Category Archives: Issue #5

Editor’s Note

Editor’s Note

The purpose of this blog, besides recording and archiving the ideas, history and vision of Douglas Turner Ward, has always been to provide a forum for discussion on Black or African-American Theatre both past and present.

In this issue we have the foundation for such a discussion in two excerpts from taped conversations I had with playwright, director, scholar and Professor Emeritus of Columbia College in Chicago, Paul Carter Harrison, who also happens to be a friend. There is also a provocative article by Paul on a subject he has been very absorbed by in the past year or more; a re-definition of Black Theatre. These articles are presented as the start of an ongoing discussion that will continue in future issues.

 

On the historical side is a warm remembrance by Robert Hooks illuminating his view on how some important developments in Black Theatre occurred.

 

Enjoy!

 

-GE.

-TM

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Robert Hooks

robert hooks

Robert Hooks: On the NEC, its beginnings, its legacy. 

I’m from Washington, DC and at the behest of my older sister I did some plays when I was nine years old and wound up liking it. Then my family moved to Philadelphia where I was enrolled in the Bessie V. Hicks School of Theatre. After that I came to New York and did a lot of stuff around. But my first professional job was the same play that prompted me to come to New York in the first place. That was A Raisin in the Sun. I took over the role of George Murchison at the end of the Broadway run and toured with it for a year. On that tour Douglas Turner Ward, Lonne Elder and I became The Three Musketeers.

We were just meant for each other in life because we have been friends since.

Both Doug and Lonne were a little older than me and we spent a lot of time talking about all kinds of things. Life, history, women, politics, all sorts of things. They were like mentors to me. I don’t think a person could have two better mentors than Doug Ward and Lonne Elder. From those guys I learned a lot about what was happening socially as it related to blacks in the industry. And one of the reasons I formed The Group Theatre Workshop later on was because I saw the opportunity to start creating what Doug, Lonne and I had talked about. It was a kind of workshop for blacks to work permanently in…I was doing Dutchman by Amiri  Baraka ( Leroi Jones) at the time and living in Chelsea at the time. On my night off from the play I was asked to speak at the Hudson Guild, which was in Chelsea, about blacks in theatre and the problems they were facing. The talk was well received and there were a lot of kids who came up and asked questions after. I knew most of those young people because I lived right across the street. So I said to them: “If you’re really and truly interested in theatre come over to my house, I’m off on Monday nights so we can talk about it and see if we can work some things out. Maybe I’ll spend some time working and teaching. “And that’s what happened. There were six then twelve, twelve grew to twenty, twenty became sixty because the kids started coming from all over the New York area.  So in my living room we started The Group Theatre Workshop. And along with Barbara Ann Teer, Adolph Caesar and a lot of dedicated friends we turned my living room into a theatre. Adolph and I knocked out a wall. I was eventually evicted from that place. But it was time to be moving anyway because we were growing in numbers.

 

Now a lot of the people in the neighborhood thought we were just partying because they saw a lot of kids coming and going.  So I decided that we would put together a production and invite everyone around so that they could see what we were doing.  The evening would consist of improvisations and poems and a one act play that Doug had been working on. He was working on two plays Day of Absence and Happy Ending that I was planning on producing with a man named Sam Engle. I took one of the plays (Happy Ending) and I added it to the evening. And Jerry Talmer, a reporter came and gave it a wonderful review in the New York Post. After the review I went to Sam and suggested that since he couldn’t raise the 35,000.00 we had budgeted if I could take the plays and try to raise the money. And, to make a long story short, I did and that’s how Happy Ending and Day of Absence were born.

 

In America we were in a revolutionary time (the 1960s). Black Theatre was producing revolutionary writers like Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins and people like that. Brilliant writers who were writing serious plays.

But Day of Absence and Happy Ending were really the first comedies to come along that were successful. But you see, in my mind, certainly in Doug’s mind and the people in the production they were just as revolutionary as the serious plays. So the approach that Doug took in those plays was in my mind just as effective. And it turns out that over the years Day of Absence has become a sort of classic and is still being done when all the serious plays from that time are not.

At the time you didn’t see many black producers. White producers were producing black plays. The Baraka play I was acting in (Dutchman) was being presented by white producers. The problem still exists in Hollywood today although that is changing. But even before I came to New York I was producing theatre. So I had started young. Anyway, the plays were successful and that’s when the Ford Foundation people inspired by Doug’s New York Times article, came to talk to us about starting an all black company. Now a lot of the kids that were in the workshop we had them in the professional production in smaller roles. And when I toured boroughs with the Public Theatre’s production of Henry V I made an arrangement with Joe Papp, our producer, who thought these kids were wonderful, for them to perform in the early part of the evening a theatre piece that Barbara Ann Teer and I put together called We Real Cool. So they were touring with us and gaining valuable experience.

