History of the Theatre II

The Course

History of the Theatre II-THE 342

This course focuses on western theatre history from the 19th century to the present surveying performance styles, aesthetic movements, developments in theatre design and architecture as well as evolving production aspects.  A major facet of this course will be the contributions of the African American playwright.

As part of the unit on American theatre history, students will read plays by and learn about the pioneering African American playwrights and performers whose contributions to American theatre span the development of theatre in the U.S. and reflect their struggles and accomplishments as artists.  Inspired by these masters and the notion of Witnessing as mode of circulating history, students will conduct primary and secondary research in order to create an original piece based on the African American experience.  Selected pieces may be performed by Rollins student actors in a classroom showcase.

About Jen-Scott Mobley

Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts & Dance Jen-Scott earned her Ph.D. in Theatre Studies from the City University of New York Graduate Center. She also holds an M.F.A. in Dramaturgy and Theatre Criticism from Brooklyn College. Her B.A. in Theatre is from the College of William and Mary. Recent publications include reviews in Theatre Journal, Ecumenica, and Shakespeare Bulletin as well as her article, “Tennessee Williams’s Ravenous Women: Fat Behavior Onstage” which appeared in the inaugural issue of Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society. Forthcoming in the collection Fat: Culture and Materiality (Berg Press 2013) is her article, “Fatsploitation: Disgust and the Performance of Weight Loss.”

Jen-Scott’s interdisciplinary research interests include American theatre, dramaturgy, feminist theatre, performance and cultural studies, fat studies, and women’s roles as playwrights, directors, and performers, especially with respect to the way meaning develops in and around women’s bodies in motion and across genres of performance. More… 

 

Zora Neale Hurston

(Harlem, on a couch having tea while talking to the interviewer. She is happy and lively. She is at the peak of her career. She’s talking about what made her interested in her writing and what mo- tivated her to become part of the Harlem Renaissance.)

Zora: I went to an all black school and other than education I encountered a phenomenon I never would suspect to happen, racism. Racism! In an all black school! (laughs) We are all black and yet it still exists. We are all of the same dark skin, we attended the university for the same rea- sons, and yet we faced the thing we feared of happening most when joining white society. It was interesting to me. Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.(laughs) I became fascinated in the idea of racism within the same race. It was what I felt I needed to sought out and find for myself. My fear and nervousness to enter integration went away soon after as you can imagine. I thought to myself why must I be afraid when it is already every- where. So I attended the Barnard College of Columbia shortly after and I was the only black women in the whole university. I no longer worried about racism and discrimination, for it is already eve- rywhere and why must I try to run? If you’re surrounded by the same kind of people, they’ll man- age to find something different. It’s human nature. We thrive to be different and we have the need to establish our own identity and sense of belonging. People who don’t know better do so by differentiating outsiders to themselves. That’s why I was involved, because I wanted to fight it. Maybe if the white people stopped looking down on us we’d stop looking down on ourselves. If that didn’t work, well, at least hope we got closer. We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.” I tried, put in my effort, and the rest is up to you. You heard my voice and that brought you here. What’s your next step?

 

 

 

Zora Neale Hurston was an African-American playwright during the 1900s. Her work focuses on African-American literature, politics, equality, racial discrimination, and integration. She was one of the important people who heavily influenced the artistic movement of the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance, and has changed the views of black art until today.

Zora Neale’s life timeline has helped me understand what she did, what she went through to do it, and how she did it. Zora Neale Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, a place which she describes in most of her written stories as a place where African Americans could live and strive as they desire with independence apart from the white society. Many northern schoolteachers came through her town and gave her many books that opened her eyes to literature. She went to boarding school in Jacksonville, but got expelled because her father stopped paying her tuition. She then worked as a maid for a theatrical company before enrolling and graduating from the historically African American Morgan College in Baltimore. After that she went to Barnard College of Columbia University, where she was the sole black college student of the college. The monologue talks about her education and the past schools that she’s studied at. She had studied in an all black school and then went on to the prestigious Barnard College at Columbia, and was the only black student there. I integrated this in the monologue by not making it sound like broken English, the way she makes most of her plays sound to indicate black culture. I also made her sound happy and joyful, considering she has been through a lot in her life and she has worked hard to earn her achievements.

What made Zora Neale Hurston’s work so distinct and historically influential, was her heavy research and incorporation of her knowledge of anthropology along with folklore. Hurston had a passion in anthropology. Her of work also had influences of dialect from African-American culture. She used written dialect and accents as voice and language in her writing as a stylistic choice. In her work, she did not address the issue of racism of whites towards blacks, as they were a common theme among literature, but rather the theme of discrimination or racial issues within the race itself. She was ridiculed, however, for that because some readers saw it as a caricature or racist representation of African-Americans. I put this in the monologue where she talks about how she had to face black people’s discrimination toward her in her years at college. That this was the phenomenon that made her realize that racism is beyond white to black. It extends to “colorism” within the black community. It was in interesting phenomenon that was original and she explored it throughout her career.

Hurston also had a role in the Harlem Renaissance Cultural Movement. The Harlem Renaissance was an artistic movement in the 1920s also known as the “New Negro Movement.” The movement was focused on racial pride that spoke through intellectuals and production of literature, whether in the form of writing, music, or theater. The movement challenged racism, stereotypes, politics, and social integration. The Harlem Renaissance used forms of art to promote humanity for equality. It opened more opportunities for blacks to be published mainstream and to be brought up to the United States acceptance or knowledge. The movement helped promote sociological development and enriched black culture in the United States. She pursued this by combining her knowledge of anthropology with literature. She gained attention with this style of writing in her short stories such as, “John Redding Goes to Sea” and the play “Colorstruck.” She believed that she could attain power through her works. The monologue talks about how she wanted a change and to push the black culture forward to the world, that people needed to recognize it as a distinct and powerful culture.

