The Routledge Companion to African American Theatre and Performance
eBook - ePub

The Routledge Companion to African American Theatre and Performance

Kathy Perkins, Sandra Richards, Renée Alexander Craft, Thomas DeFrantz, Kathy A. Perkins, Sandra L. Richards, Renée Alexander Craft, Thomas F. DeFrantz

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eBook - ePub

The Routledge Companion to African American Theatre and Performance

Kathy Perkins, Sandra Richards, Renée Alexander Craft, Thomas DeFrantz, Kathy A. Perkins, Sandra L. Richards, Renée Alexander Craft, Thomas F. DeFrantz

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The Routledge Companion to African American Theatre and Performance is an outstanding collection of specially written essays that charts the emergence, development, and diversity of African American Theatre and Performance—from the nineteenth-century African Grove Theatre to Afrofuturism. Alongside chapters from scholars are contributions from theatre makers, including producers, theatre managers, choreographers, directors, designers, and critics. This ambitious Companion includes:

  • A "Timeline of African American theatre and performance."
  • Part I "Seeing ourselves onstage" explores the important experience of Black theatrical self-representation. Analyses of diverse topics including historical dramas, Broadway musicals, and experimental theatre allow readers to discover expansive articulations of Blackness.
  • Part II "Institution building" highlights institutions that have nurtured Black people both on stage and behind the scenes. Topics include Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), festivals, and black actor training.
  • Part III "Theatre and social change" surveys key moments when Black people harnessed the power of theatre to affirm community realities and posit new representations for themselves and the nation as a whole. Topics include Du Bois and African Muslims, women of the Black Arts Movement, Afro-Latinx theatre, youth theatre, and operatic sustenance for an Afro future.
  • Part IV "Expanding the traditional stage" examines Black performance traditions that privilege Black worldviews, sense-making, rituals, and innovation in everyday life. This section explores performances that prefer the space of the kitchen, classroom, club, or field.

This book engages a wide audience of scholars, students, and theatre practitioners with its unprecedented breadth. More than anything, these invaluable insights not only offer a window onto the processes of producing work, but also the labour and economic issues that have shaped and enabled African American theatre.

Chapter 20 of this book is freely available as a downloadable Open Access PDF at under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives (CC-BY-NC-ND) 4.0 license.

