Plot Summary from https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/trouble-mind#B
Trouble in Mind opens inside the entrance of a Broadway theater in New York City. Wiletta Mayer, a middle-aged, African-American actress, bangs on the door and finally lets herself in. She scolds the elderly doorman, Henry, for not letting her in out of the cold, until she sees the stage. While she is enraptured by the sight of the theater, Henry recognizes her from when he was an electrician on a show twenty years ago. When Henry leaves, John Nevins, a young African-American actor, enters. He tries to hide his nervousness. In talking to him, Wiletta realizes that they come from the same place and that she knows his parents. Wiletta gives him career advice about how black people are perceived by white directors and others who run the show. She tells him that he should lie and say he was in the last revival oiPorgy and Bess, even though it is untrue. John is skeptical of her counsel.
Millie, another African-American actress, enters. Soon, a young white actress, Judith Sears, and an elderly African-American actor, Sheldon Forrestor, join the conversation. John tries to approach Judy several times, but the other actors prevent him, talking about this play and previous productions they have been in. Judy reveals that this is her first play, and she hopes it will educate their audience. The other actors do not disagree outright. Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of the play’s director, Manners, his assistant, Eddie, and Henry. After greetings are exchanged, Manners shows them the sketches for the production’s scenic design. He compliments each member of the cast, especially Wiletta, who worked on a movie with him some time ago.
Manners tells the cast about the play and how the production came to be. He say that it is ahead of its time in its depiction of race. The cast has questions about their parts, but Manners insists that they read a scene in the middle of act one. Judy gets up to read, but she is nervous and forgets where downstage is. Manners yells at her. Manners tries to make Wiletta act naturally, but it comes off wrong, and he seems racist. Wiletta becomes very cautious around him. The cast continues with the read. The black actors question words and situations they object to. Manners tries to smooth things over, but does not concede such things are objectional. He has them read from the beginning of act one.
Henry shows up with coffee and doughnuts. Manners becomes angry when Henry does not bring him the proper pastry. His anger and condescending attitude increase when Eddie informs Manners that his ex-wife is on the phone. Manners takes the call while Wiletta tries to make Eddie more comfortable. Judy invites the cast to visit her family’s home in Bridgeport. Wiletta and Millie tell her she better ask them before she makes such an invitation because they might not want them there.
Manners turns the conversation to the script. He asks the cast to explain to him what is going on. When they do, he has Wiletta sing the song at the end of act one. She knows the song and performs it well. Manners demands to know what she is thinking about. She tells him that she knows what he wants, but he is not satisfied with this answer. Manners makes her play a word association game that makes Wiletta uncomfortable. Manners leads Judy offstage to take about her role. Immediately, the black cast members tell John to not get too close to Judy. While talking about racial topics, they say accusatory things to each other. John, Sheldon, and Millie leave, and Wiletta is left alone. Henry comes in and tries to comfort her. He is still mad about what Manners did to him earlier. As Henry talks about Ireland and the problems there, he grows incresingly indignant. Wiletta shares his anger. She says she will be an actress no matter what is thrown in her path.
Three mornings later, Manners and Eddie are rehearsing with a new addition, white actor Bill O’Wray. O’Wray plays Renard, the father figure in the play, and is passionately reading a long-winded speech from the play. When he is done, Bill seems unsure of himself. Bill offers suggestions to Manners about the play. Manners goes on about his personal problems, then asks a favor of Bill. He tells Bill to stop leaving at lunch hour because it looks like he does not want to eat with the black members of the cast. Bill tells Manners that he does not want to eat with them, not because he is prejudice, but because he does not want people to stare at him.
Wiletta enters. She tries to tell Manners about problems she has with the script. Manners is dismissive of her concerns. He compliments her every time she tries to say something. Wiletta finally gets out that she thinks the third act might not seem a natural outcome after the first, but Manners tells her not to think. When the rest of the cast joins them, Judy looks more sophisticated and John acts more like Manners. Manners starts rehearsal at the beginning of act three. Wiletta has a hard time focusing on her lines. The play soon reaches a dramatic climax, as John’s character goes out to be lynched and Wiletta’s character lets him go. Manners acts like the consummate director.
When they reach the end of the scene, Sheldon reveals that he has not read the whole play, just the parts that he is in. Manners fills him in on the ending. He also compliments all the actors on their work, except Wiletta. Manners asks her if she will let him help her. Wiletta tells him that he will not listen to her suggestions, though he does pay attention to the others’ thoughts. Manners explains that she must lose herself in the part by relating, but Wiletta does not understand why Job, John’s character, does not get away. John tries to intercede, but he acts just like Manners. Manners will not listen to Wiletta, and the cast falls into a bit of infighting.
Manners attempts to control his cast. He asks them to imagine a lynching. He is surprised when Sheldon says that he has seen one. Sheldon relates the story. Manners and Bill are affected by the story, and the former calls for lunch. The cast decides to go together. Wiletta still tries to make her point about the script, but Manners dismisses her concerns again. Some of the cast leaves, and Wiletta says she will catch up them later.
Lights flicker to indicate the passage of time, and when the lights come up again, the stage is empty. The cast, save Wiletta, enters. To one side, Manners and Eddie chide Bill for making what could be seen as a racist joke. Wiletta arrives just as Manners begins rehearsal. She tells him she wants to talk to him after rehearsal, but Manners is noncommittal. They begin to read act three. Wiletta ignores Manners’s order to keep John on his knees. She challenges Manners about the play: she does not believe her character would send her son out to a lynch mob. Though others try to silence her, she asks Manners if he would do it to his son. He ignores the question and justifies his position. Wiletta accuses him of prejudice and keeps trying to ask him her question. Manners finally answers her in an angry outburst. He says that he and his son could not be compared to her and John’s character.
Manners and Eddie quickly leave, and the cast is in disarray. The cast is both accusatory and supportive of what Wiletta said. Sheldon is on her side, but he tells her to apologize to in an effort to keep their jobs. Wiletta is firm in her conviction that the play is a lie. Judy and Bill are resentful of what the black actors say about whites. Finally, Eddie comes in and informs that rehearsal is over. He will call them about tomorrow’s rehearsal. The cast, except Wiletta, leave. Henry sees that Wiletta is upset and tries to calm her. She says that she will show up at rehearsal tomorrow, no matter what, so that Manners has to fire her in person. At Henry’s urging, she recites something on stage: Psalm 133.
