Experimental theater after the black arts movement is a loosely-related body of work that offers new ways of experiencing drama, reconsidering history, and interpreting black identity. Indebted to the theatrical, poetic, and performance trends of the black arts movement, especially its political and aesthetic innovations, experimental theater has both worked with and against the anti-assimilationist impulses of the black arts movement to create work that explores how black theater should engage with the world. Whereas the artists of the black arts movement sought to define a doctrine of black art as a collective vision, experimental theater relies on individual artists to articulate their own.
Despite this attention to individual vision, experimental theater embraces many elements of the black arts movement theater, including the "nonobjective," African-American history, black vernacular, poetry, and interdisciplinary art collaboration. The nonobjective was a strategy for challenging an audience's passive engagement with the theater by providing an opportunity for them to "live through" the event they had come to see. In Ed Bullins's play The Theme Is Blackness (1973), the nonobjective was realized as a performance of blackness—which in this case was the absence of light. When seated, the audience was told that the night's theme was blackness. All lights were turned out for twenty minutes. Lights were then turned up to announce a curtain call for blackness and turned out once more. Amiri Baraka's Slave Ship (1969) exposed audiences to the sounds and smells of Africans being tortured during their journey across the Atlantic. Instead of focusing on enacting a story, the nonobjective created a visceral experience that would stay with the audience after the performance.
Black arts movement theater also mined African-American history to expose the truth about slavery, segregation, and racial violence inflicted on African Americans. Because plays were written to appeal primarily to younger African-American audiences, black vernacular was featured prominently to connote the youth, social intelligence, and political awareness of characters. Poetry also thrived during the black arts movement. Independent presses such as Dudley Randall's Broadside Press in Detroit and Haki Madhubuti's Third World Press in Chicago published new voices to great international acclaim. Strong theatre and poetry communities helped to foster collaboration with artists from other disciplines including music and the visual arts. The Nuyorican Poets Café in New York, founded in 1973 by Miguel Algarin, served as an incubator for this kind of work. Eventually works that combined theater, poetry, dance, music, and visual art came to signify the broad aesthetics of experimental theater.
Experimental theater was also influenced by other artistic movements during the 1960s and 1970s, especially "happenings" and feminist performance art. Happenings, also called "the painter's theater," emerged in New York and echoed the impulses in abstract expressionist painting through presentations of public spectacle and action. Unlike traditional theatrical events, happenings did not require there to be a distinction between the actors and audience. Instead it was the crowd's response to an array of visual, aural, or textual stimuli that determined the meaning of the event. Happenings encouraged discussions about how art exists in time. Feminist performance art also help to define "live art" through the presentation of action-oriented art. Influenced by the activism of the civil
rights and antiwar movements, feminist performance art aimed to challenge entrenched ideas about gender, sexuality, and women's rights. During the 1970s conceptual artists Adrian Piper, Judy Chicago, and Yoko Ono pulled performance works out of gallery spaces and academic institutions where they were most commonly seen and brought them into the communities in which they were most relevant. Many of these works were about breaking taboos associated with women's bodies. For example, Hannah Wilke and Carolee Schneeman attempted to reclaim female power and identity through performances involving nudity and obsessive self-admiration. Feminist performance art also addressed gender inequities in the art world and brought attention to the ways various people had been excluded from participating in it. Repercussions from this movement reverberated across cultures and helped to create an audience for new works in experimental theatre, especially those created by African-American women.
At once culturally rooted and innovative, experimental theater has been shaped by a variety of artists working across genres, including Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, Robbie MacCauley, Laurie Carlos, Bill T. Jones, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Paul D. Miller, also known as "DJ Spooky."
The lyrical dramas of Adrienne Kennedy (b. 1931) were largely overlooked by other black playwrights during the black arts movement, but since then she has emerged as one of the most important and undervalued voices in experimental theater. Her first one-act play, Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), addressed experiences of racial confusion and ambivalence and was largely tragic in its depiction of a young woman's failed attempt to reconcile conflicts between her black and white ancestors. Other works addressing similar themes include A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White (1976), The Owl Answers (1966), and The Ohio State Murders (1991). Kennedy's carefully wrought, poetic one-act plays borrow from films and other literary texts, including her own plays, in order to offer portraits of identity that reveal personal and psychological crises of racial identification. Her fragmentary and cinematic approach to autobiography reveals how the constant threat of violence shapes the real and imaginary worlds within the black experience.
