BLACK DRAMA STUDY NOTE
Tom Dent's one-act Ritual Murder (1967), first performed in 1976, is a classic of Black South drama . Dent minimized plot and depended on the Narrator's investigation and the individual testimonials of type-cast characters (the wife, the public school teacher, the boss, the anti-poverty program administrator, the mother and father, the chief of police, a black psychiatrist, the victim and the murderer) to sketch a communal story. His verbal economy is effective. The only action is focused speech. Spectators can experience the play as an investigative tool, a device for analyzing a familiar event in modern life: African American men killing African American men. Ritual Murder figuratively incorporates its audience. It provokes them to speak at the end of the performance. Even spectators who refuse to speak become characters in a theatrical ritual. Ultimately, Ritual Murder is metadrama, i.e., a play that explains how a play may have a socially engaged purpose. It is an example of how a play can create a temporary, democratic community.
It is judiciousness that Dent remixed of some elements of tragedy as described in Aristotle's Poetics with some of the dark, biting humor Bertolt Brecht used in writing the libretto for The Threepenny Opera (1928), for which Kurt Weill wrote the atonal music. The aesthetic effect of Ritual Murder is cool and unsettling. It does not provoke fear and pity; its performance does not lead spectators to have any feeling of catharsis, of being purged and cleansed . On the contrary, because one witnesses the collection of opinions about the crime rather than any visual details about Joe Brown's knifing his friend James Roberts on a Saturday night, one feels moved to have compassionate disinterest. One does experience, however, the frustration involved with clarifying a recurring social problem that defies resolution.
That Ritual Murder exposes its own architecture and pricks what might be called "consciousness of social paralysis" with maximum economy makes it one of the more unusual examples of black drama written for communal consumption during the Black Arts Movement. One-act plays by Ben Caldwell, Marvin X, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Ted Shine; longer plays by Alice Childress, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins; the acclaimed works of August Wilson and Ntozake Shange and Suzann Lori-Parks might seem more typical of the diversity which characterizes black drama from the Black Arts Movement to the present.
Since the 1960s, when LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and others formulated ideas regarding a revolutionary theatre, black drama has successfully defied easy classification. It has not succeeded in revolutionizing contemporary audiences. It has exploited the futurism of mixed dramatic genres, structures that are neither purely tragic nor comic nor overtly realistic . Spectators are often uncertain whether a given play is designed to entertain, to propagandize or politicize, to induce outrage or to inform, or to achieve all these aesthetic ends simultaneously. And few of them would give a damn about contemplating what black drama means. Spectators are most often happy with the thrills provided by exaggerated spectacle, thrills which undermine revolutionary potentials.
Scholarly study of black drama, on the other hand, can require that we account both for the formal or textual treatment of subject matter in scripts as well as potential or actual performance, that we conjoin analyses which bespeak ideological disharmony, and that we put drama in historical perspectives. The highly visualized, recent instances of black drama as film or television programs, when we would be active rather than passive spectators, obligate us to use combinations of visual, literary or verbal, and aural literacies. We have daunting work to do when the drama is a translation from fiction into film, as is the case with Their Eyes Were Watching God, Beloved, The Color Purple, Long Black Song, and PUSH transformed into Precious . The difficulty of the task may explain, in part, why scholarly discussions of black drama seem to be remarkably few in number when they are counted against either standardized or innovative criticisms of black poetry and black fiction. It is easier to witness instances of black drama than to articulate what one has witnessed. And it must be noted that witnessing black drama by way of television or cinema is more common than attending a live performance. Electronic or digital commercialization of black drama encourages a certain passivity, a loss of desire to explore nuanced differences between the dramas of everyday living and crafted, oppositional drama which defamiliarizes what we take for granted and provokes discomforting thought. The integrity of the drama as script counts for little under the current pressures of satisfying audiences and earning profits. And the path most often taken is a reductive discussion of black drama as narrative rather than as exceptionally complex mimesis.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
November 2, 2015