestos began to sketch its palpable and visible features, carrying the generative uncertainties of mimesis forward to the empowering engagements of methexis.
In one sense, this sophistication about theater as a material web of aesthetic and social intentions was achieved by severe delimitation of purpose: following Kgositsile's lead, theorists of the black theater began to address themselves exclusively to the need for a drama of, about, and within the emergent "black nation." Ron Milner, a leading playwright in the movement, struck an influential chord with his plea for black theater to "go home" to the black community both psychically and physically:
This new theater must be housed in, sustained and judged by, and be a useable projection of, and to, a black community! The community itself will be the theater, and the black artist's house of drama like a weirdly fixed and pointed looking-glass, a light-prism casting warnings, directions, fruitful memories and marvelous imaginings on the walls of the doomed, or soon to be recreated buildings.
(Ron Milner, "Black Theater — Go Home!")
In language no less urgent and vivid than Baraka's, Milner here challenges the black playwright to draw her material from the people to whom she, in turn, communicates intensified and organized perceptions. Milner's black theater assumes a unified black consciousness as audience. A theater for the oppressed, it is yet no longer a "theater of victims" but an expressive and reflective instrument of a "community" immanently present in and as its "house of drama." In terms that amplify Barakan divination in tangible and implicitly tactical ways, "Black Theater — Go Home!" enjoins modern black drama to disavow any autonomous site of performance activity. Conventional scenic mimesis, the imitative décor of the auditorium set aside for discrete viewing experiences, is abolished in favor of a spatial conception that refuses any separation of aesthetic and social function: no stage in such a community of performance can ever be silent or empty, for such demarcations of civic and theatrical locale blur as traditional notions of dramatic action converge on eruptive visions of cultural activity. "What happens" is thus no longer the secondary image of an `original' idea, obedient to laws of universal applicability in the Aristotelian manner, but is, rather, the immediate, contingent, temporalized discharge of multiple energies capable of transforming governing axioms of structure and event. And this theatricalizing of expressive environment becomes elemental to the manifesto's own performative style: the hyper-prepositional torque of the essay's opening injunction, for example, reverberates with the excitement of thus enfolding every element of dramatic process — construction, enactment, perception — into a single cause of theatrical realization.
Just as in this creative interaction each element achieves identity and purpose in ever-evolving relation to the others, so the "community itself," the "Real" of African-American historical aspiration, issues from the kaleidoscopic montage of commemorative, critical, and oracular projections. The envisioned theater asserts its freedom from generic requirements and the expectations they support, remaining free to improvise new formations, images, and gestures. Though still announcing a drama of "warnings" and "directions," Milner now speaks of "marvelous imaginings," those Imaginary anticipations of communal liberation that would free black theater from the bonds of realism, "assault," and didactic exhortation. Appropriating Plato's cave as a scrim for enlightening refigurations and liberating enchantments, black theater is now no longer seen as a discrete institution addressing itself to a fragmented audience; nor is it simply within its chosen community: it and its congregants are entwined synergically in mutually defining union. Here we verge on the transformation of drama into ritual; for Milner's theater could not, like the theater of assault, be the formalization of ideology into narrative or emblem. It would have to do with essences, fatalities, and completed acts in which the destinies of self and group are indissoluble. It would, above all, move toward the simultaneous creation and expression of collectivity.
