What Is Black Theatre?
Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists, exploring the legacies, present, and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley—
Jordan Ealey: And Jordan Ealey. On this podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, we discuss Black theatre history; conduct interviews with local and national Black theatre artists, scholars, and practitioners; and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing.
In 1926, the Krigwa Players had their first season at the 135th Street Bridge of the New York Public Library. Featuring plays by prominent playwrights Willis Richardson and Ruth Gaines-Shelton, the theatre company was a critical and commercial success. As part of the Krigwa Players’ mission, founder W. E. B. DuBois drafted the theatre’s mission to center Black people through being about us, by us, for us, and near us. This statement by DuBois so resonates even in contemporary settings as Black theatre artists and scholars continue to consider and reconsider what makes something Black theatre.
Leticia: In the spirit of DuBois’ pathbreaking revelation, today’s episode is focused on one major question: What is Black theatre? Following DuBois, we examine various theorists, artists, and critics’ own philosophies and principles of Black theatre and performance, cover the historical and ongoing debates on Black theatre’s mission, and put forth our own concept of what makes something Black theatre.
Welcome back to Daughters of Lorraine! We are finally back with season four. How are you feeling, Jordan? It’s been a minute.
Jordan: It has been an absolute too long of a time. I’m so excited to be starting our fourth season. Who knew that we would get to season four, Leticia?
Leticia: I know. It’s quite wild. For those of you who’ve been wondering where we’ve been, we have had a lot of change in the past year.
Leticia: Where are you now, Jordan, or should I refer to you as Dr. Ealey?
Jordan: Yes. Yes, that’s right. Since I don’t have a lot of social media and stuff anymore, I haven’t really been able to make a public announcement. But yes, I did complete my PhD at the University of Maryland, and I have now begun a new position as an assistant professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Rochester. So, I now live in Rochester, New York, and I’m really excited about that. Dr. Ridley, I think you also have a little update for those listening at home about your whereabouts these days, too.
Leticia: Yes. I have crossed some waters to now be in Toronto, Canada. So, I have moved to Canada, and I am now an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, which is one of their satellite campuses. Then I do graduate studies work at the downtown campus. So, really excited to be here, excited to see what Canadian theatre offers, and perhaps helps us expand Daughters of Lorraine a bit to think about how Black theatre internationally appears.
Jordan: Yeah, we goin’ international! Okay. Daughters of Lorraine, we’re on the global map and also so happy that we’re only two hours apart. So, this is awesome.
Leticia: I know. So close. It’s like grad school all over again, but not quite as close. So, Jordan, we are back with episode one of season four. What is on our docket today?
Jordan: So as we covered in the introduction, this episode is all about thinking about this concept of Black theatre. So, for those of you who’ve been listening with us for the past three seasons, this might seem a backwards step, but Leticia and I have both been thinking a lot lately about revisiting some of these essays of criticism that really discuss the principles, philosophies, dramaturgy of Black theatre, and thought it would be a really great thing for us to talk about on this episode. It’s also very apropos because both of us are teaching classes in Black theatre this semester. Leticia is covering African American theatre history, I believe. Yeah.
Leticia: Yes, I am.
Jordan: I’m covering contemporary Black theatre. So, we were just talking about, as we usually do, doing syllabus exchanges and really trying to home in on what we wanted to cover this semester. We both were really excited about delving back into these essays that really talk about this history.
Leticia: I think what makes this such a critical and important topic for us to just discuss on the podcast and offer some insight and really trace this philosophical theoretical history of what Black theatre is and can do is that it shows the long legacy of the utility of Black theatre within the push for Black life, Black freedom, but more so I think it just shows that some of the most critical theorists of our time was always engaged and interested in what Black theatre had to say. So, I’m really interested in being able to, one, offer people an overview of these essays, but also to be able to interrogate it a bit and see about where do we land on some of these arguments beyond just thinking about, like you said in the episode preview, the “for us, by us, near us, about us” that DuBois offered that, I’m just going to say now, I don’t hate it.