Alice Childress, playwright, novelist, actor, and screenwriter, was born Alice Herndon in Charleston, South Carolina. Her parents separated in 1925 and Childress moved to the Harlem, New York home of her grandmother Eliza Campbell White, who encouraged her to write and exposed her to the arts. Leaving high school after only two years, Childress worked low-paying jobs while becoming involved in the Harlem theatre scene. In the 1930s, she married and divorced Alvin Childress, an actor, and they had a daughter, Jean R. Childress. Childress married musician Nathan Woodard in 1957.
In 1941, she joined Harlem’s American Negro Theatre (ANT) where she worked as an actress, stage director, personnel director, and costume designer for 11 years. While at ANT, she fought for union off-Broadway contracts that would assure advanced pay for actors. A respected performer, Childress appeared in a variety of New York productions, including Natural Man (1941), Rain (1948), and The Emperor’s Clothes (1953). Anna Lucasta (1944) transferred to Broadway and earned Childress a Tony Award nomination.
In 1949, she wrote her first play, Florence. This early play reflects many themes that would characterize Childress’s later writings, including black female empowerment, interracial politics, working-class life, and attacks on black stereotypes. With the Off-Broadway union performances of Just a Little Simple (1950) and Gold through the Trees (1952), Childress became the first professionally produced black female playwright. At the end of the 1955-1956 Off-Broadway season, Trouble in Mind won an Obie Award for Best Original Play, making Childress the first black woman to be awarded the honor. By the end of her career, she had written over a dozen plays.
One of her most famous works, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1973) helped launch her career as a young adult novelist. The novel confronts difficult social issues, such as racism, drug use, teen pregnancy, and homosexuality. She adapted her novel into a screenplay in 1978. Childress wrote two other young adult novels as well as an adult novel and collection of short stories.
Occasionally, her writings on black culture and interracial relations caused controversy. Some networks refused to televise a 1969 production of Wine in the Wilderness and the Public Theatre’s 1973 production of Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White. Some school districts and libraries banned A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich after it was released.
Before her death in 1994, Childress received various awards and grants, including a Rockefeller grant, a graduate medal from the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, the Radcliffe Alumnae Graduate Society Medal for Distinguished Achievement, and a Lifetime Career Achievement Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE).
Summary from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funnyhouse_of_a_Negro
The play opens with a dreamlike sequence of a woman in a white nightgown with long, dark hair crossing the stage. The woman, who the audience later learns is Sarah's mother, carries a bald head in her hands. A white curtain opens, revealing Sarah's bedroom. The play takes place in Sarah's mind, with her room as a symbol for her obsession with whiteness. The white statue of Queen Victoria on the stage is a symbol of whiteness.
The first scene is between Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg, with Sarah's room representing the Queen's chambers. This gives the audience an understanding of the permeability of the set, as it constantly takes on new forms for its various inhabitants. The two women discuss whiteness, with the Queen stating, "My mother was the light. She was the lightest one. She looked like a white woman." Their conversation is not their own words, but the words of Sarah. The Queen and Duchess embody Anglo-American culture and are a manifestation of Sarah's white self.
The conversation between the Queen and Duchess is interrupted by the woman from the opening sequence's knocking and yelling about how she should have never let a black man touch her. This is how we first learn of Sarah's hatred towards her black father. The scene shifts into one of Sarah's monologues, and ends with a comment from the landlady, who is one of the few characters who exists outside of Sarah's mind and therefore one of the few manifestations of reality in the play. The landlady helps the audience to understand Sarah's situation, explaining how her father killed himself when Patrice Lumumba was killed. The landlady says that Sarah hasn't left her room since her father's death, and that Sarah claims her father did not actually hang himself, but rather, she "bludgeoned his head with an ebony skull that he carries about with him. Wherever he goes, he carries black masks and heads." The scene ends with the landlady's comments about how Sarah's hair has fallen out and how she always knew that Sarah wanted to be someone else. This scene introduces us to the motif of hair, which recurs throughout the play. There is also a persistent knocking sound in the background for the rest of the play, representing the father's attempts to return to Sarah's life.
The next scene is between the Duchess and Raymond, the funnyman of the funnyhouse. The two characters discuss the Duchess' father, who is actually Sarah's father, as the Duchess is an extension of Sarah. They call the father a "wild beast" who raped Sarah's mother, and compare his blackness to the mother's whiteness. Finally, the Duchess reveals that the mother is currently in an asylum and is completely bald; this explains the significance of the opening sequence of the play. The audience also learns that the Duchess' hair is falling out; this implies that Sarah's hair is falling out, because her white self cannot coexist with her black self.
The next scene contains a speech by Lumumba, a manifestation of Sarah's black self. His character is unknown to the audience, and he holds a mask in his hands. The speech discusses how Sarah is haunted by her bald mother in her sleep, blaming Sarah's father for her plight into insanity, saying, "Black man, black man, my mother says, I never should have let a black man put his hands on me."
The next scene begins with a movement sequence between the Duchess and Queen, in which they discover that the Queen's hair has fallen out on her pillow, and the Duchess tries to place hair back onto her head. As they continue to pantomime, Lumumba's character returns for another monologue, in which he gives more information about Sarah's life. The audience learns that Sarah is a student at a city college in New York, and that she dreams of being surrounded by European antiques and having white friends. He also explains that Sarah's black father was given mixed messages about his identity by his parents. His mother wanted him to go to Africa and save the race, while his father told him that "the race was no damn good." Lumumba's speech ends with the claim that Sarah's father tried to hang himself in a Harlem hotel, but leaves ambiguity as to whether the suicide was successful.
The next scene is between the Duchess and Jesus in the Duchess' palace. They are both bald, and express their fear surrounding the loss of hair. The scene begins with a movement sequence between the Duchess and Jesus, similar to that between the Duchess and the Queen, in which the two characters sit on a bench, attempting to brush the shreds of hair left on their heads. When they speak, they discuss how the father won't leave them alone. The landlady enters and tells a story about how Sarah's father asked her for forgiveness for being black, and she would not give him forgiveness. The scene ends with Jesus telling the Duchess that he plans to go to Africa to kill Patrice Lumumba.
The next scene takes place in a jungle, which covers the entire stage, while Sarah's bedroom remains in the background. Jesus appears, surrounded by the rest of the characters, all with nimbuses on their heads "in a manner to suggest that they are saviors". The group speaks in unison about how they believed their father to be God, but he is black. They speak of how his darkness killed the lightness, or Sarah's mother, and haunted Sarah's conception. Finally, they say that they are bound to the father unless he dies. They all rush to the grass in unison and repeat their chants, as the mother enters. They enact a conversation between Sarah and her father, in which he seeks forgiveness for being black, and Sarah asks him why he raped her mother then states how she wants to "bludgeon him with an ebony head." All of the characters run around the stage laughing and screaming until the blackout.
