In Search of Our Warrior Mothers: Women Dramatists of the Black Arts Movement

In Search of Our Warrior Mothers: Women Dramatists of the Black Arts Movement

by La Donna Forsgren


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810136939
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 04/15/2018
Pages: 216
Sales rank: 836,928
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

LA DONNA L. FORSGREN is an assistant professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.

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"Set Your Blackness Free"

Barbara Ann Teer's Art and Activism

Her eyes, opening like crystals, looked back to Africa, forward to the Caribbean, upward to America, told us to "take God out of the sky and put God into our hearts." ... This woman, heavy with the smell of herstory and history, put her foot on this American spine and bid us look up at her gospel hands hanging bamboo poems of life.

— Sonia Sanchez, 2008

Barbara Ann Teer's ritualistic revivals and theoretical writings reveal the unique ways in which black women intellectuals of the Black Arts Movement used their agency to actively conceptualize their own framework for black empowerment. Her important theories of performance challenge the current historical fallacy that there were no female theorists of the Black Arts Movement. This chapter critically examines Teer's holistic performance theories, critical essays, and unpublished ritualistic revivals to demonstrate a continuation of black women's intellectual traditions from within Black Power discourse. This study contends that Teer's intellectual and artistic endeavors redefined revolutionary theater of the Black Arts Movement by incorporating a holistic approach to performance that privileged the spiritual, artistic, and psychological liberation of both participants and performers. Furthermore, Teer's grassroots efforts created a new woman-centered African-based mythology and promoted community activism by providing a platform to discuss the devastating effects of racism and the need to form productive relationships among black men and women of Harlem.

Teer's politically and socially conscious art embraced African aesthetics and rejected traditional theatrical notions of time and space by eliminating the divisions between actor and audience and encouraging all to use the performance event itself as an opportunity to bring about social change. Her ritualistic revivals were much more than entertaining "plays," and were meant to have lasting effects far beyond the scope of the event itself. Teer used the terms "liberator" and "participant" in order to illustrate the active roles that both the performer and audience must undertake in order to bring about a cultural revolution. She encouraged liberators to approach performance holistically by utilizing chants, sermons, testimonials, music, song, dance, and structured improvisation to guide participants along a spiritual journey of self-identification and empowerment. A community was formed during the ritualistic revivals as participants were exposed to the problems facing Harlem, taught black cultural pride through the infusion of African mythology into contemporary life, and encouraged to take part in bettering their own community. Teer's didactic, emotionally engaging, and entertaining ritualistic revivals successfully fused a dramatic premise with music, movement, poetry, and religious practices. During the Black Arts Movement, Teer wrote, choreographed, and developed three important ritualistic revivals: A Ritual to Regain Our Strength and Reclaim Our Power (1970), A Revival: Change! Love Together! Organize! (1972) cowritten with Charlie Russell, and Soljourney into Truth: A Ritualistic Revival (1974).

While Teer's performance theories and ritualistic revivals were critically acclaimed during the Black Arts Movement, her contributions to Black Arts theory and performance have been almost entirely overlooked by contemporary theater historians and feminist scholars. While Smethurst's important study The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (2005) acknowledges Teer's National Black Theatre (NBT; 1968–present) as a "pioneer of black ritual theater," he remains doubtful of the "long-term impact of Teer and the NBT on the Black Arts Movement." To further exacerbate this historical erasure, Teer's writings remain unpublished. Lacking accessible evidence to explore her ritualistic revivals, many theater historians continue to ignore her literary and artistic achievements.

To date, the most significant study of Teer's work remains theater historian Lundeana Thomas's Barbara Ann Teer and the National Black Theatre: Transformational Forces in Harlem (1997), written twenty years ago. While Thomas has written a remarkable biography about Teer's efforts to found the NBT, her study does not provide an in-depth analysis of how Teer implemented her performance theories within actual performances of her ritualistic revivals. Thomas's article "Barbara Ann Teer: From Holistic Training to Liberating Minds" (2002), however, provides more information about performance practices at the NBT. Thomas writes:

The ritualistic revivals conducted by Teer were visions of spectacle aimed at enlightening and inspiring the audience. Each performance was a celebration of life, of identity, and artistic expression. ... Special greetings, music, singing, dancing, chanting, high energy, audience interaction, and spontaneity were elements that engaged the NBT's audience in unusual ways. Some were not as successful as others in their implementation, but each distinguished the NBT as a group that entertained its audience in ways not always familiar in the American professional theatre.

