Caldwell, Benjamin 1937–
Benjamin Caldwell 1937–
Deeply involved in the black arts movement of the 1960s, Ben Caldwell is known for his short satirical plays that challenged black audiences to rise up against their oppressors. One of the most prolific playwrights of the period, Caldwell chastised his audience for accepting the values of white society, thereby contributing to their own oppression. In the decades since, Caldwell has continued as an artist, playwright, and essayist.
Born on September 24, 1937, Benjamin Caldwell was the seventh of nine children. He was born in Harlem, a borough of New York City, just two years after his parents had migrated from the South. As a child he painted and wrote. Caldwell dreamed of making a living painting or writing, but had no role models to follow. He had never met a black man who made his living as a painter or a writer. With the encouragement of a school guidance counselor, he enrolled in New York’s School of Industrial Arts, planning to become a commercial illustrator and industrial designer. However during his first year of high school, Caldwell’s father died and in 1954 he was forced to leave school to help support his family.
Although Caldwell continued to paint and draw and write plays and essays, he did not begin seriously writing plays and seeing them produced until the mid-1960s. During this time, he lived with a group of artists and writers in Newark, New Jersey, including the author and playwright LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka). Together these artists contributed to the black arts movement in which artists consciously tried to create art that represented black culture as separate and unique from white culture. Caldwell’s first plays portrayed the black community in a variety of different contexts. Most of Caldwell’s plays were short vignettes with few characters and props and minimal sets. Most had subtitles that took on meaning only after the play had been seen or read. His goal was to resurrect black dignity and pride, and he attacked what he saw as black characteristics that aided white oppressors.
The Job, first produced in 1966, described some of Caldwell’s frustrations in seeking employment in Newark. Riot Sale; or, Dollar Psyche Fake-Out, also first produced in 1966, was an example of Caldwell’s commentary on the antipoverty programs of the 1960s that he saw as designed to subdue black militancy. In the play white authorities shoot a canon of money into a black mob that has been incited by the police-killing of a young black man. The so-called black revolutionaries begin fighting each other for the money and then spend it in white-owned stores.
Mission Accomplished, first produced in 1967, is set in late-nineteenth-century Africa. Missionaries enter an African village to convert them to Christianity. Informed that the Africans have no need of or interest in the white religion, the missionaries physically subdue them, forcibly baptize them, and steal their jewels to send to the pope.
In Caldwell’s dramatic satire Hypnotism, a magician hypnotizes a black man and woman to rid them of the
At a Glance…
Born Benjamin Caldwell on September 24, 1937, in New York, NY,
Career; Artist and author of essays and numerous plays, 1965-.
Awards: Guggenheim fellowship for playwriting, 1970.
Addresses; Office —P.O. Box 656, Morningside Station, New York, NY 10026.
memories of exploitation, injustice, and oppression that would lead them to black militancy. He replaces these memories with the words “nonviolence” and “integration.”
All White Caste; After the Separation; A Slow-Paced One-Act Play, first produced in the early 1970s, is set in the 1990s after the third world war. Blacks had been moved to Africa and their white sympathizers are “sentenced to Harlem” where they assume the lower-caste status formerly held by blacks.
Benjamin Caldwell’s best known play is Prayer Meeting. Prayer Meeting or, The First Militant Minister premiered at Jones’s Spirit House Theatre in Newark in April of 1967, under the title Militant Preacher. It was highly praised and very popular. In this very short play, a burglar is looting a minister’s opulent home when the minister returns unexpectedly. The minister begins to pray: “Trying to console my people ‘bout brother Jackson’s death at the hands of that white po-liceman. I tried, Lord, I tried to keep them from the path of violence. I tried to show them where it was really brother Jackson’s fault fo’provokin’ that off’cer… The mayor said if I can’t stop them there’ll be trouble…and more killing!” The burglar comes out of hiding and tells the minister to “shut up.” Realizing that the minister believes he has been answered by God, the burglar continues the charade: “Tomorrow you’ll lead a protest march to end all protest marches. I don’t want this to be no damned ‘sing-along.’ I said a protest march! You’ll demand justice. And if you don’t get justice you’ll raise hell… Tell them I don’t want no more cheek turning.’”