Later on in the season, we’re going to talk about the Negro Ensemble Company, and I think they’re an interesting theatre company to think about these principles alongside because the “near us” is in contention. Instead of us really starting the episode off with the most commonly known W. E. B. DuBois’ insight on theatre or on Black theatre and what it is, so we’re going to start with W. E. B. DuBois’ “Criteria [of] Negro Art.” Jordan, give us a quick rundown of what DuBois’ main arguments or insight is in this essay.
Jordan: Yeah, so one of the major debates that people still write about, that talk about these days, is Black theatre being either art or propaganda. So, this dichotomy between should Black theatre be merely about a creative expression—art for art’s sake, if you will—or should it be used as a political tool? DuBois was notoriously very much in favor of the latter, propaganda in thinking about art as politics. Black theatre, theatre in general, should be used as a corrective space for Black people. So, using the stage as a way to intervene politically. So, this essay by DuBois, “Criteria [of] Negro Art,” which is one that we both cover in our Black theatre classes, is one that is really thinking about Black theatre as propaganda.
So, he writes that “Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be. Despite the wailing of purists, I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has always been used for propaganda, for getting the rights of Black folk to love and enjoy.” Excuse me. I don’t think that he’s necessarily totally rejecting the idea that art should be used for artistic expression, but he really is very, very clear that art is supposed to be about its political potential alongside the creative work.
Leticia: I really like your use of the word potential, “the political potential.” I think that you hit this nail on the head that I think sometimes folks who are engaging with DuBois’ statements around Black theatre overemphasize that he’s only interested in this idea of art as propaganda. I think it is definitely critically important to him that art can be propaganda and should be propaganda, I would even gander to say, but I think that oftentimes people don’t consider how he’s actually thinking about beauty as critically attached to this idea of propaganda. I’m going to quote from DuBois here:
On the other hand, the young and slowly growing Black public still wants its profits almost equally unfree. We are bound by all sorts of customs that have come down as secondhand soul clothes of white patrons. We are ashamed of sex and we lower our eyes when people will talk of it. Our religion holds us in superstition. Our worst side has been so shamelessly emphasized that we are denying we have or ever had a worse side. In all sorts of ways, we are hemmed in. Our new young artists have got to fight their way to freedom.
I quote that at length, because I think it just speaks to DuBois advocating for a free Black art that is not shaming something like sex or not shunning away the superstitions of Black religions.
I think he’s actually really interested here in having a diverse Black art that shows the multiplicities of what Black life is. For me, this really opens up what we think about Black theatre, because I think when we put that alongside his other statement about what Black theatre is, I think it really broadens what DuBois is trying to offer us in thinking about what Black theatre can do.
If all art or all Black art should always be propaganda, then does it place us in a position of response always?
Jordan: I think that, really pointing out this overlooked part of the “Criteria [of] Negro Art” is that the way that DuBois gets taken up oftentimes within whether it’s Black studies or in Black theatre is that DuBois is known as being this very conservative figure. I think that that’s a fair statement considering the talented ideology that he’s put forth and his work on The Philadelphia Negro, which has been challenged by leftists, Black thinkers, and Black feminist thinkers in particular because of how he talks about girls and women in that text.
But in thinking about that quote you just read and thinking about the diversity of Black art and ones that are not shying away from “taboo subjects” is… We started to see the seeds of this radicalism that is to come with DuBois. I also would like to add, too, is that he’s starting to think more critically about what cultural expression can offer us in terms of these topics. That makes sense considering he’s a sociologist. I think it’s really interesting, and like you said, it gets really overlooked.
Leticia: I really appreciate your attention to pointing out his other works to put in context with “Criteria [of] Negro Art” and think about how his conservatism or the criticism of him is well-founded, but the potential of growth that we see with him specifically with something like art. I wonder if perhaps, and this is just me speculating here, is if art offered DuBois the ability to have some freedom around some of his political ideas, right?