I also integrated two of her quotes in the the piece, “Suppose a Negro does something really magnificent, and I glory, not in the benefit to mankind, but in the fact that the doer was a Negro. Must I not also go hang my head in shame when a member of my race does something execrable? The white race did not go into a laboratory and invent incandescent light. That was Edison. If you are under the impression that every white man is an Edison, just look around a bit.” I used part of this one when I talked about how she felt black culture was important. “Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to “jump at de sun.” We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground,” was another quote I used when she said she tried to make a difference, and that what matters is she tried and aimed at making it happen.

Other than her accomplishments, Zora was a very lively woman who was a thinker and writer. The monologue mainly focused on the peak of her career rather than the unfortunate downfall because I felt in a way it should honor her and her work. The later half of her life she was faced with unfortunate events, such as a prosecution for molestation, which was proved untrue, but greatly hurt her career. She had to go back to being a maid, and faced financial issues before her health condition took her life. Zora Neale Hurston died of a stroke.

Zora Neale Hurston was an inspiration and a conservative activist in the theater world. Her work influenced the Harlem Renaissance and incorporated research, and facts involving anthropology. The monologue includes snippets of her life and a sense of what she has been through to attain her achievements.

 

 

Bibliography

 

The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.” . Sonnet Media, n.d. Web. 19 Apr 2013.

<http://zoranealehurston.com/about/timeline/>.

 

“Zora Neale Hurston.” . A E Networks, n.d. Web. 19 Apr 2013.  <http://www.biography.com/people/zora-neale-hurston-9347659?page=2>.

 

Women in History. Zora Neale Hurston biography. Last Updated: 4/18/2013. Lakewood Public Library. Date accessed 4/17/2013 . <http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/hurs-zor.htm>.

 

McWhorter, John. “Why Zora Neale Hurston Was a Conservative.” . N.p., 04 Jan 2011. Web. 19 Apr 2013. <http://www.theroot.com/views/why-zora-neale-hurston-was-conservative>.

Carpio, Glenda R.. “Commmentary.” The Newly Complicated Zora Neale Hurston. N.p., 02 Jan 2011. Web. 19 Apr 2013. <http://chronicle.com/article/The-Newly-Complicated-Zora/125753/>.

 

The Negro Theatre Unit

Alexa Gordon

 

Dr. Jen-Scott Mobley

 

Theatre History II

 

                                            Project Mosaic: The Negro Theatre Unit

 

Monologue

This monologue imagines the first meeting between Hallie Flanagan, the director of the Federal Theatre Project and Rose McClendon, an African-American actress who would later become co-director of the New York City Negro unit as a result of this very meeting.

SETTING:

Rose McClendon’s home, July 1935.

 

ROSE: No coffee? Tea? Nothing? Very well. I quite admire your punctuality. Let us not waste any time! Ms. Flanagan…Hallie? (clears throat) Ms. Flanagan, I can tell you the Negro community is thirsting for creation, for…process, for art — art that reflects our experience. I have spoken to many wonderful individuals who have shown a great amount of interest in this project. Oh yes, yeeeesss! Mr. Carlton Moss? Mmmhmm, very interested Ms. Flanagan, very interested. The support and interest is there. It’s undeniable. I urge you to consider a Negro…section…a unit if you will, Ms. Flanagan. It’s a perfect opportunity really. (Beaming) I knew you’d need no convincing! You’ve always been on our side. “Now what makes a Negro theater is not so much the use of Negroes as the selection of plays that deal with Negroes, with Negro problems, with phases of Negro life, faithfully presented and accurately delineated. Any other approach is doomed to failure.”[1]  But we can do that. Now is the time. This is our chance Ms. Flanagan. I can feel it!  Let me sign today. A letter of intent? A contract? Ah yes, let me get my pen. (She peers over the document.) Director? That’s an awfully large responsibility, don’t you think? I would much prefer co-directing with my dear friend, John Houseman. I’ll see if I can’t ring him up this very afternoon and fill him in on the particulars. Trust me, he’ll be an excellent addition to our little team. Well of course he’s white, Ms. Flanagan – it’s no matter to me. There are very few Negroes at the top in the theatre community you know. But we’ll learn! This is the stepping-stone we need to grow as artists. (She signs her name with a flourish.) What a wonderful thing this is…the creation of a Negro unit. And you there, Ms. Flanagan, you’ve witnessed the beginning of it all. (She smiles.)

 

 

Research Findings

 

“The speed and enthusiasm with which the Federal Theatre Project was conceived, organized, and instituted during the late summer and early fall of 1935 is a model of bureaucratic maneuvering” (Elam and Krasner 271). In the wake of the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration looked for a “new approach to the problem of people and of work” by providing theatre professionals throughout the United States with a new artistic home (O’Connor 2). The aim of the project was two-fold: “to provide work relief for unemployed actors, and through this re-employment…revive the theatrical industry” (Whitman 134). It is truly remarkable that in this pre- Civil Rights movement era, African American performers were included (though segregated) in this national creative undertaking.

