Rahman, Aishah 1936–
Aishah Rahman 1936–
Aishah Rahman, originally named Virginia Hughes, pulled herself out of a desolate childhood into an adulthood full of success. Possibly because of her rocky beginning, Rahman became a talented writer of plays that managed to capture accurately the nuances of the trials and tribulations of women’s lives. She won several awards for her plays and saw them performed all over New York City.
Rahman was born in Harlem, New York, in 1936. Her father, James Manman Jackson, was a World War I veteran, whose war injuries resulted in disabilities that limited his ability to work at jobs that required a strong physical presence. As a result of these injuries, he was limited to employment at more menial tasks and was never able to achieve much financial success. Rahman’s mother, May Anna Hughes, was born in South Carolina but moved to New York as a young woman. Like so many other southern blacks, Hughes hoped to find a better life in the north. She and Jackson never wed, since he insisted on postponing marriage in the hope of eventually owning a house to which he could bring his bride and in which he might raise a family. However, instead of a new house for his family, Jackson died after a failed robbery attempt, and Hughes was left alone with an infant daughter to support.
By the time that Rahman was eighteen months old, her mother was seriously ill with tuberculosis and was having great difficulty caring for her child. After Hughes was told that she must enter a sanitarium, she made the difficult decision to place her daughter in foster care. She turned to the Sheltering Arms Children’s Service for assistance and was provided with a woman named Winnie Feral as a foster mother for her child. Hughes expected that the placement of her infant daughter in foster care would last only a short period of time, but several circumstances, including a reoccurrence of the tuberculosis that eventually led to her death, led to Rahman living in foster care for the next sixteen years.
Rahman’s youth with Winnie Feral was less then ideal. Feral took in children to supplement her family’s income and she appeared to have had little motivation to take in Rahman other than a need for money. Feral and her husband and sister had emigrated from Bermuda,
At a Glance…
Born in 1936, in Harlem, New York City, to May Anna Hughes and James Manman Jackson. Education: Howard University, BA, 1968; Goddard College, M F.A., 1985.
Career: Professor of Creative Writing, Brown University, 1992-. Author: Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy, 1972; Transcendental Blues, 1976; Unfinished Woman Cry in No Man’s Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage, 1977; The Tale of Madame Zora, 1986; The Mojo and the Sayso, 1987; Only in America, 1993; Public Spaces, 1997; Plays, 1997; “If Only We Knew,” 2001; Chewed Water, 2001.
Awards: Doris Abramson Playwriting Award for The Mojo and the Sayso, 1988; Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, 1988; New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, 1988.
Address: Office— Box 1852, Brown University, Providence, R.I., 02912-1852.
and she had dreams of social and economic success, a large house outside of Harlem, and a more gentile existence. Until Rahman came to live with Feral, all of her foster children had been short care infants. Feral had no experience with an older or long-term foster child, and she was ill-equipped to deal with the problems and responsibilities of such a child. As a result, Rahman’s childhood was filled with physical and mental abuse.
Sharing this household was Feral’s favored natural child and a younger foster child whose mother remained close by to monitor and pay extra for her child’s privileged treatment. Although she was not alone in the house, Rahman was very isolated and completely at the mercy of a woman who offered no kindness or love, since those qualities were not purchased with the money provided by the Sheltering Arms Children’s Service. Rahman had only one brief contact with her biological mother in the years that followed, and with her mother’s recurring health problems, the Feral household emerged as Rahman’s only home. The Feral household was guided more by rules than reason, but in spite of the lack of nurturing, Rahman grew up to be a talented and creative writer, who in her plays, would be able to capture the often unspoken nuances of women’s lives.
Rahman grew up in the Feral household on West 120th Street, attended the local Episcopalian church, and also attended local public schools. While at George Washington High School, she met a fellow student, Clarence Richman, who became Rahman’s first boyfriend. This was a serious romance, and Rahman was determined to be careful and not become pregnant before marriage, as her mother and grandmother had done and as Feral claimed was certain to be Rahman’s destiny. In a vicious move designed only to hurt Rahman and to destroy her happiness, Feral succeeded in forcing an end to this first love.
Rahman sought her own self-destructive revenge by seeking to fulfill all of her foster mother’s worst expectations. With only a few weeks remaining before her high school graduation, Rahman sought out a quick sexual encounter with a complete stranger and became pregnant. Instead of enrolling in fall classes at the City College of New York, Rahman entered a home for unwed mothers to await the birth of her child. In March of 1956, when her son was three months old, Rahman made a decision that echoed the decision her mother had made sixteen years earlier: she called upon the Sheltering Arms Children’s Service to facilitate the adoption of her son, Kelvin Randolph Hughes.
Part of building a new life was completing her education. In 1999 Rahman told interviewer Afaa Michael Weaver that to attend high school, she was forced to walk an “emotional gauntlet” through an all white neighborhood that did not want black children passing through on their way to school. This experience may have influenced her choice of a college, since she chose to attend a school where the student body was predominately black—Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1968 Rahman earned a B.S. in Political Science from Howard, and in the years that followed, she began teaching at Queen’s College, while also working with the Congress of Racial Equality.
At some point during the 1970s, Rahman converted to Islam and changed her name from Virginia Hughes to Aishah Rahman. But what did not change was her desire to write. Rahman had begun writing plays while still in grade school, and so it seemed inevitable that at some point she would focus on learning the craft of playwriting. Toward meeting that goal, Rahman enrolled in a graduate program at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, where, in 1985, she earned an M.F.A. in Playwriting and Dramatic Writing. Although she continued to teach, Rahman devoted much of her free time during this period to writing.
