Tag Archives: Larry Neal

On Critics and Criticism

On Critics and Criticism

 

GE: We’ve talked about this before but I’d like to get it down on tape if you don’t mind.

DTW: What?

GE: Critics, reviewers, whatever.

DTW: Well you know, my feeling about critics, whether they are necessary or not, like those award meritocracy things they do, is that they are a functioning regular part of this profession. It’s inescapable. You present a play professionally and reviewers will write critiques and publish them. Ideally you hope that they might be serviceable in a positive way to stimulate or reveal to you and the audience a more insightful view of what you’ve done or haven’t done. I mean you hope that what you might learn from it is significant and important enough that it helps to give you a vision outside of the participants and yourself because it could inform and even help you to do better work. But hell Gus, in my experience, I find that in the main, critics and reviewers don’t usually do that. They don’t do it for the mainstream work coming out of the majority culture and are at an even greater disadvantage when looking at or attempting to assess Black theatre. The majority of critics looking at black plays come to it from a reductionist perspective. In other words they try to reduce the dimension and the achievement in many of the black plays they see by trying to fit them some old fashioned Ibsenite , Eurocentric unit of size, and importance and everything else.

GE: Why do you think that is?

DTW: Because when it comes to black theatre and what we at the NEC were doing they were usually two, sometimes three steps removed from the immediacy of what they were familiar with or comprehended. And it wasn’t just because 99% of them were white that this excluded them. No, that wasn’t it, because insight into what is going on stage could be brought by anyone by anyone of any   color if that person is knowledgeable and insightful about the culture and the lives and practices of the lives being presented on stage. It’s just that I is very rare for most of these critics to show that they had much insight into works coming from their own background and culture. And since they hardly know that how the hell are they going to know anything about ours? So early on I stopped expecting anything much coming from them.

Now saying that, as we went along and they became more familiar about where the plays were coming from several of those critics began to develop the ability to respond to certain types of works with some degree of accuracy and insight. But on the whole this was not generally true…Understand now that I’m not talking about what they were critical of or what they gave negative reviews to. I talking about the works they applauded and praised. The stuff they were fucking enthusiastic about. To me, frequently the angle they were coming from in dealing with those particular works were off the point and lacked insight. It was almost arbitrary. They seemed only able to deal with things they could label with terms like “the black protest play” or “the family drama”. The problem is that of course would not acknowledge their ignorance and therefore would not seek to figure out the means that would make them better equipped to appreciate and appraise some of the works that we were doing.

I guess what I’m essentially saying is that as artistic director or actor or director or writer I had very few times when I found the judgment or reportage of what had been done to be very enlightening beyond what I already knew about that particular play. And more often than not, I felt that I had a better, truer and wider grasp of the work than they did even though I was looking at it from within. Gus, I’m saying that very few times did they ever surprise me with sufficient insight so as to make me say; “Oh that’s right. I know so and so’s right about this.” And I can make it better or improve on it because they pointed it out to me. There were a few times when the critics were helpful on that level, but not very often.

GE: I’m not clear, on what level?

DTW: On the level of being the middle person to their own public. From a pragmatic perspective they could be helpful because after all they are the opinion makers. Therefore from a commercial standpoint they can make a difference with their consumers, the white audience. With the black audience only residually so. That is because what they say can sometimes create an atmosphere that will eventually affect some element of the black public. But with an institution like the NEC it wasn’t that significant.

GE: Why?

DTW: Because the NEC had from the start succeeded in appealing directly to the black public through a shared interest and through word of mouth. Therefore we were never much affected by whether the NY Times, Post or Daily News like our shows or not.

GE: I know that’s true because my play Weep Not for Me which didn’t get any kind of encouraging review in the daily papers was still popular with the NEC audience. So much so that you extended the run.

DTW: Yes. The people loved that show with all that incest and shit going on. And they didn’t bring all that positive and negative shit to it either. They just knew that they were looking at some crazy motherfucker making the best of a crazy situation and they were enjoying it. Shit, we had some playwrights I had to ban from the theatre because them motherfuckers were coming every night and sitting up in the balcony just to watch the shit and laugh. You know who I’m talking about.

GE: Yes, I do.

DTW: They were having a good time so shit they were coming every night. And that’s how it was with the audience.

GE: I remember when you extended it and I asked you why, because I guess based on the reviews I didn’t think it was any world shaker. You said to me;”Gus the people want to see the play. I wouldnt’ve extended it if that wasn’t the case.”