Luckily, Hallie Flanagan, director of the Federal Theatre Project, was known for her commitment to diversity. She believed diversity was one of America’s greatest strengths and sought “to mirror the complexities of American life while creating a program specific to the needs of individual communities” (Elam and Krasner 272). Thus, she had a special interest in implementing the Negro Theatre Unit.

In fact, actress Rose McClendon first introduced the concept of Negro units to Flanagan. McClendon envisioned African American theatre that followed the “for us, by us” model and shared this idea with a number of her peers. She was instrumental in securing the “interest of organizations and individuals, including…Edna Thomas, Harry Edwards, Carlton Moss, and Gus Smith” that would help the project take off in the black community (Flanagan 63).

Fortunately, Flanagan was quite receptive to McClendon’s ideas and the pair immediately began strategizing, planning, and brainstorming. Their initial discussions in July of 1935 would result in sixteen Negro units “scattered across America from Boston to Los Angeles, and Seattle to Atlanta, with a cluster of units in the northeast coast around Hartford, Buffalo, New York City, Newark, and Philadelphia” (O’Connor 18).

Furthermore, “the productions of these units reflected a wide variety of dramatic material” (O’Connor 18). The Negro units produced everything from Shakespearean classics like Macbeth and Hamlet to lively minstrel shows. However, not all productions were well received by the public. Their shows were subjected to particularly stringent censorship laws that often halted rehearsals or even stopped productions.

For example, Paul Green’s Hymn to the Rising Sun was closed in Chicago by local officials because the censors objected to the satirical presentation of a black chain gang’s reaction to the Declaration of Independence (O’Connor 20). In addition, the affects of racism and general suspicion of African Americans cannot be underestimated when examining the Negro Theatre Project. “To many thirties’ audiences and critics, any ending where blacks and whites worked together to overcome oppression automatically signaled Communist propaganda” (O’Connor 20). Thus, the censors often unfairly scrutinized the few black playwrights that were employed by the Federal Theatre Project if their work contained themes of harmony or acceptance between races.

Though McClendon insisted that a Negro unit must present the “problems and phases” of African-American life faithfully in order to be successful, she was also insistent that the best directors and designers in America were white (Elam and Krasner 273). In her book Arena, Flanagan notes, “I asked whether it would not be advisable to have the direction and designing of their project by members of their own race; Miss McClendon felt that since Negroes had always been performers and had had no previous means of learning direction and design, they would prefer to start under more experienced direction” (Flanagan 63). Ultimately, it was decided that John Houseman would co-direct the Negro units with McClendon. “Certainly her (McClendon’s) choice of John Houseman as co-director, was a tribute to his administrative abilities and his skill at working with the folks downtown for the benefit of the Negro unit” (O’Connor 18). Like Flanagan, Houseman was a true ally to the African American community.

Interestingly, when Houseman left the Harlem unit, actor Carlton Moss took over the position. Moss supported McClendon’s dreams of a Negro unit from the beginning and shared in her vision for a truly African-American theatre. Similar to McClendon, “his goal was to create an environment where the community felt comfortable and would consider the theatre their own” (O’Connor 19).

The legacy of the Negro Theatre Units is difficult to pin down. According to author John Poole, the Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Units were at best “progressive as an idea but lacking in the practical matters of producing serious indigenous works reflective of the black experience” (Poole 38). At worst, he remarks, the producers ultimately “pandered to racist elements in society and diminished their artistic visions in order to draw a buck” (Poole 38).

Perhaps most tragic of all, Rose McClendon did not live to see the breadth of work produced by the African American community. She “fell ill” and did not recover (O’Connor 18). Exactly one year after her first hopeful meeting with Hallie Flanagan, McClendon died at the age of fifty-one. Though she had hoped the Negro units would be collaborative projects between blacks and whites, history tells a different story. For instance, the African-American theatres in the southern United States would have been a particular disappointment to McClendon. “For all intents and purposes, the Birmingham Negro Unit was a white endeavor carried out by black participants. This situation was the antithesis of Rose McClendon’s vision for a Negro theatre” (Elam and Krasner 276).

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Elam, Harry J., and David Krasner. African American Performance and Theater History: A

Critical Reader. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 271-287. Print.

 

Flanagan, Hallie. Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. New York City: Benjamin Blom,      Inc., 1964. Print.

 

O’Connor, John, and Lorraine Brown. Free, Adult, Uncensored: The Living History of the             Federal Theatre Project. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980. Print.

 

Poole, John R.  “Making a Tree from Thirst: Acquiescence and Defiance in the Negro Federal       Theatre Project in Birmingham, Alabama.” Theatre History Studies. 21. (2001): 27-42.             Web.

 

Whitman, Willson. Bread and Circuses: A Study of Federal Theatre. New York City: Oxford       University Press, 1937. Print.


[1] Elam, Harry J., and David Krasner. African American Performance and Theater History: A

Critical Reader. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 271-287. Print.

 

Ira Aldridge

(Backstage at the Covent Garden Theatre in 1833. IRA ALDRIDGE, a young African American actor sits in profile, looking into his reflection in the mirror in front of him. This is the night that he will go on as Othello for the first time at this prolific theatre.)