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American Drama
Seeing ourselves onstage
Thomas F. DeFrantz
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance in Indianapolis, IN, 1970s:
We line up at the theater doors, full of anticipation. Dressed in Sunday clothes, nicer than what we usually wear to school, we wonder what sort of adventure this will be, inside this huge marble building that stretches toward the sky. We are ten-year-olds on an outing, having bounded from the bus under watchful eyes, being directed toward our section of seats in the big community theater. The lights dim and we cheer, but we are shushed into quiet by our teachers. We hear a curtain rise—we can’t see it in the dark—and beautiful men and women are revealed, dancing. We hear blues music. We witness expression and intense emotion, stories told through bodies in motion. We hold our breath. We are amazed. We see ourselves in these dancers of the Ailey company, and we straighten our spines, we loosen our hips, we circle our shoulders, we snap our fingers. We dance in our seats in response. We are enlivened.
Part I explores the important experience of self-actualization through theatrical representation. As Black people see ourselves working through urgent dramatic and musical/dance expression, we imagine stronger possibilities for our shared futures, and we better understand our shared pasts. What we see matters: who is doing the performing, who has created the experience backstage, and who is in the audience all contribute to the sense of satisfaction and appreciation for theatrical expression.
When we see ourselves onstage, we begin the important process of imagining beyond the everyday stresses and strains of living Black. Those stresses contribute mightily to the ways that we create and perform. African American approaches to performance value improvisation, wit, and a ferocious variety of address that create a multi-layered experience. These are tactics of survival that encourage Black people forward.
Our artistry also emerges in the spaces of unexpected demonstration of excellence made manifest by believing, deeply, in the power of performance to transform experience. Black people rely on the arts as a social necessity. We grow together through continuous practice in the arts. We sing, dance, rhyme, write, and design in creative play that extends through a lifetime from childhood through elder status, with each generation creating new modes of performance possibility.
The journey to sharing those performances, though, has never been easy. African Americans have always struggled for the chance to express our truths publicly. In the United States, civic legislation, deeply structured traditions of economic disempowerment, and racist social norms have kept Black people from thriving in professional theatre. Historically, the institutions of theatre have shunned Black participation or only allowed for narrow, racist depictions of Black life. As Black people have struggled for basic recognitions in social life outside of the theatre, the place of professional entertainment and its artistry has held even more urgency for African Americans hungry for skillful representations.
But African American artistry will not be denied. Its inventions, burnished in the crucibles of slavery and its afterlives, continuously demonstrate excellence in the face of disavowal. The chapters in this section speak to the inventiveness of artists and theatre professionals who have resisted being placed in any box of respectability, predictability, or some narrow definition of what it means to be involved in professional African American theatre. The authors and their subjects here are an intentionally diverse group: some are queer, some are concerned with bi-racial identity, some are Broadway producers and designers, and others are writing plays about Black families. In each case, these chapters remind us of the essential function of seeing ourselves and our sensibilities in full public view, where we can be surprised and amazed at the capacities of Black life in its infinite variety.
The first four chapters here explore early efforts by Black people committed to the possibilities of professional theatre. In every case, racist disavowals so challenged these artists that they had to nimbly change their approaches to producing theatre or submerge their intentions as authors according to acceptable genres and storylines. Nadine George-Graves (Chapter 1) considers the achievements of Sherman H. Dudley, who began as a versatile vaudeville entertainer, working as a singer, dancer, actor, songwriter, and live horse-act organizer. He went on to manage one of the breakthrough Black entertainment organizations of the early twentieth century, proving a versatility that extended into strong business acumen. Sandra Mayo (Chapter 2) explores the important theatrical genre of Black historical dramas, which demonstrate that African Americans inherit a wide range of legacies worthy of remembering and retelling to new audiences. Marvin McAllister (Chapter 3) reminds us how William Brown’s African Company, one of the earliest professional troupes of Black performers, suffered rioting by white marauders envious of its skilled actors and financial success. Alison Walls (Chapter 4) writes of the ways that the important Langston Hughes’ play Mulatto (1934) aligns the quintessential genre of family drama to the quintessential American concerns with racial mixing, sexual assault, and bi-racial identity.
An interview with legendary producer and director Woodie King, Jr. (Chapter 5) underscores the difficulties of centering Black lives in the circumstances of professional theatre. Black audiences and white audiences tend to experience African American creativity differently, and they often support differing portrayals of Black life onstage. King’s expertise and achievement offer beacons of excellence in this difficult, always-shifting landscape. While Broadway audiences have enjoyed King’s efforts in several landmark productions, Barbara Lewis (Chapter 6) thinks through the ways that playwrights Alice Childress and Lorraine Hansberry—who worked before King formed his New Federal Theatre—championed possibilities for an emergent Black feminism in their works that supported Black freedom as an ultimate implication of theatrical representation.
We turn to art in order to better understand what happens when people are willing, or forced, to live outside of norms of propriety. Black artists do indeed look toward the edges of everyday life to imagine transformative visions of lives in motion. Playwright Lynn Nottage follows in the path laid by Childress and Hansberry as an author often produced on Broadway whose plays tease the terms of normative living. Marta Effinger-Crichlow (Chapter 7) recounts the ways in which Nottage’s entirely successful play Intimate Apparel wonders at sexual and racial transgressions that push at a politics of respectability for Black Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. Baron Kelly (Chapter 8) points out that actor Earle Hyman achieved an unprecedented success performing Shakespeare and O’Neill in two Norwegian languages, confirming Black excellence as a result of his focused intellect and outstanding abilities as an actor. And thinking through the tremendous plays of August Wilson, Pedro E. Alvarado (Chapter 9) helps us to begin to understand an ever-present need for the non-tangible presence of spirituality that permeates Black life.