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Now Gerry Krone was the general manager for the plays we were producing. So after the Ford Foundation contacted us we brought Gerry into the combine and formed a triumvirate. Then the three of us created a proposal for the NEC on a tablecloth in a restaurant right near the St. Marks Playhouse where the two plays were running. And as you know, the wonderful people at the Ford Foundation gave us a million and a half dollars over three years and the NEC was born.

We did many wonderful plays including Lonne Elder’s Ceremonies in Dark Old Men which he had been working on since we were doing A Raisin in the Sun. After the tour we lived together as roommates for a few years. And I remember we would take turns on the one bed we had. He would sleep in it one night, I the other. And all the time he would be at the typewriter working on Ceremonies. Together we would read scenes from the play to see if they worked or not. So I saw early on what was there.  I was privy to the beginning of what has become a classic in the American theatre. And all the while we would also be meeting with Doug at a bar on 14th street where he would talk about his next play and Lonne would talk about his. So I was privileged to be a part of this rich history that was taking place.

After it started the NEC had a tremendous effect in New York, on the theatre in New York and the people of New York. Then when we went out on tour we started getting letters from theatre companies because they were so moved and impressed by what they saw. I dare say there must have been about twenty five theatre companies started across the country because they saw and believed in what the NEC was doing and what we were all about. They saw hope for black theatre in their city. So the company had a tremendous effect on other black artists across the country and inspired them to go out and do like we were doing.

Now at the NEC we always wanted to play to mixed audiences. But we also knew that a black theatre audience had to be developed because we feel and have always felt the importance of black theatre, how it brings people together and what it has to say. So we wanted to build a black audience and we did. They were proud of us. They came and enjoyed what they saw. And they came back again and again and brought other people, other black people from all over the city.

 

Before going on I want to say something about Douglas Turner Ward. He has given the NEC his life for the past 30 years or so. Sacrificed his own professional writing career to build and sustain as well as maintain the high quality of the institution. Doug Ward is the lifeline of the NEC…Now I’m not taking any credit away from myself. I was one of the founders and that was important and I’m glad. It’s history.  But after three years I had to leave New York to build the Washington DC Black Rep and I did so with Doug’s blessing because he was taking care of the shop here and I didn’t have to be there. So I thought that since it worked in New York I thought “Let me go to Chicago, Philly or some other place and see if I can help them do the same thing. So I did the DC Black Rep and it’s still going today. I was also able to help other people to build similar organizations in the cities I just mentioned….But Doug Ward, no matter what anybody says about the man, and you’ll get a lot of varied opinions about him, believe  me,

because I get them. But Doug Ward is the lifeline of the NEC and the grandfather of black theatre in America.

But summing it all up I think that the NEC was our second Renaissance. The first was in the 20s, 30s and 40s. They left us art, books, paintings, sculptures, whatever but mostly books. The NEC left theatre. Writers, actors, directors, designers and others. Many of them are in the mainstream of the entertainment world and will admit how important the NEC was to their success. And there are those who won’t. To me that’s wrong but I understand because I understand those people.  So when we talk about legacy I say the NEC was our second Renaissance because it was responsible for a true cultural revolution as it relates to theatre in this country.

Interview by Richard Kilberg – in 1987. Edited by GE for this issue.

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A Conversation with Paul Carter Harrison

A Conversation with Paul Carter Harrison

paul carter harrison

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were together for one week this summer at the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony to inaugurate a new program called The August Wilson Theatre Poetics for which Paul was the host. We spent quite a bit of time together. And I took one of these times to talk to him about Douglas Turner Ward, the blog and about serious black theatre in general.

GE: As you know I have this blog called The Douglas Turner Ward Quarterly. What in your view is the validity for such a blog?

PCH: Well, as you know, we don’t have reference points any longer in terms of what was going on in black theatre during say the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. So generally speaking unless you’re a university student addressing that specific subject, there are no reference points as to what has been happening in black theatre in the last fifty years. Its evolution and development.  It’s amazing really when you come to think about it. So a blog of this kind provides some kind of record or history of a very lively and fruitful period in our development.

GE: Starting when?

