by 99 Seats
Over at Culturebot, Jeremy Barker has a question:
So the question is, why aren’t more African-Americans making theater outside the traditional text-based mode? Devised theater is just one variant of contemporary performance that’s primarily in the theatrical (rather than dance or movement) vein, but from what I’ve seen, it is, even beyond strictly devised theater, rather unusual to find black artists working in these experimental, multidisciplinary modes.
Those sorts of barriers are precisely where ensemble-driven theater comes from–artists tired of beating their heads against a wall, trying to get their work done, who find some like-minded compatriots and start their own companies to produce their own work. And don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying it’s easy, but there’s a big difference between waiting to be recognized and have your work produced, and fighting to make things happen. (This is, I should point out, why Adkins started New Black Fest.) I’m sure most of the playwrights Adkins and Holtham talk about have, at some point, self-produced or worked with small companies. But there’s still this glaring question of why more of them don’t deepen and develop those collaborations, rather than assuming that small work is just a stepping stone to doing the sort of big theater plays they really want to.
There’s certainly plenty of counter-examples in the theater. The AIDS crisis in the 1980s gave rise to a distinctly realist form of gay theater based on that shared experience, but Tony Kushner wound up blowing it out of the water in the early Nineties with Angels in America, and writers like Terrence McNally expanded their vocabularies well beyond traditional well-made plays. George C. Wolfe’s Colored Museum was an amazing satiric deconstruction of black realist drama in the late Eighties, but it sort of stands on its own. Mainstream African-American theater, as even Adkins notes, remains beholden to the legacy of August Wilson. But when you compare that sort of realism to the work of an African-American woman like Suzan-Lori Parks, the differences are striking. I don’t think Parks rejects the idea of an essential African-American identity, but her work does explicitly explore how identity is performed, from Venus to The America Play to Topdog/Underdog. And I suspect that has something to do with her gender, and approaching identity from a pair of perspectives that wind up conflicting, much as they did in Ntozake Shange’s best work.
It's a fairly dense article, so definitely, please RTWT. But I have quite a few thoughts to share on it.
First off, I'm not one to go in for a lot of playwright triumphalism/exceptionalism, but I don't think it's too much to say that, historically, playwrights have been at the forefront of making social change and responding to world events. There is a long tradition that holds that is the theatre artists' first duty. There is plenty of room for "art for art's sake" thinking and all, but it's not an idea that's so far afield. Yeah, I'm sticking up for my buddy, but still.
To the substance of the article, well, some of the premise is completely off. There is a long, proud, and excellent tradition of black experimental theatre. It lives in a difference place, though, than "devised" theatre or whatever term we're using for white experimental theatre. And there are artists working in that tradition right now: this season, Soho Rep featured the work of Jomama Jones, the creation/alter ego of the excellent Daniel Alexander Jones. Daniel works firmly in this tradition and in this world, devising his own pieces that are lyrical, expressive, beautiful and steeped in race and the clash of cultures. But he doesn't get the notice that an artist like Taylor Mac does. (And before anyone says anything at all, I know and respect and have deep love and affection for both of these men and I'm not trying to say that Daniel is somehow better or anything like that. I'm simply noting the disparity.) This is a wholly unscientific thing, but when Taylor or the Rude Mechs are doing work or when a British company comes to town, my Facebook thread is full of "must sees." Not so much for Jomama Jones. But it WAS sold out and extended.
What Jeremy is noticing, but can't quite put his finger on, is a truth I've mentioned before: we have a segregated theatre. Before everyone gets the vapors, I'm not calling anyone racist or prejudiced or evil bad people. I'm just saying that white theatre makers and black theatre makers inhabit very, very different worlds, with little to no overlap and with very different rules. White theatre makers usually have virtually no idea of what's going on in the world of black theatre, who's making what, where it's happening, any of that. Occasionally, a Classical Theatre of Harlem or a New Black Fest will reach the "mainstream" consciousness, but mostly, it happens in places, especially here in New York and the Tri-State area, we don't hear about.
One of the things I loved about The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G (if you missed it, well, you missed it) was how beautifully Qui showed the dilemma of being a minority artist. You want to tell your story, you want to tell it your way, but still, no matter what the story is, the pressure is on to make it more whatever ethnicity you are, to make it more "true," even when that experience is false to you. (Trust me, this relates. Go with me.) A lot of minority artists who are into experimentation, now that having two degrees in playwriting is a prerequisite to having a career, have that experimentalism taught out of them. Some do retain it or retain some of it: Tarell Alvin McRaney, Christina Anderson, Branden Jacob-Jenkins are all using elements of experimental theatre, as are Zakiyyah Alexander, Keli Garrett, the aforementioned Daniel Alexander Jones, his longtime collaborator Sharon Bridgforth, and many, many others. Most identify as playwrights, but many direct as well. As minority artists, there's a lot less wiggle room in terms of role. It's easier to work identified as a playwright because the only time, as a director, you're getting the call, it's to work on a black play. And, as we've see, those opportunities are few and far between.
And let's not forget the historical record, some of which Rob Weinert-Kendt notes here, Suzan-Lori Parks, Kia Corthron, Kara Corthron, going all the way back to Adrienne Kennedy and Douglas Turner Ward and Ed Bullins. And let's not forget writers like OyamO, Not all black plays were written by August Wilson or in his style. But these works are rarely revived, rarely canonized, rarely taught to anyone who isn't studying Black theatre. In fact, probably the only people who do read this work these days are young Black playwrights. It's lost history. And it's lost because of the segregation of our theatres. And because of the brain drain.
15 years ago, Suzan-Lori Parks was a downtown, self-producing, avant-garde playwright struggling just like everyone else. Now she's an institution. Maybe not as dramatic as Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers, but Suzan-Lori winning the Pulitzer for a play that was, while more accessible than some of her earlier work, still weird and odd and distinct, that opened a kind of flood gate and put a kind of validation on that kind of work. There was a crack in the wall of the major institutions for a certain kind of work. But pretty much, that's all they were looking for. Everything else has been deemed too old-fashioned. (It's also worth remembering that a black playwright/director/artistic director is the one who put her on the path that ended with the Pulitzer. If George C. Wolfe hadn't been the A.D. of Public, would it have happened at all?)
Now, to be completely honest, there's another pressure coming from the other side, too. There is a conservative strain in the black theatre community, tied, in some ways , to the idea of being an agent for social change, and reaching a wide audience. Avant-garde theatre doesn't always do that, so some artists do feel a pressure to make their work more accessible, and, in some ways, more conventional. But that goes for a lot of folks.
Jeremy was absolutely right for calling me out about saying:
For whatever reason (or whatever combination of reasons), this work is done mainly by white artists. Or, at least, the work that gets the spotlight is the work done by white artists. Which strikes me as odd, since I know so many black artists and artists of color who are well suited to tackling work in this manner.
I wasn't really saying that I thought, which is, it's bullshit. A lot of folks talk a lot of good game about inclusion and experimentation and being good little liberals and all, but their actions don't match up. Doing this kind of "devised" work or whatever is way for them to work with their friends and pals and not have to take any flack for it (not that anyone really takes flack for NOT being integrated). No one pushes Rude Mechs to be inclusive because, well, they devise the work as a company, so if you're not in the company, you're not in the company. Being a devised company means you're free of any need to diversify your work, to reach beyond your small circle, to have a larger conversation. We can only worry about one non-mainstream thing at a time: either devised work or diversity. Not both.
Well, Jeremy, I hope this goes to answering your question and pointing in the direction of some things to look up. And I do hope we see you at The New Black Fest this year. You might be surprised by what you see.