- Taking It to the Streets: Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka
Taking It to the Streets is a compelling comparative study of how the social protest performance traditions developed by Teatro Campesino and Black Revolutionary Theater between 1965 and 1971 contribute to a phenomenology of political activism and cultural politics in the U.S.A. Harry J. Elam Jr.'s lucidly written book is a major contribution to how theatre artists such as Luis [End Page 197] Valdez and Amiri Baraka and their respective organizations, Teatro Campesino and Black Revolutionary Theater, sought their own publics within a political landscape in which black and Chicano communities were socially excluded from and coerced by mainstream American society. The book does not simply catalog the cultural politics of these groups but also uses an innovative analytical narrative to examine the specific nature of their performance texts and highlight the ritualistic framework that gave their works a composite secular and spiritual efficacy.
Making a case for "social protest performance traditions," Harry Elam Jr. contends that they "reinforce, reimagine and rearticulate the objectives of social and political resistance" and that unlike "radical theatre" their works are direct responses to "very specific and very urgent causes of social need" (vi). The specific and urgent social issues in question are the marginalization and exclusion of African Americans and Chicanos from effective citizenship in America and the broad context within which Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka's activities contributed to American cultural history. The causes their social protest theatres articulate center around race as markers of class subordination, and the theatre traditions they produced focused on transforming these socially coerced communities into proactive publics who used theatre arts to textualize their subjectivity and political agency. Using these different trajectories into American national history, the author makes the justifiable assumption that both communities exist largely as subordinate groups whose very identities provided the subjects and texts through which Valdez and Baraka launched their protest theatre to engage the dominant culture. The civil rights movement and labor union activism of the 1960s provide the broad tapestry that gave the cultural activism of both groups their special political significance.
The discourse of nationalism that excluded the African American and Chicano communities from mainstream American society and with which Valdez and Baraka's works engaged, were however, fraught with contradictions. Elam draws attention to the inherent patriarchal ethnocentrism and essentialism of their particular responses to the dominant culture. According to him: "The essentialist views of social liberation espoused by these movements failed to include gender issues and the cultural stratification of women in their platforms for change" (135). These contradictions, which he elaborated on while analyzing Black Mass and La Conquista did not, however, eclipse the broad historical relevance of their works despite their great importance in evaluating the cultural politics of subordinated groups (54). In his words:
While I realize that such contemporary critiques provide insights into the political limitation of La Conquista and Black Mass, I also believe that a recognition of the situated nature of the symbols within these plays can expand our understanding of the complexities and continued significance of El Teatro's and BLT's cultural politics.(55)
Such contradictions and their strategic employment, he argues, helped activate and critically sustain the attention of their publics.
The author highlights the dramatic texts developed by both Valdez and Baraka and the theatrical conventions they had to invent to engage their performers, the discourses of race and class, and their spectators. Drawing examples from Black Ice and Las Dos Caras del Patroncito, Elam argues that placing these texts and their performances within a social ritualistic framework, as both groups did, further enhanced their cultural and political efficacies (19-23). The author also examines the "architecture" of the dramatic and performance [End Page 198] texts produced by both groups and their spiritual and secular indexical ties. For Elam, these plays are not simply mimetic but encompass the "methexis" that enable performers...