reading a number of texts throughout the course of the semester, I realize that
there exists a symbiotic relationship between black theater and black communities.
This entails black theater accentuating the various historical, social,
political, and cultural issues that African Americans have been struggling with
in the United States. It is this key realization that guides me in defining
black theatre; black theatre – through tools of art and entertainment – aims to
highlight all sorts of problems that black communities have historically
struggled with and continue to struggle with. Traditionally, theaters merely
have the responsibility of entertaining their audiences; however, black
theaters have the extraordinary task of putting forward the ever-grave issues
while retaining the required component of entertainment, and that’s something
that distinguishes black theater from the mainstream conventional theaters.
paper aims to explore the contemporary relevance of three plays; consider the
myriad issues they emphasized, what was their sociopolitical context, whether
they were successful, and lastly determine how significant they were to the
institution of black theater. The plays that will be analyzed in this paper are
Day of Absence by Douglas Turner
Ward, Mulatto by Langston Hughes, and
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine
of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward
By 1965, southern
white identity was steeped in the supremacy ideologies that began to manifest
most notably in minstrelsy. Written in 1965, Day of Absence is a racial satire that uses reverse minstrelsy depicting
an imaginary Southern town where all of the black people have suddenly
disappeared and the resulting anarchistic chaos that follows because of their
disappearance. As shoes go unshined and babies unfed, the situation turns
chaotic. It isn’t long before even the segregationist mayor is begging: “I’ll be kneeling in the middle of Dixie
Avenue to kiss the first shoe of the first one ‘a you to show up. I’ll smooch
any other spot you request. Erase this nightmare ‘n’ we’ll concede any demand
you make, just come on back — please?!” 1
Ward’s play sheds
light on the important issue of black labor, and how it mostly goes
unappreciated. Since blacks are usually given menial jobs due to their lower
skill level, whites with higher-paying jobs don’t respect and value the work
that blacks do. The work may not be well paying, but is critically important,
as the play shows. Through the use of satire, Ward’s play is a provocative
critique on white privilege and the protection of white identity. The events of
the play begs an important question -– what happens to the identity of the whites
if there is no one to oppress? In addition to stressing how the threatened loss
of their socially constructed position of supremacy impacts the whites, the
play also utilizes reverse minstrelsy as a means of further fusing the play
within the historical underpinnings that are central to the plays sub-textual
critique of white privilege and the protection of white identity.
In Day of Absence, there are stereotypes of
whites playing their roles against the backdrop of the racialized setting of
the civil rights movement. This is revealed at the onset upon simply reading
the character names and descriptions. Names like: Clem & Luke, two country
crackers; Mary & John, an upper class white couple; Reb Pious, the overly
evangelical minister; Mrs. Aide, the overseer of the towns social welfare
programs; Mr. Clan, whose name speaks for itself; and the Mayor named Henry R.
E. Lee. As the “darkies” are not there to work, the town devolves into anarchic
conditions. The town’s people’s homes aren’t being cleaned; the businesses are
ineffectual as there is no one around to do the heavy or even the light labor.
At stake for all
of the town’s people in the play is their position of privilege and the
retention of their white identity which has become tenuous with the absence of
the blacks; and if the blacks do not return then their position of privilege
and identity reflective of the white supremacist ethos that is part of the Southern
legacy will be gone. Thus, the play examines a dominant group’s sense of identity
as it relates to the group that is designated as the “other,” and what happens
to that identity when the “other” is no longer under their control. In many
ways, the mysterious disappearance of the black townspeople is a fictionalized
event that serves as a metaphor mirroring the emancipation of blacks from
slavery. In Day of Absence, the lines
of race, class, and power are examined through the inventive choices of plot,
style and the usage of the historical underpinnings that helped to create and
define the construction of whiteness in this country. Though black communities
have now been able to gain better skills, and ultimately secure relatively
higher-paying jobs, they still lag behind due to systemic reasons. With Donald
Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans and Muslims, one can have a fair idea thanks to
Ward’s play what the U.S socioeconomic landscape would look like if such groups
were expelled from the United States.
by Langston Hughes
Mulatto deals with life in the south
during the 1930s, a time when the system of white control over blacks was uncompromisingly
harsh. The author explores the problems faced by mixed-race children; through
the story of Colonel Norwood and his son Robert, Hughes illuminates how such
children face identity problems even at home, and unfortunately, even at the
hands of their own parents. The play elaborately uses symbolism to highlight
myriad social issues. It is interesting to note that blacks cannot enter the
house from the front door; it’s important to take into consideration that this
is a post-slavery period. People must reflect on how the society has still not
allowed blacks to be assimilated and integrated into the society.
important issue is how the white supremacist society discourages and ostracizes
those who adopt relatively soft ways with blacks. It is most evident when
Higgins says, “You been too decent to
your darkies, Norwood. And then the whole county suffers from a lot of impudent
bucks who take lessons from your crowd. Folks been kicking about that, too.
Maybe that’s a reason why you didn’t get the nomination for committeeman a few
years back.” 2.
How Colonel Norwood’s friend tells him that he has let her maid too much
freedom and all. Now Colonel Norwood himself may not have been repulsed by the
actions of his son, but the fact that his reputation is being tarnished for
allowing his children so much freedom leads him to be violent and inconsiderate
with Robert. Elaborate more.