Kennedy's plays helped to re-center the African-American woman as a vital subject for investigating culture and gender during a time when the particularity of the black woman's experience had been largely ignored. African-American women had also been excluded from much of the feminist performance art and theater taking place during the 1970s and would as a result have much to say over the next several decades. By the time that Ntozake Shange's (b. 1948) Obie-award-winning choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When the Rainbow is Enuf, opened in 1975, theater by and about black women was starting to be acknowledged for its broad vision politically and aesthetically. For Colored Girls was told through dance, poetry, and song, and it revealed sensitive portraits of young, black women facing the repercussions of racial and gender bias, violence against women, and misogyny within the black community. The play was revolutionary in that it presented characters whose lives had never before been seen on stage.
Robbie MacCauley (b. 1942) performed in Shange's For Colored Girls and Kennedy's A Movie Star early in her career and eventually moved on to writing and directing her own work. Her 1991 piece Sally's Rape examines "the silences around racism in America that have gotten nailed in place" while recounting the life and survival of her
great-great-grandmother, a slave on a Georgia plantation. This provocative piece expects participation from the audience during the most climatic scene. MacCauley stands naked on an auction block, inviting the audience to bid on her body. With this, she brings attention to the sale and sexual abuse of her great-great grandmother and, ultimately, the audience's complicity with this history. My Father and the Wars (1992) addresses her relationship with her father and his military service. Indian Blood (1994) also considers an ancestral relationship, this time her grandfather's participation in the genocide of his own people. MacCauley has called these pieces metaphors for an African-American family surviving against racism.
Like MacCauley, Laurie Carlos (b. 1949) starred in Shange's For Colored Girls. Her work integrates movement, language, and music to uncover what Africanness means for African Americans: A character in one of her early pieces asks the question "Is we still black? Still black?" Her 1992 work, White Chocolate for My Father, explores stories of racial persecution through Carlos's own matriarchal line. Ritual is often a powerful component of her pieces, which also show how language has the ability to injure and heal. Other original works inspired by real women's experiences include Organdy Falsetto (1986), The Cooking Show (1997), and Marion's Terrible Time of Joy (2003), which blends poetry, art, and food to explore the mingled borders of African and Indian origins. As a director and dramaturge, Carlos has helped to shape the artistic direction of many black independent theater companies, including Urban Bush Women in New York and Penumbra in Minnesota, which is also the longest-running black theater in the United States.
Whereas dance was not considered a significant component of black arts movement theater, choreographers such as Carlos, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar of Urban Bush Women, Rennie Harris, and dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones (b. 1952) have expanded the dimensions of experimental theater to include dance as a primary means of storytelling. Jones's career began in Binghamton, New York, in 1971 after he met Arnie Zane. They founded the American
Dance Asylum in 1973. In 1982 they created the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which created pieces dealing with sexuality, racism, and power structures that maintain discrimination. Some of the company's key works include Intuitive Momentum (1982), Secret Pastures (1984) with sets by Keith Haring, and History of Collage (1988). When Zane died of AIDS in 1988, Jones took over full artistic direction of the company and created such pieces as Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/Promised Land (1990), The Mother of Three Sons (1990), and Still Here (1994). As part of Still Here, Jones created workshops for survivors of serious illnesses. Their voices were woven in and out of the performance and gave a sense of history told through individual lives. Through these community discussions and his own personal experiences, Jones articulated a vocabulary of movement to represent coping strategies for survival.
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (b. 1964) addresses the question of individual survival through dark and poetic satires of the American experience. Her 1999 play, In the Blood, contemporizes Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, only this time Hester is a homeless black woman living with her five children on the streets of New York. This parody addresses racism, gender, and social injustice and questions double-standards of morality. Venus: A Play (1996) recounts the exploitation of Saartje Benjamin, otherwise known as the Venus Hottentot, through her own eyes. In 2001 Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog, which tells the story of two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, whose names portend a lifetime of sibling rivalry and resentment. Other major plays include Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1989), The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1990), Devotees in the Garden of Love (1992), and The America Play (1993).
Whereas much theatrical innovation has taken place within the traditional stage environment, a new generation of multimedia artists are creating work that is impacting African-American drama at large. Paul D. Miller (b. 1970) is best known under the moniker of his "constructed persona" as "DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid." His live remix of DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915), titled Rebirth of a Nation (2004), recuts the film's original narrative and infuses it with new short films by Bill T. Jones. The score includes sampled and scored music remixed for the occasion of each screening. The piece allows audiences to interrogate the distinctions between cinematic manipulations of narrative and their acceptance or rejection of that manipulation.
Whether experimental theater is highly conceptual and or rich with personal history, it offers audiences the opportunity to follow an individual artist's aesthetic and political journey through the nuances of the black experience and leaves each artist to articulate his or her own ideas about what it is that makes theater black.
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