DTW: That’s true. And that wasn’t the only time that happened over and over with different plays.

GE: I know.

DTW: But going back to my original point, it isn’t that black people don’t read or depend on the newspapers for information. Things like discovering a play was there, that it opened and that a picture from the production gave a sense to its existence. Let’s face it, the black public reads the Daily News and other tabloids in great numbers. So for information and publicity, these papers served us. But ultimately the black public came because they liked what we represented. They liked what they were seeing and the fact that they could count on us to continue to do it on a regular basis. That’s why they came, not because of any sampling from rave reviews. Conversely, the white public generally came because of their opinion –maker’s advice. So with a rave in the Times the percentage of our white audience would go up for those plays. But that wasn’t true with our black public. They came because they were curious and faithful.

GE: So what would you say is the ideal function of the critic?

DTW: The ideal function of criticism, I think, would have been to give us outside views to rely on more than our inside, subjective knowledge to depend on. That’s why I had an idea that black critics might be able to do that and that’s why I’m sorry we were never able to develop a regular cadre of black critics we could rely on.

GE: Why do you think that is?

DTW: Several reasons. One seems to be that as soon as we had say a hundred black writers striving to write most of that energy was going into the tributary or river of creativity. Or put another way, works of imaginative creativity. So many of the people who I thought might evolve into major critics went that way.

GE: Like whom for instance?

DTW: Well Larry Neal for one. He had done enough work in that area that he had a volume of his comments published. I always wanted to encourage Larry to at least concentrate on his critical writing. And by doing that he didn’t have to give up on his creative writing aspirations. But I always wanted him to at least continue regularly to develop his critical output because the quality of his mind, his insights and so forth, his lack of narrow subjectivity equipped him in becoming a major commentator and critic for what we were doing creatively. But Larry wanted to concentrate on his own creative writing. He wasn’t interested in putting that amount of time that I would have liked into his critical writing. But he’s just one example. There’s a lot of creative writers out there that if we had cultivated or had the time or leisure to put into it would’ve been fine. And then we would have had a number of good critical writers. The problem is what we did finally wind up with; many of those who got the shot had too many subjective axes to grind. The one who was at the Times for a while –

GE: Who was that?

DTW: I don’t want to get into names. But what I’m saying is that he had so many likes and dislikes that were so obviously subjective determined that suddenly I didn’t think that his reviews were insightful or reflective enough of an objective outlook. I’ll give you an example what I’m talking about. He, this same critic, made some snide remarks about two of the actresses in Ceremonies, the original production that I almost wanted to protest very sharply because he wrote a whole paragraph about what being a woman was not. Saying that Ros (Rosalind Cash) was not being a woman which had nothing to do with the review.  He also never revealed the fact that just before the last workshop of the play was done he had been an actor in it. This was one I was not involved with. This was done at some college in Staten Island I think. Now I’m not saying that this disqualifies you from reviewing the play. But as a reviewer myself I would have probably in the first or second paragraph reveal my own personal involvement in it for the reader to at least see where I’m coming from. Then you can accept or not accept what I say, but at least you know that I was being totally open with you. I would say “I’m going to talk about a Gus Edwards play. But first I want to say that Gus Edwards is a friend of mine.” And then go on from there but he didn’t do that. So it undercut his objectivity and whatever he had tom say so far as I was concerned.

GE: But you did try to develop some black critics didn’t you?

DTW: Yes, we tried with that thing we did when we presented Niger.

GE: I think you told me once that an intelligent balance for black theatre was: A) the production of the play B) a majority black audience to witness and experience the play, and C) black critics to analyze the work. Is that correct?

DTW: Yes. And to that end we sought out a majority black audience for all our plays. The reason Gus, is that it keeps us culturally honest. Because if we’re misrepresenting or stereotyping aspects of black life they’re going to catch us and point it out. And maybe curse you out too. The black audience ain’t shy about telling you full of shit. They’re not like the white audiences who have been educated out of responding in a primary way. Our folks speak up and that’s what’s wonderful about them.

GE: Now as I recall, in your search of a representative audience at each performance you guys went so far as to withhold tickets from sale to the general public at the box office in order that they would go specifically to African Americans who might come later. Right?