 

Ira: And to think my father wanted me to become a preacher. Wonder what he would think of me now, miles away from America in a city that still rallies against the color of my skin, about to be the first man of my own skin to play Othello. He would demand to know why I left New York in the first place. “Its no different there than over here,” he’d say. And while I would pretend that he was wrong and tell myself that he didn’t know a thing, he’d still be right. You can get all the praise in the world, but if one person still manages a way to bring hatred into the theatre, it loses its beautiful, untouchable sacredness. The play shouldn’t be about the actor. It should be about the story, the words. (pauses) They said, and I quote, “Owing to the shape of his lips, it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English . . .” Such a misfortune to them to be unknowing of the simple fact that I am an educated man. I surely didn’t attend the African Free School and the University of Glasgow not knowing how to speak my own language. I’m a lucky man. I know that much. Not many young, black men here and especially in America, would even dream of having the life I am living: a home, a beautiful wife who happens to not possess the same color skin as I, and a career on the stage that will certainly continue to grow if I have any say on the matter—but who knows how many actually want that life or think its actually possible. But it is. It is possible. And wouldn’t my father be astounded to know that.

 

Not much was really known about prolific African American actor Ira Aldridge until more recent years. His remarkable life is certainly worth knowing and I very much enjoyed researching as much as I could about Mr. Aldridge and the impact he had on the public whilst he was alive. For my Project Mosaic I originally wanted a dialogue but eventually switched over to a monologue where Aldridge would simply be talking to himself before his Covent Garden debut as Othello, which for him, was not the most pleasant experience, at least according to a couple of my sources.

From the sources I used, I was hoping to gain knowledge not only of Aldridge’s life, but make connections to how his life experiences and origins affected his personality and character. Setting the monologue before a pivotal moment like this was a no brainer for me, especially with knowing the outcome of the groundbreaking performance that he gave which would have been minutes after this monologue would be delivered. I also wanted to play up the relationship with his father. I didn’t find much on it in my research, but from multiple sources saying that his father had wanted Ira to become a preacher or minister, I would imagine that wanting to be an actor, particularly in his home of New York City during this time, probably wouldn’t have been Daniel Aldridge’s ideal occupation for his son. Ira was fortunate to be granted an education at the African Free School until he was sixteen. The African Free School was a school for freed African American children in New York City. When Ira’s father remarried it is believed that, according to Ira’s older brother Joshua, Ira ran away from home and worked on a ship that sailed south. Also, knowing that once Ira left for Europe and never made it back to America makes me wonder, did he ever see his father again? Did his father come to Europe to visit his son? I think the mystery behind that was something I wanted to play with.

From the beginning of his career, Ira Aldridge was faced with constant public scrutiny because of the color of his skin. It was nearly impossible for African Americans to be actors without being discriminated against. While Aldridge was in fact able to perform at the African Grove Theatre in New York City only if it was for a short while. After the Grove closed due to racial tension, Ira was able to get a backstage job at the Chatham Theatre and found acting roles where he could, before deciding to try his luck as an actor in Europe. When Ira first arrived in Europe he spent around eighteen months at the University of Glasgow during which time he was very academically successful, gaining praise from professors and winning awards for Latin. I thought that was very interesting when you think about how a critic of one of his earlier performances of Othello said that his lips got in the way of his speech. Several of my sources say that Aldridge’s performance as Othello at the Covent Garden was met with unfavorable reviews, with Douglas Field from The Times Literary Supplement quoting, “The Athenaeum condemned the Covent Garden performance as ‘truly monstrous . . . sufficient to make Shakespeare’s indignant bones kick the lid from his coffin’. This widely circulated attack, along with other splenetic reviews, almost destroyed Aldridge’s career” (Field 1). On the other hand our textbook Living Theatre states, “The critical praise was overwhelming; one account proclaimed the production the ‘greatest theatrical presentation London has ever witnessed.’” (Wilson 309) This was, of course slightly confusing, but then again I suppose that productions frequently get contrasting reviews.

Almost all of the sources I found for Ira Aldridge talked about his tour of Europe because of the constant scrutiny he found himself facing in England. He spent the next thirty years of his life touring everywhere from Germany to Budapest to France to Poland where he would eventually succumb to illness. Aldridge was also a favorite in Russia where he was critically acclaimed by the Czar himself and was honored by the students of Moscow University. By this point in his career, Aldridge had become a respected and well-known Shakespearean actor and had already touched hundreds of people across Europe and Russia. Aldridge never returned to New York or to the United States in general, though in 1867, the year of Aldridge’s death in Lodz, Poland, it is speculated that he was planning on making a return to the States at some point, presumably with his wife Amanda Pauline von Brandt, whom he had married a year after the death of his first wife, Margaret Gill, and had four children with her. He was married to Gill, a white woman for forty years and for the majority of his career.

Aldridge’s progressive impact on the theatre is extremely important. He led an exciting and inspiring life and paved the way for future black actors to find their place on the stage and in the world of the theatre. His debut as the first black man to play Othello onstage and his tours around Europe and Russia solidified him as, in my opinion, one of the most important figures in theatre history.

 

Bibliography

“African Free School.” MAAP. Colombia University. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.

Field, Douglas. “Gentleman Player of Colour.” The Times Literary Supplement. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.

“Ira Aldridge 1807-1867.” John B. Cade Library. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

The Unpainted Moor. Perf. Eke Chukwu. YouTube Video.

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre: History of the Theatre. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print.

