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Clay and Clara: Baraka's Dutchman, Kennedy's The Owl Answers, and the Black Arts Movement LOTTA M. LOFGR EN 1964 was a watershed year in the history of drama: Amiri Baraka (still LeRoi Jones) won an Obie for best American play with Dutchman, an explosive and overtly political play that calls for a violent response to racism and oppression . Baraka's play, because of its refusal to bow to hegemony, was instrumental in giving not only African-Americans but subsequently feminist playwrights of the late 1960s and eventually a broad range of silent minorities a new voice. Few plays have so clearly defined a new movement for its followers, a movement Baraka and Larry Neal dubbed The Black Arts Movement. As Larry Neal explained, in the 1968 essay "The Black Arts Movement," "[tlhe Black Arts theatre, the theatre of LeRoi Jones, is a radical alternative to the sterility of the American theatre" (279). The Black Arts Movement envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America. In order to perform this task. the Black Arts Movement proposes a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic. It proposes a separate symbolism. mythology, critique. and iconologY.[...l A main tenet of Black Power is the necessity for Black people to define the world in their own lcrms.[...] The Black artistl" s] (.. .) primary duty is to speak to the spiritual and cultural needs of Black people. (272-73) Also in 1964, Adrienne Kennedy's play FunnY/lOuse ofa Negro won an Obie, for "distinguished play." Less noticed than Dutchman, Fumzyhouse, nevertheless , significantly influenced younger women play-wrights, especially AfricanAmerican women, playwrights such as Ntozake Shange, Aishah Rahman, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Robbie McCauley. In 1965, Kennedy's The Owl Answers premiered at the White Bam Theatre in Westport, Connecticut. We should read this intricate, multifaceted playas an "answer" in part to Dutchman and more broadly to the Black Arts Movement.' Despite its complex Modern Drama, 46:3 (Fall 2003) 424 Baraka, Kennedy, and the Black Arts Movement introspection, The Owl Answers, in its form, its echoes of Dutchman, and the encounter between Clara and the Negro Man carries an urgent message to the Black Arts Movement. In one dimension,2 it is a plea for a more compassionate relationship among men and women in the black community, and more specifically, for the support of black women writers by the male writers of Black Arts, especially Baraka, its major spokesman. At the same time, the play urges black women artists to chart their own course - if necessary. even without approval from black male artists. The play seeks conciliation, but from a position of independence and strength. A comparison of Dutchman and The Owl Answers will give us the opportunity to consider a revisionist interpretation of both plays and illustrate that they are not as dissimilar as tradition would have them. My reading of Dutchman will suggest that critics have interpreted the play too narrowly, in order to make it adhere to Baraka's prescriptions in the essay "The Revolutionary Theatre " (1964), which called on adherents to "Accuse and Attack anything that can be accused and attacked" (211). The play is, in fact, more complex and ironic than literary history (including Baraka himselt) has allowed. Baraka wrote Dutchman during the painful transition from his beat days and his life in Greenwich Village to a new name and a new life in Harlem; the play illustrates a time of uncertainty and self-doubt rather than the unambivalent militant stance adopted in "The Revolutionary Theatre." lndeed, the essay, written shortly after Dutchman, may well have been an antidote to the anguish Baraka felt at the time, a way for him to exorcise (or deny) the doubts that clung to the core of Dutchman, doubts not entirely alien to those articulated by Clara Passmore in The Owl Answers.3 A thorough and fair appraisal of Kennedy's plays from the mid-1960s, meanwhile, will show that, for all their individualism and inscrutability, they, in fact, satisfy many of the tenets of the Black Arts Movement as Neal outlined them. Yet critics and theorists allied with or sympathetic to Black Arts - with the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5286
Print ISSN
0026-7694
Pages
pp. 424-449
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
No
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