Then, And Then, And Now

by Awoye Timpo

With special thanks to Arminda Thomas

“The Revolutionary Theatre is shaped by the world, and moves to reshape the world, using as its force the natural force and perpetual vibrations of the mind in the world. We are history and desire, what we are, and what any experience can make us.” – Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka’s essay “The Revolutionary Theatre” is both a searing condemnation of the establishment and a dreaming document that lays out possibilities for art, art-makers and society at large. It is a defining piece of work in deep conversation with other artists and movements of its time. It is also part of a continuum of writings, not unlike the one you are reading right now, that defines its own era, renegotiates the very terms of theatrical existence, reposits Black Art and lances a dagger into the status quo.

As we navigate this period of racial reckoning, the echoes of those who came before are constantly ringing. The dreams, aspirations, sorrows and frustrations reverberate through time—shaping us, challenging us, manifesting in us, inspiring us and pushing us to live at the highest and truest expression of our physical, mental, artistic, emotional and spiritual beings. Generations of Black artists have wrestled with how to create works of art and tell stories during the most challenging of times. They have conceived of new forms and new spaces for these works to live. Their words provide a backbone of thought about the moment we are in now and a launching pad for us to continue to shape this moment, and the future, into what we want it to be.

In 1905, performer Aida Overton Walker, one of the leading vaudeville performers of her time, wrote an essay for “Colored American Magazine” called “Colored Men and Women on the Stage.” It was and still is a call to action and engagement, a push for social transformation through Black art and an assertion of the importance of the artist in the building of a society. 

Her essay begins:

  • “COLORED people on the stage have been given very little consideration by our colored writers and critics; perhaps they have considered them unworthy of their attention, or perhaps it has just been a matter of oversight; be that as it may, I beg leave to write briefly on the past, present, and if possible, future of colored men and women on the Stage.”

She goes on to outline the challenges and aspirations of Black performers at the time and highlight the excellence of Black performances even as they were disproportionately denied opportunities. She continues:

  • “By carefully studying our own graces we learn to appreciate the noble and the beautiful within us, just as other peoples have discovered the graces and beauty in them selves from studying and by acting that which is noble in them. Unless we learn the lesson of self appreciation and practice it, we shall spend our lives imitating other people and depreciating ourselves.”

Walker and her contemporaries such as Bert Williams, George Walker, Sam Lucas and Will Marion Cook, like Baraka, used their words to stake claim to a theatrical tradition as they were in the midst of creating, transforming, innovating and re-defining its very existence and practice.

"The calls to action, acts of resistance and beautiful visions published in their essays all those years ago continue to embolden, strengthen and empower our movements."

Only three years prior, in 1902, composer, lyricist, performer and director Bob Cole wrote an essay for the same “Colored American Magazine” entitled, “The Negro on the Stage.” It chronicled the appearances and influence of Black artists on the Western theatre canon:

  • “I will preface that effort by acquainting the reader of the fact that the Negro has been left out of the history of the drama for the same reason, I suppose, that he has been left out of other recorded things, historiographers and instances where he does accidentally appear are noticeably marked by active prejudice. Notwithstanding this handicap, enough historical knowledge of the Negro’s dramatic participation has been unearthed to establish a reason for future consideration and to prove doubly interesting as a review. That the church is responsible for the origin of the drama is an undisputed fact, and I have enough historic and pre-historic proofs to be able to assert that the Negro is closely associated, if not directly responsible for the origin of the stage entertainments.”

Toward the end of his essay, he celebrates numerous contemporary artists and the tremendous new works they were in the process of creating. In closing, he leaves us with this: 

  • “..why, I see nothing else but future brightness for the Negro and the Stage.”

These writers were among the first to launch an idea into the public imagination about what was possible for Black American theatre and society. Just as Overton and Cole’s words would have been in the air for Pan-Africanist scholar W.E.B. DuBois, so too were Baraka’s, through his articulation of tensions and ownership of “history and desire,” in the air for Sonia Sanchez, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Aimé Césaire and more Black artistic leaders of that day. The calls to action, acts of resistance and beautiful visions published in their essays all those years ago continue to embolden, strengthen and empower our movements. 

"How can we see the possibilities of creation with the fullest expression of our spirit? How can we harness the tremendous power we have to manifest our visions? That is our act of resistance."

The dream of today is both an artistic and racial justice dream. I look forward to new forms and to liberating some of our work from the traditional architecture of company buildings. I look forward to imagining theatre beyond the proscenium stage, beyond realism, all while continuing to look back on our Black theatre-making traditions in order to live deeply within them, or break them all together to create work that is true to us now, without limitation. The dream is to let artists be artists and create space for us to make the work we want to make, be it indoors, outdoors, fifteen minutes or seven hours. I also look forward to the evolution of more Black producers. Because the dream is about an expansion—looking beyond or through the illusions of scarcity and power in celebration of our vast creative abundance. How can we see the possibilities of creation with the fullest expression of our spirit? How can we harness the tremendous power we have to manifest our visions? That is our act of resistance.

The manifestation of these dreams is our work. Our era is unique in many ways, but our conversation is in conversation with artists of the past. Our spiritual and artistic pursuit is in communion with theirs. Our dreams and aspirations mirror the ones that have come before. Our mission and purpose remain the same: to write, to create, to live, to build, to provoke, to ignite, to inspire, to fight, to share, to speak, to love, to bring joy, to remember, to heal, to grow, to connect, to make. We are the makers—out of dust or air, we make. We can and will, in the words of Baraka, “take dreams and give them a reality.” This, as always, is a time for dreaming.

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