Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama

By Marc Maufort | Go to book overview

Who Do You See When You Look at Me?
Black Core Values and African American Identity in Performance

Deborah Wood Holton

For years the world believed that the descendants of African slaves in the United States were culture-less, stripped during that grim period in historical servitude of their original artifacts, namely languages and religious systems. For years American history texts denied and diminished the heroic efforts and contributions of this diverse group of people, while stereotypes confirming the already-held perceptions of African American inferiority and ignorance abounded. By the measuring tapes of many not much has happened to change these perceptions, despite the efforts of a few--we have only to observe American popular culture to see how lucratively seductive stereotypic projections can be. The deeply-rooted black cultural values, such as spirituality and storytelling, that have impacted upon the lives of many African Americans in the past and continue to conflict with those of the dominant culture remain obscure, unappreciated These values are nonetheless useful in comprehending the intricacies of the African American experience, thus informing all aspects of performance. Since storytelling is one component of black cultural values, I will begin this discussion with a true one, for I am rooted in the culture about which I speak and find stories instructive.


I

A few years ago I shared coffee with a new colleague met at a conference panel discussion earlier that day. Our conversation was lively and engaging. We talked about many things, discovering that we had a great deal in common. I had been researching the plays of Lorraine Hansberry at the time and found comfort in discussing the challenges of inquiry with a new friend. We must have talked for what seemed like hours. And then I mentioned Africa. I told her that one of my goals, my dreams, was to experience Africa as Hansberry had not, to shift all of the abstract knowledge I had acquired about the continent to the back of my mind and move my taste for experiential learning to the forefront. I was going to Africa to study the comparisons and contrasts between Hansberry's dramatic vision and my own understanding of the cultural experience, and I was going to observe an important piece of my own identity puzzle. In short, I was going home. Imagine my surprise,

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