Answer & Explanation:in a simple statement, clarify what is the crisis of black theatre identity.See Attachment.

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African American Review
Indiana State University
Saint Louis University
The Crisis of Black Theatre Identity
Author(s): Paul Carter Harrison
Source: African American Review, Vol. 31, No. 4, Contemporary Theatre Issue (Winter,
1997), pp. 567-578
Published by: Indiana State University
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Accessed: 03-08-2016 23:45 UTC
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The Crisis of Black Theatre Identity
We done sold Africa for the price of tomatoes. We done sold ourselves to the
whiff man in order to be like him. Look at the way you dressed … that ain’t
African. That’s the white man. We trying to be just like him. We done sold who
we are in order to become someone else. We’s imitation white men. (Toledo, in
August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 417)
Paul Carter Harrison is
one of the co-editors of this
special issue of AAR. He is
Playwright-in-Residence and
Professor of Theatre at
Columbia College Chicago.
! ~ ~ ~
For the record, and in case the obvious has passed by unnoticed, as we enter the next millennium, Black Theatre is suffering an identity crisis, an inability to define its ideological purpose and performance practice. Unclarity has encouraged uncertainty, even an ambivalent indifference about whether or not the
experience should be designated African American (the conservative practice, in form and content, of petit bourgeois Negro imitations of Euro-American domestic dramas) or reflect the conscious-raising ritual enactments of radical Black Theatre (which
should not to be confused with the misapprehension of those
observers who claim to have sighted a New Black Theatre, the
enterprising, commercial exploitation of Gospel music staged as
popular entertainments that do not own the slightest pretense of
pursuing the enlightened aspirations of ritual enactment, an exercise uncharitably labeled “The Chittlin’ Circuit” [see Gates 44]).
Black Theatre might even be consigned to the hybrid status of the
new performance orthodoxy that agglutinates race, gender, and
gay/lesbian social and philosophical issues into a newly marginalized Other designated by the dominant culture as Multicultural
Theatre. The unique, particularized, cultural expression that
informs Black Theatre has been restrained by an historically passive response by blacks to the hierarchical authority of a dominant culture that subordinates the Afrocentric ethos into conformity with its popular standards of entertainment.
As Tejumola Olaniyan so aptly points out in Scars of
Conquest/Masks of Resistance, the impediment to an Afrocentric
theatre practice in Black Theatre cannot be fully discerned without an appreciation of the European hegemonic domination that
has bridled the authentic impulses of black aesthetics: The
“Eurocentric discourse on black drama is thinkable only within
the materiality of the rise of Europe, the conquest and enslavement of African peoples, colonialism, neocolonialism, and ongoing aggressive capitalist imperialism” (11). Historically, the consequent subordination of the African American cultural ethos
found support among influential authorities in defense of slavery,
as President Dew of William and Mary College demonstrated in
African American Review, Volume 31, Number 4
K 1997 Paul Carter Harrison
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… slavery had been the condition of
all ancient culture, . .. Christianity
approved servitude, and … the law of
Moses had both assumed and positively established slavery…. It is the
order of nature and of God that the
being of superior faculties and knowledge, and therefore of superior power,
should control and dispose of those
who are inferior. It is as much in the
order of nature that men should
enslave each other as that other animals should prey upon each other.
(qtd. in Dodd 53)
During his courageous challenge to
mainstream American Theatre hegemony at the 1996 Theatre Communications Group Conference at Princeton
University, August Wilson laid bare
the fact that Black Theatre “is a target
for cultural imperialists” who-ignore
the “abundant gifts” of black humanity, and he characterized the gross
exploitation of black social practices for
the purpose of white consumption as
being a reflection of the House Slave
being trotted out “to entertain the slave
owner and his guests.” In his disavowal of the values upon which the standards for American Arts and Letters
are erected, Wilson declared:
We cannot share a single value system
if that value system consists of the values of white Americans based on their
European ancestors. We reject that as
Cultural Imperialism. We need a value
system that includes our contributions
as Africans in America. Our agendas
are as valid as yours. We may disagree, we may forever be on opposite
sides of aesthetics, but we can only
share a value system that is inclusive
of all Americans and recognizes their
unique and valuable contributions.
