African-American theatre

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Plays

Black Diamond: The Years the Locusts Have Eaten

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In Black Diamond (2007), J. Nicole Brooks interrogates contemporary connections and discontinuities between the Africans in Liberia and African Americans in the United States. Set in 1999, the play opens in the middle of the second Liberian civil war, which eventually resulted in the overthrow of brutal despot Charles Taylor and his arrest as a war criminal. At issue in this drama is the question of what should be the responsibility of the United States to this war-torn African state racked by genocidal atrocities and human rights violations.

After all, Liberia has a unique bond to the United States, beginning in 1827 when former black slaves from the United States attempted to settle Liberia. At the centre of her drama, Brooks places an African American journalist sent by the BBC to cover the war story. As Americans and the world turn a seemingly deaf ear toward the suffering in Liberia, this journalist faces his own life-altering questions as to his duty to his profession and his obligation as a black man to this intra-racial conflict.

Fast-paced and episodic in structure, Black Diamond’s eclectic form also rubs up against convention, assaulting the audience’s senses as moments of flashback clash against burlesque enactments, docudrama narrativization, and rap music interludes. The play’s structure informs its content. The contrasts and incongruities in style underscore the contradictory cultural politics at play within this catastrophic African struggle. By depicting rebel soldiers that associate their own brutality and swagger with the urban cool of African American hip hop, Brooks’ play showcases the complications and ambiguities of black cultural traffic, the flow and, importantly, the friction of black imagery.

With its structural hybridity and diverse representations of blackness, Black Diamond enacts the post-black.

Good Goods

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The protagonist of Christina Anderson’s Good Goods (2009), Stacey Goods, physically returns to the black south, where he tends to his family’s general merchandise store that his father has recently abandoned. Rather than the store’s sole employee, Truth, assuming the store’s proprietorship, Stacey seizes the reins, setting up a battle between the two men. The play also follows the homecoming of Patricia, who is Stacey’s partner in their touring cabaret act and grew up in the same town as him, with her new companion, a runaway bride named Sunny.

Good Goods uses Stacey and Patricia’s return to their childhood homes as the occasion to interrogate the terms of inheritance, filial obligation, and parentage. At the same time, the play traces how much we change outside the environs of those homes and, consequently, differ from those who stayed behind. At first glance a tale of small town intrigue, Good Goods explodes its realistic trappings to explore the philosophical dimensions and mystical contingencies of the home, prompting reconsiderations of the significance of race and individual personhood in domestic, familial, and sexual relationships.

Hoodoo Love

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Young Toulou has run away from the cotton fields of Mississippi to big city Memphis to make it as a blues singer. When she falls in love with a rambling bluesman, Ace of Spades, she gives into the suggestions of the local madam, Candylady, and conjures up a hoodoo trick to make him fall in love with her back. When her brother Jib, a born-again Christian missionary, arrives in town, Toulou is forced to confront all that she was running away from, and a chain of events with devastating consequences is set in motion.

The first of Katori Hall’s ‘Memphis Plays’, Hoodoo Love is set during the Great Depression, when the memory of slavery, and the slave belief in hoodoo folk magic, is still very much alive. With original music and lyrics by Katori Hall, the play was first produced by Cherry Lane Theatre, New York City in 2007.

Hurt Village

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Set in the early noughties, Hurt Village is the story of a community disregarded by the state. A housing project in North Memphis, originally developed in the 1950s to attract white residents, the area had, by the nineties, become a byword for poverty and drug-related crime. In 2000, the Memphis City government received a $35 million federal grant in order to redevelop the area, and in 2003, the neighbourhood was demolished, following the relocation of hundreds of black residents.

Hurt Village is not just a housing project, it’s a way of life for thirteen-year-old Cookie. Desperate to move her family out of the project, Cookie’s great-grandmother, Big Mama, is waiting on the local government to find them a new homr in suburban Raleigh. When she’s denied aid due to earning slightly over the public assistance maximum, her grandson, Buggy, recently returned from war and suffering from PTSD, renews old acquaintances and plunges the family back into a life of drug-dealing, addiction and gang violence, in order to forge a better life for them somewhere new.