This chapter also engages with the performative aspects of ritualistic revivals, paying particular attention to the participatory and communal nature of Teer's ritualistic revivals. This study departs from Thomas's work by utilizing the black feminist theories of Patricia Hill Collins, Teer's performance theories and unpublished play scripts, production recordings, and original interviews with Black Arts Movement artists in order to understand how Teer used her agency as an artist and Black Power activist to implement innovative performance practices. This chapter recovers Teer's efforts to galvanize her local community and honors her profound legacy to African American theater history, African American studies, and black feminist scholarship.

Barbara Ann Teer: Black Woman Intellectual

Teer's performance theories, critical essays, and ritualistic dramas demonstrate the continuation of black women's intellectual traditions from within Black Power discourse. Teer used her standpoint as a mother, artist, and activist to empower black men and women. Her ritualistic dramas created celebratory images of black womanhood and honored African American and African cultural traditions in order to empower and inspire unity among black men and women. Similar to the prevalent Black Arts and Black Power rhetoric of the era, Teer's art and activism demonstrated a commitment to developing a "distinctly African American or African culture." Yet Teer did not situate her representations of blackness in opposition to white culture. Rather, she looked inward, focusing her efforts on strengthening the black community of Harlem. She theorized performance practices that would enable her to utilize the rhythms of a black preacher to reeducate participants about their African ancestry and encourage them to work together to eliminate the harmful images and vices within the community.

Teer's intellectual and artistic sensibilities reflect an appreciation of black women's culture and foreshadow the efforts of later womanist writers such as Alice Walker. After enduring a series of discriminatory experiences as an actress on Broadway during the late 1960s, Teer turned away from commercial theater and focused her efforts on the survival of the black community. Defying the popular belief at the time that a viable black theater could not exist in Harlem, in 1968 Teer founded her own experimental theater company, the NBT, to empower her community through the implementation of innovative ritualistic revivals that incorporated the emotions and spirituality of black female cultural practices. Teer, of course, was not alone in her efforts to experiment with black ritual form in Harlem. Robert Macbeth's New Lafayette Theatre (1967–72) produced the works of leading playwright Ed Bullins and also experimented with ritual form. However, Harlem audiences preferred the spirit of community and the emotional depth of Teer's ritualistic revivals. As Paul Carter Harrison argues in The Drama of Nommo (1972), the New Lafayette Theatre's experimentation with ritual form ultimately "fail[ed]" to connect with audiences because of their "overzealous and self-indulgent preoccupation with form" and "nationalism." The NBT, on the other hand, remained a vital theater because it "arous[ed] the spirit, thus heightening the community's consciousness." Indeed, Teer's ritualistic revivals combined elements of ritual drama, Pentecostal and Holy Roller church practices, and the emotional excitement of revivalism in order to teach, cleanse, and unite the Harlem community.

Drawing from black women's cultural traditions, Teer aroused the spirit or what she deemed a distinct "god force" within blacks that she believed was necessary to secure "black survival." She led an emotional release for participants through her captivating performances as a conductor, newly conceptualized deity named Taji and powerful Yoruba goddess Oshun. Teer showcased her leadership and talents by singing, chanting, playing instruments, and preaching didactic messages of cultural pride and self-determination. By presenting herself as an African goddess onstage and self-fashioning herself as a warrior mother offstage, Teer not only created new African-based mythologies centered on the power of black womanhood, but also reaffirmed her own role as a formidable leader in Harlem.

Teer began to formulate her own artistic theories and develop a holistic approach to acting during and immediately following her career on Broadway in the mid-1960s. While working with the choreographer Alwin Nikolais in New York City, Teer suffered a knee injury that would end her dance career. According to the theater historian Lundeana Thomas, Teer became "[d]epressed by her injury" and "consulted a spiritualist who told her that her power was in her head rather than her feet." Although Teer would go on to learn traditional modes of acting theory from world-renowned teachers such as Sanford Meisner, Lloyd Richards, Paul Mann, and Philip Burton, she used a holistic approach for her own theories of performance. Teer discussed this important phase in her life and the psychological damage of performing in commercial theater in a 1971 interview with NBT playwright-in-residence Charlie L. Russell:

I became conscious of who I was. A black woman. Politically aware of what a black woman in America means. Over my manager's objections I had cut my hair in a natural. Cutting my hair helped me realize that I was in the wrong place, white theatre. Because of my natural I had my first fight with my manager.

By cutting and styling her hair into a "natural" or afro, Teer symbolically liberated herself from Western standards of beauty and claimed the space she needed to circumvent society's expectations and norms. From this point on she refused to perform stereotypical characters onstage, fired her manager, and began voicing her concerns about the psychological impact of racist performance practices on black actors and actresses in American theater.