 

 

Amiri Baraka

By Any Other Name

(It is late on a Monday evening in fall of 1968. African American poet Amiri Baraka’s father, Colt LeRoy Jones, is sitting in his son’s living room in Harlem. He has come to visit Baraka and to eat dinner. The radio is playing jazz music, which is Baraka’s favorite. Colt is sitting on a couch reading a paper that was left on the coffee table. Baraka has gone to take a shower so that he can have the rest of the evening to catch up with his father. Offstage we hear shower water running. The telephone rings.)

 

BARAKA (offstage): Father, could you please get that?

 

COLT (towards offstage): Of course!

 

(Colt gets out of his chair and goes to the telephone in the hallway. He picks up the telephone from the receiver.)

 

COLT: Hello? —- Who is this? —- Who are you trying to reach? —— I’m sorry, there isn’t anyone who lives here with that name. —- No, that’s okay. —- Goodbye.

 

(Colt puts the telephone back down on the receiver. He walks back to his seat, sits down and continues to read the paper he had just put down.)

(Baraka enters the living room.)

 

BARAKA: Who was on the telephone?

 

COLT: It was a man looking for someone named – uhm — Amir – Barak – Amira Barak – I don’t know. Something like that. I told him that he no one lives here by that name and that he had the wrong number.

 

BARAKA: He doesn’t have the wrong number though. That is my name.

 

(Colt puts the paper down for a second, looks at Baraka, and then picks the paper back up.)

 

COLT: That’s not your name. Your name is Everett LeRoi Jones.

 

BARAKA: No, my name isn’t Everett LeRoi Jones anymore. I changed my name to Amiri Baraka.

 

COLT (mockingly): Amiri Baraka? Since when has your name been Amiri Baraka? What kind of name is that?

 

(Baraka’s face turns from normalcy to a slight anger.)

 

BARAKA: My name has been Amiri Baraka for a while now. It comes from the Muslim Faith.

 

(Colt places the paper down next to him on the unused section of the couch, and gets up out of his seat. He turns to Baraka with a look of anger on his face.)

 

COLT (angrily): How dare you change your name without telling your mother or myself.

 

BARAKA: I didn’t think that I would have to ask permission to change my name. I am 34 years old and living my own life. I can do as I please.

 

COLT (hurt): You can do as you please, but why did you want to change your name? We named you LeRoi Jones because we thought giving you a name that meant “The King,” would protect you from all the stupid racist people out there. It was a strong name to make you feel strong. We also thought that it would make you proud since it came from my name as well. I guess that isn’t the case though…

 

BARAKA (calmly): Father, you know that I am appreciative of everything you and mother have done for me when raising me. I am proud that my name came from you and that my name was to given to me so that I would feel strong, but it also made me feel weak. Jones sounds like a name that our ancestors were given from a slave master. It sounds like someone tried to throw on their name because they may have been forced to give us a name. I don’t want a last name that could have had anything to do with a slave master. That just isn’t right.

 

(Colt begins to get a little angry again.)

 

BARAKA: Another reason I changed my name to Amiri Baraka is because of the inspiration from Malcolm X. Malcolm X did the exact same thing. His name was originally Malcolm Little and he believed that the name Little came from a slave owner, so he changed his name to Malcolm X.

 

COLT: I don’t buy all that black power, militant, power to the people garbage.

 

BARAKA: Look — my work is about giving our people back the dignity that the white man stole from us. For far too long we have lived in fear. Lived believing we were less. Lived ashamed of who we were and how we had to act in order to survive in the white man’s world. Naming myself, rejecting the slave owner’s name, that is my way of taking back the strength and pride that you and mother made me believe were my birthrights.

 

COLT: (Colt has trouble pronouncing the name.) Why Amiri Baraka though? What does it mean?

 

BARAKA: It means Blessed Prince. In a way I kept a version of the name that you gave me. It makes me feel stronger and stronger in my beliefs. It also makes me feel as if I am closer to our ancestor’s roots from Africa and other third world countries. Going overseas and seeing how the white people and the Europeans have tried to suppress us in America versus some other countries is just mind blowing. My first step in trying to change things is by changing my own life first, and to do that, I had to change my name from Jones.

 

COLT: I guess I can see where you are coming from — it’s just going to take a while for me to get used to it and understand.

 

BARAKA: I know father. I am very sorry that I didn’t tell you and that you had to find out like this. I just hope you can understand and respect my change in life.

 

COLT: I will certainly respect your choices in life, but sometimes I just won’t be able to fully understand.

 

(Colt begins to walk towards the front door.)

 

BARAKA: Wait — don’t leave yet!

 

(Colt stops in his tracks and turns back around to face Baraka.)

 

COLT: I think that it’s time for me to go. I believe that I have overstayed my visit for tonight at least. (pause) I’m sorry for getting so mad at you – I just – I – I’m sorry.

 

BARAKA: I wish you would stay, but maybe you’re right. Of course I forgive you. I just wish you could understand. You know how much I have always loved and respected you and mother. I hate the idea of this coming between us and hurting our relationship.

 

(Colt places his hand on Baraka’s shoulder.)

 

COLT: Son, nothing you do could make me love or respect you any less. As I said before, it’s going to take some time, but I will work hard to try and understand this choice. Just next time, please tell me about a change in your life before I have to find out for myself. No matter what your name is, you will always be the son that I love and admire.

