Anansi and Other Tales that challenge the Western Theatre Narrative
I am currently taking a class on Black Dramatic Theory. From the first day in class I felt like I'd walked into the kind of academic setting that had the capacity to challenge the way I had been trained to think. For all of my interrupted academic career, I have taken on the responsibility, the necessity, of challenging the way that I was educated. Those challenges came from personal experience, family history, and from a general sense of dissatisfaction with the ways in which I have been taught to think, attending public school in Kansas, and then doing my undergraduate degree at Yale University. This was true particularly in regards to theatre history. The narrative taught since I can remember learning about theatre was: theatre started with the ancient Greeks, and every theatre since then has been a direct lineage from them. This is the story of the Western Theatre Cannon. The simplistic and oft-repeated, and widely accepted, narrative that spaces from Kansas public school to Yale University never asked me to question. But half of my family is from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, and when I moved to Trinidad and Tobago in 2012 to work for the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, a whole new world of theatrical opportunities opened up to me. In fact, I had started looking for other options than Western theatre tropes in college, but even though I was deep into experimental theatre, and was a self-directed student of Augusto Boal, the Western Greek narrative held strong.
Black Dramatic Theory, under Dr. Nicole Hodges Persley, challenged the narrative, indirectly, from day one of class. We were presented with a syllabus that includes a non-linear list of theorists we would be drawing on. This list includesFrederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison, alongside Alain Locke, Prince, Anansi stories, Negro spirituals, CLR James, Fred Moten, Slavery (yes, "slavery" is a theory), Nina Simone, Alvin Ailey, Adrinne Kennedy, bell hooks, Black Lives Mater, Shonda Rhimes, and so many many more. Dr. Hodges Persley explained to us that work songs are just as legitimate as theoretical creations as are the dense writings of Kimberlé Crenshaw. My heart soared. Last semester I wrote a paper that used an acting practice as a theoretic framework. It was a valiant, though not particularly effective, effort. I plan to work on it more. But here is a class theory that's encouraging me to do just that: to embrace practice as theory. To understand that the work that we do as cultural creators, as survivors, as people, singing in our living rooms, singing on stages, telling stories in rum shops, or in living rooms as we strive to tell our versions of the truth: that is all theory.
Another seemingly simple, but deeply profound, framing of the class is to understand that without knowing which black theorists (of all kinds) have been before us, and without understanding their work as foundational, we flounder. I was taught, while at Yale, that it was my job to be the "first" to discover ideas and to do research. I hear this phrase used all the time in Western institutions: No one else has done this. Black Dramatic Theory, the foundation of the course, is to understand that that isn't true. No, it probably hasn't been done exactly the same way you've done it, but maybe it has. If you don't know your history, you'll be recreating the same tired idea one million times.
I remember when I first read the Broken Earth series by NK Jemisin and practically danced with joy to see a fantasy author who created a world that has strong parallels to work I'm doing. When we know about others who are doing similar work, it strengthens our work. This class is so thrilling to me because we are reading texts that I'm shocked, and yet not shocked, that I haven't been exposed to yet. I will blog about the readings, watchings, and listenings of the course, but some early highlights that are absolute MUST WATCH films are:
- 13th by Ava DuVernay (on Netflix)
- Bamboozled by Spike Lee (you have to rent this one on DVD)
To my shame, I had never gotten around to watching 13th, despite having read a great deal about it. We had to watch it alongside W.D.Griffith's revolting Birth of a Nation, and the two couldn't have fit better. I wouldn't necessarily recommend watching Griffith's whole movie. Reading about it and clips are enough. It's three hours long and drags horribly, plus, you have to know the history of the American Civil War well to follow it. I'd advise reading up about it if you don't know, and watching some clips. But watch all of the 13th. A visceral understanding of the reality that slavery did not end in the United States is critical to an understanding of our country today. The more I think about it the more angered I am that this is never taught in public (or private in all likelihood) schools. Another movie, that we didn't watch for class, but I highly recommend, is Life (1999), starred in, written and produced by Eddie Murphy. Alongside 13th, it really hits home, despite being a comedy. I am surprised that Life isn't better known. As I am surprised that the continuation of slavery is ignored.
I'd watched Bamboozled before, but it's worth many more watches. Particularly when, at least once a year, a conversation re-emerges and somehow everyone appears shocked: the conversation around blackface. Spike Lee hit the nail on the head in 2000, and it's 2019 and Gucci and half of the white lawmakers in the South are still confused. I was listening to an episode of The Breakfast Club the other day and the question about blackface came up. People, both black and white, called in and the number one question that was asked was how people feel about whiteface. If blackface is offensive, why isn't whiteface offensive? This question brings us to the level of ignorance that our society has regarding power structures. Charlamagne Tha God had a simple explanation: the oppressor doesn't get to make fun of the oppressed, but the oppressed gets to make fun of the oppressor. Humor, comedy, mockery, are ways in which communities have survived systematic oppression. Trinidadian Carnival originated as a protest movement, it was a way to celebrate and to make fun of the land owners and rich folks. It was a way to address social ills through comedy.
I did not realize that minstrel shows (which created blackface as a staple of American racist humor, a humor that continues to be used for shock value, and "style" up to today) actually originated when white folks from the North, during slavery days, visited the South and observed enslaved people performing stories and making fun of their "masters". These white northerners were inspired and went back up north, where they put on blackface and tried to copy what they'd seen. I learned this from an interview with Loften Mitchell author of Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theater published by Hawthorne Books at WYNC. Why is this history of cultural appropriation not taught? We know the answer. It is why pushback against cultural appropriation is so swift. Western society has been built on stealing and appropriating other's culture. To acknowledge that would unseat the foundation of how Western culture, and power, operates. This is the work that I am here for, and this blog is here for.