Academic journal article African American Review

From Seeking One's Voice to Uttering the Scream: The Pioneering Journey of African American Women Playwrights through the 1960s and 1970s

Academic journal article African American Review

From Seeking One's Voice to Uttering the Scream: The Pioneering Journey of African American Women Playwrights through the 1960s and 1970s

Article excerpt

No Black woman even like nowadays tells you things you're familiar with, like Black women have problems. In a family situation, I'm talking about a classic, if you understand what I'm saying, a classic Black woman figure. Showing her not just surviving, yet surviving, not just being but being, but also not just being a slave but you know still being a slave, not just being a whole but just the Black woman in all her majesty. The Black woman in all her non-majesty as well. The Black woman surviving yet not surviving but being. If that makes any kind of sense. (Sanchez 163)

The 1960s and 1970s were undoubtedly two of the most important and productive decades in African American history and the arts. During this period, black artists in general, and black women in particular, expressed their needs in new aesthetic and linguistic venues that gave expression to their real feelings. Black theater became the literary vehicle of choice for many African male and female artists. The Black Theater Movement of the 1960s (1) in the United States emerged as the African American artists' venue for re-visioning and re-constructing their community's history, culture, and art--for developing a black aesthetics apart from Western parameters. Following the aesthetic concerns and artistic manifestations of the Black Theater Movement in the 1960s, African American women began a search to find their own voices within their communities, adding a gender perspective that widened and completed the delineation established by male theater artists. These two decades were pivotal in erecting the foundations for the development of the subsequent theater created by African American women.

This study focuses on four African American women playwrights as representatives and pioneers of black women's searching journey into the theater and into their selves: Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, Aishah Rahman, and Alexis De Veaux. These playwrights' exploratory journey began with the recognition and examination of the anguish enmeshed in their silent voices, which can be observed in Sarah's split personality between the black and white worlds in Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964). Once pain had been confronted, black women felt the need to utter it in unison with their sisters, as one can see in Ntozake Shange' s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (first presented in Berkeley in 1974), where dance conveys a celebration of unity and hope. And it is Aishah Rahman, in Unfinished Women Cry in No Man's Land, While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage (1977), who actually represents African American women's scream by focusing on the pain suffered by young unwed women--unfinished women--in juxtaposition with Charlie Parker's music, whose saxophone acts as a baby's cry, uttering these women's tribulations. Finally, Alexis De Veaux in The Tapestry (1975) presents the path followed by the new African American woman, already aware of her daily striving to survive, by examining the individual woman as a social, political, and sexual being while trying to find new dimensions to her relationships with family, tradition, friends, and lover. As a group, these writers reveal the African American woman's progression from the detection and recognition of pain to its verbalization and, subsequently, to self-affirmation through a wide range of dramatic means, thereby contributing to the re-mapping of theater conceptions. As a result, these playwrights have become the forerunners of contemporary African American theater written, directed, and performed by women.

Introduction

The need to achieve a position of power, the need for the writers to express themselves in their own voices, and the need to gain self-esteem by presenting a complex perspective that reconstructs black women's history against oppression and stereotyping--these are the issues presented by Sonia Sanchez in the epigraph to this essay. Although there have been many African American women writers throughout North American literary history, only after the 1950s did their voices begin to be heard beyond their community's boundaries (Wilkerson, Nine 19). …

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