- General Reference Books
Two years ago I concluded this chapter by suggesting it "may be time to rethink that old adage about death and taxes" to include the Dictionary of Literary Biography. As if to reinforce the point, the editorial directors of the DLB announced this year that, "asked when [the series] will run out of material," they reply, "Never. There are fields that have not yet been touched." On the one hand, the assertion is reassuring: the market for reference books remains strong, to judge from the variety and general utility of volumes published this year. Many of these books—virtually all of them published by trade presses—continue to focus on ethnic, women, and/or regional writers. At its best, the DLB participates in this project of reclaiming marginalized or neglected writers. Indeed, with the demise of the Twayne imprint, the DLB contains the most accessible new scholarship on such writers as well as the most tangible evidence that their recovery or rehabilitation remains a priority, at least in some critical quarters. On the other hand, the directors' assertion of the series' permanence is also troubling. Production of books in the DLB, as relentless as the Energizer bunny, is obviously market-driven. How much longer must the series exploit the market for reference materials, issuing books much as the U.S. Postal Service, like a cornucopia, issues commemorative stamps—because collectors are willing to pay the price to complete their sets? Too often, the author entries in recent volumes of the DLB merely recapitulate entries in earlier volumes. At the least, DLB directors have apparently discontinued the DLB Yearbooks, an annual grabbag of "the vital, the occasional, the rough-hewn, and the cluttered," as David Nordloh remarked in this space last year. Let the market for the other DLB volumes evaporate, and we will see how long "never" lasts.
A pair of commendable volumes published by Garland on African American drama by women epitomizes recent trends in reference books [End Page 519] devoted to ethnic and/or women writers: African American Women Playwrights: A Research Guide, ed. Christy Gavin, and Black Women Playwrights: Visions on the American Stage, ed. Carol P. Marsh-Lockett. The first volume is an excellent compilation of basic reference material on 10 playwrights who were active either during the Harlem Renaissance or during the period from the 1950s through the '70s, among them Angelina Weld Grimké, Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, Adrienne Kennedy, and Ntozake Shange. Each chapter, following the standard Garland formula, contains a brief biographical sketch, a list of plays and plot summaries, production information, and an annotated bibliography of reviews and scholarship. The second volume neatly complements Gavin's work with 12 critical essays on the plays of Childress, Grimké, Hansberry, Kennedy, Ntozake, and others by such distinguished scholars as Trudier Harris, Marilyn Elkins, and Neal A. Lester. I particularly recommend Christine R. Gray's "Mara, Angelina Grimké's Other Play and the Problems of Recovering Texts" (pp. 69-85), on the issues raised by the various manuscript versions of the play, hitherto presumed to be a "lynching play" in the tradition of Grimké's Rachel; I also commend Carla J. McDonough's "The Nightmare of History: Conceptions of Sexuality in Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro" (pp. 173-92), a study of the difficulties in historically positioning the "fractured self" depicted in Kennedy's Obie-award-winning drama. These two volumes should go far toward reclaiming a number of critically neglected texts at the intersection of race and gender.
A Sourcebook of African-American Performance: Plays, People, Movements, ed. Annemarie Bean (Routledge), mostly reprints articles originally published in the Drama Review with a few newly commissioned items, all of them focused on the influential performances of the Black Arts Movement of the '60s and the New Black Renaissance of the '90s. That is, this volume essentially starts where the Gavin and Marsh-Lockett volumes leave off. Especially valuable are the retrospective looks at Black Arts theater by Ed Bullins (pp. 9-12) and Larry Neal (pp. 55-67); interviews with Adrian Piper (pp. 204-07), Robbie McCauley (pp. 219-45), Anna Deavere Smith (pp. 267-83), and Suzan...