But how could such a ritualized theater avoid the trap of anthropological performance theory (as per Erving Goffman and Victor Turner), which merely displaces narrative containment from the sphere of dramatic emplotment to the frame of enactment per se? What models or methods of collective "imagining" could rupture the closed system of structural anthropology's account of performance as symbolic repetition, with its preclusion of unruly and unpredictable resistances, while retaining the productive force of shared values? Larry Neal, in a series of reflections, critiques, and manifestos on the burgeoning black theater movement — "Cultural Nationalism and Black Theatre/Two on Cruse: The View of the Black Intellectual"; "Toward a Relevant Black Theatre"; "New Space: The Growth of Black Consciousness in the Sixties"; and especially "The Black Arts Movement" (with Baraka's "The Revolutionary Theatre" the most influential commentary on modern black drama) — captured the crux and formulated means for its solution by expounding the nexus of revolutionary politics and vernacular expression. In particular, "The Black Arts Movement," which combines theory with one of the best critical summaries of the pre-1968 revolutionary drama, itself demonstrates the interaction of continuity and revision, for it self-consciously resonates with the idioms and passions of its predecessors even as it carefully transplants the debate to fresh terrain. In "The Black Arts Movement" Neal joins Milner in affirming "the integral relationship between Black Art and Black people" (31); indeed, Neal's manifesto opens with the declaration that "the Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community" (29). Recalling Bullins's rebuke of white avant-garde drama, "The Black Arts Movement" disparages the "cultural emptiness" of Euro-American theater, excoriating its "[refusal] to confront concrete reality" (33). Echoing Baraka's ongoing criticism of black literature as a whole Neal emphasizes throughout his essay the need for an autonomous "symbolism, mythology, ... and iconology" to facilitate the construction of a black drama wedded to the history and desires of Afro-America (29). But by linking the initiating tropes of alienation and critique to the visionary discourse of symbolic production, Neal was among the first theorists to perceive the need for the black theater to develop specific technologies and idioms linking "new" political convictions to distinctively "black" historical conditions.
Milner, too, had perceived the formal requirements of a black-oriented theater, but in notably vague terms:
I won't go into the demand for a new dynamics, for a new intensity of language and form, that the material and the desired atmosphere will make of you; except to say that the further you go home, the more startling, new and black the techniques become.
(Ron Milner, "Black Theater — Go Home!" 291)
To Milner's nascent awareness of structural demands Neal added concrete suggestions for a formally viable "black aesthetic." In varying patterns of reference and emphasis, Neal's essays directed the playwright's attention to the cultural traditions of African-American and African societies, formulating one of the earliest links between the radical Black Arts and vernacular expression. "Spirit worship," whether embodied in African orishas, New World voodoo, or Afro-Christianity, could provide, Neal suggested, a source of emotive energy: jubilees, blues, spirituals, and dance would allow for rhythmic and lyric expressiveness; shamans, preachers, musicians, hustlers, conjurers, poets, and various other "survivors" would stock a theater with a complex amalgam of heroes and moral forces; and a radically historicized folk consciousness in general — radical because no longer composed of nostalgic and pietistic memoriae loci testifying quaintly to an inert past, instead reclaimed in connection to contemporary, pan-African liberation praxis — would offer a plethora of responses to and refabrications of diasporic black life. In a manner that complements vernacular expressions of the sort we will encounter with the modern chant-preacher (Chapter 7), this integration of idiomatic and revolutionary expression effects a kind of anti-ethnological operation, dislodging folk modalities from purely sentimentalized or aestheticized classifications and restoring them as transgressive elements of cultural self-legitimation. No longer granted status and function according to external criteria (as in the decontextualizing expropriations of mainstream `crossover' art or the depoliticizing antiquarianism of folkloristic appreciation), the vernacular performance idioms will speak in Neal's modern black theater to the desired coordination of perseverance and transformation precisely by epitomizing a tradition of perpetual revisionary resistance. It is just this recognition, via a kind a vernacular-inspired insurgency, that styles of memorial figuration do not exclude but, indeed, enable creative reinterpretation which allows Neal to proclaim modern African-American theater an auspicious site for enacting a distinctively black consciousness.
Thus elaborating Milner's intuition, Neal discerned that if black drama was to become a truly "autonomous" vehicle of black values, it had to be shaped into new forms which are yet rooted in historically tested expressions of the black nation it vitalizes and serves. What began, then, with Baraka as a sweeping revolt against established conventions became through Neal's situation of the vernacular lexicon as element and exemplar of black theatrical practice a revolutionary rediscovery of convention on a deeper level. The early iconoclastic suspicion of structure thereby metamorphosed into a gritty, detailed discussion of the possibility of form. Through Neal's successive interventions, the focus of theoretical exploration shifted from the emphatically thematic (which, after all, gave the initial impetus to African-American dramatic experimentation) to the nucleus of the artistic transaction where ideology (content) and its performative embodiment (process) find their mutual determination. He gave to the Black Arts Movement not just its defining name (itself a generative act of summation and summons) but its titular momentum as an environment for progressive theatrical engagement.