(“Ground” 71)
While the spontaneous improvisations
of slave entertainments were inspired
by an African creative impulse that
revealed the possibilities of an authentic approach to ritual enactments, the
black presence in the formal exercises
of American Theatre emerged into the
twentieth century moored to the performance practices of nineteenth-century minstrelsy, shamelessly imitating
grotesque white impersonations of
black character and life that would
serve as an unrelieved model of selfparody for future participation.
Minstrelsy was a tradition that
brutalized the authentic creative
impulses of black song and dance for
the primary purpose of appealing to
the obligatory comfort of white
patrons. Buckin’ ‘n’ Wingin’ on stage
with their faces blackened with burnt
cork and their heads adorned with
fright-wigs, minstrels performed slapstick gestures that burlesqued the black
experience as being “lazy and shiftless,
afflicted with a peculiar appetite for
watermelon, which is devoured in an
equally peculiar manner, a cavernous
mouth coming in handy, which, on
other occasions, shapes itself into
unmatchably funny and slavishly
broad grins, or as a funnel for a glass
too many of cheap gin, or yet as witness to atrocious incapacities such as
twisted pronunciations, meaningless
long words, and incomprehensible jabberings” (Olaniyan 13). Much of this
self-negating practice, though subtly
crafted as ethnic satire, continues to
find validation in American pop-culture today. But then, as Toledo
reminds his fellow musicians in Ma
Rainey’s Black Bottom, it is, after all,
Show Business:
You lucky they let you be an entertainer. They ain’t got to accept your way of
entertaining. You lucky and don’t even
know it. You’s entertaining and the
rest of the people is hauling wood.
That’s the only kind of job for the colored man. (Wilson, Ma 416-17)
Such a notion would lead one to think
that the pursuit of opportunities for
self-mockery on the stage is more noble
than honest hard work.
As far back as 1820, black thespians such as the masterful James
Hewlett and the renowned Ira
Aldridge sought to shed the burnt-cork
mask and legitimize their presence on
the American stage by performing
Shakespearean works at the African
Grove Theatre in New York.
Paradoxically, loathing for such skilled
mimicry of the classics provoked such
vitriolic responses from white patrons
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that they had to be roped off in a specially segregated section away from the
stage in order allow the “Ladies and
Gentleman of Color” to witness the
performances without crude interruptions.
Performing to the comfort zone of
whites had also been the apparent
strategy of William Wells Brown’s
effort in the 1850s to galvanize a sense
of outraged conscience in white liberal
Northern abolitionists with personal
recitations of his 1858 published slave
narrative, The Escape; or, A Leap for
Freedom. Despite an urgency to reveal
the corruptions of Southern gentility
amidst the specter of the Dred Scott
decision that had reaffirmed the sanctity of slaves as property, Brown’s play
was fashioned in the popular melodramatic style of the period: a series of
short scenes depicting the pathos of a
lover’s tryst, a predictable fight, an
obligatory song, and, most importantly, dialect comedy. Cato, the darky,
would be the source of dialect comedy,
yet is provided an opportunity to
reclaim the dignity of human purpose
when he repudiates the myth of being
a contented slave by also leaping for
freedom (see Hatch 34-35).
