NYU Black Renaissance Noire Fall 2013 - Page 73

BRN-FALL-2013.indb 71 BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE Unresponsive to the expressionistic objectives of Black Theatre, all of the above stage experiences could fit tidily under the brand of African American drama. However, irrespective of its post-modern construction, the indefensible 2010 Broadway mounting of the scottsboro boys, an historical event about the repugnant miscarriage of justice for 9 young black men in Alabama who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in the 1930s, has no viable place within any brand of black performance practice. Incongruously, the work was staged as a tuneful, black-faced-musical-minstrel that exploited the talents of a gifted, albeit ambivalent, black cast surrendering to a performance-ethic that gave them permission to perform-for-the-sake-ofperforming, ignoring even the Wall Street Journal’s discernment that the show was “a musical that slathers this terrible tale in a thick coat of musicalcomedy frosting that has been spiked with cheap, elephantine irony…(and)… can’t imagine a nastier-tasting recipe.” Mercifully, the show had a short life on Broadway due to the ever-vigilant Rev. Al Sharpton who had threatened to close down the theatre with a massive black community boycott. 71 For some theatre patrons, Black Theatre is simply black people on the stage re-enacting slices of life in a domestic drama. Others favor personal chronicles of triumph over unrequited love or poverty, or a biographical homage to celebrate historical leaders and cultural icons, while others simply want to clap their hands and pat their feet while swaying with the stirring emotions generated in an Urban Circuit gospel musical. Then there is the compulsive, near irresistible appeal of black celebrities exploited in all-black-cast Broadway productions to resurrect dead Masters of the Great White Way (cat on a hot tin roof, a street car named desire, the trip to bountiful), and yet a new installment of porgy and bess. Most confounding is the Atlantabased True Color(ed) Company’s appearance in last year’s National Black Arts Festival with a production of guess who’s coming to dinner. And then, there are often too frequent occasions when the black community is cajoled by the marketing strategies of black theatrical institutions such as the CenterStage in Baltimore which, under the guise of encouraging greater audience diversity, offer deceptive programming. Examples include the spin-off of raisin in the sun, presented as a Raisin Cycle which includes, in repertory, clybourne park, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize work with its caustic appraisal of black dysfunction, and beneatha’s place, a work written opportunistically for the occasion by the artistic director that imagines the paths taken by two principle characters from the original Hansberry play, the resolute Beneatha and her judicious African boyfriend, Assagi. Ever since the 19th Century, the Negro has had a place in the American Theatre as both subject and performer, mostly limited to musicals, comedies, and domestic melodramas. It would require, however, the social and cultural ferment of the 1960s before black artists would assert aesthetic priorities that could rescue the Negro from the American Theatre and expose black characterizations that projected a worldview consonant with Black Theatre dramaturgical strategies for social change. I can remember vividly, arriving from Europe in 1968 to teach at Howard University in the midst of the new black cultural ferment that had captured the imagination of black intellectuals and artists who were resisting oppression and challenges to self-determination. My first teaching assignment was “The Negro in the American Theatre.” Exposition of the black American experience through a catalogue of plays from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century seemed out of touch, even contradictory, to the spirit of the newly imagined ideals of self-determination, and the awakening of aesthetic alternatives to the post-Chekhovian American models of realism represented in the self-absorbed angst of Eugene O’Neill, often reputed to be the patriarch of modern American playwriting. While Arthur Miller, a social reformer, did have some appeal for the new black dramatist, the dramaturgical exposition of his populist didacticism seemed somewhat constrained for the urgencies of black liberation. And the new ideals seemed incompatible with the pessimism revealed in Tennessee Williams’ excavations of the dark-side of the human experience. Still, many fledgling black writers tended to cleave to the finely-crafted naturalistic details of experience fashioned by Paddy Chayefsky, the celebrated dramatist of the “Golden Age of Television” whose legacy of kitchen sink realism has inspired works bordering on soap operas that seem better suited for television than stage. 9/13/13 12:48 AM