Jordan: Absolutely. Just thinking now that we’re talking about DuBois, we have this other aspect of the argument which is around art. So, Black theatre as being this… Not as this political place or this corrective as DuBois might argue, but rather art for art’s sake. Black people are creating things that people can be entertained by and joyful with. A couple of folks who are on the other side of this debate are Alain Locke and Eulalie Spence. So, Leticia, do you want to talk to us a little bit about Alain Locke and what he believed?
Leticia: Yeah. Alain Locke is someone simply put who is like, “Art? Bet. That’s what it should be for: art for art’s sake. Propaganda, that’s a distraction. I’m really interested in allowing Black artists to have the freedom to create Black art just for it to exist. It doesn’t need to have a political point. It doesn’t need to move the race forward. I’m actually really interested in collapsing that as a priority and a requirement for Black artists.” So, Alain Locke is directly, I think, taking a shot at DuBois, really the creation of this debate really bubbling up. This is why we’re talking about it on the podcast, is that often these two figures, DuBois and Locke, get pitted against each other because of their position of what art should be used for.
Jordan: Yeah. So, we’re specifically looking at his essay “Art or Propaganda,” which was published in 1928, for those who are keeping track. Alain Locke, someone who is known as the Dean of the Harlem Renaissance. A lot of the reason why we have the study of Black theatre, reasons why me and you, Leticia, can say that we’re studying and writing Black theatre is because of all the work that Alain Locke did at Howard University to establish this as a viable thing that you can study within higher education settings and generally all the work that Black theatre artists did in DC during this time period as well.
But Alain Locke, he says in this essay that:
My chief objection to propaganda apart from its besetting sin of monotony and disproportion is that it perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it for it lives and speaks under the shadow of a dominant majority whom it harangues, cajoles, threatens, or supplicates. In a word, we must choose art and put aside propaganda.
So, again, he’s really thinking about, “Why do we want to go to theatre and be threatened by the images that we see on stage and have to contend with these images in this way?” and really advocating that this should be used as a way to forget about that, at least for a moment.
Leticia: This is where I often think that I’m on the DuBois side of like, “Yes, art should be propaganda.” I think one of the larger questions that we can of ask ourselves is, “Can Black art ever just be Black art?” Even if the artist’s intention of saying, “No, I’m just actually creating this play or this drama to be art” is if others won’t place political meaning on it regardless.
But what I do like about what Locke is getting us to consider in this essay is this response of being like, “Does saying that all Black art needs to be propaganda putting us or placing us in the position that we’re always responding to a dominant majority or that we’re always responding to whiteness, that it actually then contains us and keeps us in a bubble and not allows us to explode it and see what else can possibly Black art can do?” So, I do tend to lean in and agree on that because I think that the danger within even DuBois’ formulation is if all art or all Black art should always be propaganda, then does it place us in a position of response always?
Jordan: Absolutely. That’s a really, really amazing point. I think it’s one that we’re still contending with today where we have, especially with the proliferation of something like the Black Lives Matter movement, where there is a pressure by Black playwrights to produce these works that are responding directly to issues of policing, issues of white supremacy, in really direct ways rather than focusing maybe on interracial divides. It was amazing a couple of seasons ago now where something like Chicken and Biscuits is making it to Broadway, which is a comedy by a Black playwright, which we don’t get a ton of comedic works by Black playwrights because of this pressure to always have to respond, respond, respond as you just said.
So, someone like Alain Locke advocating for this is great. Also, again, like I mentioned, another person on this “art for art’s sake” tip is Eulalie Spence. Eulalie Spence is often a playwright that I would just say generally does not get enough flowers. She gets really left out of these conversations around Black theatre and performance, but she was very, very influential. People may or may not know that Eulalie Spence’s play, The Fool’s Errand, which was produced by the Krigwa Players, is the first play by a Black playwright to be played in a Broadway house. Eulalie Spence was extremely, extremely influential in putting Black theatre on the map. So, she’s definitely just someone again, in general, that I just believe deserves her flowers.