Hurt Village premiered at the Signature Theatre Company, New York City, in 2012. It is the fourth of Katori Hall’s ‘Memphis’ plays.

In the Continuum

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In the Continuum (2005), by Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira, provides a minimalist, yet profound exploration of the interconnectedness between the United States and Africa. The play stages the lives of two women who, although continents apart, with one in Zimbabwe and the other in Los Angeles, share the same life-altering event: their respective male partners have infected them with HIV.

Through intersecting scenes, In the Continuum depicts the particular sociocultural and gender dynamics that these women must endure as they confront the new knowledge of their infections. Even as these women live in distinct sociopolitical and economic environments, they are both ‘in the continuum', attempting to survive and make sense of a world in which everything, and yet nothing, has changed.

In innovative and haunting ways, Salter and Gurira show how disease and prejudice know no geographical, class, ethnic, or personal boundaries.

In the Continuum received its World Premiere in September 2005 at Primary Stages in New York City.

The Mountaintop

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The night before his assassination, King retires to room 306 in the now-famous Lorraine Motel after giving an acclaimed speech to a massive church congregation. When a mysterious young maid visits him to deliver a cup of coffee, King is forced to confront his past and the future of his people.

Portraying rhetoric, hope and ideals of social change, The Mountaintop also explores what it is to be human in the face of inevitable death. The play is a dramatic feat of daring originality, historical narration and triumphant compassion.

The Mountaintop received its world premiere at Theatre503, London, on 9 June 2009, and opened on Broadway on 13 October 2011. It is the third of Hall's 'Memphis Plays' tetralogy.

Neighbors

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Richard Patterson is not happy. The family of black actors that has moved in next door is rowdy, tacky, shameless, and uncouth. And they are not just invading his neighbourhood – they're infiltrating his family, his sanity, and his entirely post-racial lifestyle.

Neighbors by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a wildly theatrical, explosive play on race. It is an unconventional comedy which uses minstrelsy both to explore the history of black theatre and to confront tensions in 'post-racial' America. It was first presented in the UK as a reading at the High Tide Festival in Halesworth, Suffolk, in 2012, before returning to the festival in a full production the following year.

Satellites

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Satellites (2006), by Korean American playwright Diana Son, employs a more conventional realism to probe the intersections of race and class. An interracial family composed of an African American husband, Korean American wife, and their baby, has just moved into a previously predominantly black inner-city neighbourhood. The personal dynamics of family and childbearing have decidedly political ramifications as the parents confront issues of gentrification, mixed-race identity, and language difference.

Son foregrounds the husband and wife’s attempt to reconcile their relationship (and that with their newborn daughter) with their struggles over love and intimacy, employment, and familial obligation. Through these private concerns, Son engages broader social categories and contexts – race, class, and culture – that surround her characters and the play.

Satellites was first produced by The Public Theater of New York City, in June 2006.

Saturday Night/Sunday Morning

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Set in the final days of the Second World War at Miss Mary’s Press and Curl beauty parlour and women’s boarding house in Memphis, Tennessee, Saturday Night/Sunday Morning unites a group of young women whose lives have been affected by the loss of men to the war and the upheaval of social attitudes that followed.

When sisters Taffy and Mabel tire of Leanne’s ongoing depression over a lack of correspondence from her soldier sweetheart, Bobby, they persuade new lodger and aspiring writer, Gladys, to write to Leanne in Bobby’s hand. As their lies spiral out of control, the girls and Miss Mary must learn to navigate the nuances of love, sexuality and sisterhood.

At times laugh-out-loud funny, at times tragically sad, Saturday Night/Sunday Morning always rings true. It is the second of Katori Hall’s ‘Memphis Plays’.