Rahman’s first play was written in the sixth grade. She wrote, directed, and starred in a play about germs that was written for National Health Week. Rahman related to Weaver that this first play gave her the chance to be, “the star and I was getting positive attention rather than the negative attention someone like me used to get.” Plays were something that interested Rahman as a child, and she related to Weaver that she attended plays at a very young age. She also pointed out that as a child her imagination was fed by comic books and by her ability to “stage the text in my mind.” She could take an idea, whether presented in a novel or in some other format, and visualize it as a staged production. That first play about germs fed a desire for creativity and provided an acceptance that her foster mother’s constant condemnation had all but destroyed.
Rahman continued to write plays and she continued to find greater acceptance as a playwright. Eventually, her first play written as an adult, Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy (1972), debuted at the famous New York City Apollo Theatre. Even before attending Goddard, Rahman had found success as a playwright in her story about the life and career of Billie Holiday. Shortly after, Rahman became a founding member of the Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop Foundation, which was established in 1973. This Harlem-centered workshop proved to be instrumental in helping to discover and establish new playwrights. It was a good fit for Rahman, who was also just establishing her own reputation as a playwright.
Rahman’s second work, Transcendental Blues (1976), was first produced at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Centre in New York. It was nominated for an AUDELCO Award. Rahman’s next work, and perhaps her best-known play, is Unfinished Woman Cry in No Man’s Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage (1977). This third play was first produced at the prestigious New York Shakespeare Festival in June of 1977. Unfinished Woman is set in 1955 and centers on the events taking place in a home for unwed mothers, which in turn, are influenced by the death of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. As with her previous plays, this third play provides a melding of jazz and drama into a musical play, whose serious subject matter makes it a far different genre than that of most musical plays. And as with her first play, this third play also dealt with a real historical figure, whose involvement in music was important in Rahman’s own life.
In continuing both content and format, Rahman’s fourth professional play, a blues musical, The Tale of Madame Zora, 1986, was based on the life of Zora Neale Hurston and was first staged by the Ensemble Theatre in New York. A fifth play, The Mojo and the Sayso, was written in 1987. This play moved away from the earlier format of fictionalizing the lives of historical figures. Instead, this time Rahman turned to the lives of a working class family who are devastated when their ten-year-old son is murdered. Although this is a short play, at only just slightly more than an hour in length, the topic is very contemporary and seems to be torn from the headlines of big city newspapers. In 1988, Rahman received the Doris Abramson Playwrit-ing Award for The Mojo and the Say so.
Rahman’s next work was completely different and seemed to occupy a different world, as she turned to creating an opera. The Opera of Marie Laveau, 1989, was a collaboration with composer Akua Dixon Turre. As she had with her other plays, Rahman took an established genre and modified it to make something uniquely her own. She borrowed from African and French New Orleans’ culture, and combined these with Native American folklore and traditional European opera to create a production that was her own singular contribution to the opera form. The libretto for this opera was renamed, Anybody Seen Marie Laveau?. Four years later, in 1993, Rahman again turned to drama with Only in America, a play that blends Greek mythology, music, and contemporary street language with humor and satire. In 2001, Rahman published a short story collection, “If Only We Knew,” a series of narratives suggested by the real life killing of an unarmed immigrant, Armadou Diallo in New York City.
Also in 2001, Rahman published her biography, Chewed Water: A Memoir, the story of the abuse that Rahman suffered as a foster child in Harlem. The reviews of Rahman’s memoir have been generally positive, with Suzy Hansen of the New York Times observing that in many places the dialogue is “mischievous, [and] perfectly pitched.” Hansen also noted the authentic tone of Rahman’s work, which captures the “mid-20th-century Harlem in all its dwindling glory.” Similarly, Kathleen Caldwell wrote in Hope magazine that “Although Rahman is always faithful to her unique style—bold, lyrical leaps, sometimes succeeding, sometimes falling short—a few passages are particularly resounding.”
In her memoir Rahman described a life in which she was determined not to fall into the abyss that swallowed her mother’s hopes and dreams for a better life. Rahman described the many beatings by her foster mother, Feral, as well as other abuse such as a rule forbidding her the use of her left hand and another rule against reading, since it would only give her “rude ideas.” Rahman’s ability to transcend her childhood oppression is noteworthy. Her plays and other works gave voice to the creativity that flourished under such cruelty.
In addition to her own writing, Rahman was also an educator, who willingly shared her talents with other aspiring playwrights. She spent ten years teaching at Nassau Community College in New York and has also taught at Amherst College in Massachusetts. At one time, Rahman was a director of playwriting at the Henry Street Settlement’s Playwrights Workshop at the new Federal Theatre, a theatre that specialized in minority drama. Since 1992 Rahman has been a professor at Brown University where she taught creative writing in the graduate program. Rahman is also the founder and director of NewMuse, an annual journal of new plays by Brown students and faculty, as well as director of the New Plays Festival, which gave new playwrights an opportunity to see their work produced on stage. Rahman was awarded both a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in 1988. She has a daughter, Yoruba.
Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy, 1972.
Transcendental Blues, 1976.
Unfinished Woman Cry in No Man’s Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage, 1977.
The Tale of Madame Zora, 1986.
The Mojo and the Say so, 1987.
Only in America, 1993.
Unfinished Woman Cry in No Man’s Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage, Drama Jazz House, 1984.
Public Spaces, Broadway Play Publishing, 1997.
Plays, Broadway Play Publishing, 1997.
“If Only We Knew,”Previewport.com, 2001.
Chewed Water: A Memoir, University Press of New England, 2001.
Rahman, Aishah, Chewed Water: A Memoir, University Press of New England, 2001.
The New York Times, December 9, 2001, p. 31.
Obsidian III, Spring, 1999, pp. 133-40.
—Sheri Elaine Metzger
"Rahman, Aishah 1936–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/rahman-aishah-1936
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