Black American Theatre
LAST summer, before his play ''Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' opened on Broadway as the first hit of the season, playwright August Wilson spoke to a group of critics about his role as an emerging black playwright. ''I write out of the black tradition,'' he said. ''I try to unveil those things peculiar to that tradition.'' But when asked by his audience if he, as a black writer, must confront current political issues in his work, Wilson replied, ''It is enough to be a storyteller.''Skip to next paragraph
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It is a statement that reveals as much about the playwright as it does about the state of black drama today. As an art form that has been marked as much by political circumstance as personal achievement, black theater in America continues to mature. It is a process earning mixed reviews. Although black playwrights are broadening their political and thematic circumferences and the number of black actors and directors proliferates, black theatrical institutions operate under increasingly adverse financial circumstances.
An American stage art whose roots can be traced to the African slave ships of the 17th century, black theater has traditionally reflected not only the energies and talents of its participants but also the nation's racial politics, from Jim Crow policies to black separatist movements. For instance, the '20s saw the flowering of Harlem and numerous black theaters; the placid 1950s were earmarked by such mainstream domestic dramas such as ''Raisin in the Sun''; the turbulent '60s saw an explosion of the so-called black hate plays.
Now, in the mid-1980s, black playwrights are wrestling with yet another set of political, economic, and artistic criteria. Unlike the previous decade, which was earmarked by a profusion of black Broadway musicals including the ''The Wiz'' and ''Bubbling Brown Sugar,'' black theater today is reembracing serious drama, but with a political difference.
''During the '60s much of the work being done was hostile,'' says Edward Smith, playwright, director, and professor of theater and African-American Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. ''But that is getting erased now. We're still confronting social issues, but the. . .tone is more of love.''
With the current Broadway success of Wilson's ''Ma Rainey'' and the international theatrical tour and release in film version of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning ''A Soldier's Play,'' by Charles Fuller - two plays that address black concerns in a historical context - non-musical black drama, rich in perspective but lacking overt political polarization, seems to be surfacing and finding an audience. It is a trend that many heads of black theaters are greeting with cautious optimism for its effect on the black theater industry as a whole.
''We seem destined to be considering whether black is in or out,'' says Lloyd Richards, director of ''Ma Rainey'' and head of Yale University's drama department. ''We've gone through periods of cultural guilt on a national scale, and then ethnic theater does well. But then the pendulum swings back. But this has nothing to do with creativity,'' he cautions. ''It has to do with what's popular.''
''People are excited to see something black that's not song and dance,'' says playwright Wilson. ''So seldom does that get done on a Broadway stage.''
''Musicals have always contained elements of superficiality to them,'' says Losten Mitchell, author of ''Bubbling Brown Sugar'' and currently an instructor of playwriting at SUNY Binghamton. ''We're living in some very exciting times, and I'm intrigued by the number of serious straight plays that are opening.''
According to Mitchell, the significance of both ''Ma Rainey'' and ''A Soldier's Play'' lies in their role as ''heritage plays.'' By addressing black concerns within a historical context - a black blues band in Chicago in 1927 (''Ma Rainey'') and a black Army barracks in World War II (''A Soldier's Play'') - the plays perform a ''historical straightening out'' of the American black experience, says Mitchell. It is this ''bubbling over of various ethnic experiences that makes for good drama,'' he says.
As playwright Wilson explains it, ''I'm trying to explore those things in the black experience common to all cultures. The trick is finding them, but they are there. (Blacks) wrestle with the same questions that man has been wrestling with since the beginning of time.''