As the final scene begins, a new wall drops onto stage. A white statue of Queen Victoria acts as the representation of Sarah's room. Sarah appears in the light, "standing perfectly still, we hear the KNOCKING, the LIGHTS come on quickly, her FATHER'S black figure with bludgeoned hands rushes upon her, the LIGHT GOES BLACK and we see her hanging in the room." The landlady and Raymond enter, noticing Sarah's hanging body. The landlady remarks on the sadness of Sarah's situation, when Raymond says, "She was a funny little liar." He then says that her father never actually hanged himself, but rather, he is a doctor and married to a white woman, living the life that Sarah dreamed of having.
Adrienne Kennedy is an African-American playwright. She was born in 1931 and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Kennedy graduated with a degree in Education from the Ohio State University in 1953. She continued to study at The New School for Social Research and Columbia University American Theater Wing. Kennedy is most known for her role in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960's and early 1970's. This political and social movement advocated for racial pride, independence and equality for all black people. She was a founding member of the Women’s Theatre Council in 1971.
After the birth of her son, she traveled to Africa and Italy. When she returned home she wrote her first play, Funnyhouse of a Negro. The play premiered in 1964 and won an Obie Award for Distinguished Play. In 1995, Signature Theatre dedicated their season to her work with performances of Funnyhouse of a Negro, A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, June and Jean in Concert, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, and The Alexander Plays...Suzanne In Stages. She also won two Obie Awards in 1996 for June and Jean in Concert and Sleep Deprivation Chamber for Best New American Play.
In 2003, Kennedy was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Literature by Ohio State University. She has taught and lectured at Yale University, Princeton University, Brown University, University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University, Stanford University, New York University, and University of California.
Adrienne Kennedy was born Adrienne Lita Hawkins on September 13, 1931, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her mother, Etta Hawkins, was a teacher, and her father, Cornell Wallace Hawkins, was a social worker. She spent most of her childhood in Cleveland, Ohio, attending Cleveland public schools. She grew up in an integrated neighborhood and didn't experience much racism until attending college at Ohio State University. As a child, she spent most of her time reading books like Jane Eyre and The Secret Garden instead of playing games with other children.
She admired actors like Orson Welles and began to focus on theater during her teenage years. The Glass Menagerie was among the first plays she saw produced, inspiring her to explore her passion for playwriting. Her interest in playwriting continued when she started at Ohio State in 1949. She graduated from Ohio State in 1953 with a bachelor's degree in education and continued her studies at Columbia University in 1954–56. She married Joseph Kennedy on May 15, 1953, a month after graduating from Ohio State, and the couple had two children, Joseph Jr. and Adam. They divorced in 1966.
Her first play to be produced was Funnyhouse of a Negro, a one-act play she wrote in 1960, the year she visited Ghana for a few months with her husband on his grant from the African Research Foundation. The play draws on Kennedy's African and European heritage as she explores a "black woman's psyche, riven by personal and inherited psychosis, at the root of which is the ambiguously double failure of both rapacious white society and its burdened yet also distorted victims."
A Rat's Mass was produced at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in Manhattan's East Village twice in 1969 and once in 1971. In 1976, La MaMa's Annex performed the show with music by Cecil Taylor. Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired By His Death and A Beast Story were both produced at La MaMa in 1974.
As of 2018, Kennedy has written thirteen published and five unpublished plays, several autobiographies, a novella, and a short story. Kennedy used the alias Adrienne Cornell for the short story "Because of the King of France", published in Black Orpheus: A Journal of African and Afro-American Literature in 1963. Much of Kennedy's work is based on her lived experience.
Kennedy was a founding member of the Women's Theatre Council in 1971, a member of the board of directors of PEN in 1976–77, and an International Theatre Institute representative in Budapest in 1978.
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In the opening scene of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Seth talks to his wife, Bertha, in the kitchen of their boarding house. Looking out the window at Bynum, one of the house’s boarders, Seth narrates the old man’s strange actions, voicing his disapproval of the spiritual ritual Bynum is undertaking in the garden. Bynum is a “conjure man,” or a man who practices folk magic. A pragmatic craftsman who spends his time making pots and pans, Seth is suspicious of Bynum’s superstitious ways, but Bertha tells him to leave the old man alone. As their conversation continues, Bynum comes inside and sits down for breakfast. Together, Seth, Bertha, and Bynum talk about a young man named Jeremy, who also lives in the boarding house. Apparently, Jeremy spent the previous night in jail, a fact that unnerves Seth, who wants to keep a respectable household. When Bynum stands up for Jeremy, saying he just has “a lot of country in him” that will fade away, Seth says, “Ever since slavery got over with there ain’t been nothing but foolish-acting niggers. Word get out they need men to work in the mill and put in these roads…and niggers drop everything and head North looking for freedom. They don’t know the white fellows looking too.”
Eventually, a white man named Selig enters the kitchen and sells Seth aluminum. The two men agree that Seth will make dustpans out of the aluminum, which Selig will retrieve the following week and then sell door-to-door. Selig is known as a “people finder” because he can track people down for a small fee while going town to town selling his wares.
Bynum asks about a man he paid Selig to find, a “shiny man” he once encountered while walking on a long unfamiliar road. Bynum explains that this “shiny man” told him to follow along because he wanted to show him something, claiming that if Bynum came with him, he’d show him the secret of life. Eventually, the two men turned a corner in the road, and suddenly the strange man rubbed blood all over himself and instructed Bynum to do the same. Then this man was shining all over until, abruptly, he vanished. At this point, Bynum came upon the spirit of his dead father, who told him he was going to show him “how to find [his] song.” His father then taught him this “song” and told him that if he ever sees a shiny man again, he’ll know his song has been accepted, at which point he can lie down “and die a happy man.” Finishing his story, Bynum explains that his “song” is the “Binding Song,” meaning he can join people together.
Jeremy comes home from the jailhouse and sits down to eat a large breakfast under Seth’s scornful gaze, and Selig departs. Jeremy explains that the only reason he got arrested the night before is because the police officers found out he’d just been paid two dollars for working on the town’s new bridge, and they wanted to confiscate this money for themselves. Meanwhile, a strange man and his daughter arrive in the doorway. The man’s name is Herald Loomis, a shady looking character. Loomis asks if he and his eleven-year-old daughter, Zonia, can rent a room in Seth’s house, and Seth haggles with them until they reach an agreement. Loomis then asks if anybody in the room knows a Martha Loomis, his wife, whom he’s trying to find. Nobody can answer this question, but Bynum suggests Loomis pay Selig to find Martha.
