Afrocentricity in Theatre

By Verharen, Charles C. | Black Masks, February/March 2004 | Go to article overview

Afrocentricity in Theatre


Verharen, Charles C., Black Masks


The African American Theatre Program of the U. of Louisville celebrated its 10th Anniversary December 4 - 7th. The keynote speaker was Glynn Turman. Noted academicians, scholars, and practitioners included Dr. Glenda Dicherson, Dr. Paul Carter Harrison, Dr. Victor Walker, Dr. Vernell Lillie, Dr. Marvin Sims, and Dr. Mikell Pinkney, among others. The workshops and symposia were capped off by a rousing production of Langston Hughes' Black Nativity, directed by the Conference organizer, Dr. Lundeana Thomas. Following is an abridged version of one paper presented at the Conference.

Originally, I was supposed to talk on a panel entitled "What is Afrocentricity." Then the title of the panel was changed to: "Authenticity and Identity: What is Black Theatre, and Who Gets to Do it?" Well I was in trouble. I've written a lot about Afrocentricity but when I came to the Conference, I had no real experience of or appreciation for theatre, Eurocentric or Afrocentric. It's a real defect in my life....something I always thought I should work on..... That's one of the reasons I jumped at Dr. Lundeana Thomas' invitation to come.

My problem with theatre has been just what a student said his problem with Shakespearean acting was in Dr. Mikell Pinkney's master class. The plays I watched always seemed to be "fake." They were so rigidly tied to a tradition that they were artificial, wooden....And then Thursday night, Black Nativity showed me that my life-long apprehensions about "theatre as fake" were grounded on a woefully narrow experience of the genre. I went to Black Nativity in a very unreceptive mood because of my freight about the "fake" quality of theatre and also because I thought my iBook had blown up the paper I was going to present. I carried my bad mood into the first quarter of the play and it imperceptibly vanished in the second quarter. [B]y the end I was enraptured. I could have listened to the Hallelujah chorus over and over again. What happened? Afrocentric theatre is what happened.

However, before we talk about Afrocentric theatre, let's first talk about Afrocentric art more generally. What is Afrocentric art? Before coming to the Conference, I was going to say that Afrocentric art, like all other art, must be about creativity. And creativity is simply the most visible sign of freedom. Freedom itself is the sign of the spirit at play in the universe, manifesting itself in the universe's infinite variety. I wish I could say I said that, but it's just that good old anti-Afrocentrist, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel!

So if Eurocentric art is about creativity, how's it different from Afrocentric art?... Cheikh Anta Diop claims that artistic aims cannot be separated from our broader human aims. Those aims, universal for all humans, are survival and creativity. The two can't be separated. In Afrocentric art, creativity must aim at survival. Reciprocally, survival is completely dependent on creativity....Think of the old dispute between Alain Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois. Can we practice art for art's sake, or must art serve a practical function? We must dissolve the distinction between fine and practical arts. It is a commonplace to say that many African traditions do not admit of such a distinction. Afrocentric art includes what has been excluded.

An easy way to understand the differences between Afrocentric and Eurocentric approaches toward creativity is to look at them in an institutional context. Harvard's motto aims its creativity in the direction of truth: veritas, while Howard [University]'s motto insists that truth can't be separated from usefulness: veritas et utilitas.

How does this abstract, arcane philosophical distinction play out in Afrocentric theatre? Dr. Vernell Lillie said it most clearly. "You just want to be open to the myriad possibilities that exist in life." That covers the creativity of art. But she also said, "You must also be able to love life." Her most powerful act of Afrocentric theatre for me was the story she told. …

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