NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire Volume 16.2: Fall 2016 - Page 52

During the Seventies , Barbara Ann Teer , an actress with considerable grounding in the conventions of traditional American acting , became the High Priestess at the National Black Theatre in Harlem , where she exercised spiritual evocation as the training method so that her actors could surrender themselves — psychically and spiritually — to the deliverance of “ testifyin ” performances of texts — a stylization that antedated the arrival of Ntozake Shange ’ s choreo-poems — frequently summoning spirits that were not always controllable , requiring the intersession of Ms . Teer ’ s priestly knowledge to subdue the “ effective force ” that threatened to overpower the event . Testifyin ’, as opposed to simply offering conventional monologues , was certainly a principal element of Gilbert Moses ’ production of Amiri Baraka ’ s Slaveship , a lean script of approximately seven pages , yet allowed Moses to invent a poetically forceful ritual mode for 90 minutes with spirited music and highly visceral body movements . Geneva Smitherman , quoting playwright Ron Milner in her 1976 essay , optimistically observed : “ Black theatre is moving to the point where we ’ ve taken the ritual , passion , drama and intensity of the church and put it into secular music so it can be a functional kind of thing ; so you can use your catharsis , your collective energy and collective prayer in your everyday life .”
Closer inspection of the Black Church revealed a high degree of theatricality and musicality which owed its rituals to African traditions . Words alone do not have the capacity to arouse a black audience , unless those words are orchestrated with all the performance forces in the environment — including audience / witnesses . It is important to recognize here that the event — as opposed to the play — is the “ thing ”, the opportunity to employ Song , Dance , and Drum to dredge from the performance environment , the rhythms of life that provide the sensate power and vitality to focus a cosmic source of light on the mundane — ( namely , Realism ). The event , then , becomes the context of reality , a force field of phenomena in a mode that must be ritualized . In this way ,
modality is a music construct , a path toward improvisation in the ritual mode . The mode is motile , yet volatile , and vulnerable to shifts that can corrupt , as well as amplify the collective process needed to reveal the epiphany of the dramatic context in the mode . The African American Ritual Mode , while adhering firmly to familiar devices of Black Church worship , is an improvisation that has the following construction :
a . A Praise Environment , be it within an edifice or an open field
b . Preacher as Spiritual Leader , a spiritualist who mediates between spirit and corpus , light and shadow , manipulating all forces in the mode with proper word-force ( Nommo ) to construct a narrative , based upon the Bible , so as to bridge myth with reality in the process of revealing the spirit in the mode .
c . Chorus / Musicians represent the Sacred Community , since it has more direct access to the “ ancestral ” spirit .
d . Congregation / Community , participating witnesses to the ritual whose aural and physical “ responses ” to the Preachers “ call ” is a necessary aspect in the collective spiritual invocation .
e . Sacred objects and images , icons , idols , fetishes , are displayed on the altar , sacred tools to summon forth the spirits or otherwise to help generate Spiritual Force in the space of worship .
f . Elders , due to their proximity to spiritual wisdom , are custodians of the ritual procedures , passing judgment on the capacity of the Preacher to activate the forces in the mode required to illuminate historical and spiritual relationships that provide harmony for the community , process of focusing the collective aspirations of the community .