The 1960s, then, saw a development in treatises on black theater from abstract, essentially distrustful concern with existing institutions to an affirmation of unified black strength and a fresh, more particularized dedication to constructing new conventions and formal arrangements by reworking the most enduring and critically insightful of the old. The contradictory. status of mimesis that emerged from early manifestos — their simultaneous impatience with available modes of mediation and insistence on regulating the play of signifiers in adequate representations of `authentic' blackness — evolves in their successors toward a transfigured presentational strategy guided by vernacular surrogations capable of provoking a participatory identification in the black spectator. Since the early 1970s, several theorists have offered blueprints for a distinctively black theatrical event capable of propelling this postrealist, postdeconstructive mimesis toward a mode of affective synthesis, where meaning and being can coincide in the moment and space of enactment. Whatever their specific proposals, these writers share the belief that, as Clayton Riley expressed it, black theater would be "structured to take people away from basics, from fundamentals, into a special kind of chapel atmosphere for rituals." While "ritual" supplanted "message" as the key word in the theorists' rhetoric, religiosity, emotiveness, and style overtook edification and exorcism as defining elements of black drama's mise-en-scène. And, quite naturally, the processes of performance, with all its messy contingencies and dynamic possibilities, replaced the particularities of text as the theorists' focal point.
Once again, Amiri Baraka initiated this change in tenor from critique to reconstruction with a call for plays which would show "how we triumphed," evoking in generalized terms the image of achieved action as theater's principle concern. Milner, however, was one of the first writers to outline the specific features and methods which might characterize such a theater of actualization. He had already hinted at these in "Black Theater — Go Home!" by asserting that "musicians are pointing out to us" the inevitability of innovative techniques in a distinctively black art (291). Eight years later the music is promoted from exemplar to essence:
Everything is music. My whole basis for art — the only criteria or model I have.... If you listen to the good lines in a show, and the show is moving right, it's moving like a piece of music, and it has to hit like a piece of music.... If it doesn't do that, it just sits there and it's just a play.
(Ron Milner quoted in Smitherman, "We Are the Music," 4)
Just a play — Milner, claiming black music as vanguard inspiration, envisions a performative matrix that supplants the classic account of conventional dramatic narrative, shape, and meaning as inscription, the secondary effect of performance being its embodied supplement or imitative fulfillment. As with music, black drama is to be materially embedded in the conditions of its making and thus become itself the "movement" that it provokes. Echoing Neal's location of spiritual sustenance in contemporary jazz innovators, whose experimental explorations blend historic and living vernacular resonances — "we should want to have ... in our work the kind of energy, that informs the music of John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra: the modern equivalent of the ancient ritual energy" — Milner presses the relation of playwright to musician nearly to the point of identity. The essence of music, for Milner, is its affective quality, its ability, to initiate the listener into its special cosmos. The call-and-response pattern characteristic of African-American music is a legacy of the Africanicity embedded in what Neal calls "the ancient ritual energy," that functional locus of communal legitimation that Milner too identifies as the ur-theater of black culture. Thus, Milner's African-American theater will be a synthesis of African-rooted spirituality and African-American musical form, a secularized structuring of tribal ceremony:
Black theater is moving to the point where we've taken the ritual, passion, drama, and intensity of the church and put it into secular music so it can be a functional kind of thing; so you can use your catharsis, your collective energy and collective prayer in your everyday life. When Black theater has incorporated those three ingredients — the church, the rock `n' roll music dynamic and the drama — then it will be total and full.
(Smitherman, "We Are the Music," 6)
Reimagining catharsis as a ceaselessly circulating datum of social presence rather than a contained effect of circumscribed dramatic representation, Milner deliberately braids "functional" contingency with affective "totality." Drama does not achieve carthartic energy as a residue of narrative presentation but appropriates and augments its ongoing capacity to motivate an affective dynamic of collective exchange. Cartharsis is not the `final cause' of drama, but its source, a continuously regenerated power of a culturally honed aptitude for the antihierarchical commerce of call-and-response. In such a theater, there can be no authorial mastery of mise-en-scène from beyond the site of enactment, because there is no contoured distinction between a textual `inside' and generating `outside,' and hence no concept of textuality as a privileged, closed, and autonomous structure. Correspondingly, there can be no distinction of spectatorial enrichment apart from theatrical experience itself, no securing of significance from the intentions and productions of performance through a process of objectifying disengagement.