In Sterling A. Brown’s study of
black stereotypes, including the
Contented Slave, the Wretched
Freeman, the Comic Negro, the Brute
Negro, the Tragic Mulatto, the Local
Color Negro, and the Exotic Primitive
(all of whom continue to have currency
in popular American culture), Brown
describes how hegemonic descriptions
can become internalized:
The stereotype of the “comic Negro” is
about as ancient as the “contented
slave.” Indeed, they might be considered complementary, since, if the
Negro could be shown as perpetually
mirthful, his state could not be so
wretched. This is, of course, the famil-
iar procedure when conquerors depict
a subject people. English authors at the
time of Ireland’s greatest persecution
built up the stereotype of the comic
Irishman, who fascinated English audi-
ences and, unfortunately, in a manner
known to literary historians, influ-
enced even Irish authors. (“Negro”
Brown’s observations on the Local
Color Negro are particularly interesting in light of the contemporary problematic of valorizing Afrocentric
authentication as an option to multiculturalism without corrupting its
validity with a reductive, romanticized
Local color stresses the quaint, the
odd, the picturesque, the different. It is
an attempt to convey the peculiar quality of a locality. Good realistic practice
would insist upon the localizing of
speech, garb, and customs; great art
upon revelation of the universal
beneath these local characteristics.
Local color is now in disrepute because
of its being contented with merely the
peculiarity of dialect and manners….
the local colorists of the Negro were
more concerned with fidelity to speech
and custom, with revelation of his difference in song and dance and story,
than with revelation of Negro character[;] they accepted at face valuation
the current molds into which Negro
character had been forced. (Brown,
“Negro” 196)
At the beginning of the century, in
pursuit of what Alain Locke, a leading
architect of the Harlem Renaissance,
had called an “authentic atmosphere,”
local colorists, both white and black,
created dramas that reduced the experience of black folk life to “the rural,
southern Black of the soil, who because
of his innocence and unpretentiousness
best represented Black attitudes and
responses toward life, religion, morality, and culture. To most Whites, it conjured up images of the exotic and erotic” (Williams 109).
During the 1920s, Dr. W. E. B.
Du Bois, the most prominent black
scholar of the period, attempted to rescue black images from stereotypical
manipulation and commercial institutional control with his now familiar
edict to the black performance community that urged the development of an
ethnocentrically based theatre:
The plays of a real Negro theatre must
be: 1. About us…. they must have lots
which reveal Negro life as it is. 2. By
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White Way found black performers
“shufflin’ along” in entertainments primarily designed for white consumption throughout the twenties and thirus.. . the theatre must cater primarily
to Negro audiences and be supported
ties. In 1937, Sterling Brown observed
and sustained by their entertainment
that Broadway, while liberally providand approval. 4. Near us. The theatre
ing opportunities to perform, was “still
must be in a Negro neighborhood near
entranced with the exotic primitive, the
the mass of ordinary Negro people.
comic stooge and the tragic mulatto.
The anecdote of the manParadoxically, such an
ager who, having read a
uncompromising ethnoserious social drama about
centric proposal was being
Negro life, insisted upon
issued by a man who,
were cut off
the insertion of ‘hot spots,’
though he adamantly celeof a song and dance, is still
from the dole,
brated black folk exprestoo pertinent” (Brown,
sion, measured black
Negro 139).
progress by white stanBlack performers then
regional theatres
dards of achievement.
they freRichly endowed with
were funded
Eurocentric intellection,
and perhaps more cultursubordinates social ideoloally privileged than most
with the
to performance opporof his peers, Du Bois was a
revealing an artistic
complex, mercurial thinker
that would
who also promoted the
of black
have them surrender their
patriarchal notion of a
gifts in the service of the
Talented Tenth among the
dominant culture’s
black population that
becoming the
demand for benign racial
would have the responsiadoptive parents
dramas such as Dubose
bility of raising the level of
Heyward’s exoticized,
social experience for the
of the black
stereotypic reduction of
underprivileged black
rural Negroes in Porgy
masses. In Du Bois’s social
and Bess, Mark Connelly’s
universe, Howard would
caricature contrivances that burlesqued
be Harvard; Fisk would be Yale; the
black religious beliefs in Green
Sorrow Songs would sonorously be elePastures, Eugene O’Neill’s portrayal of
vated to the stature of Handel’s
impotent, self-anointed power that
Messiah; and the poems of Dunbar
confirmed black inferiority in The
would own the refined cadences of
EmperorJones, and the perennial novnineteenth-century poesy. While
Du Bois had very little patience, or even
elty of refiguring black humanity in the
resurrection of European classics, such
tolerance, for black leadership that was
as The Swing Mikado.
