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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 339-340

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Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora. Edited by Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Walker II, and Gus Edwards. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003; pp. 418. $74.50 cloth, $27.95 paper.

This collection of essays locates a series of contemporary conversations within black theatre historiography by way of four extensive and highly provocative sections covering "African Roots," "Mythology and Metaphysics," "Dramaturgical Practice," and "Performance." A remarkable sense of intra/inter-textuality also makes Black Theatre a landmark publication in contemporary black theatre studies that collectively promotes what Larry Neal once described as a "radical reordering" of Western cultural forms. Through a strategic and extremely provocative global deployment of Harrison's understanding of what he elsewhere calls nommo force (or, life force)—an expressive, material, and ritual-centered notion that Harrison uses to frame the entire collection—this book inherits and reinvents a tradition of black theatre scholarship that includes the works of William F. Branch and Addison Gayle Jr., James V. Hatch and Ted Shine, Eroll Hill, Sydné Mahone, and, of course, Harrison himself. Black theatre, especially here in its ritualized figuration, refuses, short-circuits, and re-creates the symbolic and physical violences of the colonial past and postcolonial present. Black Theatre also reminds us, following Ntozake Shange, that "[t]he Middle Passage was not monolingual, nor were the grape and lettuce fields, the avocado and cane fields of Florida and Cuba and the Yucatan, nor the rice paddies of the Carolinas and the Philippines and Vietnam, nor the rhythm and blues songs of south central Los Angeles, nor Houston's Vietnam town" (397).

Babatunde Lawal in "The African Heritage of African American Art and Performance," for example, supports this project by constructing the topoi of African and African American artistic heritages as a series of locally and globally dispersed artistic and political expressions that inherently retain African ritual: early blues achievements, W.E.B. Du Bois's The Star of Ethiopia, jazz, [End Page 339] R&B, and hip-hop. The idea (or scholarly use) of an African continuum is not new, but what makes Lawal's discussion noteworthy is his ability to relate multiple forms of individual and communal artistic expression as an innately intertextual, cross-cultural, and intersubjective activity: a struggle, a labor of lived experiences that cannot be easily reduced to theoretical jargon. This intense negotiation of past, present, and future conflicts is used by Tejumola Olainiyan in "Agones: The Constitution of Practice" to help rearrange the discourse of contemporary black theatre analysis in a way that employs a counterhegemonic strategy of resistance to both Eurocentric models of "excellence" and Afrocentric models of the "legitimate stage" (79). Reprinting this essay in Black Theatre will challenge, and perhaps even proscribe, a form of anti-intellectualism that resists conversations of poststructuralism within the many contexts of black theatre's global presence.

May Joseph's "Sycorax Mythology" not only adds another rich layer of observations to the postcolonial rethinking of Shakespeare's Tempest but describes also how representations of the Caribbean cannibal (e.g., the wild woman native, in this case) resist, consume, and create the conditions necessary for colonial dominance. Joseph supports her position with, for example, Suzanne Césaire's notion that "[t]he violent epistemplogical rupture that brought about the modern era demands new frameworks as well as fresh ways of writing" (234). As if in dialogue with Joseph across textual and historical time and space, Wole Soyinka's essay on the "fourth stage" instigates a rupture within the discourse of poststructural theatre studies by engaging "the vortex of archetypes and home of the tragic spirit" of Yoruban crisis and creation (145). These complex negotiations and expressive, generative notions of ritual theatre's irrefutable cross-cultural influence are deeply felt in the essays by all editors and, especially, those by Joni Jones, Keith Antar Mason, Beverly Robinson, Eleanor W. Traylor, George C. Wolfe, and Jean Young. Finally, I have to mention that Keith L. Walker's essay on Aimé Césaire offers a rare and deeply...


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