 

(Colt smiles slightly and removes his hand from Baraka’s shoulder. Colt nods his head and walks out of the door. Baraka stares wistfully at the door. Lights slowly fade to black. )

 

END OF SCENE

 

Amiri Baraka

            I first heard about LeRoi Jones, Amiri Baraka, when my mom, a friend of hers and I were going to see Stephen Sondheim’s Passion. We were standing in the lobby before the show, waiting for the doors to open so that we could go sit in our seats. My mother, her friend and I got into the conversation about African American playwrights and the Project MOSAIC assignment. I told them that I had originally been thinking about focusing my project on African American playwright, August Wilson. I stated that I thought he was an interesting person but that I didn’t really enjoy his play The Piano Lesson. The Piano Lesson was the only August Wilson play that I had seen and what I didn’t enjoy was the supernatural element in the play. Most of the play I enjoyed, but when he brought in elements of the supernatural, it didn’t seem to flow to me. I later learned that August Wilson tends to do that quite a bit in reference to the topic of ancestors of family. That is when my mom’s friend mentioned Amiri Baraka.

I had never heard about Amiri Baraka until this project, and when I began reading about him, his life intrigued me. What I liked the most about Baraka was that he was a person who did as he pleased. He didn’t let people tell him what he could do or couldn’t do, and when someone controlled him, he continued on some place else. He had his beliefs, and he was going to stick to them no matter what anyone said against them. His plays also seemed very interesting to me because a lot of them were based on his political stances of the world. By reading a play or a poem written by Baraka, it was easier to see through his eyes how he looked at the world and the people around him. The only aspect that made me uncomfortable was the extremity of his beliefs. His beliefs, which were so strong, were frequently very angry towards white America and America as a whole. I understand where he may have gotten his beliefs from according to experiences he had, but a lot of his thoughts seemed very radical to me. For example, Lloyd W. Brown from the University of Southern California stated that Amiri Baraka felt as if he was completely alienated “from American society as a whole, from a sociopolitical system that he found culturally and racially incompatible, even repressive.” (Brown 19).

Amiri Baraka’s controversial topics were what drove me to want to create a monologue or dialogue of an event from his life. I wanted to choose a topic that may have been a huge deal in his life or also may have been something very interesting during that specific time period. I began by doing research from actual books instead of going straight to the Internet. I think that Internet sources and electronic articles can be good if you find the right ones, but nothing is better than tangible items for finding out information. I took out two books by different authors. The book I focused the most on, was Amiri Baraka by Lloyd W. Brown from the University of Southern California. This book focused dealt with the background of Baraka’s life and a critical analysis of many of his works.

I grabbed my first idea when I was reading through the first chapter of Amiri Baraka. I was shocked and also very excited that I found my topic that quickly. I was inspired while reading the first chapter to work with an idea that I’d seen modeled by another playwright. My mother’s friend, Susan Charlotte, is a playwright and has been writing and putting on her plays for many years now. I met Susan Charlotte through my mother and had the ability to even be able to work with her company over the past summer. Susan, her director Antony Marsellis, and my mother had come up with the idea to put on a full production of The Round Table a play Susan had written with Peter Stone. The Round Table, was about the group of highly esteemed authors such as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Alexander Woollcott, who would meet at the Algonquin Hotel for lunch everyday. The event from Baraka’s life that sparked the memory of The Round Table was that when Baraka was living in Greenwich Village, his home was a kind of artistic center.

When Baraka was living in Greenwich Village, he was a part of what was known as the “beat generation.” These were a group of young artists who were against the mainstream vision of the art scene. A group of friends and collaborators who worked with Baraka would come to his home in Greenwich Village and have discussions about their works and their visions. Some of these people included: “Diane Di Prima, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and authors who were to be identified with the Black Mountain School of poetry – especially Charles Olson” (Brown 20). I would have created a dialogue similar to The Round Table, with the group of some of the key “beat generation” members interacting with each other in Baraka’s home. I would have found research on their feelings towards mainstream theatre and art, and I would have made up the dialogue between the different people based on their unique voices.

I began to look for research on the “beat generation” topic, and found very sparse materials to help me create a dialogue. I continued to look through the research materials that I already had to find a better topic to focus on. I found the topic shortly after I had discarded the last one. Around 1965, Baraka’s marriage to a white woman, Hettie Cohen, ended abruptly. Shortly after that, Baraka moved to Harlem. While he was in Harlem, an inspirational figure in his life, Malcolm X, was assassinated. This increased his commitment to the Black Power movement. Several other factors caused him to make his next life change of changing his name from Everett LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka. This was a huge moment in his life and one of the things that sets him apart from many other playwrights. This was the topic that I wanted my dialogue to focus on.

When originally deciding to do this topic, I was unsure of how I wanted to present Baraka’s feelings and the background of why he wanted to change his name. I knew I wanted to create a dialogue between Baraka and another person, either made up or real. I quickly shifted my idea to a monologue about his name change. I wanted to set the play in a sort of press conference scene where he would have been just asked a question about his name change and then he would have given his response and reasoning. I soon realized that the way that would have turned out would have been boring and uninteresting to listen to or watch at some point. I wouldn’t want to go to a play where someone was basically reciting a speech to me unless it was creative.

Since I felt this way about the monologue, I switched back to wanting to create a dialogue. However, the dialogue idea wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be because, there could have been several ways I could have presented the information through a dialogue. I thought of ideas having to do with Barack Obama’s first election, a young family member reading about Baraka in a textbook, or someone close to Baraka just finding out about his name change. My end result was a dialogue between Baraka and his father. I wanted to create a dialogue of Baraka’s father being at Baraka’s house and finding out about Baraka’s name change right then and there during this scene. I also wanted it to create a conflict since if any child changed their name and didn’t tell their parents, there would be some kind of conflict. I also wanted to leave the scene ending in an “agree to disagree” kind of way. They both still respected and loved each other in the end; it just showed the struggle that the father had of trying to understand why Baraka changed his name.