African American theatre began with victims of the slave trade from western Africa, who retained many of their performance traditions, such as ensemble improvisation, in the New World. Early performances were carried out on plantations and in homes, and ultimately had a wide influence on American culture, first demonstrated in the creation of minstrel shows in the 1820s and 1830s. Black characters in early white plays were always played by whites in black make-up. The first black theatrical company in America was the African Grove, a group of black actors organized in the 1820–1 season by a Mr Brown in New York's Greenwich Village. Until forced to close by the city authorities, the African Grove presented performances of Shakespeare and other plays, including Brown's King Shotaway, now lost but the earliest recorded play by a black American. The African Grove also gave a start to Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to achieve an international reputation. Dramatic performing opportunities for blacks remained limited to minstrelsy and unstaged readings of classics until the turn of the century, when a series of black musicals appeared on Broadway. Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk (1898), by the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and the composer Will Marion Cook, and starring the comic Ernest Hogan, was the first black show to play to a white Broadway audience, albeit as a midnight entertainment on a roof garden. In Dahomey (1902), a full-length musical by Cook, Dunbar and Jesse Shipp, and starring the comedy team of Bert Williams and George Walker, became the first black show to play a Broadway main stage. And Scott Joplin, a composer now best known for piano rags, also produced a complete ragtime opera, Tremonisha (1914), which was under-appreciated in its day but has recently enjoyed a resurgence of popularity.

After the First World War, Northern cities – New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and Detroit became crowded with Southern blacks in search of work and better lives. In the booming 1920s, New York's Harlem became the North's largest African American community, and attracted so many artists that its creative ferment has come to be known as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’. Eubie Blake and Noble Lee Sissle’s ragtime musical Shuffle Along (1921) sparked a revival of interest in black musicals. In addition, small theatre groups specializing in black-written plays briefly thrived, for the 1920s were the first major period of black playwriting. Angelina Grimke's Rachel (1916) asked whether black couples should bring children into America's racist society. Willis Richardson's one act folk play The Chip Woman's Fortune (1923) and Garland Anderson's full-length courtroom drama Appearances (1925) were the first non-musical black-written plays to reach Broadway stages. Short, pithy, generally realistic works such as John Matheus’ ‘Cruiter (1926), Willis Richardson's Flight of the Natives (1927) and Randolph Edmonds’ Bad Man (1934) show the influence of the Irish folk-play movement. Others, such as Marita Bonner's The Purple Flower (1928), are non-realistic, symbolic works that owe much to the French Surrealists. Harlem also managed – sometimes barely – to support its own all-black theatre troupe, the Lafayette Players. Founded by Anita Bush in 1915, the Lafayette was the most important black ensemble since the African Grove. It produced mostly mainstream white plays, but trained a generation of fine black actors, including Charles Gilpin, Rose McClendon, Frank Wilson and Edna Thomas.

