Manual The Theatre of Black Americans: A Collection of Critical Essays

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Continuum: the Journal of Black Drama, Theatre and Performance

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Captured and enslaved humans from the shores of the great Niger River basin — flowing through the countries of Guinea, Mali, Niger, Benin, Nigeria — and transplanted to all areas of the southern colonies of the New World Americas brought with them cultural traditions, creative intuitions and sensibilities that would mingle and merge to form new and unique cultural expressions. These African traditions and intuitive techniques of expression formed melodies and rhythmic cadences of the field hollers, work songs, harmonic rules and rhythmic patterns that were transformed into a sort of sacred or melodic cry that became Africanized versions of hymn songs of the Church of England.

They were labeled simply, Negro spirituals. This mystical association with African indigo and the indigo plants grown on many southern U. As vast numbers of African Americans left the South between and the s, the blues went with them and took root in the urban centers of the North Detroit, St.

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Louis, Kansas City , and particularly in Chicago. With the folk revival of the s and '60s, white audiences "rediscovered" and breathed new commercial life into the folk blues and made it the cornerstone of the tremendously popular British and American blues rock music of the next decade. The s was not only the era that began recording careers for blues singers and musicians.

It was also the era of widespread recognition for Negro creative artists of all types; painters, sculptors, concert performers, and writers of literary works and dramatic theory. The essays and manifestoes published during this time on Negro dramatic theory were the beginnings of a written tradition of African-American creative aesthetics. These philosophical writings had a particular focus in the realization of a need for African-American artists to define and assert themselves by their own standards and in their own words.

Du Bois, the first trained Negro sociologist and cultural theorist, was quite taken with dramatic form as a means of social and political argument. He understood the enormous sociological potential of all Negro art forms, and he saw special potential in theatre as a means for the uplifting of his entire race. It might arguably be called "Du Bois's Poetics," or, a theory defining a prescriptive plan for the making and construction of works of art.

Theatre Essays

Yet, it was profoundly pragmatic as both a foundation for the development of such an artistic view, and a sustaining guide for future growth and development. My own research in the area of African-American dramatic theory, which maps a chronological history of theoretical writings concerning African-American theatre throughout the twentieth century, makes it possible to clearly see an evolved history of social ideas and philosophical connections to spiritual awareness, sensibility and purpose inherent with the institution of black theatre in the United States.

Further analysis of the institution of African-American theatre reveals five basic aspects or fundaments of dramatic philosophy that include protest , revolt , assertion , music and spirituality. These five aspects highlight essential fundamentals or aesthetic principles. A list of seven periods, or developmental eras, is also definable.

As part of the Black Revolutionary era ca. While much of what had earlier been referred to as folk art and folk drama since the s might now have a more definitive foundational ground on which to stand. The task was to find an acceptable and accessible transfer of the philosophy for dramatic purpose. He explained the problem of his era as follows: The point, of course, is that the major playwrights, producers and directors in this black theatre were white. Theatre was under the financial control of white producers and the artistic control of white directors, consequently —. These conditions spawned a distinctive kind of black theatre criticism.

There are marked differences in the contemporary black theatre.

This theatre needed to find a way to function within a freer artistic environment. Therefore, it would need a more personal and familiar philosophical and artistic ground on which to build. By literary critic and theorist, Houston Baker, Jr. A Vernacular Theory , he offered a basis for the broader study of black authors. Baker went on to analyze theories from the Harlem Renaissance to the black aesthetics of the Revolutionary period in another full length study titled, Afro-American Poetics: Revisions of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic.

In the following passage he highlights a possible connection to blues aesthetics in the following way: Blues — always the blues and its singers — stand as modal norms for the public person of Afro-American culture — whether that figure is a preacher, politician, or poet. They are God-given, God-bearing resonances that survived the Middle Passage and provided coherence for black experience in the New World. Here, Baker points out a specific, yet basic notion of the authenticity of blues as an inherent and deeply embodied part of African and African-America heritage.

In this same study, Baker analyzes the essays of Revolutionary poet, theorist and dramatist, Larry Neal. Neal wrote about his perspective of literary uses for a blues aesthetic in the following way: The blues god is an attempt to isolate the blues elements as an ancestral force, as the major ancestral force of the Afro-American.

What I always say about the blues god is that it was the god that survived the middle passage.


Because even though the blues may be about so-called hard times, people generally feel better after hearing them or seeing them. They tend to be ritually liberating in that sense. It seemed a way had been found to justify and marry the passionate and emotionally expressive and experiential storytelling nature of blues music with poetic and dramatic sensibilities. Playwright, August Wilson, made headlines by proclaiming his kinship with revolutionary theories of Baraka, Ed Bullins and blues, among other inspirations. Wilson was a well known proponent of blues aesthetics and made beautiful uses of it in his works.

The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. This be an empty world without the blues. I take that emptiness and try to fill it up with something. The statement here by the writer and the character expresses a freedom that is fully honest and true to the totality of the spirit of an entire race or people. It also speaks to a philosophy of art and of life. The eta Season of Plays: The association of the historic Chicago urban blues style as location for this revival and restoration of these plays, provided an open sea of possibilities for examination and evaluation of these works, in relation to the their re production and re evaluation in conjunction with several ports of entry; metaphors intentional.

The Amen Corner was famous ex-patriot writer James Baldwin's first attempt at dramatic writing for the theater. The basic plot of the play shares at least a similar story with his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. The play was first published in It has been produced by several universities, community and regional theatre companies, but never revived in a serious Broadway production. In a musical adaptation of the play was produced on Broadway under the title, Amen Corner.

Margaret Alexander, her sister Odessa, her son David, her estranged husband Luke, and members of a community gospel church. Gospel music is a true-blue part of this dramatic play.

African-American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays

The examination and evolution of conflicted spirits that inhabit the world of this play are testament to the hypocritical nature of certain religious convictions. Written in , it was first produced at the St. It was later extended for a successful long-run commercial production and adapted for television in The play concerns the ritualistic ceremonies of survival, of friendship, of deception and manipulation, of self-deception, of black male friendship, of shifting intra-familial allegiances, of black manhood, the marginalization of and dependence on black females, and a constant game of checkers, stories and lies.

Set in a floundering Harlem barbershop, the plot revolves around Russell B. Parker, his two hoodlum sons, his working class daughter, his checker playing buddy Mr. William Jenkins, and includes a business venture with a local gangster type Blue Haven. She was a novelist, activist, Tony award nominated actress for Anna Lucasta and prolific playwright.

Two of her full length plays, Trouble in Mind and Wedding Band , are well known production pieces. Nonetheless, eta chose to present two powerful one act plays by this remarkable black female writer. Florence is about rejecting stereotyped roles, like that of maid, in favor of more forbidden and challenging roles, like that of dramatic actress.

Wine in the Wilderness is a play that united inner-city and middle-class blacks brought together by a ghetto heroine, an uncultured black woman, who represented the answer to the cultural revolution. In both cases, the black women who are the central characters in these plays represent the ordinary, often uneducated woman whose knowledge of life gives her a better command of reality and a stronger sense of humanity than those with more training and money; much like Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith.

West, that does a good job of illustrating how an ingrained pattern of behavior in a family can become as insidious as a blood-borne illness. Four generations of women turn a birthday celebration for the 90 year old MaDear into a true woeful-blues party. This urban blues story leaves some laughing and some crying and everyone thinking about the worth of the past in a present context.

Hoodoo Love , written by celebrated young playwright Katori Hall , is a love story steeped in the blues, set in the South during the Great Depression. It's also a tale of ambition, the heavy weight of the past and how important a little mojo can be.