DTW: Yes, that’s true. You see when we had a show that got great reviews in the Times or wherever, white people who read those reviews would line up at our box office. If we sold all our tickets to them we would have a house that was maybe 90% white folks and 10% black. This was because most of our folks don’t read reviews and come out of spontaneous response or word-of- mouth. As a result they often came at the last minute in search of tickets. So to insure that the balance would be somewhere in the area of fifty/fifty I asked the box office people to hold back fifty or sixty for them. Sometimes it was really awkward to do because you would have this line of people waiting to buy tickets and we would put up that sign that all tickets were sold out. Then we would have to find a quiet way of telling that black people that we had seats for them. I did it because I felt that it was important to have them in the audience for all the reasons that I just explained.

GE: I know that part about word-of- mouth is true because I was in Boston doing a show when A Soldier’s Play opened here. I was staying at this hotel were a lot of other black folks, mostly theatre people, were staying and the next morning over breakfast all I heard was about this terrific new show that the NEC had just opened with all these handsome men walking around on stage  without their shirts, that they all wanted to see. This was coming from the women but a definite buzz was in the air. And I don’t remember anybody ever mentioning that it had also gotten good reviews. Just that it was a great show and there were a lot of handsome men on stage…Anyway, I want to go back to the part about getting black critics to review the shows and what you tried with The River Niger.Can you elaborate on that for me?

DTW: What I was trying to do was establish a precedent. I wanted to say that black theatre now exists. And because it does we need to have a regular representation of black critics in attendance. And since we didn’t have a black daily paper we needed to come up with a way of making sure that our black critics’ opinions were occurring. So when The River Niger opened I invited Jean Carey Bond, a contributing editor to Freedom Ways magazine, Joseph Opaku, editor and publisher of the Third World Press,  Lindsay Patterson, editor of the book Black Theatre: A 20th Century Collection of its best Plays and Maurice Peterson, an editor and critic for Essence magazine. They were invited under the proviso that what they wrote we would print, no matter what they wrote, no matter how they felt about the play. Their opinions were their own; we would not interfere with that. The only limitation they were given had to do with word count. This was because we had bought a certain amount of space in the New York Times to print their reviews and as I remember it wasn’t cheap. But even then a couple of them didn’t stick to the agreement anyhow. So if you go back and look at the way they are printed you’ll see that we had to use three different of type of print -face in order to make them fit. But still the black critics were represented. The irony of course is that some of the opinions expressed by the four of them were somewhat less enthusiastic on the surface than let’s say Mel Gussow’s review in the New York Times. So it was obvious that those reviews were in no way compromised by the fact that we were paying for them.

GE: Why the New York Times?

DTW: Because in terms of theatre criticism they are the most influential. They have the largest circulation and readership. I wanted the black critics to reach the same audience. They are the paper of record. I wanted to give these black critics the same exposure as the white critics.

Commentary.  The top of the space in the New York Times read: The Negro Ensemble, interested in stimulating and giving broader exposure to black theatre criticism presents the opinion the opinion of four Black reviewers invited to appraise its Tuesday December 5th opening night performance of Joseph Walker’s play The River Niger… The NEC solicited these views and assured their publication sight unseen, totally unedited whether favorable or unfavorable. The only condition being the limitation of space.

DTW: We did it again with Charles’s play In the Deepest Part of Sleep. This was in ’74. That time the critics invited were Vernetta Jarvis, a staff critic for Black American magazine and Lindsey Patterson. After that we couldn’t continue. We didn’t have the money to continue. What I was hoping to do was create an atmosphere where a regularity of black critical opinion would be given a hearing in a regular way not just in a weekly or monthly paper or magazine but in a daily newspaper. But we ran out of money and I couldn’t get any grant money to continue it. We wrote proposals but we were turned down. But if I had gotten the money I would‘ve done it for every play. I mean fuck Gus, I even a particular black writer who doesn’t function as a critic but he sometimes comments on cultural matters. And I said; look I would like you to come see this show because I’m doing something with music that I don’t think the other critics, good or bad, are going to grasp but you might have some sensitivity about where the spectrum of how the music fits due to your familiarity of the culture and your writing about it. That doesn’t mean that he would necessarily agree with me or I with him but at least he would know where I was coming from with that stuff.

GE: What about other black theatres, could you have partnered with them?

DTW: Gus, we made inquiries but the other theatres were either ill-equipped, not interested or weren’t advanced enough to know or understand why this was important. You see, what I wanted was a situation established so that when somebody let’s say 20 or 25 years from now in search of history or research they would find black critical opinion as well as white being brought to bear on our work. But as I said we ran out of money so it just didn’t happen. But the primary effort was to break the tyranny or monopoly of the critical point of view coming only from totally white critics and set a precedent. But I’ll tell you if we had succeeded and had been able to keep on doing it I’m sure that the newspapers would’ve rejected it after a while because they would have seen it as being competitive with their own opinion in that sense.