At the same time that black theatre thrived, white dramatists began trying – often feebly – to examine the place of blacks in American society. The black characters in Eugene O’Neill's The Emperor Jones (1920) and All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924) and in Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures (1930) are little better than stereotypes, though Paul Green's In Abraham's Bosom (1926) and Dubose Heyward’s Porgy (1927) are somewhat more perceptive. Black characters also became common in white-written musicals, notably Hammerstein and Kern’s Show Boat (1927) and Heyward and the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (1937). In the Great Depression of the 1930s, most black theatre companies folded, and many black theatre artists, like poor Americans of all backgrounds, became politically radicalized. Langston Hughes, a young poet and playwright, founded the Harlem Suitcase Theater to produce his short plays, such as Don't You Want to be Free? (1937), which combined the political activism of white Agitprop drama with black music and Hughes’ own poetry. The United States’ only foray into theatrical production, the Works Progress Administration's Federal Theater Project (1935–9), organized a Negro Theater as one of its major production units. Under the supervision of Rose McClendon, and, after her death, of John Houseman, a white producer, the Negro Theater created dozens of productions in major cities around the country. Many of their shows were black adaptations of well-known works, such as the ‘voodoo’ Macbeth (1936) directed by Orson Welles, and Swing Mikado (1938), which was copied by a Broadway producer as Hot Mikado (1939). The Negro Theater employed a number of promising young black writers, and produced several of their plays, including Theodore Brown's The Natural Man (1936), a musical about the mythic figure John Henry; J. A. Smith and Peter Morell's Turpentine (1936), an exposé of southern work-gangs; Hughes Allison's The Trial of Doctor Beck (1937), a courtroom drama dealing with black self-hatred; and Theodore Ward's Big White Fog (1938), a domestic drama advocating an alliance between blacks and left-wing unions. The Federal Theater Project was dissolved in 1939 by Congressional red-baiters, and the Second World War further fragmented the black theatre world. It began to rebuild in the early 1950s, finding a new voice in the growing civil rights movement. In the tradition of Grimke's Rachel (1916), plays such as Louis Peterson's Take a Giant Step (1953) and Lorraine Hansberry's now-classic A Raisin in the Sun (1957) portrayed solid, working-class black families struggling to achieve the same ethnic self-respect and living standards as their white counterparts. Others, like Alice Childress's metatheatrical Trouble in Mind (1954) and Ossie Davis's comedy Purlie Victorious (1961), dramatized the clash of traditionalist whites with thoughtful blacks. Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival helped break down barriers to black actors by encouraging multiracial casting, both in classics and in contemporary works.

In the 1960s, activism became the dominant theme of much black theatre. An all-black cast set an off-Broadway record with its long run of The Blacks (1961), a parable of colonialism by the white Frenchman Jean Genet. The interracial Free Southern Theater brought an eclectic array of plays to the rural South as part of the civil rights movement. LeRoi Jones (who later adopted the name Amiri Baraka) wrote Dutchman, an inflammatory one-act play in which a white woman murders a black youth on a New York subway, and James Baldwin wrote Blues for Mister Charlie (1965), an embittered view of the civil rights movement. In the middle to late 1960s, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1965), and concurrent with the escalation of the Vietnam War and the Black Power movement, there was a huge explosion of black theatre nationwide. Over 600 new companies were founded: most existed only briefly, but others, including the National Black Theater and the New Federal, lasted for years and made major contributions. The New Lafayette Theater (1966–72) produced group-created ‘rituals’ on racial and political themes, as well as many plays by Ed Bullins, including In the Wine Time (1968) and Goin’ a Buffalo (1968). In 1967 Douglas Turner Ward, author of the satiric civil rights play Day of Absence (1965), co-founded New York's Negro Ensemble Company. This prolific group produced many important works, including Lonne Elder’s Ceremonies in Dark Old Men (1969), Joseph A. Walker's The River Niger (1972) and Charles Fuller’s A Soldier's Play (1981), and trained hundreds of black actors, designers and stagehands. By the early 1990s, though, the NEC was struggling to survive.

In the 1970s, several shows created and performed by blacks were mainstream successes. Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (1976), a series of poetic dance monologues in support of black women, set the standard for much feminist theatre. The Wiz (1975), Ain't Misbehavin' (1978), Eubie! (1978) and Dreamgirls (1981) rekindled interest in all-black musicals. By the 1980s and early 1990s, black theatre, while still struggling, was becoming an accepted part of the American mainstream, with well-trained playwrights, directors, designers and actors turning out quality work on Broadway and elsewhere. Lloyd Richards, whose work on A Raisin in the Sun had made him Broadway's first black director, became head of the Yale School of Drama, and brought to Broadway August Wilson’s dramas of black life, including Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1983), Fences (1985) and Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1987). In 1993 George C. Wolfe, the author of The Colored Museum (1986) and the director of Anna Deveare Smith's Fires in the Mirror (1991) and Jelly's Last Jam (1992), and Tony Kushner's Angels in America (1993), was named Joseph Papp's and Joanne Akalaitis’s successor as the head of New York's Public Theater.

from Paul Nadler, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002)