Seth brings Loomis and Zonia upstairs to get settled, and when he returns to the kitchen, he says he doesn’t like the looks of Loomis. “Something ain’t right with that fellow,” he says. He explains that he realized while talking to Loomis upstairs that the woman he’s looking for is somebody he himself knows as Martha Pentecost, who lives near a church just outside town. However, he says that he didn’t tell Loomis about Martha Pentecost because he doesn’t trust him; “The way that fellow look I wasn’t gonna tell him nothing. I don’t know what he looking for her for.” At this point, a young woman named Mattie Campbell appears looking for Bynum, who she asks to work his magic to bind her to her lover, Jack Carper, who has recently left her. Bynum tells her that if Jack has left, it’s probably better not to bring him back. Instead, he gives her a small cloth that supposedly brings luck. Jeremy then starts talking to Mattie, telling her she ought to spend some time with him while she waits for Jack. The two decide to go to a guitar contest that night, where Jeremy plans to win money with his beautiful playing. During this time, Zonia goes outside and meets a young boy, Reuben, who lives next door. When Reuben asks where her mother is, Zonia says that she and her father have been wandering and trying to find her. Reuben asks why she left in the first place, and Zonia says, “I don’t know. My daddy say some man named Joe Turner did something bad to him once and that made her run away.”
The following week, Seth and Bertha are in the kitchen, where Seth again insists that there’s something suspicious about Loomis. Bertha tries to dissuade him of this notion, and when Bynum enters, he too tries to convince Seth otherwise, saying, “He just a man got something on his mind.” Not long thereafter, Selig arrives and pays for the dustpans Seth has made. Loomis then comes into the kitchen and pays Selig to find his wife, and the two strike an agreement that Selig will try to find her before he returns to the boarding house the following Saturday.
The next day, as Seth and Bertha get ready for church, Jeremy reveals that he won the guitar contest the previous night, and that he and Mattie had a great time together. As such, she’s going to move into his room, so he pays Seth the extra cost of feeding her. After Bynum and Jeremy talk about the difference between lust and love—a distinction Jeremy seems to have trouble understanding—a young woman named Molly Cunningham knocks on the door and asks Seth if she can rent a room. A remarkably attractive woman, she tells Seth she likes to have “company” from time to time, which he says is acceptable as long as she isn’t disrespecting the house by working as a prostitute. When Molly leaves to go to the outhouse, Jeremy jumps up from his chair and watches her through the window.
Later that evening, as the boarders are eating dinner and chatting, Seth suggests that Jeremy get his guitar, and they all start doing the “Juba,” a collective song performed in a call-and-response style “reminiscent of the Ring Shouts of the African slaves.” They jump around and drum the table, chanting about the Holy Ghost until Loomis storms in and screams at them, telling them to stop. “You all sitting up here singing about the Holy Ghost. What’s so holy about the Holy Ghost?” Working himself up, he laments, “Why God got to be so big? Why he got to be bigger than me? How much big is there? How much big do you want?” Saying this, he starts unzipping his pants, and Seth yells at him to stop. Loomis then begins speaking in tongues and dancing around the room, saying, “You all don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know what I done seen. Herald Loomis done seen some things he ain’t got words to tell you.” Just as he’s about to exit, he collapses, petrified by a vision. Bynum crouches over him, asking what he’s seen, and Loomis fitfully explains that he’s seen “bones rise up out the water. Rise up and walk across the water.” Bynum helps him along, repeating his words and asking him questions. Loomis says that he suddenly found himself in a place with “water that was bigger than the whole world.” As he watched the bones walking on the water, they suddenly sank, and then an enormous wave carried them to the shore, breaking over the banks, at which point the bones inexplicably had “flesh on them,” and black people washed up on the sand and simply lay there, along with Loomis himself. Loomis then says that he couldn’t stand up, although the other people (the ones who just washed up on the shore) were standing and saying goodbye to one another and “walking down the road.” “I got to get up!” Loomis screams, and as he tries to stand (in real life), he collapses right as the lights go out.
The following morning, Seth tells Loomis he can’t stay in the boarding house anymore because of his antics the previous night, but Loomis reminds him that he’s already paid for the full week, so Seth agrees to let him remain until Saturday. After this conversation, Jeremy comes home and says he’s been fired from his job working on the bridge. Apparently, the white bosses went around to the black employees and demanded they pay fifty cents to keep their jobs. Jeremy refused, and so he was fired. Seth thinks Jeremy’s decision is absurd, but Jeremy shrugs it off, saying, “Don’t make me no difference. There’s a big road out there.” Eventually, everybody but Jeremy and Molly file out of the kitchen, and although Jeremy has already started living with Mattie, he makes plans to run off with Molly.
While Seth and Bynum play dominos, Bynum sings a song about Joe Turner that brings Loomis into the room. Hearing the song, Loomis demands that Bynum stop singing, and it eventually comes to light that Loomis himself was captured by Joe Turner, the brother of the Governor of Tennessee. Apparently, Joe Turner hunts down black men and essentially enslaves them for seven years at a time. One day, Loomis explains, he was walking down the road and saw a group of men gambling. Because he was a preacher at the time, he stopped to try to convert these sinners, at which point Joe Turner descended with his men and captured Loomis, separating him from Martha and Zonia for seven years. When he was finally released, he went looking for Martha, but only found Zonia living with her grandmother. Since then, he has been traveling everywhere to find Martha. “I just wanna see her face so I can get me a starting place in the world,” he says.
When Saturday finally rolls around, Seth kicks Loomis out before Selig arrives. As such, Loomis stands at the end of the road, waiting to see if Selig has found his wife. Sure enough, Selig enters the kitchen along with Martha. Seeing this, Loomis comes back and greets his wife, who desperately explains that the reason she left Zonia behind was because she was traveling north in order to find financially viable living options, since after Loomis was captured she couldn’t sustain the family. Because the journey north was dangerous, she left Zonia with the girl’s grandmother. “Now that I see your face I can say my goodbye and make my own world,” Loomis says. He then instructs Zonia to go with her mother so that she can grow up having learned from both male and female role models. At this point, Bynum reveals that he bound Zonia to Martha, but didn’t bind Loomis to Martha because “you can’t bind what don’t cling.” This sets Loomis off, and he says, “Everywhere I go people wanna bind me up.” Martha, in response, insists that Loomis needs to find his way back to religion, and urges her estranged husband to return to the church. She tells him that Jesus bled for him, but he contends that he can “bleed for [him]self.” She tells Herald he needs “be something,” and to find meaning in life, but Loomis is not persuaded. Instead, he cuts himself across the chest and rubs the blood on his face, saying, “I’m standing! I’m standing. My legs stood up! I’m standing now!” As he walks outside, Bynum calls after him, saying, “Herald Loomis, you shining! You shining like new money!”