The most difficult thing for me in writing this dialogue was the authenticity of the characters. I was concerned that a good portion of the scene would have to be historically accurate, so when I found out that it didn’t have to be that way and that only the background subject had to be historically accurate, it made me feel better about the dialogue. I did more research and found out more about Baraka’s rational as to why he changed his name, which made it a lot easier for me to put that information in the dialogue. He did this because he felt as if his name, Jones, had come from slave masters. He was also following in the footsteps of Malcolm X. Malcolm X had changed his name from Malcolm Little because he believed the same thing about the slave names. The next step for me was to try to write the character of Baraka in the play, as he would likely have been in an informal situation. To do this, I watched interviews that he did with people on YouTube to get a sense of the way he might speak and act with people. This was harder than I thought, but in all I believe that I got as close as I could without truly knowing how he would have spoken. I put in the relationship that I imagined he would have with his father, since I couldn’t find any hard proof of a relationship with his father, then added in stage directions and emotions that I thought might fit and finished the dialogue before I even realized I had finished it. I was surprised that once I started writing, the characters began to speak for themselves.

 

Works Cited

“Amiri Baraka.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.

<http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/445>.

 

Amiri Baraka & Kellie Jones. YouTube. N.p., 8 May 2012. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.

<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vEUCTFP4zw>.

 

Amiri Baraka “Somebody Blew up America.” YouTube. N.p., 6 Dec. 2009. Web. 15

Apr. 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUEu-pG1HWw>.

 

Brown, Lloyd W. Amiri Baraka. N.p.: Twayne, 1980. Print.

 

Harris, William J., ed. The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader. New York: Thunder’s

Mouth Press, 1991. xvii-492. Print.

 

Malcolm X. Estate of Malcolm X, 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.

<http://www.malcolmx.com/about/bio.html>.

Backstage Blackface

By Annie Trombo

SCENE ONE

(The backstage dressing area of small theatre in New York, the early 1850s. On stage there are two small tables, each with a wooden chair and then a coat/hat stand between the wings and wings and the tables. The tables are set so that when the actor sits down they are facing the audience. On the tables are the necessary items to put on blackface, including burnt cork and a small standing mirror. On the coat stands are the minstrel show costumes, their shoes at the foot of the stand. MAN A walks in from up stage right. His is an African American gentleman somewhere in his late thirties, a veteran of the minstrel show. He is dressed in street clothes that suggest he has enough money to make himself comfortable and content. He walks straight to the stage left table and undresses until he is only in his under-shirt, pants, and shoes. He sits down at the table and tucks a towel that has been used many times before into his undershirt. He sits for a moment, realizing how many years he has repeated weekly the make up routine he was about to begin. He begins to start his blackface. MAN B walks in smoking a cigarette, whistling an upbeat tune between drags, from up stage right. He is in his late teens or early twenties.)

 

 

 

MAN B

(Walking to his coat stand and beginning to undress.)

Hi’ya man. How’s it go’in?

 

MAN A

Awh, you know. Same old same old. You got a mighty fine grin on today. What’cha so chipper fo’?

 

MAN B

Today is the day that I no longa’ put on those skirts fo’ da olio[1]! Last show was the last time. They got a new boy to play de wench now[2].

 

MAN A

You’s got really lucky that old Charlie’s wife made him give up this minstrel business on account of his poor health. Bless his old soul, I thought dat man was gonna be playin bones in his casket as they shoved ‘im into de ground.

 

MAN B

(sitting down to begin his make up and hanging his towel around his neck)

Yes siree. No one would’a been surprised. But it ain’t so now. You can just call me Mr. Bones!

 

MAN A

(Laughing and MAN B’s young enthusiasm)

Well we’ll just haf to see Mr.Bones[3]I betchya two cents that you drop those bones right when you need ‘em de most.

 

MAN B

Nah I ain’t. I been practicing real hard. Not only that but I also been dancin’ up de storm in my free time. My feet gonna be tappin’ so fast dems audience’s eye gonna not be able to even keep track.

 

MAN A

Oh! So we’s not only a Mr Bone but a Master Juba too? Haha. Boy you are too much.

 

MAN B

(Slightly offended at the lack of faith in his abilities)

I am good Mr. Tambo[4]. My girl tells me so. Just look at this.

(He gets up and does a dance. It is impressive an MAN A is obviously impressed himself. MAN B becomes very enthusiastic with his dance and in the process of showing off, knocks over his coat stand.)

MAN A

(laughing and clapping his hands in a sarcastic applause)

Oh yes sir. You are Master Juba[5] alright! Le’me guess, dat coat stand was just standing in fo yo partner?

 

MAN B

(finding the humor in the situation and picking up the coat stand)

Alright, alright. So I ain’t no Master Juba. But one day! One day I’m gonna have famous white folk from Europe praisin’ me jus like dat Dickens praised Master Juba.

 

MAN A

Yeah sure boy. One day. But dat day ain’t today. Today is de day that you’s gotta finish putting on yo’ burnt cork[6].

(MAN B sitd at his table and returns to putting on his black face. There is a few moments of silent make up application)

 

MAN B

I honestly don’t understand why I’s got to put dis stuff on anyway. Every body knows de color of my skin. I don’t need no burnt cork to show it.

