- Black Theatre: Ritual Performance In The African Diaspora
On the gradual slope that was the informal ending of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) in theater, Paul Carter Harrison wrote the powerful and influential The Drama of Nommo (Grove P, 1972). BAM had attempted to artistically and theoretically create revolutionary theater by blacks for blacks. Early grants of foundation support (in particular, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations) were quickly rescinded once the content and form of the plays generated were experimental, avant-garde, and confrontational to gender and class stereotypes, i.e., avoided the "thingification" (as coined by Frantz Fanon) of blackness in theater. When Harrison wrote Nommo, he identified the presence of "Nommo on the Block." Harrison's marking of Nommo reinscribes the Dogon god, representing the totality of the cosmos, as a force ("Nommo force") to be [End Page 122] channeled into the theater by having plays less dependent on presenting disadvantaged black families. In fact, for Harrison, "family" should be supplanted by "community," and community is maintained through performance forms that "reinforce[s] the stability of racial identity," such as style (word-magic, repetition, improvisation, change), storytelling (orality), trickstering, and ritual (30). All these performance practices support community, not the individual. The black theater artist, Harrison concludes, "is not a position aloof from the crowd; for if he should be out of earshot of the song, he will surely miss the 'A' train and face a lonely trip back home" (79).
Given his authoring of Nommo thirty years ago, and his continued work on ritual theater as a playwright and editor of play anthologies, it is no surprise that Harrison, in 2002, teamed up with Victor Leo Walker II, head of the African Grove Institute for the Arts, Inc., and former Professor of Drama and Film Studies at Dartmouth College, and Gus Edwards, a teacher of film studies and director of a multi-ethnic theater program at Arizona State University, to produce an anthology on ritual performance and black theater. What is to be celebrated regarding this anthology, Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora, is that it has been edited by black theater educators and practitioners. According to the Harrison's essay "Praise/Word," the idea of the anthology came about after the 1998 National Black Theatre Summit at Golden Pond (Dartmouth College). The summit itself was a response to August Wilson's Theatre Communications Group 1996 keynote address, "The Ground on Which I Stand." At the end of the summit, the African Grove Institute for the Arts (AGIA) was formed, with August Wilson as the chairman of the board and Victor Leo Walker II as the CEO and president.
Black Theatre offers multiple objectives of Black Theatre as was voiced by Wilson, defined by the 1998 NBT Summit, and nurtured by the AGIA:
Black Theatre is performative, not didactic, yet seeks collective self-definition. In both ensemble and solo work, the performance objectives rise above self-aggrandizement, recognizing the tension between I/we that subjects the individual self to collective responsibility. It is a preservative and transformative dramatic ritual that requires ritual ground as the space to focus centrality of spirit. [. . .] Black Theatre is joy, passion, and beauty, which lead to positive illumination.(9)
Defining Black Theatre as performative, transformative, as based in ritual, and as needing a permanent place of practice most probably influenced the editors to organize the anthology Black Theatre in the following parts: African Roots, Mythology and Metaphysics, and Dramaturgical Practice. As Harrison states, the articles included are "essential texts" that continue the ideas promoted in the Drama of Nommo in 1972, geared toward critically supporting the centrality of "African memory" in the theatre of the African Diaspora.
"Part I: African Roots" begins with a brief introductory essay by Walker. He specifies that the words "theatre" and "drama" include all types of, to borrow from Alan Lomax, "collective creation" (13). Of particular note in this section are the essays by the late Ghanaian playwright (Muntu) and...