AUGUST WILSON: THE MAN BEHIND THE LEGACY by Center Theatre Group
August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, to mother Daisy Wilson, a cleaning lady who primarily cared for August and his siblings, and his father, also Frederick August Kittel, a German immigrant and baker. August Wilson was the fourth of six children and the oldest son.
Growing up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the setting for many of his plays, Wilson attended St. Richard’s Parochial School and then progressed to Central Catholic High School in 1959. In the era of Jim Crow laws and stark prejudice against African-Americans, Wilson faced hostility and harassment that forced him to transfer to two other high schools during his freshman year. In 1960, at age 15, Wilson dropped out of Gladstone High School after a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon. Undaunted by his troubled high school experience, Wilson continued his education informally at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and on the streets of the Hill District, soaking in the language of its people and the culture of his community.
In 1962, Wilson enlisted in the U.S. Army for three years, but left after one year of service. He then worked odd jobs as a dishwasher, porter, cook, and gardener to support himself. In 1965, Wilson purchased his first typewriter for $20, using money paid to him by his sister Freda for writing a term paper for her. At this time, Wilson began to write poetry.
In the late 1960s, at the threshold of the Black Arts Movement, Wilson joined a group of poets, educators, and artists who formed the Centre Avenue Poets Theater Workshop. Wilson met friend and collaborator, Rob Penny, through this group, and in 1968, they co-founded the Black Horizon Theater, a community-based, Black Nationalist Theater Company in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.
Wilson served as the self-taught resident director, and Penny was the playwright-in-residence up until the mid-1970s when the company dissolved. Penny and Wilson produced several plays from and inspired by the black canon, a collection of literature and artwork by African-American artists, assembled and celebrated to raise awareness about the African-American experience. In 1970, Wilson married his first wife, Brenda Burton, and had his first daughter, Sakina Ansari Wilson.
In 1978, Wilson moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he concentrated more on playwriting and became a company member of the Penumbra Theatre led by colleague Lou Bellamy. In 1979, Wilson wrote Jitney, which he considered his first real play. Wilson received a fellowship from the Minneapolis Playwrights Center in 1980, and the following year, he married his second wife Judy Oliver.
Wilson’s third American Century Cycle play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which premiered at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in 1982, was the first to gain him widespread recognition. In the same year, Wilson met Lloyd Richards, the African-American artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre who would direct Wilson’s first six plays on Broadway. In 1987, Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Fences, and in 1990, The Piano Lesson earned Wilson his second Pulitzer.
In 1990, he transitioned to Seattle, Washington, where he met Costume Designer Costanza Romero in 1994. They married and together had a daughter, Azula Carmen Wilson, in 1997. Wilson continued to work and earn numerous accolades throughout his lifetime. In June 2005, at the age of 60, Wilson was diagnosed with liver cancer. He died on Sunday, October 2, 2005, in Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center.
Shortly after his death, on October 16, 2005, the former Virginia Theater on Broadway was renamed August Wilson Theatre, and on February 17, 2006, the African American Cultural Center of Greater Pittsburgh officially became the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. In addition to these buildings, the August Wilson Monologue Competition, now in its seventh year, further preserves Wilson’s legacy.
A Biography of August Wilson: The Playwright Behind 'Fences'
By Nadra Kareem Nittle
Award-winning playwright August Wilson had no shortage of fans during his life, but his writing enjoyed renewed interest after a film adaptation of his play “Fences” opened in theaters on Christmas Day 2016. The critically acclaimed film not only earned kudos for stars Viola Davis and Denzel Washington, who also directed but exposed new audiences to Wilson’s work as well. In each of his plays, Wilson shined a spotlight on the lives of the working-class African Americans overlooked in society. With this biography, learn how Wilson’s upbringing influenced his major works.
August Wilson was born April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a poor black neighborhood. At birth, he bore his baker father’s name, Frederick August Kittel. His father was a German immigrant, known for his drinking and temper, and his mother, Daisy Wilson, was African American. She taught her son to stand up to injustice. His parents divorced, however, and the playwright would later change his surname to his mother’s, for she was his primary caregiver. His father did not have a consistent role in his life and died in 1965.
Wilson experienced fierce racism attending a succession of nearly all-white schools, and the alienation he felt as a result eventually led him to drop out of high school at 15. Leaving school did not mean Wilson had given up on his education. He decided to educate himself by regularly visiting his local library and voraciously reading the offerings there. A self-taught education proved fruitful for Wilson, who would earn a high school diploma due to his efforts. Alternatively, he learned important life lessons by listening to the stories of the African Americans, mostly retirees and blue-collar workers, in the Hill District.
A Writer Gets His Start
By 20, Wilson decided that he would be a poet, but three years later he developed an interest in theater. In 1968, he and his friend Rob Penny started the Black Horizons on the Hill Theater. Lacking a place to perform, the theater company staged its productions at elementary schools and sold tickets for just 50 cents by herding in passersby outside just before the shows started.
Wilson’s interest in theater waned, and it wasn’t until he moved to St. Paul, Minn., in 1978 and began adapting Native American folktales into children's plays that he renewed his interest in the craft. In his new city, he began to recall his old life in the Hill District by chronicling the experiences of the residents there is a play, which developed into “Jitney.” But Wilson’s first play staged professionally was “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills,” which he wrote by piecing together several of his old poems.
Lloyd Richards, the first black Broadway director and dean of the Yale School of Drama, helped Wilson refine his plays and directed six of them. Richards was artistic director of Yale Repertory Theater and head of the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference in Connecticut to which Wilson would submit the work that made him a star, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Richards gave Wilson guidance on the play and it opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1984. The New York Times described the play as “a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims.” Set in 1927, the play details the rocky relationship between a blues singer and a trumpet player.
In 1984, “Fences” premiered. It takes place in the 1950s and chronicles the tensions between a former Negro leagues baseball player working as a garbage man and the son who also dreams of an athletic career. For that play, Wilson received the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The playwright followed up “Fences” with “Joe Turner's Come and Gone,” which takes place in a boardinghouse in 1911.
Among Wilson’s other key works is "The Piano Lesson," the story of siblings fighting over a family piano in 1936. He received his second Pulitzer for that 1990 play. Wilson also wrote "Two Trains Running," "Seven Guitars," "King Hedley II," "Gem of the Ocean" and "Radio Golf," his last play. Most of his plays had Broadway debuts and many were commercial successes. "Fences," for example, boasted earnings of $11 million in one year, a record at that time for a nonmusical Broadway production.
