Amiri Baraka: 1934-2014

By King, Woodie, Jr. | American Theatre, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Amiri Baraka: 1934-2014


King, Woodie, Jr., American Theatre


Shortly after I arrived in New York City from Detroit in 1964 to direct and act in Study in Color, by Rev. Malcolm Boyd, Amiri Baraka came to see the play at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery. After the performance, everyone went to hear the jazzman Charles Mingus at the nearby 5 Spot Jazz Club on St. Mark's Place. It was my good fortune to meet and get to know the celebrated author of Dutchman. We had in common a close friendship with the great poet Langston Hughes.

Baraka was already an award-winning playwright, a nationally recognized poet, editor of respected literary journals (where he published unknown writers alongside such comrades as Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Rivers, Rexroth and Kerouac). After the success of Dutch- wan (produced by Edward Albce) marked him as a major playwright, Baraka moved uptown to Harlem to set up the Black Arts Repertory Theatre.

At that time, American cities were in turmoil; riots took place in Watts and Harlem, and two years later in Detroit and Baraka's hometown of Newark, N.J. Baraka's poetry and essays defined that unrest. As an activist, he participated in setting Black Power Conferences in Atlanta and Gary, Ind., to further define the unrest. Baraka's image blazed on front pages of newspapers across America and fired up African Americans everywhere.

Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark. He left that city to go to Howard University, then left Howard a year before graduation to join the U.S. Air Force. After being discharged, he settled in Greenwich Village, where his literary output began to take serious focus.

In 1968, I began producing his plays (and also produced him as a poet for Motown Records). At the time, Baraka was too busy for the intense involvement theatre demanded, although lie participated in my documentary Black Theater in America and coedited anthologies widi me. The working connection has lasted till this day. At New Federal Theatre, we are currently in development with Baraka's play The Most Dangerous Man in America, scheduled for November 2014, to be directed by Paul Carter Harrison.

Baraka's life and literary achievement as a playwright, poet, essayist and political activist should give us inspiration and courage, especially as African-American artists. I le leaves an indelible imprint on our culture. …

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