Because theater is the most public form of literary art, it is especially responsive to the political climate of its day. Not surprisingly, therefore, the racial revolution of the 1960s found its way to the stage, both in the form of manifestos and productions.
In the art vs. propaganda debate (see #10: Writing) the dramatists associated with the Black Arts Movement (see Theme IV: COMMUNITY) fall squarely in the propaganda camp. However, they sought to engage their audiences and make their points not through the grim naturalism of the Richard Wright school of protest but rather through more flamboyant, didactic, aggressive, and exaggerated approaches. Indeed, as critic Darwin T. Turner has written, black revolutionary playwrights sought to turn spectators into participants, involving them "emotionally, intellectually, verbally, and physically" in their plays.1 The two pieces featured here both enjoin the reader/spectator to react and, ultimately, to participate in promoting change.
Refused by both the New York Times and the Village Voice, LeRoi Jones's short manifesto, "The Revolutionary Theatre," encapsulates the mindset many black writers and artists assumed throughout the 1960s. Finally appearing in Black Dialogue (and later printed in Liberator), the piece partially expresses the developing consciousness later dubbed the Black Aesthetic. Decidedly nationalist and stridently militant, Jones's essay articulates the purpose and mission behind protest enacted on the stage. This "theatre of victims" should "EXPOSE!" through extreme—frequently offensive—tactics. Advocating methods that "Accuse and Attack," shocking viewers through powerful assault, "The Revolutionary Theatre" must promote radical change. Written for a black audience and intended to alienate a white one, Jones's language constitutes verbal warfare. Taking an almost global stance by promising to reshape the world, Jones—beneath the vitriol—seemingly gestures towards a higher objective: to "take dreams and give them a reality."
Douglas Turner Ward embodies the very qualities Jones imagines for a playwright writing in the "revolutionary theatre" tradition. However, in Day of Absence he disguises his threatening onslaught as comedy. Simultaneously farcical and sardonic, this one-act play features an all-black cast that performs in whiteface. Ward's use of black actors in whiteface not only subverts but also powerfully inverts earlier minstrel traditions, in which white actors, painted in blackface with exaggerated facial features, performed racist caricatures. Throughout his "satirical fantasy," Ward also makes persistent use of racial stereotypes yet with an important difference: his unflattering portraits are of white rather than black characters. The premise of the play is simple enough: one unassuming day, all of the black residents of a small Southern town mysteriously disappear. In the scenes excerpted here, Ward reveals the chaos that ensues when all servants, domestic workers, machinists, laborers, etc., fail to report for work. (13 pages.)
- What does Jones mean by a "theatre of victims"? Who has been victimized? How does he suggest empowering these victims?
- Characterize the revolutionary theater he envisions. In what ways does it encourage passive spectators to become active participants?
- To what extent, if at all, might one claim that Jones's manifesto is, in the words of Bayard Rustin, "a matter of posture and volume and not of effect"?
- Toward what end does Day of Absence use humor and exaggeration?
- How much of Ward's critique is aimed specifically at the South?
- In what ways do Jones and Ward build community through exclusion? Identify the potential costs and benefits of this endeavor.
- What risks are involved in alienating and/or offending white Americans?
- How do these works reflect the urban Northern experience of Jones and Ward?
- Compare Day of Absence with Jo Ann Gibson Robinson's account of the Montgomery bus boycott (see #5: Boycotting).
- In what ways is Day of Absence a migration play?
- In what ways is it a play about segregation? about separation?
- How does Ward manipulate stereotypes in the play?
- For what audience is Ward writing? What assumptions does he make about his audiences?
- What goals does Ward seek to achieve?
- What strategies does he employ to achieve them?
- Compare and contrast Day of Absence with the protest plays of Georgia Douglas Johnson (see Theme I: SEGREGATION) in terms of audience, goals, and strategies.
- Is Ward's play art or propaganda? Are Johnson's art or propaganda?
||What forms did African American protest take?|
||How did protest strategies and goals evolve over time?|
||In what ways was African American identity shaped in opposition to the larger American society?||
|"The Revolutionary Theatre": || 3
|Day of Absence: ||10
|TOTAL ||13 pages
"LeRoi Jones: Black Man as Victim," by Donald P. Costello, Commonweal, 28 June 1968
Amiri Baraka, bibliography and brief biography, in PAL: Perspectives in American Literature, from Paul Reuben, California State University, Stanislaus
Amiri Baraka, interview with Blue Lake Public Radio, Michigan, 1999
Douglas Turner Ward, biography, in The History Makers
"Douglas Turner Ward's Black Theatre unforgotten," by Demetria McCain (2004), from the Negro Ensemble Company, Inc.
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Image: Imamu Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, b&w head-and-shoulders portrait photograph, 1965, by LeRoy McLucas. Associated Press © AP Images. Reproduced by permission of the Associated Press. Digital image courtesy of the Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, #LC-USZ62-115116.
1 Darwin T. Turner, Black Drama in America: An Anthology (Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett Publications, 1971), 21.