Why Aren’t There More African-Americans In Contemporary Performance?

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' "Neighbors" at LA's Matrix Theater Co. in 2010. Photo by I.C. Rapoport.

A couple days ago over at Parabasis, J. Holtham–better known in some circles as 99 Seats–linked to a piece at Howlround by Keith Josef Adkins, Holtham’s co-producer of New Black Fest, a festival of new voices in black theater that premiered last year. I didn’t catch it then, but I intend to this year, because it seems a promising attempt to offer a counterweight to the ridiculous marginalization of black artists and stories in the mainstream American theater, which is guilty of a shocking amount of tokenism and cultural tone-deafness. (It’s also worth pointing out that they’ve launched a series starting this May and going through Juneteenth of new work exploring the legacy of slavery and the Civil War–check it out.) Adkins’ essay, which amounts to something of a year-two mission statement for New Black Fest, is worth reading in its entirety, but something did catch my eye from the first paragraph:

I believe this is truly one of the most exciting times in theater. Playwrights are actually sitting center stage with decision-makers talking about the relevancy of new play development, and, more important, the future of American theater. I, for one, believe this conversation couldn’t come at a better time. On the other side of the planet, Egyptians stand up against a bullying government. Here in the U.S., President Obama turns his nose up to anti-gay marriage laws. In Wisconsin, public workers protest a state budget that would inhibit their bargaining power. So, it brings me much joy to know the American theater, that I often believe to be the most antiquated of all the artistic institutions, has decided to turn the spotlight on the livelihood of the playwright. Why? The playwright’s creative observations often acts a barometer to our humanity, and that, my friends, ideally should incite change. Exciting times, indeed. In fact, I would dare to tag this time as revolutionary, or, at least, a revolution in the making. Believe me when I say I have my fingers crossed.

Got that? Amid all the revolutionary and transformational fervor energizing Adkins, the main aegis of change in black theater will be…playwrights.

Now, I don’t want to further what might be my growing reputation as anti-playwright (for the record, Andy is actually more philosophically against traditional modes of theater than I am). Come on–I welcome playwrights getting to expand their vocabulary and tackle new topics in original ways, and I want a more vibrant, diverse, and engaging theater overall. But if that’s the goal, I’m always surprised the degree to which playwrights are seen as the primary aegis of change, as though someone sitting in a room and writing up well-rounded characters going through some sort of dramatic action is the only way to create theater, the only artist in the production who generate change.

My point here is not to take issue with Adkins on this point, because in my experience, he has little or no reason to expect to find black artists working in other modes of theater production, and that is what I’m really curious about. Holtham himself made note of this fact a few months ago during the entire “what is devised theater, exactly?” discussion, acknowledging, “For whatever reason (or whatever combination of reasons), this work is done mainly by white artists.” But unfortunately he doesn’t really extend his questioning beyond expressing mystification because it “strikes me as odd, since I know so many black artists and artists of color who are well suited to tackling work in this manner,” and acknowledging the New York Neo-Futurists, whose work I’ve yet to catch but who do, apparently, feature a much more diverse group of artists and were the one devised company to participate in the inaugural New Black Fest.

So the question is, why aren’t more African-Americans making theater outside the traditional text-based mode? Devised theater is just one variant of contemporary performance that’s primarily in the theatrical (rather than dance or movement) vein, but from what I’ve seen, it is, even beyond strictly devised theater, rather unusual to find black artists working in these experimental, multidisciplinary modes. And this really struck me reading through Adkins’ essay, particular when he talks about “the waiting game” he and other playwrights (black and not) face trying to get their work produced.

“Over the last four years,” he writes,

I have been in numerous conversations with fellow artists about what to do with this “waiting game” so many of us find ourselves in. I simply mean waiting for larger theater institutions to legitimize our talents and qualify our careers. In truth, many theater artists (color and gender aside) believe we are not a legitimate playwright until the Public Theater, Manhattan Theater Club, the Goodman, etc., stamp their marks of approval across our playwriting souls. That’s not only a grand burden for these institutions to carry, but it’s also a bit delusional for the playwright to expect all and everything from these institutions.

Those sorts of barriers are precisely where ensemble-driven theater comes from–artists tired of beating their heads against a wall, trying to get their work done, who find some like-minded compatriots and start their own companies to produce their own work. And don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying it’s easy, but there’s a big difference between waiting to be recognized and have your work produced, and fighting to make things happen. (This is, I should point out, why Adkins started New Black Fest.) I’m sure most of the playwrights Adkins and Holtham talk about have, at some point, self-produced or worked with small companies. But there’s still this glaring question of why more of them don’t deepen and develop those collaborations, rather than assuming that small work is just a stepping stone to doing the sort of big theater plays they really want to.

In the end, necessity being the mother of all invention, much of what we take for granted as “experimental” or “avant-garde” aesthetics grows out of the processes that develop in small companies making work. Anti-acting styles come from not working with trained actors. Eric Dyer of Radiohole started out as a writer, and if I understand it correctly, Radiohole’s first show was a scripted play by him, but like most of the best small experimental companies, at some point Dyer no doubt decided that it was more interesting working with the people he was working with and the process by which the company created its shows changed, from top-down scripting to full-on collaboration. Young Jean Lee started The Shipment doing a lot of writing, most of which didn’t work, and the show was retooled over and over again through developmental experiments with the company until it became the piece it is.

