NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire Volume 16.2: Fall 2016 - Page 53

I returned to the States in 1968 to teach at Howard University with my first full-length play in tow : tabernacle , a play-within-a-ritual mode set in a Black Church with 20 black male actors that could not be produced in Amsterdam , because of both the paucity of black personnel and lack of cultural intimacy . At Howard , I was assured of having an all-male black cast with an urgent sense of empathy with the social urgencies of the dramatic event . The performance mode was conceived with archetypal characterizations that included a Preacher as the principle orchestrator of the mode , a Chorus of Mothers , consisting of five six-foot tall husky men wearing oversized Masks ( that were beautiful in their grotesquerie ), a Coltrane-inspired musical ensemble led by Eric Gravatt — a Philosophy student at the time — which improvisationally advanced the dramatic actions , and Young Men of the community who performed a variety of roles , including White Police , White Judge , and a White Female Harlem Merchant . The multi-roles performed by all actors required that they understood — not simply burlesquesed — the archetype of the characterizations , rather than invent an individualized emotional life for the characters . The very power of the spiritual evocation convinced me that I was on the right track toward a ritual exercise that could capture an audience in the manner of Black Church .
In 1970 , responding to the insistent solicitation of a vibrant group of black students in search of guidance in the Theatre Department of the State University of California , Sacramento — among them being the potent leadership of a robust young actor , Randy Martin , an uncompromising character actress who now frequently appears on television , Bebe Drake Hooks , and the widely sought after ritual-stylist stage director , Shirley Jo Finney — I left Howard University with a collection of poems by Melvin Van Peebles and joined the Sac State faculty ( which included Oliver Lee Jackson ) to initiate the conceptualization and development of the poems , which were ritualized and transformed into a theatrical mode , Ain ’ t Supposed to Die a Natural Death . The collaboration with Jackson in a spare , uncluttered environment he had designed was invaluable .
We worked intimately with the students actors for long hours over a 15-week period , a collective commitment that accorded us time to process the new performance concept of modality , so as to avoid presenting the poems as a parade of familiar black exotic types performing slices-of-street-life recitations — as was the case later on Broadway . Instead , each actor / student , freed from the Stanislavsky Method of their training , was responsible for the improvisational internalization of archetypal characterizations that could reliably reveal a mode of oppression without reducing the characters to caricature . Spirited by the syncopated dirge of a Local Music Ensemble , the characters moved continuously through the open , angular space , which included scaffolding that extended into the audience that became a community aspect of the ritual mode . While there was a trajectory toward a final action in the ritual , the open space was able to sustain a mode of spontaneity that was seething with apparently disconnected actions and a cacophony of conversations that became muted — but not hushed — when a character ’ s “ testimony ” was being delivered , each individualized “ testimony ” derived from life-moments constructed by the cast . At the close of the ritual , the audience had become intimately locked into the mode and shared the collective epiphany of how difficult it is to die a natural death in a mode of oppression .
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