She actually was a mentor, for those who may not know, to Joseph Papp—yes, that Joseph Papp, who started the Public Theater. So, Eulalie Spence was mentoring the next generation of theatremakers, and she was really ushering Black theatre into the new wave. So, I just wanted to shout out my girl, Eulalie, because she did a lot. Now in terms of her essay, which we’re pulling from her essay, which is called “A Criticism of the Negro Drama as It Relates to the Negro Dramatists and Artists.” Mouthful, but I think it gets to the point.
Leticia: Well, those playwrights back in the day were quite—
Jordan: Exactly. But actually, she wrote a lot of one-acts, a lot of short plays. It was like they were wordy in some ways and then efficient in others, which was really funny. But something that she says in this essay that I think is quite funny but also really telling about her philosophy when it comes to Black theatre is she says,
What then is left to the Negro dramatist? Let him portray the life of his people, their foibles if he will, and their sorrows and ambition and defeats. Oh yes, let us have all of these told with tenderness and skill and a knowledge of the theatre and the technique of the times. But as long as we expect our public, white and colored, to support our drama, we’re wise to steer far away from the old subjects, a little more laughter if you please, and fewer spirituals.
Leticia: Eulalie said, “Not too much on them spirituals, y’all. I think we had enough ‘Wade in the Water’s’ that my lifetime can take.” Eulalie said, “We’re good.”
Jordan: No more singing in... It reminds me of that scene in Dreamgirls where Jimmy, he is like, “Oh, I can’t be singing them sad songs.” Then he does the rap at their little anniversary show of the record company. But anyways, back to the point.
But yeah, so Eulalie Spence, and in that essay, she also talks about the work that DuBose Heyward, who is the book writer for Porgy and Bess, does for thinking about the artistic potential of theatre and just things like that where she’s really just trying to think about connecting to the human condition outside of these political ills of racism and phobias and all these other different things.
What happens if we reframe our ideas around Black theatre as not a place, not a building, but people, a community?
Leticia: Exactly. I think also what’s very vital about this essay. we talked about Locke, we talked about DuBois, but here she’s very pointed in talking about drama and theatre. Even throughout the essay, she’s constantly going back to this point that everyone thinks that they can write a play. So, this idea that there is no mastery, there is no skill towards being able to write dramas; and she’s actually saying, “No, everyone can’t do what I do or other Black playwrights do.” I think that’s actually quite an important point, especially if we look at Black theatre.
There’s a lot of Black playwrights who are not just Black playwrights, and that’s not saying that novelists or poets can’t explore and cross genres. I just think what she is saying that she really wants to emphasize the playwright as something that’s one, vital to Black art, but also that it requires a certain level of skill that allows a different take on what Black life can look like on stage. So, I do really appreciate her for that. She would probably be firmly locked into Locke’s camp of not being interested in—
Jordan: “Locked in.”
Leticia: That was not on purpose. That was not on purpose.
She would be in his camp, but I think the critical difference for me with Eulalie Spence and how she’s thinking about propaganda is I don’t know if she’s not saying that it shouldn’t be a part of Black drama. I think she’s just tired and fed up with it because I think she has felt like that’s all that’s been produced by what she refers to as the “negro dramatist.” I think she understands the utility of it, but for her, she feels like it’s limiting. It’s probably similar to Locke, but that she just sees more potential for the stage. I don’t know. What do you think?
Jordan: Yeah, and I also think, again, pointing out in that essay, she does draw a lot from white playwrights such as DuBois Heyward… or DuBose, sorry, we’re talking a lot of “DuBois.” So, DuBose Heyward and Eugene O’Neill, and she’s drawing from their portraits of humanity as models perhaps for Black playwrights to be able to emulate in their own work.
I think that there could be a tendency to be like, “Oh, she’s just talking about white people and trying to get Black people to do that,” but I think that zooming out from that, I’m not saying that that’s not a valid critique or criticism of the essay in that way, but zooming out from that and looking at it from a different perspective is that I think that it’s a larger exploration of how white artists or white playwrights are often not encumbered with the same kind of the burden of representation, right? It’s escaping me whose concept that is right now. But the burden of representation where people of color, any artist with a marginalized identity, has this social charge to represent the entire community and their work, to be able to say something perfect about whatever marginalization they have.