To throw in some personal critical perspective, I’d say that generally the best avant-garde companies start from this perspective: they have limitations because of how they’re going to do these shows, and that necessity informs the aesthetic. We’ve certainly all seen enough bad imitations of Richard Foreman and Big Dance Theater to know that simply mimicking an aesthetic is not a route to success. So again, if experimental modes of theater production are at least in part a natural development of companies working together and deepening their collaboration over time, why aren’t more black artists working in this vein? In the end, it’s a set of tools, not a style, and I’m curious why more black artists don’t employ them.

Off the top of my head, two thoughts occur. First, it may in fact be some function of class. In New York, which is really the hot-bed of experimental non-scripted theater in America, most artists come out of one only a few tracks: Foreman, NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing/Big Dance Theater, Columbia/Anne Bogart/Siti, Mac Wellman/Brooklyn College, and the Wooster Group. Given that two of those are associated with elite universities, and there’s plenty of incest in the scene on top of that, we shouldn’t be surprised to find a lack of diversity in the field if the colleges feeding it are not sufficiently diverse.

But second, I wonder if it is, in fact, a function of the sort of work that a lot of black artists are interested in making. Scripted plays, except for the most radical, tend to rely on some form of naturalism and psychological realism; characters tend to have a wholeness, a solid, grounded identity. Experimental modes tend to favor deconstructive types of characterization, through fragmentary or found texts and a rejection of psychological-realist characterization. So you wind up necessarily with a contrast between an essentialist form of theater in terms of identity, and an anti-essentialist one. Feminist and queer artists tend to reject an essentialist view of identity in favor of play, camp and  identity performance (as Judith Butler would put it), and other ways of attacking the dominant paradigm, which they see as constructing their identity for them. They favor artistic forms which represent a more Protean identity, in other words.

In racial politics, though, the idea of cultural experience is often very important. Representing the “African-American experience,” for instance, becomes a political and moral task. That’s what August Wilson excelled at. And obviously when we talk about a group with a shared experience, particularly a violent and oppressive one, we don’t tend to treat that facet of identity as Protean or performative, but rather essential, defined, and owned. I’m white, in other words; I don’t understand what it’s like to be black in America. I’m a gentile, I don’t understand what it’s like to be Jewish, or understand the legacy of the Holocaust from the perspective. We tend to treat that experience as an essential part of identity, and that’s why it’s still far more shocking to see a blackface performance than a drag one. Political correctness tends to determine whether a concept of identity can be deconstructed, an idea neatly summed up in the title of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, itself an essentialist response to Sartre’s anti-essentialist Anti-Semite and Jew.

There’s certainly plenty of counter-examples in the theater. The AIDS crisis in the 1980s gave rise to a distinctly realist form of gay theater based on that shared experience, but Tony Kushner wound up blowing it out of the water in the early Nineties with Angels in America, and writers like Terrence McNally expanded their vocabularies well beyond traditional well-made plays. George C. Wolfe’s Colored Museum was an amazing satiric deconstruction of black realist drama in the late Eighties, but it sort of stands on its own. Mainstream African-American theater, as even Adkins notes, remains beholden to the legacy of August Wilson. But when you compare that sort of realism to the work of an African-American woman like Suzan-Lori Parks, the differences are striking. I don’t think Parks rejects the idea of an essential African-American identity, but her work does explicitly explore how identity is performed, from Venus to The America Play to Topdog/Underdog. And I suspect that has something to do with her gender, and approaching identity from a pair of perspectives that wind up conflicting, much as they did in Ntozake Shange’s best work.

But overall I think these remain dominant paradigms, and I wonder if that’s not ultimately limiting. Again, experimental modes are at their heart a series of techniques and devices that allow artists to explore concepts in a different fashion, and they allow us to expand the realm of things the theater can address. I think we all lose out if entire groups of artists don’t get to explore their experience through these lenses. But of the work I’ve seen and know about in New York over the last year or so, I can really only think of one piece in this vein. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is primarily a playwright who gained a lot of notice with Neighbors at the Public’s LAB Theater a couple years ago, but he was exploring decidedly new territory in his adaptation of The Octoroon at PS122 last spring, in collaboration with Pan Pan’s Gavin Quinn. The collaboration unfortunately spectacularly imploded leading to no shortage of controversy at the time, but what was largely overlooked in the aftermath was how Jacobs-Jenkins was expanding his repertoire well beyond textuality into movement and design through the collaboration. It’s unfortunate it didn’t come together, because from what I understand about what Octoroon was supposed to be, it could have been truly groundbreaking.

There are black artists working in contemporary performance, of course. Bill T. Jones and Ralph Lemon are giants in the field, to name but two, but interestingly, both came to this sort of performance from dance–rather than theater–backgrounds. Their example demonstrates clearly that such tools can be used to create meaningful explorations of race, identity, and politics, which again leaves me wondering why more people from theater backgrounds don’t seem as interested in pursuing them. Still, that’s just my perspective, and if anyone has any other thoughts to offer (or examples of black artists working outside the standard process I’m unaware of), I’d love to hear.

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