GE: In other words, as Langston Hughes put it that was: “Another dream deferred.”

DTW: Yes, I guess you could say that.

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Charles Fuller: In His Own Words

Charles Fuller: In His Own Words

Note: During the historical years of the NEC when Doug Ward was its Artistic Director he nurtured and produced the works of many writers. One of the most successful is Charles Fuller who won the Obie (Off- Broadway) Award in 1981 for Distinguished Playwriting for Zooman and the Sign and the Pulitzer Prize one year later for A Soldier’s Play. Both works were produced by the NEC and both were directed by Douglas Turner Ward.

 

In the Deepest Part of Sleep

 

When I left Philadelphia to come here (New York City), it was The NEC that I looked forward to working with. Any struggles I had in improving my work was really to work with the The NEC where I would not be embarrassed if Douglas Turner Ward saw this play. It would be written well enough that he would like it. They were a theatre really devoted to playwrights. Doug had a reputation for nurturing playwrights and working with them. And I was very concerned about getting my work to people who at least had some commitment to playwrights. The first play we did together was In the Deepest Part of Sleep(the 1973/74 Season). This particular play worked on two levels with four people. And so I was concerned with not only how this play moved but that you always had a certain kind of visual image going on in this single house.  A situation where you could watch all four people in four separate rooms. Doug helped me by giving me an idea of what I was trying to do, clearing it up for me so that the visual thing I was very much concerned with always happened, as well as the dialogue and the story line that had to go along with all that stuff. So he was really instrumental in giving me a vision of what you could do on stage. The size of it and what it meant. I hadn’t had that before.

Zooman and the Sign

 

In Philadelphia where I’m from there was a time when 40 or 50 kids a year would be gunned down by other teenagers. So Zooman was really and attempt at looking at the kinds of kids that were involved in those kinds of shootings. I used to work as a Housing Inspector for the city and I was involved in a shooting in the sense that I knew one of the kids who had shot another teenager. And I found that in talking to me right after he was absolutely without guilt or without any sense of conscience about it at all. It was simply a matter of turf and the other kid shouldn’t have been there. It was extraordinary. At that moment I began to feel that there was growing a group of young people in the black community who were diametrically opposed to the attitudes and values of what my generation had grown up with.  And that these young people were growing up without any other connection except the street. So I wanted to contrast this kind of character with the family of Reuben and Rachael (two characters in the play) and their closeness and the love that they had. I also wanted this to be the last of my kitchen plays.  I wanted to do something that would take my work out of the living room and out of the kitchen and begin to set it in other areas and other kinds of places because I began to think that the house as a place for a play was beginning to strangle black writers. So Zooman and the Sign was my first attempt to get the play out of the kitchen.

 

I also wanted to talk about the disillusionment of young black people in our society. There is an entire class of young black men in this country who have no connection to religion, culture or the social activities of their own people. They function in a world that is for the most part a jungle. They set the rules and abide by those rules. They have no loyalties to anything but that.

 

What is interesting about Zooman is that it unfortunately is just as viable today as it was when it was originally produced. And indeed there are more Zoomen on the streets right now than at the time the play was written. There are more young people alienated from what we perceive to be traditional black life. So Zooman was my way of providing a warning. My way of saying “This young man is on his way. This man is here, are we going to deal with him? He belongs to us, so we simply can’t ignore him. This group of young people is related to us. They’re our cousins, our nephews, someone’s son, someone’s grandson; they are someone’s brother and so on.  So they are connected to us.”… Now fifty percent of the people in prison are black people and about ninety nine percent of the crimes they commit are against other black people. It’s insane not to be concerned about that. So as I said Zooman was more in the order of a warning that if we don’t do something shortly this young man and his kind are going to overwhelm us and we must do something to make sure that they continue to be a part of our family. Otherwise we will have no control over what they do and how it impacts on us.

 

The play was done at the NEC; it won an award and so forth. But more important than that is the fact that through reviews, word of mouth or whatever a lot of people heard about it. So that the play wound up being done all over the place, even in the Detroit School System. And it is still the most popular play I have written thus far.

