At an Atlanta festival, black America through the eyes of black artists
I hardly go to the theatre these days. Why do these younger black writers have to use so much cussin’ and crotch-grabbin’, and men calling each other nigger’ every other word?” The question was posed by the distinguished older woman in the seat beside me – the matron, it turns out, of an established black Atlanta family and mother of Ivy-educated doctors and lawyers. Happily for her, the presentation we were waiting to see that sultry afternoon at the 1992 National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta was scrupulously inoffensive – a worthy drama rich in its representation of solid “family values.” By contrast, in the play I saw later that evening, expletives were tossed about as freely as frisbies at a summer picnic and crotch-grabbing was de rigeur. My matronly neighbor would have undoubtedly escaped at intermission, retreating to the protective walls of positive imagery of Black Folks.
Such imagery was in plentiful supply, side-by-side with rougher, more cutting-edge work, Aug. 3-9 at the biennial festival of performance, visual arts, music, dance, film, literature and folk arts. Inaugurated in 1988 as a cultural encore to that year’s Atlanta Democratic National Convention, the festival was conceived by the Fulton County commissioner as a forum for artists of African descent from here and abroad. At venues throughout the metro Atlanta area, jazz concerts showcased living legends such as Tito Puente and Max Roach; film retrospectives highlighted the achievements of Ousmane Sembene of Senegal and Sergio Giral of Cuba (both of whom were present at the festival); a two-day “Roots and Branches” folk arts festival represented the evolution of African culture through reproductions of West African and Caribbean villages, a Gullah settlement from the Carolina coast, and a black Seminole village of Texas.
If the NBAF can be said to have a theme, it is the discovery of what it means to be black in America – articulated by as many different, passionate voices as can be brought together at one time. This year, stereotypes were confronted and avoided, parodied and mythologized, deconstructed and denounced; depictions of the burgeoning black middle class (the aforementioned positive images) had their moments onstage, as did those of angry, inner-city black males. But unlike the portrayals we are accustomed to seeing on television and in movies, these were all created by black people. Audiences – which counted among their numbers “well-bred” southern debutantes; younger, hipper Atlantans; visitors from across the country – pricked up their ears to the messages behind the performances, keeping the crucial factor of who created them in mind.
The festival’s theatre agenda encompassed a melange of genres from the splashy Broadway musical The Wiz, featuring Stephanie Mills in a role she created almost 20 years ago; to the South African musical Sheila’s Day, directed by Mbongeni Ngema; to a trio of staged readings by Laurie Carlos, Paul Carter Harrison and Glenda Dickerson; to performance art by more obscure but provocative artists such as the Hittite Empire of Los Angeles.
The latter group, a hard-hitting, no-holds-barred ensemble of about a half-dozen men and one woman, presented a new work called River as part of a performance-art series trendily titled Blue Light Basement: From Jukehouse to Funkhouse. The Hittites aim to articulate the New Black Aesthetic as well as address current problems in the black community – in the words of its leader Keith Antar Mason, “to explore our hidden mysteries and mythologies in order to understand ourselves better.” River is a ritualistic performance that begins with the displaced voice of Mason echoing from backstage. “Is it hard for you to breathe out there?” he intones, as the small theatre fills with the scent of heavy incense. “Can you breathe in history, Atlanta?” In the course of relating what Mason characterized as “the true story of a black American filmmaker” who went to seek artistic freedom in Berlin in the 1930s and became a beloved artist of Hitler’s, four actors relentlessly demonstrate the goose step; when Hitler talks of his New World Order and the ascent of the Aryan race, the black film. maker’s response is a deadpan, “America has already beat you to it.” (At a Q-&-A session after the show, Mason indicated that the artist’s story could be found on page 119 of a book called Negro Film Makers. A thorough check of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library the following day uncovered no such text, however.) River goes on to deal intelligently with another issue too often left unaddressed-relationships between black men and black women. “If I could find one black man who loves me,” a lone woman laments; she moves into a sensual, spasmodic dance behind a scrim resembling a gigantic spider’s web, while the four men onstage clutch bottles to their chests and drink themselves into a spiritual abyss.
The hero of Paul Carter Harrison’s Goree Crossing has fallen into his own spiritual void, but meets his salvation in a southern backwash, circa 1918. A staged reading of the work about racial violence, directed by Negro Ensemble Company founder Douglas Turner Ward, was presented as part of the festival’s New Play Project, a component of the festival that will begin commissioning plays for 1994. In what might be described as a blues/spirituals operetta, Harrison’s protagonist, Chap Chapman, is a “sidditty” Negro from up North, a vaudeville star who thinks he’s too highbrow to associate with the “country Negroes” of Goree Crossing. Chap arrogantly performs show tunes like “I’m just a Hottentot” and “Jim Crow” and callously lashes out at the voodoo-practicing “niggas” around him until the lynching of a mulatto man in town precipitates a crisis. Too long (nearly four hours) in its present form, the play is nevertheless lush with mythological elements (a young woman tells a story of a magical river where blacks washed to become white) and in this reading benefitted from a talented cast and chorus. Ward himself shone as Papa Da, a scary old man who lives in a mudhole and becomes the deus ex machina during the play’s intoxicating finale.
A vastly different depiction of life in a southern town is offered in Valetta Anderson’s She’ll Find Her Way Home, premiered by Atlanta’s Jomandi Productions in February of 1991 and remounted for the festival. Based on the true story of a family of former slaves who owned three plantations in pre- and post-war Mississippi, She’ll Find Her Way Home traces the founding of an all-black town, Mound Bayou, Miss., in the 1880s. Suggests playwright Anderson, “I want to write stories about overcoming, about other elements of our history. In particular, the story of the black middle class has been missed. Not everyone was dealing with overseers and an animalistic mentality.” Anderson is currently at work on a trilogy about this unacknowledged aspect of black American history.
Alonzo D. Lamont Jr.’s Vivisections from the Blown Mind, first produced at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in 1991 and presented at the festival by Atlanta’s 7 Stages under Clinton Turner Davis’s direction, fast-forwarded audiences into the harsh realities of life for the 1990s black male. Castro, a young rap artist, is no product of the ghetto (his mom is a teacher, his dad an engineer, and he is college-educated), but he must play the role of the “gangsta rapper” in order to succeed in white-dominated Hollywood. His relationship with Angelique, the smart, sexy white woman who strategically handles his affairs, is reminiscent of that between Lula and Clay in Amiri Baraka’s seminal 1964 work Dutchman, in which the white woman, through a cunning game of sexual politics, attempts to penetrate the psyche of a black man. Castro is also a movie actor, and the signature moment of his action-adventure flicks is also his greatest source of humiliation: In classic Steppin Fetchit fashion – with bugged eyes and wide grin – Castro is called upon to point a gun at his enemy and proclaim, “I ain’t be dead, eat lead.” Castro’s identity is caught in a vortex between the hilariously exaggerated stereotypes of the past and the more subtle but no less damaging portrayals of the present-day black man.
Playwright Lamont makes no apologies for the powerful language (not to mention crotch-grabbing) put to the service of telling his story, but he betrays more than a touch of cynicism about black audience reaction to Vivisections and the state of black theatre in general.
“With black drama these days, if it’s not about sisterhood, there’s not much of a chance for success,” he observes. “When you have a black man onstage, people are prepared to take an unintellectual journey. Standards are lowered. They are dealing with the image and not with the language.”
Lamont’s complaint is just one reflection of the myriad approaches to theatre – and the productive dialectical process – that a festival on the scale of NBAF encourages. What became clear by festival’s end is that there is more than one black American experience – and more than one viable way to depict accurately our different shades of blackness.