untutored or unlettered, Du Bois’s proposal sincerely, and without contradicThe most uniquely expressive form
tory equivocation, promoted the incepof theatre to emerge in Harlem during
tion of a theatre experience that would
the thirties-perhaps in response to Dr.
be self-affirming, as opposed to selfDu Bois’s appeal-was the agit-prop
Living Newspaper, which spoke
Yet, however auspicious Du Bois’s
directly to a black audience about
appeal for artistic control and instituissues of lynching, Jim Crow, and segtional solidity may have been, the comregation with an improvisational spontaneity usually associated with the
pelling desire for commercial success
energized by the popularity of vaudeblack church and with jazz perforvillian song and dance on the Great
mances. As a theatrical invention, the
us…. they must be written by Negro
authors who understand from birth
and continual association just what it
means to be a Negro today. 3. For
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Living Newspaper was “an amalgam
of motion-picture, epic theatre, commedia dell’arte, and American minstrel
show techniques kept within the
framework of a question asked, usually
by a puzzled little man who represents
the public, and answers supplied by a
series of presentational devices consisting of scenes, demonstrations, slides,
lectures, and arguments. Symbolism
was not excluded from this technique
…. Pageantry was also not foreign to
the medium …. Naturalism could also
be assimilated into the medium, when
this was deemed theatrically feasible”
(Gassner 10-11).
During the 1950s, many black intel-
lectuals were awakened by Marxist
polemics that heightened the contradictions of presumed equity across the
color-line, inspiring protest dramas in
the style of social realism that held a
mirror up to the unabated inequities
suffered by blacks in America. The
social realist format offered a descriptive reflection of oppression that
served as passive propaganda void of
higher expectations toward action.
While writing in the interest of black
folk, authors such as Langston Hughes,
Alice Childress, and William Branch
found a highly receptive audience
among whites of liberal/left persuasion who were anxious to be sensitized
about the “Negro problem.” In 1959,
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the
Sun arrived on the American stage as
the quintessential achievement of the
social realist mode, yet it was infused
with both the poetics and ethnocentric
cultural resonances of a familiar black
family. Still, the social critic Harold
Cruse remained ever circumspect of
the play’s appeal to a white comfort
The phenomenal success of A Raisin in
the Sun has to be seen against the
background of the temper of the racial
situation in America and its cultural
implications for American artforms.
Broadway and the rest of the American
theatre ha[ve] not been at all kind to
the Negro playwright or performer.
Miss Hansberry’s play provided the
perfect opportunity to make it all up,
or at least assuage the commercial theatre’s liberal guilt …. What obviously
elated the drama critics was the very
relieving discovery that what the publicity buildup actually heralded was
not the arrival of belligerent forces
from across the color line to settle
some long-standing racial accounts on
stage, but a good old-fashioned, homespun saga of some good working-class
folk in pursuit of the American Dream
… in their fashion. (277-78)
The tendency for black playwrights to frame the black experience
in restrictive conventions that mirror
nature was not lost on Alain Locke,
who had earlier argued for a black dramaturgy that would abandon the hegemonic tradition of the well-made play
so as to allow black folk life to rise
above predictable cliches of folksiness
and inhibit the full breath of characterization and style. He prescribed a practice for black performance that it “not
only be liberated from the handicaps of
external disparagement, but from its
self-imposed limitations. It must more
and more have the courage to be original, to break with established dramatic
conventions of all sorts. It must have
the courage to develop its own idiom,
to pour itself into new molds, in short,
be experimental” (qtd. in Olaniyan 22).
Though grounded in the aesthetic
structure of social realism, Hansberry’s
play achieved an intimacy with folk
life that revealed a diversity of social
and political objectives and, arguably,
forged a bridge between the self-negating racialized experiences normally
associated with social realist protest
and the self-af …
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