Prayer Meeting was produced in April of 1969 at the Chelsea Theater Center of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was part of A Black Quartet that included new one-act plays by Ed Bullins, LeRoi Jones, and Ronald Milner. A Black Quartet had its New York debut at Tambellini’s Gate Theater on July 30, 1969. When it was published in 1970 Clayton Riley wrote in the introduction that Caldwell “pursues, at all times, his total commitment to the cause of Black Nationalism and the complete devotion to militancy that cause implies.” Both Prayer Meeting and A Black Quartet were still being produced more than 30 years later.
Caldwell continued to hone his craft, writing more than 50 plays after returning to live in New York City in 1966. In his plays, Caldwell concentrated on various aspects of the black experience and portrayed the plight of blacks in an oppressive white culture. Several of his plays expressed anger at the Christian church. Recognition, written in 1968 and unpublished, depicted blacks as having forgotten their black God for so long that Allah no longer recognized them. The King of Soul; or, The Devil and Otis Redding: A One-Act Musical Tragedy, first produced in 1968, attacked the exploitation of black musicians by agents and record companies. Caldwell frequently questioned the motives of whites who professed support for blacks. In Top Secret, or, A Few Million After B.C., the president and his cabinet, attended by silent black servants, devise a secret plot to promote birth-control pills (“B.C.”) as a means of limiting the black population. The play was first produced by the Performing Arts Society in Los Angeles in 1969.
Caldwell poignantly captured the generational attitudes among blacks as his work often did. In Family Portrait; or, My Son, the Black Nationalist, Caldwell confronted the chasm between proud young blacks and their oppressed elders. In the play a middle-class father and mother are named “Farthest From Truth” and “Nowhere Near The Truth,” respectively. Their angry and militant son, known as “Sunshine On Truth,” is told by his father: “We’ve got to show the white man that we are ready and good enough to live with him.” The son’s frustration with his parents’ integrationist attitudes percolates in the family conversations as the two generations struggle to come to an understanding of blacks’ “place” in American society.
Caldwell’s Black Nationalist vision tempered with the years, but his plays continued to illustrate the lingering inequalities in American society. In April of 1982 the New Federal Theater premiered The World of Ben Caldwell: A Dramatized Examination of the Absurdity of the American Dream and Subsequent Reality, which illustrated the vast differences between white and black expectations for life in America. A more intimate look at the black experience came in Moms, the story of America’s first stand-up comedienne, Jackie “Moms” Mabley. Moms premiered off-Broadway at the Astor Palace Theater on August 4, 1987. Developed by the actress Clarice Taylor and written by Caldwell, the play told the story of this ground-breaking comedienne, known for her risqué humor. The play received mixed reviews but Taylor won an Obie for her starring role. Caldwell’s The Solution to All the World’s Problems was produced in New York in February of 2004.
“Four Plays” (includes Riot Sale, Mission Accomplished, Top Secret, The Job), Drama Review, Summer 1968, pp. 40-52.
Prayer Meeting or, The First Militant Minister, Jihad, 1968.
Hypnotism, Afro-Arts Anthology, Jihad, 1969.
The King of Soul, Family Portrait, New plays From the Black Theatre: An Anthology, Bantam, 1969.
The Job, Black Identity, Holt, 1970.
All White Caste, Black Drama Anthology, New American Library, 1971.
An Obscene Play (for Adults Only), Alafia, Winter 1971, pp. 14-15.
The Wall, Scripts, May 1972, pp. 91-93.
(With Askia Muhammad Touré) Juju: Magic Songs for the Black Nation (poetry and prose), Third World Press, 1970.
Riley, Clayton, “Introduction,” A Black Quartet, New American Library, 1970.
Walker, Robbie Jean, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 38, Gale, 1985, pp. 61-66.
Bay State Beacon, February 4, 1999, p. 17.
Boston Globe, April 23, 2004, p. C18.
Callaloo, Fall 1999, pp. 808-824.
“Ben(jamin) Caldwell,” Contemporary Authors Online, Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (April 29, 2004).
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