The Crisis of Black Theatre Identity

By Harrison, Paul Carter | African American Review, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

The Crisis of Black Theatre Identity


Harrison, Paul Carter, African American Review


We done sold Africa for the price of tomatoes. We done sold ourselves to the white man in order to be like him. Look at the way you dressed ... that ain't African. That's the white man. We trying to be just like him. We done sold who we are in order to become someone else. We's imitation white men. (Toledo, in August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom 417)

For the record, and in case the obvious has passed by unnoticed, as we enter the next millennium, Black Theatre is suffering an identity crisis, an inability to define its ideological purpose and performance practice. Unclarity has encouraged uncertainty, even an ambivalent indifference about whether or not the experience should be designated African American (the conservative practice, in form and content, of petit bourgeois Negro imitations of Euro-American domestic dramas) or reflect the conscious-raising ritual enactments of radical Black Theatre (which should not to be confused with the misapprehension of those observers who claim to have sighted a New Black Theatre, the enterprising, commercial exploitation of Gospel music staged as popular entertainments that do not own the slightest pretense of pursuing the enlightened aspirations of ritual enactment, an exercise uncharitably labeled "The Chittlin' Circuit" [see Gates 44]). Black Theatre might even be consigned to the hybrid status of the new performance orthodoxy that agglutinates race, gender, and gay/lesbian social and philosophical issues into a newly marginalized Other designated by the dominant culture as Multicultural Theatre. The unique, particularized, cultural expression that informs Black Theatre has been restrained by an historically passive response by blacks to the hierarchical authority of a dominant culture that subordinates the Afrocentric ethos into conformity with its popular standards of entertainment.

As Tejumola Olaniyan so aptly points out in Scars of Conquest/Masks of Resistance, the impediment to an Afrocentric theatre practice in Black Theatre cannot be fully discerned without an appreciation of the European hegemonic domination that has bridled the authentic impulses of black aesthetics: The "Eurocentric discourse on black drama is thinkable only within the materiality of the rise of Europe, the conquest and enslavement of African peoples, colonialism, neocolonialism, and ongoing aggressive capitalist imperialism" (11). Historically, the consequent subordination of the African American cultural ethos found support among influential authorities in defense of slavery, as President Dew of William and Mary College demonstrated in 1832:

... slavery had been the condition of all

ancient culture, ... Christianity

approved servitude, and ... the law of

Moses had both assumed and positively

established slavery.... It is the order of

nature and of God that the being of

superior faculties and knowledge, and

therefore of superior power, should

control and dispose of those who are

inferior. It is as much in the order of

nature that men should enslave each

other as that other animals should prey

upon each other. (qtd. in Dodd 53)

During his courageous challenge to mainstream American Theatre hegemony at the 1996 Theatre Communications Group Conference at Princeton University, August Wilson laid bare the fact that Black Theatre "is a target for cultural imperialists" who ignore the "abundant gifts" of black humanity, and he characterized the gross exploitation of black social practices for the purpose of white consumption as being a reflection of the House Slave being trotted out "to entertain the slave owner and his guests." In his disavowal of the values upon which the standards for American Arts and Letters are erected, Wilson declared:

We cannot share a single value system if

that value system consists of the values

of white Americans based on their

European ancestors. …

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