A number of celebrities starred in his works. Whoopi Goldberg acted in a revival of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" in 2003, while Charles S. Dutton starred in both the original and the revival. Other famous actors who’ve appeared in Wilson productions include S. Epatha Merkerson, Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad, Courtney B. Vance, Laurence Fishburne, and Viola Davis.
In total, Wilson received seven New York Drama Critics' Circle awards for his plays.
Art for Social Change
Each of Wilson’s works describes the struggles of the black underclass, be they sanitation workers, domestics, drivers or criminals. Through his dramas, which span different decades of the 20th century, the voiceless have a voice. The plays expose the personal turmoil the marginalized endure because their humanity all too often goes unrecognized by their employers, by strangers, by family members and America overall.
While his plays tell the stories of an impoverished black community, there’s a universal appeal to them as well. One can relate to Wilson’s characters in the same way one can relate to the protagonists of Arthur Miller’s works. But Wilson’s plays stand out for their emotional gravitas and lyricism. The playwright didn’t want to gloss over the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and their impact on his character’s lives. He believed that art was political but didn’t consider his own plays to be explicitly political.
"I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans," he told The Paris Review in 1999. "For instance, in ‘Fences' they see a garbage man, a person they don't really look at, although they see a garbage man every day. By looking at Troy's life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man's life is affected by the same things - love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”
Illness and Death
Wilson died of liver cancer on Oct. 2, 2005, at the age of 60 in a Seattle hospital. He had not announced that he was suffering from the disease until a month before his death. His third wife, costume designer Constanza Romero, three daughters (one with Romero and two with his first wife) and several siblings survived him.
After he succumbed to cancer, the playwright continued to receive honors. The Virginia Theater on Broadway announced that it would bear Wilson’s name. Its new marquee went up two weeks after his death.
August Wilson in a 60-minute Interview with Charlie Rose, 1996
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Petition posted by Lynn Nottage
First, I want to share this petition shared by Lynn Nottage online this week: http://chng.it/kxhZBysVh7
Please consider signing this petition to change the landscape of plays being performed in the USA by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color).
Below is a summary of each play provided by:
Dutchman is a one-act play. Nearly all of the conflict and interactions in the play happen between the two main characters, Lula, a white woman, and Clay, a black man. The scene opens up with the pair in a New York subway. The audience finds Clay, sitting alone reading a magazine, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the woman sitting down the seat next to him eating an apple. Lula accuses Clay of ogling her, an act he vehemently denies. She then proceeds to accuse him of a couple of racial stereotypes, managing in the process to correctly deduce where Clay lives and where he’s heading. Mysteriously, she even seems to know about Warren—Clay’s friend—giving him details like his appearance and manner of speaking; her nearly supernatural comprehension of his past and intimate details of his life shock Clay.
Lula continues to seduce Clay, provoking him sexually. She teasingly places her hand on his leg and suggestively slices her apple, feeding him the portions. Having correctly guessed his destination, she compels Clay to take her along, suggesting that she’d be willing to sleep with him afterward if she were invited. Her constant baiting gets his notice. Although he is receptive to Lula’s provocations, he does not initiate any direct propositioning for sex. Lula, however, wants Clay to be even more aggressive; seeing that he doesn’t seem to be taking the bait, she grows angry. Her mood and approach shift drastically from seduction to abuse.
Lula insults Clay’s accent, saying that he has no right to wear such a fancy suit; then, she proceeds to berate his lineage. Clay’s responses to Lula change drastically as well, becoming apologetic and defensive where they were previously self-assured and masculine. She continues to berate him, criticizing him for being black and unresponsive, and then she starts to dance alluringly and toss her possessions into the aisle of the car. Other riders begin to populate the car where once it was empty.
Lula invites Clay to dance with her, teasing him, challenging him to “do the nasty” with her. Clay opposes her provocations, but eventually, he is fed up. He grabs her and throws her to the floor, slapping her twice while maligning her background and life of ease. He then orders her to leave him be.
Clay now begins a soliloquy, telling the audience of the challenges that a black person must go through. He rants, asserting that white people still maintain distinctions of culture, happily allowing black artists to perform “black dances” and produce “black music” but not the other way around. He also alleges that these so-called “artistic pursuits” are exploitative at their core, keeping blacks preoccupied enough so they remain disinterested with trying to break into the “white world.” Clay continues his passionate tirade.
All the while, Lula listens, seemingly uninterested. After his monologue, Clay readies himself to leave, but Lula suddenly stands up and dispassionately stabs him in the heart twice. She then commands the other passengers to throw his corpse out at the next stop. Towards the end of the play, Lula makes eye contact with yet another young black man who has just entered the subway car. A black train conductor passes through, respectfully tipping his hat to Lula.
Grace and Easley, a white couple, come home one night. They are frustrated that their city is convulsed by riots carried out by the black liberation movement and combatted by soldiers. They become aware that Grace’s ex-husband Walker, the leader of the movement, is in their living room holding a gun. Frightened and annoyed, the couple tries to figure out what Walker is doing there.
Walker provokes Easley in particular, and he accuses Grace of leaving him all alone. She defends herself, saying that she had to leave since he was crazy and spoke of killing white people. Walker says he wants their two daughters and is planning to take them, which horrifies Grace.
Easley criticizes Walker for being a bad poet and intellectual, and Walker admits he is torn between Western culture and the realities of being black in America. He hates Easley, mocks his faux-liberalism, and suggests he is gay, but he also says he would rather debate Easley on politics or poetry than converse with his own officers sometimes.
As Walker grows drunker, he becomes more morose. Easley thinks it is the right time to try to tackle Walker. When he does, Walker bests him, pulls out his gun, and shoots him dead. Easley’s last words are “ritual drama,” which is his way of explaining Walker’s feeble attempts to make meaning for himself.
Grace is distraught and begs Walker to leave. She also begs him not to take the girls. A massive explosion rocks the house and Grace is badly hurt. She asks Walker how their children are and Walker tells her matter-of-factly that they are dead. Grace dies.
Walker leaves the house amid the explosions. A child’s voice is heard yelling upstairs.
Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones; October 7, 1934 – January 9, 2014), previously known as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amear Baraka, was an American writer of poetry, drama, fiction, essays and music criticism. He was the author of numerous books of poetry and taught at several universities, including the State University of New York at Buffalo and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He received the PEN/Beyond Margins Award in 2008 for Tales of the Out and the Gone.