In the reciprocal dynamic of call-and-response expression that Neal and Milner bring to theoretical center stage, `performer' and `auditor' designate ever-shifting, ever-available positions, each speaker or player being also a listener, each listener being always ready to reply. Such interactions arise from the concrete situation of social relations, from a scene of utterance that is simultaneously imaged and, in its presentation, altered, readying it again for a continuing activity of meaningful transmission. Thus, too, no single utterance or gesture can be isolated from the shared historical condition that enables it, the `language' of communal consciousness from which it arises and which it inflects with a transformative difference. In the dialogic encounter of call-and-response, each participant is forced into critical awareness of his or her customary behaviors and expectations, so that role and reception are cognate with, not prior to, performance. Drama-as-exchange thereby interrogates and amends beliefs that instigate and circulate through it, distantiating perceptual habits and so instituting new codes of understanding. Moreover, this rhythm of defamiliarization and revision converts alienation to a kind of working-through of collective identity, as the different or distant is always already elemental to the self.
Constituting significance as a dispersal of signifying enunciations across multiple, but related, subject positions, Milner's theater of call-and-response thus "houses" an expressive economy that escapes enclosure within various representational categories to which a classic aesthetic would confine it. At the same time, it renders internal to the ethos of performative blackness the preservation of difference without ceding the will-to-fullness: transgression and recognition are two aspects of the same disposition. In theatrical terms, this theater resists narrative essentialization and finality without suspending the quest for defining form ... or, in terms of Milner's earlier formulations, it emancipates the metamorphic fluidity of a black Imaginary while maintaining the rigor of symbolic negotiation.
Milner's musical-ritual vision of black theater, and the expressive strategies of vernacular realization it advances for encoding blackness-as-performance, found practical realization in several notable plays of the era, particularly Baraka's Slave Ship (1967) and Milner's own Seasons' Reasons: Just a Natural Change (1975). Like African ceremony, this African-American theater of music and dance fuses purpose and meaning, method and event. At once visionary and functional — functional, in fact, because visionary — it conflates passion and creation and (tapping only seemingly contradictory sources of `collective energy') equates improvisatory invention with social significance. Exploiting the preestablished symbiosis between black audience and black musician, Milner's thesis seeks to free the African-American theater from the shackles of written narrative, translating its commission from mere communication to manifestation. Re-presenting condensed modes of thinking inscribed into a written script gives way here to expressive innovation by body and voice. The perspectival relation (and barrier) between seer and seen essential to traditional drama (be it realistic, expressionistic, or symbolic) is dissolved into the im-mediacy of ritual flux: placed in the middle of the action, the spectator is engulfed and physically affected by it, and, more, is `called' upon to `respond' in unconstrained tones of re-petition. The dramatic event thus posited is one in which black people do not so much discern, or even discover, as determine communal identity and solidarity during the theatrical happening itself
|List of plates|
|Prologue: performing blackness||1|
|Pt. I||Will the circle be unbroken?: drama and the quest for communality||23|
|1||Sighting blackness: mimesis and methexis in Black Arts theatrical theory||24|
|2||Site-ing blackness: abjection and affirmation in modern black drama||53|
|Pt. II||Blow into the freezing night: expressive agency in Coltrane and the Coltrane Poem||113|
|3||Innovating blackness: praxis and passion in (late) Coltrane||115|
|4||Renovating blackness: remembrance and revolution in the Coltrane Poem||145|
|Pt. III||Find the self, then kill it: scripts and scores of self-enactment||187|
|5||Sounding blackness: vision and voice in the performative poetics of Amiri Baraka||189|
|6||Rehearsing blackness: spectre and spectacle in the theatrical prefaces of Adrienne Kennedy||228|
|Pt. IV||I was myself within the circle: vernacular and critical paradigms of expressive agency||245|
|7||Improvising blackness: telling and testifying in the modern chant-sermon||247|
|8||Re-calling blackness: recollection and response in contemporary black autocritography||283|
|Epilogue: re:presenting blackness||307|
|App. A||Coltrane Poems||313|
|App. B||sermon transcripts||331|