PCH: If we look back on it I would say starting in the early fifties. And definitely with A Raisin in the Sun which was 1959. That would become the anchor. Then you had The Blacks by Genet. It wasn’t quite African American but it was an opportunity for black performance in a certain kind of way. Beyond this we get to Baraka’s Dutchman, Doug Ward’s Day of Absence and the works of Adrienne Kennedy and so on. This is somewhere around 1964, 65 when the idea of the Negro Ensemble was coming into being. I think they actually started around 1967 or 68, somewhere around there.  So we’re talking about a certain works by black writers that made an impact on the stage in a different kind of way during that time…So what you have is a blog with Douglas Turner Ward as the center and that is appropriate because he was the one responsible for the emergence of so much black work, black theatre writing. And not just in terms of being a producer but also as a dramaturg. I think he was intimately connected or involved with every piece of work that wound up on that stage. So that any writer whose work was done by the NEC at that time had to pass through Doug’s scrutiny. His dramaturgical scrutiny. They would have to pass the test of validity for his company…The problem is young people in these times don’t have much of a frame of reference as to how all this work emerged. So this blog provides them and anyone else who’s interested with the opportunity to look back and also come into contemporary connection by being able to hear and engage with contemporary voices ad talk with them as well. Talk about the NEC, address how important it was and what it contributed to our theatrical landscape and heritage.

The NEC as we knew it ceased it’s functioning around 1988 or 89 and has not been operating as it used to. But for around 20 years we had the NEC developing and presenting new work by black dramatists on a regular basis. This blog helps with that point of reference for discourse and discussion of the work. And by that I mean serious discussion and not just celebration like: “Well I remember when so and so had a play on.” etc. No, not general conversation or talk as a homily. I’m talking about serious, challenging discussion about the work, its impact and its durability as drama and as black drama too.

phylicia rashad 

GE: There is a new NEC which I will distinguish from the former by calling the version that Doug ran as “The historic NEC” and the current incarnation as “The New NEC.” How do you view the difference?

PCH:  Well, the current NEC, the NEC of let’s say the past five years or so strikes me as a club. It’s sort of clubby. They’re not producing serious work. The call themselves “The Alumni of the NEC”, the people who are involved…And there have been attempts in the last ten years to revive the NEC in what we’re now calling the Historical NEC that had a particular kind of mission. That mission was develop new work and to establish a highly professional presence on the American Theatre scene. That presence has not happened since the Doug Ward period of the NEC. They’ve fallen away from prominence. The new NEC is only connected to the old version by name. To me it’s a kind of clubby situation not necessarily with bad intentions. I think its intentions are locked down in a situation or mode of not just survival but revival of what it had been. But in order to do that you must have the underpinning of strong leadership and guidance. And a real sense of mission and purpose other than simply doing a show or being part of a play.

 

Now interestingly enough I might be getting involved with them. I wanted to commit one of my works to this new inauguration of the old company just by way of maybe reviving or giving them a sense of legitimacy. When I mentioned that to one of the prominent people of the historical NEC this question was asked; “Why would you want to revive that?”…Now it might be naive of me to see that happen. To see them recover and revive the professional values that Doug Ward had put forth in the works the company had been doing 20 years ago. We’ll see. But I do believe that that there’s a distinct difference between what had been done , the purpose for doing it and the outcome in terms of serving the careers of so many black actors, writers, directors and other theatre personnel. It brought so many of them into the professional theatre, filmmaking and television as we know. So it had a function and did it, which is what this new organization doesn’t seem able to do. Still we’re going to try with my play The Great Mc Daddy and see where that takes us.

GE: A visionary leader it, seems to me, is what this or any other theatre company needs. One that can view the larger picture as well as the immediate circumstances. And one with a plan of action that can animate creative excitement and take the theatre in a new direction. Does that sound reasonable to you or even sensible?

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PCH: Yes, that’s what the historical NEC did all those years ago. For instance I can recall vividly a time in 1969 or 70 when I was teaching at Howard University and the NEC came there to do a show. Esther Rolle, Doug Ward and all those others were there and these starry eyed students including Phylicia Rashard , her sister Debbie and several other who since then have turned out to be excellent performers and theatre artists. People like Clinton Turner Davis and others. They were all students of mine at the time at Howard and their eyes lit up when the NEC cast and creative personnel came around to visit the classes and to talk to them at the Fine Arts Building. They stood around in awe. That’s how they felt about the NEC.  Today you couldn’t get the current NEC people to walk into a room and create a sense of awe based on the work they are doing. Those students saw with the old NEC people where they wanted to go and who they wanted to be. And interestingly enough most of them did actually work for the NEC at one time or another. That’s the kind of legacy the old NEC created.

