Academic journal article African American Review

Evolution or Revolution in Black Theater: A Look at the Cultural Nationalist Agenda in Select Plays by Amiri Baraka

Academic journal article African American Review

Evolution or Revolution in Black Theater: A Look at the Cultural Nationalist Agenda in Select Plays by Amiri Baraka

Article excerpt

... we are on the verge of reclaiming and reexamining the purpose and pillars of our art and laying out new directions for its expansion. As such we make a target for cultural imperialists who seek to empower and propagate their ideas about the world as the only valid ideas, and see blacks as woefully deficient not only in arts and letters but in the abundant gifts of humanity. (August Wilson 71)

From a 1990's perspective, one might initially suspect that the nationalist tone demonstrated in the above excerpt is a flashback to the 1960s, when nationalist rhetoric virtually saturated the media and became part of a massive cultural event now known as the Black Arts Movement. Yet this impassioned appeal for a separate and viable black theater was issued by playwright August Wilson in a June 1996 speech delivered before a largely conservative white audience attending the eleventh biennial Theatre Communications Group National Conference at Princeton University. Amid charges of his arguing for "subsidized separatism" (Brustein 26) and dismantling the Civil Rights Movement, Wilson issued a challenge to the larger theater community to establish theaters of, by, and for African Americans and to discontinue funding color-blind casting--a practice he argues merely stifles the growth of black theater.

Although Wilson's recent wake-up call to the American theater community has engendered much enlightening debate and redirected attention back to the plight of black theater, the principle behind his call to arms is not new. Indeed some thirty years ago, poet, playwright, activist Amiri Baraka had similar problems with the melting pot of American Theater and devoted his energy toward advancing a separate aesthetic designed specifically for the black audience. He articulated this vision, with as much passion as Wilson commands, in one of many fiery essays written in the spirit of cultural nationalism. Exemplary is "The Need for a Cultural Base to Civil Rites & BPower Mooments," in which Baraka proclaims that

   Black Power movements not grounded in Black culture cannot move
   beyond the boundaries of Western thought. The paramount value of
   Western thought is the security and expansion of Western culture.
   Black Power is inimical to Western culture as it has manifested
   itself within black and colored majority areas anywhere on this
   planet. Western culture is and has been destructive to Colored
   People all over the world. No movement shaped or contained by
   Western culture will ever benefit Black people. Black power must
   be the actual force and beauty and wisdom of Blackness ...
   reordering the world. (47)

So that we may understand and more fully appreciate the basis of August Wilson's renewed appeal for a separate black theater, it is necessary to understand the historical basis of his argument and to realize that he, like Amiri Baraka, still realizes the need for continual self-definition through the medium of black theater and, by extension, all art forms. It is important to note that the media fallout surrounding Wilson's highly publicized remarks is mildly reminiscent of the reception that was prompted by Baraka's cultural nationalist stance, which he so forcefully articulated some three decades earlier in characteristically scathing rhetoric and in a number of revolutionary plays. Once under constant scrutiny by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, accosted by policemen, subpoenaed to appear in court, forced to spend time in jail and physically beaten, Baraka knows well the price of the nationalist ideology which dominated his personal life and permeated his plays.

Although time has seemingly tempered such fervor among artists, apparently one of the most important issues that fueled Baraka's anger still exists: the need for America to understand why culturally specific theater of, by, and for African Americans is crucial and should not only be subsidized but also encouraged to flourish without the stigma of separatism or racism. …

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