Black Drama and the Alarm Clock
In the early 1970s, people in what was then the Black Community took some interest in the April issues of Black World, a rich source of cultural information edited by Hoyt W. Fuller. Those issues were devoted to reporting and commentary on Black drama; they satisfied our desire to know what was happening in Black theater. We had a broad sense of how Black playwrights and directors were dealing with themes and influencing inquiry about the state of Black America. Two items in the April 1972 issue were typical.
Woodie King’s “A Question of Relevance,” pages 25-29, informed us that he did not see a coming together of educational theater and the Black Community “until they begin to understand each other” (25). King ended his essay with an opinion about change. “The classics [of Black theater] will be captured on video as they are in books. Educational institutions must the look for the new, the innovative. I think the new and the innovative are in Black theater” (29).
Kalamu ya Salaam’s report “BlackArtSouth –New Orleans,” pages 40-45, was less sanguine. He had “a feeling that B*L*A*C*K T*H*E*A*T*E*R as we know it is on its way out this year. The serious folks are for getting off into other things and the thespians are showing their true nature and ending up on Broadway, television and Hollywood silver screens ( or at the very least striving for that)” (40). He concluded with the bet “that film is the next wave and that, except for the exceptions that will prove the rule, not much Black-produced Black Theater will surface during 1972. It’s sad but true. Check it out for yourself” (45).
Educational theater and the Black Community never reached the stage of understanding each other, and the alarm clock ensured that Salaam won his bet. Black drama did move with deliberate speed from the traditional stage to the screens, surfing into the World Wide Web on yet another new wave.
The illusion that there is a Black Community which Black drama can and is able to address has evaporated. A very small number of intimate strangers (the descendents of Afrocentric thinkers who boldly embraced dreams of covenant, community, and solidarity) do occasionally attend revivals of ancient Black drama. You are truly have juice and game if you can find and attend and digest a performance of work by Alice Childress, Samm-Art Williams, Ed Bullins, Adrienne Kennedy, Tom Dent, J. B. Franklin, Kalamu ya Salaam, Pearl Cleage, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, Ishmael Reed and Douglas Turner Ward. You have to be an aristocrat to enjoy work by Harold Clark and Chakula Cha Jua. You are “normal” if works by Tyler Perry, August Wilson, and T. D. Jakes are sufficient to satisfy your desire. You are even more authentically “normal” if soft-porn music videos and underground DVDs of so-called black films that premiered yesterday make you happy. You have arrived, transcended the burden of ancestral blackness, and become quintessentially American.
The brand of black drama is yet to be determined by Asian cartels and Latino-American corporations.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
March 16, 2013