 So for me a blog like The Douglas Turner Ward Quarterly provides us with a forum and a clearing place where all these histories, legacies, ideas and discussions can be recorded, discoursed, challenged and preserved.

GE: Thank you Paul, well talk some more.

 GE 8-18-11

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Toward a Critical Vocabulary for African Diaspora Expressivity

TOWARD A CRITICAL VOCABULARY FOR AFRICAN DIASPORA EXPRESSIVITY

By Paul Carter Harrison

As far back as the 1920s, the highly esteemed scholar Alain Locke, one of the leaders of the New Negro Movement, challenged black artists to break away from the limitations of the established aesthetic conventions proffered by the movement’s paternalistic white patrons at the Harmon Society by reaching back into the repository of African culture for ideal expressive production that might pave the way toward an alternative style of work not limited to Western traditions.

 

In 1971, the late scholar Addison Gayle observed in his introduction to an edited

collection of essays, The Black Aesthetic, that the “black artist of the past worked with the white public in mind. The guidelines by which he measured his production was its acceptance or rejection by white people. The invisible censor, white power, hovered over him in the sanctuary of his private room-whether at the piano or the typewriter-and, like his black brothers, he debated about what he could say to the world without bringing censure upon himself. The mannerisms he had used to survive in the society outside, he now brought to his art…the result was usually an artistic creation filled with half-truths.”

Nearly a half-century has passed since the robust Black Arts Movement of the Sixties initiated a vigorous endeavor to reclaim African heritage as the foundation of artistic expression. In an effort to encourage self-definition of African American humanity and rescue African American expressivity from the rapacious commodification of dominant culture, the poet, Larry Neal, issued a challenge to African American novelists, poets, musicians, and visual and performing artists, to abandon the aesthetics of the Western Canon and pursue aesthetic constructions in their expressive practices that reflected a culturally specific “symbology, mythology, iconology, and critique” consonant with the retention of an African worldview within the African American experience.

Cultural scholar, Houston Baker has noted that “the guiding assumption of the Black Arts Movement was that if a literary-critical investigator looked to the characteristic musical and verbal forms of the masses, he could discover unique aspects of Afro-American creative expression—aspects of both form and performance—that lay closest to the verifiable emotional referents and experiential categories of Afro-American culture. The result of such a critical investigation…would be the discovery of a “Black Aesthetic”—a distinctive code for the creation and evaluation of black art.”  One need only to listen to Thelonious Monk’s discordant harmonies and tonal vamp on the familiar Christian hymnal, Blessed Assurance in the Fifties, or the hallowed dirge inventions of Albert Ayler’s Holy Ghost in the early Sixties, to recognize that the reclamation of a distinctive code was in progress.

Neal had presaged that without a distinctive code, artistic expression of African Americans conceived under the rubric of Black Art  would be marginalized within the dominant culture and provided minimal financial or developmental support from major institutions –including foundations, government agencies, universities, publishers, and  most egregiously, regional theaters– unless the expressive product conformed with the familiar ethno-centered representations and aesthetic formulations consistent with the marketing expectations of the dominant culture.

 

Black Theatre institutions in America, lamentably, do not have the resources to develop new, ethnic-centered work.  As a result, paradoxically, they tend to program their seasons with the work that white institutions have sanctioned as accomplished black work, irrespective of the limited aesthetic and political—and rarely spiritual—insights which do serve to affirm or enlighten the black community.  Further, the penchant of writers of the current generation to distance their work from being critically labeled black is a reminder that black artists are still confused about the aesthetic moorings of their work beyond color.  Rather than pursuing or at least inspecting the layers of symbolic references retained in what Wole Soyinka refers to as the metalanguage of African Diasporic cultures—excepting Tarrell McCraney’s cogent appropriation of Yoruba archetypes to identify contemporary characters in his ritualized The Brother’s Size at the New York Public Theater, and the compelling re-figuration of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes with Greco-Yoruba insinuations in Will Power’s  Seven at the New York Theatre Workshop—most expressive output of new black work developed at white institutions is usually subordinated  by the popular receptivity of the content by the subscription base of the mainstream theaters, and systems of critical logic codified by the aesthetics of the dominant culture.