 

MAN A

It’s what de audience likes and audience is what pays us. So we do it.

 

MAN B

So we do it.

 

(There is a long pause as both men put on their make up. Then almost out of sadness, MAN B begins to sing the featured song of their minstrel act. This done about half the speed of which it is normally performed)

 

De time is nebber dreaery

If de darkey nebber groans;

De ladies nebber weary

Den ome again ob de bones;

Den ome again Susanna

By de gaslight ob de moon;

We’ll turn de old Piano

We de banjo’s out ob tune

 

MAN B & MAN A

(Continuing with the chorus as they begin to put on their costumes.)

Ring, ring de banjo!

I like dat good old song,

Come again my true lub,

Oh! Whar you been so long.

 

(Lights fade as both men continue to hum the song.)

 

 

 Applied Research

            Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston was a plentiful source for characteristic inspiration and dialect reference. Hurston’s character Tea Cake influenced my development of Man B. When I first read the novel, Tea Cake was my favorite character, as I am sure he was to many readers. Tea Cake’s youth, aspirations, and spirit specifically came across to me. Like Tea Cake in his own youth, I wanted Man B to express the attitude of optimism despite hardship. Man B is not nearly as weathered by the world as Man A, who has big dreams that he is sure he will accomplish, despite the racial tensions that are working against him. He talks about moving up through the hierarchy of theatre, specifically the minstrel act in which he performs. His dreams include recognition like that received by Master Juba, an African American dancer whose fame reached even Charles Dickens. If Tea Cake had at all been interested in an artistic field, I believe he would have resembled Man B. The novel also gave prime examples of how African Americans talked during that time period, using appropriate dialect for the dialogue of the characters. I used dialogue such as, “Ah wants things sweet wid mah marriage lak when you sit under a pear tree and think.” as a guide when creating my own characters’ voices.

For specifics on a minstrel production, I found A History of African America Theatre to be the most plentiful in detail. This text supplied me with most of the technical terms I use in my dialogue, especially regarding production structure (e.g. olio). If I were to add specifics for costume and scenic designers, I would now be able to do so. In regard to the costumes that hang on the coat stands on stage, they would contain trousers, jackets, and vests of checkered or striped fabrics. Each man would also have a decaying straw hat to accompany his busy ensemble. It’s important to me that the audience sees the difference between what the men are wearing when they first walk in, and what they are expected to get dressed into.

From the previous text also came references to popular songs from the era that were often performed at minstrel shows. These included, “Oh! Susanna” and “Ring, Ring the Banjo”. I found the lyrics for both of these songs in an archive assembled by the University of Pittsburg. I decided to use “Ring, Ring the Banjo” within the dialogue because it was written in 1851, much closer to the preconceived date of the scene than “Oh! Susanna”, which was written four years prior. I specifically found the first two lines of the song to be rather moving and pertinent to the content of the scene. They proclaim, “De time is nebber dreary if de darkey nebber groans…” This exemplifies the pressure that was put on African Americans to comply with the conditions set down by the white majority. I made the tempo of the song slower so the audience could really take in the words and not be excited by the upbeat tune that nineteenth century audiences tapped their toes to.

Love and Theft by Eric Lott, who is a white professor in the English department of the University of Virginia, is a charged book that tackles the racism of minstrel shows without pause. In his introduction he states, “…the minstrel show obscured these relations by pretending that slavery was amusing, right and natural. Although it arose from a white obsession with black (male) bodies which underlies white racial dread to our own day, it ruthlessly disavowed its fleshy investments through ridicule and racist lampoon.” The text clarified white motivation of blackface minstrelsy. Whites had an apparent “racist curiosity”, and the fact that they could make money by belittling African Americans while at the same time satisfying their hunger to poke around in an alien culture just furthered blackface popularity among performers and audience members alike. Quotes in the book from people such as Frederick Douglass provided an inside perspective on how African Americans felt toward blackface minstrelsy. Douglass said that whites in blackface were “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their fellow white citizens.”

All technical research aside, I immersed myself into the subject of blackface minstrelsy because I wanted to know the motivation of African Americans to perform blackface. Blackface clearly was developed out of hatred and jealousy, and performed to amuse others by presenting an exaggeration of the follies of African Americans at the time. Though many famous African Americans belittled blackface, blacks still entered into the realm of minstrelsy as performers. From all my research I have concluded that despite the knowledge of the content and intent of blackface, African Americans were willing to do anything to prove themselves. If whites could make decent money and become famous acting like blacks, then why couldn’t blacks? For African Americans at the time, it was better to embrace a world that beat you down, if it meant bettering your present station.

 

 Bibliography

 

Hill, Errol G., and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1937. Print.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print

University of Pittsburg. “Stephen Foster Lyrics.” pitt.edu. n.p., n.d. Web. April 17, 2013.

Wilson, Edwin & Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre Sixth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print.


[1] Olio: Part two, or second act of a minstrel show

[2] The olio typically featured a man dressed as a “wench” or a doctor or professor character.

[3] Mr. Bones, a stock character of minstrelsy, sat stage left and played ribs as a percussion instrument.

[4] Mr. Tambo, another stock character of minstrelsy, sat stage right and played a tambourine.

[5] Master Juba, as William Henry Lane was know, was notorious African American dancer who performed with a white minstrel troupe.

[6] Burnt cork was used to blacken faces for minstrelsy.

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