I think with Eulalie Spence, looking at the models from white male playwrights who are probably one of the most unencumbered groups when it comes to politics, because no one expects for white men to speak for all white men. There’s this way that you have to access any humanity through the white male experience anyway. So, there’s this way that they can move through their works unmarked in ways that a Black female playwright, for example, is always going to be speaking for Black womanhood, for Black people, for Blackness in general. So, by looking at someone like O’Neill or Heyward, she’s able to say, “We should be able to unencumber ourselves in the same way that they are.” That we can write from all these different perspectives and different points of view and not have this pressure, at least that’s the way I read it, not have this pressure to have to represent everything that we can write a play for entertainment.
Again, for those who might want to get into Eulalie Spencer’s work, she wrote ghost stories. She wrote comedies. She wrote plays that are not necessarily trying to do what perhaps folks in the sixties are doing or folks in the now are trying to do. That she was writing plays that were for pure entertainment, which included a ghost story.
Leticia: I think that’s important. Actually, just hearing you speak, I’m like, “Man, I really got to read me some more Eulalie Spence plays.” Is there an edited collection? I guess I should look it up, or I guess it’s probably public domain perhaps.
Jordan: Yeah, yeah. I think actually where I first encountered her work is in the anthology by Kathy Perkins on Black women playwrights. I believe Her and The Fool’s Errand might be in that collection. I read Her in that collection, which is the ghost story. So, I just think someone like Eulalie Spence is trying to get us to think in a more universal way. Not in this whole every story is for everybody thing, but rather that Black playwrights can just write about other things. I think that leads us into our next person, Alice Childress, a little bit, I think.
Leticia: Yes, yes. Great segue.
Jordan: Thank you.
Leticia: Great segue. Yes, absolutely. Speaking of another great woman dramatist, we have Alice Childress’ essay, which was actually originally published in a newspaper, called “For A Strong Negro People’s Theatre” in 1951. So, we’re really jumping about fifteen years. I’m a theatre professor. I’m not good at math, so I didn’t do the math real quick.
Jordan: Yeah, twenty-ish years, twenty-ish years.
Leticia: Twenty-ish years. We jumped to 1951. I guess it’s more of an op-ed than an essay, but it is available for people to read it if they want to. She opens up with this question that one of her friends asked her about, I guess a question about: Do we need a Negro theatre? Do we need a Black theatre institution? When she was first asked this question, her response was, “Sounds like a Jim Crow institution to me.” This essay is her really actually retreating from that original statement and really meditating on that question a little bit more. She comes to the conclusion that actually the function of a Negro people’s theatre is actually quite important to Negro life and to Negro people because the theatre itself allows the scene and viewing of a varietyness of what Blackness looks like.
So, she talks about Black culture lies not in just the spectacularness that Blackness may show up in, but it shows up in the everyday people in the train station, the factories, the tenements. For her, she’s saying, “Yes, we need Negro people’s theatre, but it must not be a little theatre. Its work is too heavy. Its task is too large to be anything other than a great movement. It must be powerful enough to inspire, lift, and eventually create a complete desire for the liberation of all oppressed peoples.”
I think what’s really important about that final line, “desire for the liberation of all oppressed people,” I think, even aligns with when we think about Black feminist theory, of this idea that if Black people are free or Black women are free, that then it would necessitate that all oppressed people also are free. So, I think oftentimes Alice Childress sometimes gets situated as someone who is a universalist in her thinking about Black theatre. But I think here, this particular essay is really firmly pushing us to think about her big ideas around the utility of Black theatre, of theatre itself as an institution, but also Black theatre itself as a people, like a body of people, which I think is such an interesting concept if we’re thinking about our own definitions of what Black theatre is.
What happens if we reframe our ideas around Black theatre as not a place, not a building, but people, a community, and how that perhaps allows us to come to different ideas or a different definition that aligns with the goals of what we all believe Black theatre can do?