 

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Over the past 40 years we have accepted the convenient rubric of Black Theatre, Black Music, Black Poetry, Black Dance, Black Visual Art without a culturally specific critical language to make valid assessments about what makes the expressive product black. Generally, a work is considered black if it is framed in a black milieu, or figured as a familiar or popular black icon on a canvas, or  speaking-in-the-tongue of Blues in poetry and song.  Representation of blackness, and worse, the performance of blackness cloaked in the stock Negro Performance that reliably shows up on Broadway Driving Miss Daisy, is only a convenient, and certainly flawed index to validate an expressive experience as being black.  Clearly, the mere presence of black actors on a stage should not be the factor that constitutes Black Theatre, nor otherwise the dramaturgical contrivances that freeze the black experience in familiar replications of black life so often illustrated in melodramas.   The expressive trajectory should be toward crafting the appropriate culturally specific riffs and vamps required to distill from mundane experience the kind of emanation of a heightened revelation achieved in the vocal dexterity of James Brown or the poetic vision located in the spare, rigorous,  metalengue ritual-texts of Adrienne Kennedy.  Thus, the dramatization of black experience in all genres, without the benefit of an expressive mode that illuminates The Souls of Black Folk, is a defused spectacle of life frozen in the snapshot of causally related sociological description. Such expressive products do not release the transformative wisdom of black expressivity. They are, rather, much like journalistic slices-of-life, a chronicle of mundane experience arrested in an expositional tableau.  African Diasporic expressive production requires a ritual that is transformative, the inevitable outcome of a poetic vision, a style of work informed by the expressive strategies minted from African memory.

 

Yet, the critical establishment, using the yardstick of the Western Canon, has been the arbiter of which works are most representative of the all too familiar social pathologies, chronicles of slavery, and narratives of personal journeys to overcome adversity that are usually projected to reference black experience. Echoing the frustration of many black artists, the poet/playwright Ntozake Shange complains that her work is often given highly approved reviews for reasons inconsistent with her intentions. Similarly, Toni Morrison has noted in an interview (McKay, 151) that:

“I tend not to explain things very much, but I long for the critic who will know what I mean when I say “church” or “community” or when I say “ancestor,” or “chorus.”  Because my books come out of those things and represent how they function in [B]lack cosmology.” 

Part of the problem is the expressive product is held hostage, if not simply accountable, to the limited capacity for establishment critics to codify black experience within the narrow consciousness of popular perception.  Commonly, the gaze of the critical establishment has been focused on color as opposed to practice, ignoring the global commonality of expressive practices among Africans throughout the diaspora, i.e., North and South America, Caribbean, Great Britain, France, The French and Dutch Antilles, East, West and South Africa.  In the absence of a distinctive code, the cultural significance of line, circle, color, rhythm ‘n repetition, call ‘n response, spacial tension and the shape of forms in black expressive production is vulnerable to an interpretation based upon the facile, reductive, sociological datum consigned to the black experience.  Such interpretations would be indifferent to the poet Leopold Senghor’s cognizance of rhythm as “the architecture of being, the inner-dynamic that gives form, the pure expression of life force…In the degree to which rhythm is sensuously embodied, it illuminates the spirit.” 

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Typically, a New York Times critic misinterpreted the Bill T. Jones’ effort to ritualistically employ sacred gestures in his production of Fela to invoke the power of the ancestors to reveal the story. The highly sensualized gestures were simply dismissed as a bewildering “pious haze of hagiography”, an unnecessary homage to saints, as opposed to the ase’ of orishas.  Most of the critics were captivated by the theatrical provocations of the compelling, polymorphic improvisatory ritual mechanism of orchestrated word, dance, and music that galvanized rhythms, choric testifying, and call and response, but they did not have the critical language to talk about the work or enunciate why they found the work so compelling.  Similarly, another New York Times critic was perplexed by Kermit Frazier’s taut absurdist drama, Kernel of Sanity, recently produced by Woodie King at the New Federal Theatre.  Set in the 1970s, an ambitious, young, black actor, Roger, en route to Los Angeles in pursuit of work, makes an unexpected visit to the Mid-western childhood home of an indolent, yet privileged, white actor, Frank, with whom he had once shared a stage.  The critic was confounded by the visit of Roger who speaks of “trying to stretch your skin so tightly over someone else’s image that you feel you just might be able to absorb them.”  As the play meanders mysteriously to a conclusion without stumbling over familiar trappings of black social signifiers, the critic observes that the “tense ambiguity” of the play was “unsatisfying” because the Seventies setting failed “to yield some insights into character or race”, summarily noting that “the biggest payoff seems to be (Roger’s) bell-bottoms”.  It never occurred to the critic, or she refused to accept, that the ambiguity of Rogers’ language and physical gestures reflected the archetypal verbal and physical dexterity of Eshu, a formidable Yoruba trickster deity.  Or that the veiled comportment that allowed him entry into the home of his former scene partner was merely a mask to allow him to ventilate his rage through a ritual re-enactment designated to reclaim a sense of manhood that had been compromised and undermined at an earlier time by Frank’s abuse of white privilege and authority over the black body, much like the slave/master relationship.       