Baraka's career spanned nearly 50 years, and his themes range from black liberation to white racism. Some poems that are always associated with him are "The Music: Reflection on Jazz and Blues", "The Book of Monk", and "New Music, New Poetry", works that draw on topics from the worlds of society, music, and literature. Baraka's poetry and writing have attracted both high praise and condemnation. In the African-American community, some compare Baraka to James Baldwin and recognize him as one of the most respected and most widely published black writers of his generation. Others have said his work is an expression of violence, misogyny, and homophobia. Regardless of one's viewpoint, Baraka's plays, poetry, and essays have been defining texts for African-American culture.
Baraka's brief tenure as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (2002–2003) involved controversy over a public reading of his poem "Somebody Blew Up America?", which resulted in accusations of anti-Semitism and negative attention from critics and politicians.
Poet, writer, teacher, and political activist Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey. He attended Rutgers University and Howard University, spent three years in the U.S. Air Force, and returned to New York City to attend Columbia University and the New School for Social Research. Baraka was well known for his strident social criticism, often writing in an incendiary style that made it difficult for some audiences and critics to respond with objectivity to his works. Throughout most of his career his method in poetry, drama, fiction, and essays was confrontational, calculated to shock and awaken audiences to the political concerns of black Americans. For decades, Baraka was one of the most prominent voices in the world of American literature.
Baraka’s own political stance changed several times, thus dividing his oeuvre into periods: as a member of the avant-garde during the 1950s, Baraka—writing as Leroi Jones—was associated with Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; in the ‘60s, he moved to Harlem and became a Black Nationalist; in the ‘70s, he was involved in third-world liberation movements and identified as a Marxist. More recently, Baraka was accused of anti-Semitism for his poem “Somebody Blew up America,” written in response to the September 11 attacks.
Baraka incited controversy throughout his career. He was praised for speaking out against oppression as well as accused of fostering hate. Critical opinion has been sharply divided between those who agree, with Dissent contributor Stanley Kaufman, that Baraka’s race and political moment have created his celebrity, and those who feel that Baraka stands among the most important writers of the twentieth century. In the American Book Review, Arnold Rampersad counted Baraka with Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison “as one of the eight figures . . . who have significantly affected the course of African-American literary culture.”
Baraka did not always identify with radical politics, nor did his writing always court controversy. During the 1950s Baraka lived in Greenwich Village, befriending Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Gilbert Sorrentino. The white avant-garde—primarily Ginsberg, O’Hara, and leader of the Black Mountain poets Charles Olson—and Baraka believed in poetry as a process of discovery rather than an exercise in fulfilling traditional expectations. Baraka, like the projectivist poets, believed that a poem’s form should follow the shape determined by the poet’s own breath and intensity of feeling. In 1958 Baraka founded Yugen magazine and Totem Press, important forums for new verse. He was married to his co-editor, Hettie Cohen, from 1960 to 1965. His first play, A Good Girl Is Hard to Find, was produced at Sterington House in Montclair, New Jersey, that same year. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, Baraka’s first published collection of poems appeared in 1961. M.L. Rosenthal wrote in The New Poets: American and British Poetry since World War II that these poems show Baraka’s “natural gift for quick, vivid imagery and spontaneous humor.” Rosenthal also praised the “sardonic or sensuous or slangily knowledgeable passages” that fill the early poems. While the cadence of blues and many allusions to black culture are found in the poems, the subject of blackness does not predominate. Throughout, rather, the poet shows his integrated, Bohemian social roots. The book’s last line is “You are / as any other sad man here / american.”
With the rise of the civil rights movement Baraka’s works took on a more militant tone. His trip to Cuba in 1959 marked an important turning point in his life. His view of his role as a writer, the purpose of art, and the degree to which ethnic awareness deserved to be his subject changed dramatically. In Cuba he met writers and artists from third world countries whose political concerns included the fight against poverty, famine, and oppressive governments. In Home: Social Essays (1966), Baraka explains how he tried to defend himself against their accusations of self-indulgence, and was further challenged by Jaime Shelley, a Mexican poet, who said, “‘In that ugliness you live in, you want to cultivate your soul? Well, we’ve got millions of starving people to feed, and that moves me enough to make poems out of.’” Soon Baraka began to identify with third world writers and to write poems and plays with strong political messages.
Dutchman, a play of entrapment in which a white woman and a middle-class black man both express their murderous hatred on a subway, was first performed Off-Broadway in 1964. While other dramatists of the time were wedded to naturalism, Baraka used symbolism and other experimental techniques to enhance the play’s emotional impact. The play established Baraka’s reputation as a playwright and has been often anthologized and performed. It won the Village Voice Obie Award in 1964 and was later made into a film. The plays and poems following Dutchman expressed Baraka’s increasing disappointment with white America and his growing need to separate from it. Critics observed that as Baraka’s poems became more politically intense, they left behind some of the flawless technique of the earlier poems. Richard Howard wrote of The Dead Lecturer (1964) in the Nation: “These are the agonized poems of a man writing to save his skin, or at least to settle in it, and so urgent is their purpose that not one of them can trouble to be perfect.”
To make a clean break with the Beat influence, Baraka turned to writing fiction in the mid-1960s, penning The System of Dante’s Hell (1965), a novel, and Tales (1967), a collection of short stories. The stories are “‘fugitive narratives’ that describe the harried flight of an intensely self-conscious Afro-American artist/intellectual from neo-slavery of blinding, neutralizing whiteness, where the area of struggle is basically within the mind,” Robert Elliot Fox wrote in Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. The role of violent action in achieving political change is more prominent in these stories, as is the role of music in black life.
In addition to his poems, novels and politically-charged essays, Baraka is a noted writer of music criticism. His classic history Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963) traces black music from slavery to contemporary jazz. Finding indigenous black art forms was important to Baraka in the ‘60s, as he was searching for a more authentic voice for his own poetry. Baraka became known as an articulate jazz critic and a perceptive observer of social change. As Clyde Taylor stated in Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch, “The connection he nailed down between the many faces of black music, the sociological sets that nurtured them, and their symbolic evolutions through socio-economic changes, in Blues People, is his most durable conception, as well as probably the one most indispensable thing said about black music.” Baraka also published the important studies Black Music (1968) and The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (1987). Lloyd W. Brown commented in Amiri Baraka that Baraka’s essays on music are flawless: “As historian, musicological analyst, or as a journalist covering a particular performance Baraka always commands attention because of his obvious knowledge of the subject and because of a style that is engaging and persuasive even when the sentiments are questionable and controversial.”