Jordan: Absolutely. Also, I can understand based on some of the things that were said that you quoted, her being like, “This is a Jim Crow institution,” things like that, where the universalist claims might feel very founded, that they may be earned, but not too much on Alice Childress. This is a woman who would not change the ending of Trouble in Mind to get produced on Broadway. If you know that play, that play is not shy in calling out white supremacy and calling out patriarchy, all these different things. But I also think that we need to look at the context of she was a leftist, she was a true leftist.
In the same way of someone like Lorraine Hansberry, who Lorraine Hansberry wrote plays like Le Blanc and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which are not plays that are only focused on the Black experience. They are all about other folks. They’re about Jewish people, they’re about queer people. It’s about folks not necessarily only Black struggles and certainly not only African American struggles even within that. I think that we have to think about their political coalitions as the ways in which they’re thinking about these ideas.
So, it’s not just about, “Oh, Alice Childress didn’t want Black theatres to exist,” but more so that I think that because of her interest in Marxism, in communism, in thinking about class struggle and global struggle is that lends itself for her to think about a more universal human condition and not simply couching it only in Blackness, but rather saying that the issues that Black people face, we can find similarity. We can find true and genuine political coalition with other communities who are focused on the same things.
So, when she talks about it’s not just about developing Black writers, it’s about developing the writer in general. I think it’s her trying to fine tune those political coalitions in my opinion. Again, not saying I necessarily agree. I think that there is a utility in theatre institutions that are focused on Black writers, Black artists in general. But I think that once you look at her history, when you look at her background, you can see why she might come to these conclusions.
Leticia: That’s a great point. Before we transition to the last essay we’re going to talk about, I think just to note, what’s also vital about this essay is that we get Alice Childress talking about technique and perhaps even canon. She notes that Black actors, scenic designers, playwrights, and directors are taught only the techniques that are developed by white artists. She really emphasizes a need for white and Black actors and artists and playwrights and directors and scenic designers to have the knowledge and techniques of Black culture. So, I think that that’s also a note that this is also a difference from some of the earlier essays that we talked about, and perhaps Spence gives us a little bit of this, but the idea of technique being important to think about when we think about training of theatre artists.
Jordan: Our last essay.
Leticia: Our last essay, we are going to end on one of our faves. We are moving on to 1979 with Queen Mother, Ntozake Shange’s essay, “Unrecovered Losses/Black Theatre Traditions,” and this is a favorite of yours, Jordan. You actually introduced me to this essay.
Jordan: Yes, this is absolutely one of my favorite essays, one of my favorite pieces of Black theatre criticism that I’ve perhaps ever read. What I really love about this essay is that it also focuses… Because as I’ve talked about on this podcast before, I research on Black musical theatre, specifically musicals authored and composed by Black women. The thing that Ntozake Shange, she’s actually very critical of the form of musical theatre in this essay. So, basically, the gist of this essay is that she is confronting... So, we’re in the seventies and a lot of Black musicals are being produced during this time, one of which is Ain’t Misbehavin’, which is a jukebox musical that features music by Fats Waller, if folks are familiar with that musical.
That musical was a huge success. I mean so many productions were going on with it. I think Sidney Mahon talks about that musical having some wild number, I believe like fifteen or so concurrent productions because of its success and people wanting a “Black play,” diverse work and being able to produce this work. Ntozake Shange in this essay is actually quite critical of the concept of the jukebox musical because what she says is that it celebrates and displays the genius of Black music with no real book that actually engages the conditions upon which that music can emerge.
So, something like Ain’t Misbehavin’ is, yes, it’s using the music of Fats Waller, and you’re able to hear there’s a wonderful music and look at the dancing and all of these different things and all the Black talent, but because there’s no real book, it doesn’t engage all the things that Fats Waller went through to be able to produce some of that music, that we can get this amazing, profound art, but not engage the conditions upon which that art was made. So, I think that is such a sharp point, and it’s so good. It’s so good.
Leticia: I’m going to quote directly also from this essay because who better to speak than Shange herself?
