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  • Fathers and Sons
  • Harry J. Elam Jr. (bio)

Watching the video of the Grotowski Workcenter performance Action, I was immediately drawn to Thomas Richards. His rich voice began a lilting melody and his body reverberated with the sound. Echoing off the walls and the high ceilings of the Workcenter, Richards's voice was haunting and hypnotic. The others in the group joined in, creating a unique call and response. Intensely physical in their movement, the performers situated their bodies in space, consciously in contact with the floor, keeping the beat with percussion instruments. While Richards initiated the tune, the performance evolved to where others would pick up the leadership, and ultimately the difference between leader and follower became difficult to discern. The energy in that room in Pontedera, Italy, was palpable. As sweat dropped from Richards's smiling face and drenched his body, I was moved by the extraordinary rigor of the work. Yet, certain genealogical and cultural resonances within the piece both intrigue and trouble me.

Despite their being distinctly different in style, I find striking parallels between Thomas Richards's practice and that of his father, the late African American director Lloyd Richards. Richards (père) was a theatrical innovator and visionary. The first black director on Broadway and credited with "discovering" August Wilson while at the O'Neill Playwrights Festival, Richards senior brought the first six Wilson plays to the Broadway stage. Richards (fils), now with the Workcenter, has also become a theatrical pacesetter, honing original work, directing his company toward a deeper understanding of the principles of his other theatrical father, the late Jerzy Grotowski. While the elder Richards coached actors to discover inner psychological truths, his son equally urges his company to access the inner self by using song and music as a conduit.

Significantly, some of the music that Richards (fils) and the Workcenter performers sing in Action is drawn from Afro-Caribbean folk traditions, and his father Lloyd was the Canadian-born son of Jamaican parents. How, then, should we read the use of the music by the son, Thomas? Does it constitute what August Wilson terms "blood memory?" Blood memory, a central trope within Wilson's dramaturgical project, does not refer to a black ontological or essentialized knowledge but rather functions as a metaphor for appreciating how the African and African American past is always implicated within the African American present. Yet Thomas Richards and the Workcenter appear uninterested in animating connections to this cultural past; rather, their intent is to strip this folk music of its cultural origins in order to generate new meanings, new art, in the moment of performance. Richards and his troupe do not sing to reinvigorate Afro-Caribbean cultural traditions. Their focus is elsewhere: most specifically on the Grotowski processes. Neither a result of blood inheritance nor even blood memory, Richards's (fils) connections to Afro-Caribbean song offers engagement and play, repetition and revision.

In this performative context, Richards's black body operates as a complex signifier mediating between his Afro-Caribbean roots and Grotowskian objectives. Even as his visible blackness might lead some to assume or construe racialized meanings from his performance of Afro-Caribbean song, the disjunctive, angular movements that accompany his singing—movement not generally associated with such music—might disrupt such readings. Dressed in white linen, surrounded by a group of white performers, Richards's performance is not about blackness but, then again, it is not not about blackness. Rather, the very presence of Richards's black body speaks to the profoundly diverse dimensions of blackness. There is simply not just one black thing. [End Page 2]

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Figure 1.

Lloyd Richards, during his tenure as dean of the Yale School of Drama, 1979–1991. (Photo by Gerry Goodstein, courtesy of Yale School of Drama/Yale Repertory Theatre)

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Figure 2.

Thomas Richards during Focal Point in Cappadocia, an activity of Tracing Roads Across Turkey, July 6–August 5, 2005. (Photo by Frits Meyst; courtesy of The Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards)

Nevertheless, while Richards's and the Workcenter's use of Afro-Caribbean song may broaden definitions...


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