A Soldier’s Play   

 

I guess I should start by saying that I’ve always had this enormous fascination with the black soldier because throughout history he has been the only character who has functioned on equal footing with white people. During the settling of the Old West black soldiers were the police of the area. They fought in the Civil War and when it came time to do equal things only the black soldier had the opportunity to do so. Then when he came back to civilian life he was once again relegated to a subservient role. But after World War Two black soldiers came back and were the first group of blacks who went to college on the GI Bill. So they became the middle class of the 1950s and 60s. What I did with A Soldier’s Play was research the whole period. I wanted to research what blacks had done in the Second World War. Around that same time my best friend the poet and playwright Larry Neal died and as a memorial to Larry I wrote A Soldier’s Play. The play is in a way not just a memorial to my friend but also  in a way an attempt on my part to demonstrate that the black soldiers and the black officers were on the leading edge of what was going to change America in the 1950s and 60s. Davenport tells the white captain at the end of the play that you might as well get used to taking orders from black people because things in this country are starting to change. And he is in a position to begin to do that. So A Soldier’s Play was the result of a lot of research.

 

The Pulitzer Prize

 

It was done by the NEC with Doug directing a dream cast that has gone on to make names for themselves on stage, on TV and in the movies. During the run one day Leon Denmark (managing director for the NEC) called and said: “Charles, I think you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize.  I told him to hold off for a minute “Cause if you’re wrong I’d be awfully embarrassed to tell people I won when it just wasn’t so.” But then they announced it and Doug and I shared an interesting moment, because I called him and told him. We were very proud to have done it, to have worked as hard as we did and have the results be something so wonderful and acknowledged in this way. For me that was probably the most extraordinary moment of my relationship with Doug and the company. Now let me add quickly that I have always considered it our prize. That is the NEC and Doug and me and all the actors and everyone else who worked so hard on the production to make it what it was. I wrote the play but they were the ones who took care of the rest of it for me.

 

 

The WE Plays

 

After A Soldier’s Play it was important for me to try something totally new in terms of my own work and try something very different in terms of its complexities.  So that’s when I thought I’d tell a story over an extended period of time. Forty years to be exact. And in the process of telling this story introduce characters that you would meet again and again because you would meet them in different plays. Each play, each story would be connected but nevertheless each would stand on its own and yet when you look at the entire work it would just be one story. Sort of like a mosaic. It was very complicated and I didn’t know if it would work but the challenge was in doing it… The movies Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and others have suggested that black people during that period were fools. They could not read, could not write, and could not talk. That they could do nothing but hope and rely on the goodwill of the white people they served. But the truth is quite different and part of the challenge for me was to contrast the nature of the story I’m telling against Birth of a Nation or against any of those stories which have become a part of the American myth and American attitudes in this society. So these facts about ourselves, these truths about black people that were for the most part obscured by Southern and Northern histories are now being overturned.  The book Reconstruction by Eric Foner and a variety of other pieces about the life of the slaves are overturning the idea that the slaves were stupid and incompetent.  So what I’m doing with the WE Plays is simply taking that history and examining it in realistic terms. It must be understood that we developed a class of people during that time who ran for public office. That they had to have strategists and campaign bosses in order to do so. If slavery prevented us from learning things, how was it possible that directly thereafter we created a class of people who had enough intelligence to start voting and start building political machines? So that was the idea, the challenge and the execution that became four plays collectively called The WE Plays. Individually they were Sally, Prince, Jonquil and Burner’s Frolic. The NEC did them during the 1988/89 and 1989/90 season with Doug once again directing.

 

About the NEC and Douglas Turner Ward

 

Theatre in America is fundamentally a segregated institution. If black people were to rely on American mainstream theatre, we would for the most part never see ourselves in those productions. We would not have any sense of ourselves as people in this country operating and functioning as human beings in the United States because most theatres in this country will not produce black playwrights except for the one or two they deem acceptable to their subscribers. Doug and the NEC for the longest while provided this country with the only consistent view of black people in the theatre.

 

Douglas Turner Ward is a writer so his commitment was to writers. The NEC besides being many other things was primarily a playwright’s theatre. I mean you can’t ask for more than that. Other theatres commit to different things, subscribers, raising money, their board of directors and all sorts of things. But the NEC under Doug every year opened their season with new plays. Every single year for nearly thirty years. No one else has ever done that. No other theatre I know has had that much commitment to playwrights. That’s an extraordinary thing and Doug ought to be really thanked for that. And certainly as a playwright I thank him all the time.

 

(Interview taped in 1988 and updated in 2011)

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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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