After Black Muslim leader Malcolm X was killed in 1965, Baraka moved to Harlem and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. The Black Arts Movement helped develop a new aesthetic for black art and Baraka was its primary theorist. Black American artists should follow “black,” not “white” standards of beauty and value, he maintained, and should stop looking to white culture for validation. The black artist’s role, he wrote in Home: Social Essays (1966), is to “aid in the destruction of America as he knows it.” Foremost in this endeavor was the imperative to portray society and its ills faithfully so that the portrayal would move people to take necessary corrective action. He married his second wife, Amina, in 1967. In that same year, Baraka published the poetry collection Black Magic, which chronicles his separation from white culture and values while displaying his mastery of poetic technique. There was no doubt that Baraka’s political concerns superseded his just claims to literary excellence, and critics struggled to respond to the political content of the works. Some felt the best art must be apolitical and dismissed Baraka’s newer work as “a loss to literature.” Kenneth Rexroth wrote in With Eye and Ear that Baraka “has succumbed to the temptation to become a professional Race Man of the most irresponsible sort. . . . His loss to literature is more serious than any literary casualty of the Second War.” In 1966 Bakara moved back to Newark, New Jersey, and a year later changed his name to the Bantuized Muslim appellation Imamu (“spiritual leader,” later dropped) Ameer (later Amiri, “prince”) Baraka (“blessing”).
By the early 1970s Baraka was recognized as an influential African-American writer. Randall noted in Black World that younger black poets Nikki Giovanni and Don L. Lee (later Haki R. Madhubuti) were “learning from LeRoi Jones, a man versed in German philosophy, conscious of literary tradition . . . who uses the structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy in his System of Dante’s Hell and the punctuation, spelling and line divisions of sophisticated contemporary poets.” More importantly, Arnold Rampersad wrote in the American Book Review, “More than any other black poet . . . he taught younger black poets of the generation past how to respond poetically to their lived experience, rather than to depend as artists on embalmed reputations and outmoded rhetorical strategies derived from a culture often substantially different from their own.”
After coming to see Black Nationalism as a destructive form of racism, Baraka denounced it in 1974 and became a third world socialist. He produced a number of Marxist poetry collections and plays in the 1970s that reflected his newly adopted political goals. Critics contended that works like the essays collected in Daggers and Javelins (1984) lack the emotional power of the works from his Black Nationalist period. However, Joe Weixlmann, in Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch, argued against the tendency to categorize the radical Baraka instead of analyze him: “At the very least, dismissing someone with a label does not make for very satisfactory scholarship. Initially, Baraka’s reputation as a writer and thinker derived from a recognition of the talents with which he is so obviously endowed. The subsequent assaults on that reputation have, too frequently, derived from concerns which should be extrinsic to informed criticism.”
In more recent years, recognition of Baraka’s impact on late 20th century American culture has resulted in the publication of several anthologies of his literary oeuvre. The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (1999) presents a thorough overview of the writer’s development, covering the period from 1957 to 1983. The volume presents Baraka’s work from four different periods and emphasizes lesser-known works rather than the author’s most famous writings. Transbluency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995), published in 1995, was hailed by Daniel L. Guillory in Library Journal as “critically important.” And Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, commended the “lyric boldness of this passionate collection.” Kamau Brathwaite described Baraka’s 2004 collection, Somebody Blew up America & Other Poems, as “one more mark in modern Black radical and revolutionary cultural reconstruction.” The book contains Baraka’s controversial poem of the same name, which he wrote as New Jersey’s poet laureate. After the poem’s publication, public outcry became so great that the governor of New Jersey took action to abolish the position. Baraka sued, though the United States Court of Appeals eventually ruled that state officials were immune from such charges.
Baraka’s legacy as a major poet of the second half of the 20th century remains matched by his importance as a cultural and political leader. His influence on younger writers has been significant and widespread, and as a leader of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s Baraka did much to define and support black literature’s mission into the next century. His experimental fiction of the 1960s is considered some of the most significant African-American fiction since that of Jean Toomer. Writers from other ethnic groups have credited Baraka with opening “tightly guarded doors” in the white publishing establishment, noted Maurice Kenney in Amiri Baraka: The Kaleidoscopic Torch, who added: “We’d all still be waiting the invitation from the New Yorker without him. He taught us how to claim it and take it.”
Baraka was recognized for his work through a PEN/Faulkner Award, a Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, and the Langston Hughes Award from City College of New York. He was awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He died in 2014.
Somebody Blew Up America by Amiri Baraka
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My name is Tiffany Gilly and I am a fierce supporter and ally to Black lives and the Black Lives Matter movement. I am currently an acting student in the MFA program at Louisiana State University and this year I took a class with Dr. Femi Euba called "Drama of the African Diaspora" where we read a long list of plays by Black playwrights. I want to share those plays with everyone I know.
This is my attempt to make a difference in my art community to support the Black Lives Matter Movement. I have said it in the past and have heard it repeated often that many artists "don't know a lot of plays by Black playwrights." This may be for lack of any of us attempting to research beyond just a google search, it may be because of limited resources and education; a big problem is because most of what we read in theatre classes, acting classes, and other performance classes have been white-washed and are white-centric.
To equip myself, my colleagues and anyone who will listen, I'm starting a reading group where once a week, we will read a play by a Black playwright because Black voices are being silenced and need to be heard. Black playwrights have been writing for a long time and attention has been given to very few of them.
Have you heard of A Raisin In The Sun by Lorraine Hansberry or Fences by August Wilson? These are two very popular plays by Black playwrights. But why? Scholars write about these plays being easier to watch, more palatable for white people than other plays such as Dutchman by Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) or Dream on Monkey Mountain by Derek Walcott. I want to dive into these thoughts and share research and resources with anyone who wants to participate. I want to grow and share in that growth.
So here's the plan:
Here are the first 12 weeks of plays. Order them online now.
These are just a start. I want to continue to choose plays by new playwrights each week. But let's do this one chunk at a time. Twelve weeks is a good start.
I don't know how many people will be interested or how successful this will be, but what matters to me is trying to use my resources to help the Black Lives Matter Movement as an actor. I hope it makes a positive impact in some people's lives and spreads awareness of Black Playwrights and their beautiful artistic endeavors in theatre.
See you next week!
Tiffany Gilly (she/her) is doing what she can to be an advocate and ally to Black Artists and People of Color through her art. She is an actor who seeks to support theatre and stories by BIPOC Playwrights. She started this play-reading group in the summer of 2020 in response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the Black Lives Matter Movement to increase the knowledge of plays by non-White Playwrights as a starting point or a stepping stone for other artists.