We have integrated the notion that a drama must be words with no music and no dance, because that would take away the seriousness of the event. Because we all remember too well the chuckles and scoffs that the notion that all could sing and dance, and most of us can sing and dance. The reason that so many plays written in silence and stasis fail is because most Black people have some music and movement in our lives. We do sing and dance. This is a cultural reality. This is why I find the most inspiring theatre among us to be in the realms of music and dance.
I quote that at length because I just love that she’s just like, “You all like to say that Black people, all we do is sing and dance. Well, we do and what? Most of us can, what about it?”
But I think another critical point that she’s trying to make or what she’s trying to collapse is this idea that musical theatre itself is... I think she’s trying to really collapse this idea that musical theatre and what we would consider a straight play within Black culture exists. I actually think she’s trying to get us to think of it as the same thing. That there’s actually no need for these boundaries of, “Well, musical theatre has dance and music; and a straight play may have some music in it, but it’s not that music over there.” I actually think she’s trying to push us to come up with a new concept and idea of what a Black drama looks like in all its capacities that includes music and dance without necessarily needing to sort frame it around these particularities or trying to create distinctions within it.
Jordan: Absolutely. Right. [As] someone who researches musical theatre is that there’s so much that isn’t considered to be musical theatre, and a lot of it is by Black writers. Questioning if Micki Grant’s work real musicals because it doesn’t have this, or is so-and-so’s work actually a musical because it doesn’t have that? I think that Ntozake Shange is getting us to think critically about genre. What makes something a musical, and why is something like musical theatre not inclusive of what the work that Black people have already been doing, which is incorporating significant movement and sound into our work already?
Why can’t my manuscript about Black women’s music theatre have a chapter on for colored girls? Because it’s a choreopoem and it incorporates all of these elements that people are said to describe the ontology of musical theatre. I don’t want to just be included in the canon, but why is it not a part of these discussions when we think about the concept of music theatre? It’s also just such a strong dramaturgical essay. It’s like really getting us to pull apart those dramaturgical structures that often preclude Black people and what we produce.
Compelling Black theater is theater that is doing its best to be representative of the specificity of the community you emerge from and not trying to speak for the whole of Blackness.
Leticia: Right, exactly. I think that she just does such a great job. I actually really like that she doesn’t go to some of the Porgy and Bess as an example of a musical theatre. Actually, there’s something really interesting that she goes with the jukebox musical. I’m just thinking about my own work around some jukebox musicals that I’m trying to examine and thinking about the tendency of Black life specifically in what we would call musical theatre or music theatre being the common way that Black life shows up on that particular stage.
I think it is similar to Childress. She’s also interested in a Black theatre that is rooted within the people and not just these figureheads or these famous artists and musicians, but that those artists and musicians are a part of a community of Black people, where this is a part of our cultural reality issue, I would say. That music on stage is also reflected in the people’s day-to-day everyday life, and that same idea can be placed in shows and dramas about these people as well.
Jordan: Exactly. Following in the footsteps of our good sister Zora Neale Hurston, and in thinking about the communal aspect of cultural expression and that these things come from somewhere, is what I think that Ntozake Shange is trying to get to the heart of in that essay is that Black people sing and dance not just because something intuitive, but that it is a part of the pedagogy of Blackness. You learn these skills. You learn this communal representation through the interaction with your communities, and that’s really the heart of it. So, when you divorce that and just put it on stage with no real true engagement, then you really fail at understanding the root of where these things come from.
Leticia: Right. So, before we close and before we get to our reading list for you all, I have one question for you, Jordan, that is a hard question. After we explored and examined, we reread some of these essays, what is Black theatre to you? How would you define what Black theatre is? We’re speaking in draft everyone.
Jordan: Well, you got to read my book. No, I’m just kidding. I think I’m in the Zora Hurston, Ntozake Shange camp in that Black theatre and performance is Black life, right? We’ve talked about on the podcast before that Black theatre is Black studies, but I think Black theatre and performance is Black life. That we should be looking to the ways in which the theatricality, the performativity of Black people is rooted in the quotidian ways that we interact with each other and with the world. So, I think we can have the DuBoisian “FUBU,” if you will: “for us, by us.” We can have the DuBoisian FUBU, right? We can have the debate of whether it should be political versus what should it be artistic.
