Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora

Black Theatre

Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Walker II, Gus Edwards, eds.
Temple University Press ($27.95)

by Justin Maxwell

A thorough and well-made anthology, Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora successfully illustrates how Black theatre is, as Paul Carter Harrison says in his prefatory essay "Praise/Word," not a "mere reaction to oppression," but an endeavor to "identify and retrieve African traditions from the American social landscape." Within the broad context of that purpose a lot of ground gets covered. The later essays of the collection deal with theatrical practice—Lundeana Thomas's essay "Barbara Ann Teer: From Holistic Training to Liberating Rituals" explores a process of personal discovery that Teer believes makes individuals into successful African-American theatre practitioners and community members, while Ntozake Shange's essay "Porque Tu No M'entrende? Whatcha Mean You Can't Understand Me?" looks at regaining African cultural life and language predicated on the belief that "English is a greedy, swallowing language that appropriates words and gestures as an infant at the nipple sucks milk."

The first two parts of the anthology deal more with tradition, providing detailed, almost-anthropological insight into Black theatre's cultural subtext. They contain a large amount of material linking African traditions to cultural practices across the sad swath of the Diaspora. As Victor Leo Walker sums up, the terms theatre and drama ... are inclusive of ritual, ceremony, carnival, masquerade, testimonials, rites of passage, the blues, improvisation, "Negro spirituals," spoken word, hip-hop, storytelling, and other performative modes of expression rooted in the ancestral ethos of black Africans in the Diaspora.

These roots save Black theatrical expression from the pitfalls of what J. C. de Graft, in "Roots In African Drama and Theatre," calls the "three destructive enemies of theatre," which are "excessive rationalism," "the tendency to reduce all drama to the level of mere entertainment," and "the tendency towards commercialism." These destructive tendencies are antithetical to the cultural inheritance that allows Black theatre to be multifaceted, a "total theatre." In the words of Babatunde Lawal, "black playwrights turned to the African praxis of total theatre, which blends the visual and performing arts, allows for improvisation, and eliminates the gulf between performers and audience." This inclusive view of art is as much cultural as theatrical; it creates an aesthetic-theological dramaturgy that becomes the embodiment of primary cultural building blocks—religion (Voodoo, church ritual), festivals (Carnival), and community (the "call-and-response practices of collective experience"). The values of Black theatre give it the ability to ritualistically and publicly connect (or reconnect) to the spiritual and the communal, something which is inherent in African (but lost to mainstream American) theatre. This aesthetic of interconnection is the clear result of an African epistemology that survived the Middle Passage and subsequent centuries of oppression, and explains why African-American art ties the modern art-maker to the spiritual/cultural healer, a sublime relationship between the material and the spiritual contained in "the Yoruba concept of Ifogbontáayése."

The inseparable fusion of theatre and life requires that Black theatre be seen completely independent of the Western tradition; Ed Bullins makes this point when he says that "we don't want to have a higher form of white art in Black faces." And Paul Carter Harrison refers to this independence as being "unshackled by the predictable, orderly constraints of Western realism." This unshackling is, according to Paul K. Bryant-Jackson, embodied by the works of Adrienne Kennedy, whose "preoccupation with myth forces her to abandon mimetic representation on the physical stage and substitute an altar upon which she stages an ontological argument in which nothing is certain except the mutable resisting image before us." The incarnation of Black drama as wholly different from mainstream Western drama is also encountered through Jean Young's essay on Ntozake Shange's acclaimed choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf: "Shange's use of call-and-response and dance works as a powerful incantation or mojo force, allowing audience members full participation by projecting them into metaphysical 'suspension of disbelief.'" What Shange's audience experiences is not the fourth-wall suspension of disbelief found in Western theatre; it is something more akin to the moments of ecstasy in testifying during Black Fundamentalist church services.

In the essay "Form and Transformation: Immanence of the Soul in the Performance Modes of Black Church and Black Music," Paul Carter Harrison concisely contrasts African and European aesthetic traditions; he states that Black theatre is "a reversal of the naturalistic objectives of the Western tradition, black theatre does not hold up a mirror to nature; instead, it invokes a process of conjuration to awaken the forces of nature that illuminate experience." The illumination of experience marks a theatre where audience and actor do not have a significant separation; all are participants. The intrinsic connection of observer and maker allows Black theatre an aesthetic-psychic exploration that, in Marta Vega's phrasing, creates a "seamless vision of art as part of sacred life ...essential to the creative expression of Africans in the Diaspora." The intimate connection of secular and sacred is an idea that Western theatre loosely and unsuccessfully approached through the defunct proselytizing of the Medieval liturgical drama and Renaissance mystery plays. Because of the fundamental differences between African and European traditions many scholars have continued to marginalize African drama because it lacked a direct European equivalency, a misguided approach that Tejumola Olaniyan refers to as "the consistent attribution of difference as fault," in her essay "Agones: The Constitution of a Practice."

A close ideological interweaving of voices allows Black Theatre to recreate and actively participate in the aesthetic that it explores. The multiplicity of scholarly and practitioner voices call to one another in the different parts of this text, across the similar cultural terrain of the Diaspora, consequently recreating the practices of Black theatre/culture. This anthology becomes an intellectual call-and-response, an act of cultural harmony that, because of the texts' destiny for classroom use, inherently subverts the aesthetics of a white, hegemonic intellegencia. Because the parts of the text cover such vast territory, the book is as much an anthology of cultural aesthetics, a work of anthropology, as a study of theatre. It's elaborate interconnectedness is wonderful, but illustrates the work's one structural weakness: no index. And this is a book that warrants going back to. There's so much overlap of good material that reference is inevitable and finding one specific idea is very challenging.

Black Theatre is a gateway: to follow its paths creates a lifetime of study and art-making because a lifetime is what each essayist has contributed. It will find a much deserving home in the classroom and on the bookshelves of serious, well-minded theatre practitioners everywhere.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003