While black is a global signifier, African American merely identifies the location of the experience, as does African Caribbean, Afro-Antillean, or Afro-Pacific.  Despite cultural rupture and dislocation from the African continent, Africans scattered in the New World have been able to retain manifestations of many sacred and secular traditions that shape the quality and purpose of their cultural expressivity.  However transformed by the new cultural and physical landscape, close exploration of sacred and secular practices that influence ritual, ceremony, carnival, masquerade, testimonials, rites of passage, storytelling, song, dance, instrumental improvisation, just groovin’ or jumpin’ Double Dutch, will reveal expressive modes of performance deeply rooted in the ancestral ethos of Africans in the Diaspora, a transformative process designed to reveal spiritual aspects of mundane life.

Since the African creative process points to the significance of spiritual invocation as the procreative mediating force required to transform the corporeal experience, the task of creative expression is, then, to attend the familiar with a rigor which illuminates its spiritual properties.  Even Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun reveals ritual elements that could have liberated its purpose beyond social realism.  Closer inspection of her dramaturgy, intentional or otherwise, reveals a play constructed around the invisible, spiritual force of the father whose appearance in the play, like the shape-shifting Yoruba trickster deity Eschu at the crossroads of experience, is revealed in the form of Money, challenging the family, in response to his physical absence, to choose a path between one that would destroy the family and another that would bond the family around his spiritual essence.  The final action, then, should be critically comprehended as the spiritual bonding of a family on the verge of imploding, rather than simply achieving the material reward of moving to the suburbs.  

In his highly controversial 1996 TCG (Theatre Communications Group) conference speech, “On the Ground I Stand”, August Wilson made an appeal for the resurrection of the “spiritual temperament” of the ancestors whose songs, dances, and art were a manifest act of the “creator from whom life flowed”, thereby placing the craftsman at the “spiritual center of his existence.”  Since spirituality is central to the sacred and secular lives of African peoples worldwide,  creative invention is a response to the collective ethos required to generate spiritual continuity and empowerment, or what Robert Farris Thompson refers to as “the flash of the spirit”, that assuages the experience of oppression with a sense of cleansing, binding, and healing. 

Given the emergence of gifted black artists in the United States, it is time–and most necessary–to claim ownership of black expressive products by looking beyond the limits of the provincial locations of the experience.  Addison Gayle addressed the conventional critical discourse in his book, The Black Aesthetic, noting  that “a unique art derived from unique cultural experiences mandates unique critical tools for evaluation.”  Gayle further observes that if reconstruction of self through transformation of the moral universe is a goal, then a “critical methodology has no relevance to the black community unless it aids men in becoming better than they are….Such an element has been sorely lacking in the critical canons handed down from the academies by the Aristotelian Critics, the Practical Critics, the Formalistic Critics, and the New Critics. Each has this in common (including contemporary Post-Modern discourse): it aims to evaluate the work of art in terms of its beauty and not in terms of the transformation from ugliness to beauty that the work of art demands from its audience.”

In order to shift the gaze, irrespective of regional specificity, and establish a verifiable global legitimacy beyond color (which is often reductively confined to reactions to oppression, burlesques of local color, and worse, inflated portraits of dignity figured in the Nobel Savage) black expressive practices must be understood and critically appraised as being a unique cultural manifestation with its expressive tentacles rooted in Africa, albeit modified by the specific location of social experience, such as in the sacred practices of the Holiness Church in the United States, Pentecostal in Puerto Rico, Shango Baptists in Trinidad, Santeria in Cuba, Condoble’ in Brazil, and “riding the Devil” in the Diablo Tun Tun Congo ritual annually performed during Panama Carnival, all deeply rooted in African cosmology.   