But I think that compelling Black theatre is theatre that is doing its best to be representative of the specificity of the community you emerge from and not trying to speak for the whole of Blackness. I am a Black person from the South, and I’ve had particular experiences. So, the work that I feel charged to write and write about is taking that into account. I just think that compelling work by Black theatre artists is rooted in the specificity of your own experience. By being so specific, you can also make that point of connection with someone who may not be sharing that same lived experience. I’d love to hear your answer to this question, Leticia.
Leticia: See, the question was only supposed to be for you and then we were supposed to—
Jordan: No, no, no.
Leticia: Okay. Let me see here. I actually really agree with your answer. I would echo everything you said. For me, a Black theatre that I want to be a part of, that I want to read, that I want to watch, that I want to engage with is a Black theatre that is rooted in Black life, similar to you, the Black community. After rereading these essays, I think my idea of Black theatre is actually not placing it into an institution or a few institutions or if a play gets put up here or if it goes on Broadway, but actually really thinking about... I’m interested in a Black theatre that is a Black theatre of the people that us the community makes up what Black theatre is. Like you said, there’s a utility to the FUBU-ness of DuBois’ first insights.
I do think that allowing the multiplicity of Blackness to show up is critical to a new definition of what Black theatre is and can be. I think what Black theatre is ever-changing and constantly morphing in that we should allow it to continue to do its thing and to not be static in its definition. So, I am interested in the Black theatre that continues to grow, move, and change with the times, with the people, and with our collective goals for liberation and freedom.
Jordan: Beautiful. Beautiful.
Leticia: So we are going to move on. Okay. So, we are going to go to our reading list. As always, we recommend that you check out all the essays that we talked about today, and we have some suggestions for other theorists and philosophers and artists who we didn’t get a chance to talk on this episode of the podcast. Jordan, what are those folks?
Jordan: Yeah. So, our first book is this incredible anthology called The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892-1938, which is edited by Henry Louis Gates and Gene Andrew Jarrett. I believe that this particular anthology, it focuses on Black intellectual history writ large. It has all of these manifestos, articles, essays by Black thinkers that cover a variety of subjects, and one such subject they actually focus on is theatre and drama. It’s divided by section. It’s a really great resource for those who are just interested in the development of Black intellectual history in the United States but are looking for specific things like whether it’s drama, whether it’s politics, whether it’s music. This particular collection is covering the breadth of intellectual ideas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So, check that out.
Then we have a few standalone essays that we’d like to recommend. This is just a start. This is certainly not exhaustive, but definitely trying to be comprehensive. So, some of these essays are “Characteristics of Negro Expression” by Zora Hurston. We have “American Theatre: For Whites Only?” by Douglas Turner Ward, “The Revolutionary Theatre” by Amiri Baraka, and “Calling in the Spirits: How Theatre Can Help Us Tell the Truth” by Pearl Cleage, which actually is a HowlRound essay. So, you should be able to access that right on HowlRound.
Leticia: Great. Well, we thank you all for joining us for our episode today, and we hope that you stick with us for season four of Daughters of Lorraine.
Jordan: Ah, we’re so excited. We have a lot of really awesome interviews and topics to cover, so stay tuned.
Leticia: This has been another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. We’re your hosts, Leticia Ridley—
Jordan: And Jordan Ealey. On our next episode, we interview intimacy professional director and actor Kaya Dunn. We have so much in store for you this season that you definitely will not want to miss. In the meantime, if you’re looking to connect with us, please follow us on Twitter, @dolorrainepod, P-O-D. You can also email us at [email protected] for further contact.
Leticia: Our theme music is composed by Inza Bamba. The Daughters of Lorraine podcast is supported by HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. It’s available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and howlround.com. If you’re looking for the podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify, you’ll want to search and subscribe to “HowlRound podcasts.”
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