Black sensibilities on Broadway can also take the form of design and economic production. Interviews with producer Ron Simons and designer Paul Tazewell (Chapters 10 and 11) underscore the important presence of Black visioning that happens out of the direct view of the theatrical audience. Simons and Tazewell have each received Tony Awards for their work in theatre, an accolade of the highest order available to theatre professionals.
Mama, I Want to Sing! in New York City, 1980s:
We line up at the theater doors, smiling and happy to be together at an unusual location. Although we are in Manhattan, we are not at a Broadway theater, but rather a theater inside a museum that has been turned over to the long run of a gospel musical. Most of us are older, and have come with our church groups, decked out in elaborate finery that shows off style without being too flashy. But we are also young artists in New York, hungry for the taste of home back in the Midwest, or down South, or even out West. Now that we’ve moved to the Big Apple to find our way in theater, we gather to be in the presence of the people at the play. Slipping inside to sit in a small group among the many larger congregations of elders, we disregard the simplistic lighting instruments and the crackling hisses of a sound system in need of an upgrade. The play begins when it needs to—long after the ticketed time—and we pay attention as we will, when the action surprises us into cheering, booing, testifying alongside, or calling out to the characters onstage. We go up when one of the characters reaches into the arm cushion of a sofa and pulls out a microphone connected to a Mr. Microphone amplifier and begins her song. This performer came prepared with her own sound system! We smile, cry a bit, laugh, and enjoy the wholeness of our time together, entirely delivered by the end of the show.
Music and dance hold profound influence in Black life, so it should not surprise us that opera and musicals have provided important routes to public expression for scores of professional artists. Opera welcomed outstanding African American singers—especially women—in leading roles originally written for whites long before television or film followed suit. Twila Perry (Chapter 12) helps us understand how opera has expanded its possibilities by including artists of color, even if those artists did not immediately alter the demographic makeup of audiences for opera. Sam O’Connell (Chapter 13) reconsiders the narrative content of The Wiz in terms of its connection to African diasporic lives and the construction of a Black “home” that might nourish us in our various migrations.
Chapters 14 and 15 consider the legacies of the important 1921 Broadway production of Shuffle Along. That musical brought together an array of accomplished artists in a commercial and creative success the revitalized Black presence in New York professional theatre. Researchers in this volume explore how calls for Black economic independence intersect with the difficulties of producing resource-intensive Broadway musicals. Paula Seniors (Chapter 14) notes that Shuffle Along was revived in an altered version led by outstanding Black artists in 2016, only to succumb to the vicissitudes of economic pressures and close, prematurely. Sandra Seaton (Chapter 15) offers a highly personal account of Black theatre as a family affair that suits the needs of its practitioners, including Black people eager to applaud the raucous comedic efforts of usually respectable community members.
Seaton’s chapter provides a pivot toward thinking about how Black people engage theatre to imagine progressive futures and to illuminate the always-necessary, non-normative ways of being in the world. Black people enjoy seeing ourselves in excellence within popular modes of entertainment that are not necessarily of our own making. While we create so many forms of popular music and social dance, African American artists also excel in forms created by others. Experimental dance and theatre have always attracted Black participation, even when the audiences for these exquisite works might be small in size. In Chapter 16, prize-winning dance writer Eva Yaa Asantewaa offers insight into her method that allows her to valorize the achievements of queer artists of color (among others, of course) as she emphasizes the importance of documenting and reflecting upon performance in literary form. Her prescient commentary confirms: if we don’t learn to write about our creative exercises, how will future generations know what we have done?
Nappy Grooves Drag Kings performance in Cambridge, MA, 2000s:
We arrive at the small college theater, glammed out and ready to play. We wear shiny shoes, and sport retro-disco afros next to dreadlocks and fringe. Skin showing: beautiful tones of black, brown, and beige. We nod each to the other, too cool to speak much at first, but basking in the affirmation of being queers of color together. The show, we know, will be dope: the touring drag king company from the Bay Area will headline and some of the local queens and kings will also perform. Inside the theater we greet each other more heartily: hugging and smiling, swaying with bodies close together, admiring bling and snatched-ness. We ask for news of others who haven’t come. “Are they good?” The music screams a fanfare, and we holler as one, never bothering to sit in the too-small theater seats. We are ready to be transfixed by the playful illusions of gender shift; and to bear witness to the theatrical monologues about Black Trans lives interpolated throughout the show. We know these stories and we need to hear them told again, amid the technologies of the theater space. Here, we love ourselves wholly and fiercely, in our always-shifting gendered and sexualized variety.
The final three chapters in this section explore sexuality as an essential aspect of African American theatricality as well as a crucial aspect of Black being in the world. Beth Turner (Chapter 17) explores the extraordinary work of dramatist Pe...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Series Information
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Contents
  7. List of figures
  8. Notes on editors and contributors
  9. “Black Art Now”
  10. Introduction
  11. Highlights of African American theatre and performance
  12. PART I Seeing ourselves onstage
  13. PART II Institution building: a space of our own
  14. PART III Theatre and social change
  15. PART IV Extending the traditional stage
  16. Index