Africans in the diaspora who pursue a process of work that re-visions their imagination through an African lens are often disparaged as atavists, romantics, and worse, essentialists…a contemptuous rebuke of the reclamation of Africa as the source of ethno-centric worldview…as if the Western Canon is a construction based on modernity as opposed to reaching back into its past for significant mythic and philosophical references to conceive notions as Aristotelian Logic, Socratic society, Platonic relationships, Sisyphean effort, the Achilles Heal, and the foundation of its ontological view, Christianity.  

Demonstration of the commonalities of expressive strategies throughout the African Diaspora requires a rigorous identification of the indices that shape forms of expression that can advance the development of a verifiable critical vocabulary to frame the uniqueness of black cultural expression. Thus, in order to make a valid assessment of what constitutes an expressive product  to be black when, in fact, it generally represents a very well-crafted piece of American work, albeit African American—I have pulled together a multi-disciplined working group of experts-in-the-field to meet at Emory University for the next two years to pursue the development of a new critical vocabulary through observing practices throughout the African Diaspora that might become the foundation for constructing an informed approach to critical analysis of black expression. The challenge is to pursue an entirely new scholarship which incorporates Visual and Performing Art, Literature, Linguistics, Music, Anthropology, Religion, and systems of Cosmology, i.e., Dogon, Yoruba, and Akan.  Such a pedagogical exegesis, I anticipate, should launch an inquiry into the significance of African ontology and social practices within the African Diaspora that might lead to the reconstruction and formulation of a critical model erected from the worldview of the “African Continuum.”

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On The State of Serious Black Theatre

On The State of Serious Black Theatre

(Further conversations with Paul Carter Harrison)

GE: On the drive here to Provincetown we talked a lot about black theatre and the state of contemporary black playwriting. You have been contemplating and addressing the subject for quite a while as I can see. So I’d like to ask you to share some of your observations and insights if you will.

 

PCH: Alright, sure.  The way I see it much of what is passing for black theatre right now is not being conceived by the imagination of the younger black playwrights. Much of the generation past August Wilson, myself; you and a whole host of others, are initialing their works from the standpoint of how it will be received by the national regional theatres. So that means that they’re writing for a different audience they’re writing for the subscription base of those regional theatres around the country. In other words the works are being developed in these theatres for a circumscribed audience. As a result the black imagination is being suppressed by this kind of selection process. So the spontaneous imagination we saw burgeoning in the 1960, 70s up through themed to late 80s is not happening. No it’s not happening at all.

Two years ago I sat in a room of about 30 black playwrights at The Arena Stage and told them: “Let us not talk to the Arena Stage. This conversation we will be having for the next day and a half is not for them. We will be talking to each other and how to make our work have a prominent place in the American Theatre.” Everyone agreed. Then five minutes after I said that they started talking to The Arena Stage. To the leadership of the Arena Stage. Everything they said was in some way to present themselves as being available to the Arena Stage. So I gave up right then and there. I said to myself: “Okay, I’m done with this conversation.” Because obviously these young people aren’t interested. Not that they’re bad writers. The question is more what they’re writing about and what purpose do they serve? They’re pandering. That’s basically what they’re doing, pandering. And that to me is the state of black theatre at the moment.

There are things that in my view don’t belong on the stage. They’re not stage works per se. They’re something else and should not be confused with the aspirations or ideas of black or theatre in general.

I see them as entertainments, popular entertainments. And there’s nothing wrong with that. They have their place. But that which gets done is a lesser experience theatrically even though it is sometimes a very entertaining one for a general audience… And unfortunately a lot of what I’ve been seeing that passes as serious black theatre often journalistic renderings of domestic situations or some kind of realistic interpretation of some maudlin situation. Also a lot of these plays are just personal revelations that don’t have much value beyond that. They sort of serve the purpose of therapy for some of these writers. So I don’t know that serious black is anywhere near where it had been in the1970s and 80s.

GE: What I find interesting to observe is that so many of the writers from that time are still around and writing but aren’t being heard from for one simple reason; they’re not being produced.

 

PCH: That is because they’re not topical. They’re not going journalism looking for stories. They’re not looking at a story in say The New York Times and using it as the basis of a play. All these writers you’re talking about have their own imagination. But the spontaneity of the black imagination is being thwarted and suppressed by the co- modification that the black writer must or should write about a baby in a crib being bitten by a rat. That’s a play with a production opportunity. It serves the general population’s expectation of the black experience… and it serves the purpose well for that particular audience. But it has nothing to do with the true imagination of the plays we saw in the 1970s and 80s. As you said Charles Fuller is still around but he can’t get any plays off the ground because he’s not writing about these topical things. Or yourself, or me. Look at things that I do.  I work on a larger scale and the black companies won’t do it. They won’t even look at it sometimes. One quick glance and it’s: “Oh my God it’s got more than 10 people in it”… and forget it.

