This article is dedicated to my students. It is a kind of open dialogue between myself and the students who study with me. The main objective of my Introduction to Black Theater course is to examine certain aspects of American history through the lens of “Black Theater,” which, for the purpose of the course, we define in the syllabus as “plays by and about people of African descent in America.” However, I inherited the title of the course from a previous professor, and part of my goal in adopting and adapting the syllabus is to demystify the broadness of the title of the course by exposing students to a variety of plays and intergenerational playwrights, and encouraging them, the students, to define Black Theater for themselves based on the readings and our in-class discussions. We read and discuss as many plays as possible in about 15 weeks. From Angelina Weld-Grimké to Mfoniso Udofia, etc. Furthermore, the motif of the course is to juxtapose the playwrights’ work (and their biography) to the historical era it explores, or, if it is a contemporary play, we look at the current events that the drama is set in or inspired by. One of the open-ended questions on the final exam last semester was: Complete the following statement. Black Theater is___. Cite evidence from course material, which includes plays, articles, biographies, essays, etc., to support your statement.
I was gripped by the responses I received this year, and decided to publish a few in an effort to continue the conversation I started in my previous article The New Black Arts Movement of the 20s and The Joy Generation, partly because some of the questions in that article were inspired by the students in the course whom I refer to as the Joy Generation. Many of them expressed their concerns about the lack of joy in Black drama like the protest plays written and produced during the Black Arts Movement. Some students felt that the writers may have been pigeonholed to write about Black life in relation to whiteness, which often leads to portrayals of victims of injustice. We discussed how literary movements mirror the movements in the streets, which are at times necessary movements of protest, and how this “protest-aesthetic” is not exclusive to Black playwrights, but it is also evident in the works by most historically marginalized groups. And this was a perennial theme in our in-class discussions. Nonetheless, here is how a few of the students ultimately defined Black Theater by the end of the course.
STUDENT A: Open Ended Questions
By Demarcus Brooks
#4. Black theater is a progressive unit of plays written by, for, and about African Americans. It’s kind of like a story that never stops going, history written, acted, and shown to an audience of all races. Most plays progress throughout the time period they are in, catching eyes and ears from one group and hatred from another. For example, A Raisin In The Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, is about hope for change during the Civil Rights Movement. It is a play about the Youngers, a working class family who face racism, discrimination, and many other problems that black families faced during that time while trying to secure upward mobility. This play opened a lot of doors for Hansberry, and not just Hansberry, but so many other actors and playwrights as well. When writing this play Lorraine told her husband, “I’m going to write a social drama about negros that will be good art”(PBS). She used the personalities, hopes, and dreams of those who lived around her to make the play. You also have playwrights like James Baldwin, who based his play off of an historical killing. For example, Baldwin’s play Blues For Mr. Charlie was a story inspired by the murder of Emmet Till’s murder, but what also played a part in Baldwin finishing the play was the death of his closest friend Medgar Evers. In the play, just like the Emmet Till murder, a white man kills an innocent black boy and walks free. Everyone knew from the beginning he was not going to get convicted because he killed someone before that, and did not get convicted. The play shows the audience what white privilege looks like, and what a corrupted government looks like. I truly believe that black theater is progressive because when you look at some of the plays from before, it connects to the current period. For example, Sleep Deprivation Chamber by Adrienne Kennedy connects to the police brutality that happens in this current period. Names like George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and so many more come to mind. History keeps repeating itself along with the plays that are made by African Americans. Instead of being silent about it, black artists use a form of art to express Black lives. Black Theater isn’t just about killings, racial discrimination, and all the other problems many have faced throughout the course of their life. It’s about the evolution of African American art and perspectives. Political statements, cultural context, historical events, all apply to the making of Black theater. Black theater is a lot of things, but it is something that can be described by those of Black descent, something that almost every single Black person can relate to. Black Theater is a movement, a progressive story, black history, and black art.
By Melissa Gubrud
4.) Black Theatre is as surreal as Funnyhouse of a Negro, as absurdist as Pass Over, as epic as Father Comes Home From the Wars, as heartbreaking as Her Portmanteau, as hilarious as School Girls, as electric as Ma Rainey, and as renowned as A Raisin in the Sun. Black Theatre encompasses any and all facets of Black life, just as long as a playwright has sat down to record it. It is the preoccupation of many in the theatre to define what it can and cannot be—something that no one seems to question about ‘white’ theatre.
Indeed, Black Theatre is entangled with the white gaze and is forced to contend with it. When its dramatic works are discussed, they are often reduced to terms of oppression. In Suzan-Lori Parks’s 1995 essay ``An Equation for Black People Onstage” the playwright asks, “Can a Black person be onstage and be other than oppressed?” (Parks 21) There is more to Black Theatre than stories of oppression, but triumph and joy rarely come without adversity or pain. Drama requires it all.
Black Theatre is essential. In James Baldwin’s touching tribute to Lorraine Hansberry, Sweet Lorraine, he wrote about the reception of A Raisin in the Sun. Regardless of whether her audience thought of her as an artist, he observed, they knew her to be a witness of life as they knew it (Baldwin). Black playwrights do more than write plays, they bear witness. In his 1926 manifesto, W. E. B. DuBois’s four principles for Black Theatre were simply that it be about Black people, by Black people, for Black people, and near Black people (qtd. in Steenerson). There is no singular kind of Black Theatre, it does what theatre does best by revealing something true about the world.
By Ezra McNair
4. Black Theater is a subgenre of American theater, created by and maintained across the diaspora of Black peoples inhabiting the United States. Black Theater historically is in opposition to Euro-centric mainstream theater in its production and thematic elements held within the plays themselves. Black theater doesn’t have one single aesthetic or set of themes; the space allows Black playwrights to develop their own aesthetics alongside one another. Works produced in propinquity often “talk” to each other, especially in eras of consistent social change, like the Black Arts movement in the 60s and 70s. Playwrights like Amiri Baraka and Adrienne Kennedy identified the anxieties of Black folks at the time, and were able to contextualize them on the stage. Black Theater is the re-contextualization of histories.
Playwrights like Suzan Lori Parks and August Wilson attempt to portray eras in American history that are often looked at through a non-Black lens. August Wilson’s Century cycle was built around 10 plays taking place in a different decade of the 20th century, while Suzan-Lori Parks' Father Comes Home from the Wars offered a fresh perspective on the Civil War. Black theater is the chronicling of persons and ideas that make up the Black American diaspora.
One of the perks of teaching at the college level is that it keeps me fresh. The Joy Generation’s critique of the lack of joy in certain Black plays was not my critique when I encountered the canon. In fact, as a young writer, I did not formulate a critique. I was just grateful to encounter the works when I did, because it validated my voice. There may be a kind of privilege that each new generation inherits that their predecessors did not. Partly because of the breadth of content at our disposal today. And partly because of the literary contributions of previous generations. In essence, I think chasing joy in creative works is an honorable conviction. My clarion call is to continue to raise awareness and appreciation about the breadth and depth of canonical and contemporary Black plays. Many of which provide a window into American history and galvanize rich academic discourse.