This play was
significant in black theater due to various reasons. Firstly, it highlighted
the aforementioned problem of mixed-race children at a time when people could
still really clearly see the remnants of slavery – how no white person wants
any sort of blood relation with a black. Secondly, it accentuates the bigotry
and supremacy inherent in the whites. This is best illuminated by all of
Robert’s so-called ‘uppity’ actions, which would not be unacceptable to white
society if he were white, but because he is black, his actions repulse the
whites. Thirdly, the play highlights the problem of the “color line”
– the symbolic line that people must cross in order to accept each other as
human beings. The importance of the color line is stressed by W.E.B DuBois, who
said, “The problem of the 20th
century is the problem of the color line.” There is an abhorrent lack of
understanding and respect, and this ultimately gives way to the final chain of
events. Fourthly, it highlights how black women are subjugated to patriarchy; Colonel
Norwood has lived in the same house as Cora for many years, and they do well
together as long as he is not confronted with the issues of his paternity and
his control over the plantation.
explores how the United States’ judicial system is circumvented by white mobs.
When Higgins talks about the prospect of Robert being detained by the
Junction’s police force, he adds, “I was
thinking how weak the doors to that jail is.” 3
It reflects how there is always a serious threat to black people’s lives,
and how conveniently white supremacist mobs take law into their own hands –
something that almost always led to violent deaths and lynchings.
children do not face the same problems as in the 20th century, but
it can be argued that there are still identity problems as they are not black
enough to be black and not white enough to be white – eventually having a
problem of fitting into one community. The American society is still
unfortunately really resistant to diversity and mixed-race interactions, with
rising stigma and anti-black fervor, especially in the south, since the
election of Donald Trump.
Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
The play deals
with the problems encountered by a poor black family as it tries to cope with
the realities of life on Chicago’s South Side. Written just as the Civil Rights
movement began to get underway, this play made an important statement regarding
race relations, as it elaborately reveals the devastating effects of poverty
and oppression on the African American family.
As the play
progresses, the frustration born of this poverty and oppression mounts. The
anger and hostility that it spawns begin to erode the foundations of the family
structure. Everyone has his/her own idea of spending the money; while Lena and
Beneatha are keen to save money for Beneatha’s medical school, Walter Lee
insists that the family put faith in his business venture that, he thinks,
would put the whole family out of poverty. However, they cannot come to a
conclusion. Such frustration and growing discord reflects how blacks have to
forego some of their ambitions due to socioeconomic constraints.
Walter Lee’s frustration with his life causes him to
project his predicament on his wife, as a representative of all black women. As
he puts it, “Man say I got to change my
life. I’m choking to death, baby! And his woman say—your eggs is getting cold!”
Beneatha represents the newly emancipated black woman (in
the image of the playwright) as she will not marry for security, nor is she
willing to surrender her freethinking ideas. At one point, Lena actually slaps
Beneatha and insists that she affirm her belief in God, but it is clear that
the young woman acquiesces only out of respect for her mother.
A Raisin in the Sun was a revolutionary work for its
time. Hansberry creates in the Younger family one of the first honest
depictions of a black family on an American stage, in an age when predominantly
black audiences simply did not exist. Before this play, African-American roles,
usually small and comedic, largely employed ethnic stereotypes. Hansberry,
however, shows an entire black family in a realistic light, one that is
unflattering and far from comedic. She uses black vernacular throughout the
play and broaches important issues and conflicts, such as poverty,
discrimination, and the construction of African-American racial identity.
A Raisin in the Sun explores not only
the tension between white and black society but also the strain within the
black community over how to react to an oppressive white community. Hansberry’s
drama asks difficult questions about assimilation and identity. Through the
character of Asagai, Hansberry reveals a trend toward celebrating African
heritage. As he calls for a native revolt in his homeland, she seems to predict
the anticolonial struggles in African countries of the upcoming decades, as
well as the inevitability and necessity of integration.
addressed feminist questions ahead of their time in A Raisin in the Sun. Through the character of Beneatha, Hansberry
proposes that marriage is not necessary for women and that women can and should
have ambitious career goals. She even approaches an abortion debate, allowing
the topic of abortion to enter the action in an era when abortion was illegal.
Of course, one of her most radical statements was simply the writing and
production of the play—no small feat given her status as a young, black woman
in the 1950s.
A Raisin in the
Sun directly addresses the issue of segregated housing in the United States.
While many neighborhoods remain effectively segregated today, such segregation
was legally enforced during the 1950s. Despite several Constitutional
Amendments subsequent to the Civil War, African Americans were denied many
civil rights a full century later.
Page 279, A Day of Absence, Hatch,
James V, and Shine, Ted. Black Theatre
USA The Recent Period 1935 – Today, The Free Press, 1974.
Page 10, Mulatto, Hatch, James V, and
Shine, Ted. Black Theatre USA The Recent
Period 1935 – Today, The Free Press, 1974.
Page 9, Mulatto, Hatch, James V, and
Shine, Ted. Black Theatre USA The Recent
Period 1935 – Today, The Free Press, 1974.