GE: That brings me around to Doug’s Haitian Chronicles, which we’ve both read and which is in the same situation.

PCH: Well, with those plays, not only are there a great number of people in the plays but you have to have an understanding of the historical significance of that work and make it plausible to a larger audience. Of course Douglas understands that.  But most of the producers first can’t understand why we’re looking at Haiti at the turn of the 19th Century. They look at you and say: “Why are we looking at this when we can talk about a baby being bitten in a crib?” So you need to have the imagination as a black company to do it, let alone a white company. Saying that, a white company might come around to doing it one day. A major white company possibly because they see the scale, the classic scale on which it was written. It’s a chronicle. A trilogy. Three plays. It deals with the revolution in Haiti, the ideas and issues surrounding it…It or rather they contain huge ideas that sets up a sense of what black work could be in the 21st Century and they should be done.

  

In serious black theatre there should be a standard of exposing ideas. Exposing real, large, ambitious ideas on the stage. I say that thinking about War Horse, the scale of it. It’s very simply produced. But the scale of it, the dynamics of it with its puppetry and all. The theatrical dynamics of it. It happened because of The National Theatre in London where I saw the show… But the important thing is that they took it on and presented a re-examination of the First World War through these horses. A re-examination of the First World War through puppets. Wow!

GE: From what I can tell the vision isn’t there nor is the ambition there either.

PCH: Exactly.  It’s what I told the current Artistic Director of the new NEC. I said: “Listen you should not fail on a small scale. If you’re going to get bad reviews get them because your attempt and ambitions were so large that perhaps they were beyond the imagination of the critics viewing the work. Because on that level you can at least be satisfied that you got what you wanted out of it even though it didn’t meet with the approval of whomever the papers sent to assess it. What I’m saying is that it should be overwhelming or under whelming, if you like. But at this point in your history you shouldn’t be failing with some miserable two character play that’s badly acted and presented.

GE: That’s why I think doing something like Doug’s Haitian Trilogy was and still is a great idea.  It would give whatever theatre that did it the opportunity to move forward in terms of critical perception. Because like it or not, they would have to deal with the fact that it is not your garden variety black situation drama/melodrama or comedy. It is a work that demands so much of the artists involved, the critics, the audience and the producing entity that it insists on being viewed and dealt with on its own terms as well as its own large scale ambitions.

PCH: Absolutely. And it would signal the fact that serious black theatre is indeed being thought about, written and done.

GE: There was a phrase that Doug liked to use that I don’t hear much used anymore. That is “Artistic autonomy.” …”We have to seek and acquire artistic autonomy” he use to say. Over the years when I was teaching I would use the phrase to the African American theatre students I had. And almost uniformly they would look at me totally baffled by what I meant. This is after I had gone through as thorough an explanation as I was capable of.  It’s not that they didn’t understand what I was saying, it’s that they didn’t want to understand. So like you at the Arena Stage I gave up on the conversation. What they’re interested in is the job wherever it comes from no matter the price. But what they don’t seem to appreciate is that as long as we remain in that mindset we will always is beggars at the banquet table… Anyway Paul, once again it was great talking to you.

 

PCH: My pleasure as well.

GE   8- 16-11

Provincetown, MA.

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Doug Ward – Update

Doug Ward – Update

On my way to Provincetown, Massachusetts last August I spent three days in New York. The first day (8/11) I had lunch with Doug. The next day (Friday) Paul Carter Harrison joined us. Both times was fun especially the second when Paul was there and I am happy to say that Doug was in high spirits and mentally alert as ever. We talked, laughed, argued and ate. He challenged and stimulated us in a variety of ways…After we left him both Paul and I agreed that it had been a long time since we’ve had lunch that was as interesting or intellectually as invigorating. Proving once again that, conversationally speaking, Doug still remains a man for all seasons.

   

Note:  Doug will be in San Francisco on October 11th at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre for the opening of his play Day of Absence being presented and directed by former NEC member Steven A. Jones Artistic Director of The Lorraine Hansberry. This is as it should be since Doug was, many years before, a close friend of Ms. Hansberry and the inspiration for her becoming a playwright. For more information about this event  go to www.lhtsf.org or call 415-345-3980.

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