In the late 1960s Teer published several crucial essays that focused on the mental health of black actresses who are forced to compete with each other for limited and stereotypical roles. Black actresses are offered only two roles — "domestic" or "sex symbol," argued Teer in her essay "The Black Woman: She Does Exist" (1967) written for the New York Times. Contextualizing this plight within the broader framework of black women's history in the Americas, Teer asserted that these limited roles "resulted from racist concepts created in the days of slavery which made the Negro woman either a work animal or a producing animal, consequently stripping her of any traits of intelligence and any attributes of femininity." Deeply concerned with the psychological effects of portraying such distortions of black womanhood, Teer asserted that these stereotypes "greatly, if not completely, stifled the Negro actress' development as an entity in the industry" and caused her to simultaneously "fight the battle of being forced to conform to a Caucasian standard of beauty" and fight "racism which excludes the reality of her existence as a human being." Teer suggested that performing the roles of a domestic or a hypersexualized jezebel not only dehumanizes, but also destroys the creative minds and souls of black actresses. In her 1968 essay "Needed: A New Image," published in The Black Power Revolt, Teer put forth a call for black artists to "project an image of love, respect, and solidarity" to counteract stereotypical images of black women. She broadened her concern by requesting that black artists "establish a positive relationship between black men and black women in the theatre and all other mass media." Building upon this essay, that same year Teer published a manifesto, "The Great White Way Is Not Our Way — Not Yet" (1968) in Negro Digest, which would be another key turning point in her career. Rather than focus her energy on condemning the media, she issued a call for black artists to build a strong black cultural institution in Harlem that would nurture, teach, and allow young black artists to embrace their identity and "be free to experiment and to create." Teer's manifesto unequivocally severed her ties with what she regarded as the "white establishment" of Broadway, and from this point on she would utilize the talents, resources, and strengths of the Harlem community to realize her vision of founding a black cultural institution.

Teer's theoretical writings suggest that the interdisciplinary nature of theater provides an ideal cultural institution that, if nourished, can become a galvanizing force to empower the black community. She discusses the relationship between black American theater and African culture in her article "We Can Be What We Were Born to Be" (1968) written for the New York Times. "To quote Harold Cruse, 'We must cease thinking of black theater purely in European terms the way white artists view the theater. Black theater is, historically, an American development by way of Africa. It is not an American development by way of Europe,'" Teer writes. She envisioned a theater built upon African aesthetics, African ways of knowing, and African ways of being. She believed that a cultural revolution was necessary in order for blacks to become subjects and define their own world instead of being defined by others. Building upon Cruse's call in Rebellion or Revolution? (1968) to "transform the [Negro] movement from a mere rebellion" into an active "cultural revolution" that served a "social purpose," Teer argues:

The theater should be the forerunner in this cultural revolution because the theater is a form which can encompass nearly all our creative endeavors. It can disavow all the stereotypes and replace them with more meaningful images that represent us as we really are in life. We must establish for ourselves what is beautiful, ugly, clean, pure, dirty, correct, incorrect, good, bad, sexy, violent, nonviolent, criminal — what is really meaningful to us.

Teer advocated for blacks to establish a theater that would provide black artists with a safe space to create and construct visions of their past, present, and future conditions. By the very nature of this mission, Teer's theater would function as a cultural institution, revolutionizing black art and promoting self-determination within black communities.

Teer experienced backlash from black artists in New York City because of her rejection of commercial theater, criticism of the state of black theater, and promotion of a separate black theater. She was unprepared for the harsh criticism. Barbara "Sade" Lythcott, her daughter and the current president of the NBT, recalls:

At one point my mom was becoming very hot [i.e., passionate]. What she was saying was so revolutionary — this happens oftentimes — that black people maybe [we]re not ready to embrace something so radical. But white people [we]re very intrigued by it and she wrote several articles for the New York Times. When you write something and you put it out in the public, you have to be open for criticism.

"White people, black people, actors alike" disapproved of her mother's vision and "the criticism really destroyed her." Lythcott remembers that her mother "didn't feel safe in public anymore," was deeply hurt by what she felt was a "betrayal," and "became fiercely private, which [is] why she's never written a book." Although Teer continued to write plays, poetry, and theories of performance, she ceased publishing for fear of further ostracism. She did, however, continue to publish press releases, nurture young artists at the NBT, and collaborate with spiritualists and African artists who shared similar beliefs.


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Table of Contents

“Set Your Blackness Free”: Barbara Ann Teer’s Art and Activism
"We Black Women": Martie Evans-Charles and the Spirits of Black Womanhood
“Armed Prophet”: Sonia Sanchez and the Weapon of Words
“Bring Your Wounded Hearts”: J.e. Franklin and the Art of Liberation
Let the Search Continue
A. Chronology of Barbara Ann Teer
B. Chronology of Martie Evans-Charles
C. Chronology of Sonia Sanchez
D. Chronology of J.e. Franklin

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