- Diversifying African American Drama
African American drama. Is it historical? Contemporary? An oxymoron? Teaching African American drama for over ten years at primarily white institutions has taught me that there are many permutations of each of the course title’s component parts: “African,” “American,” “drama.” Sometimes students approach African American drama with trepidation, afraid that studying “black” stuff will prove dangerous or alienating. Three pedagogical approaches have proven successful for me in bringing students to this topic: 1) questioning the definitions of race and drama throughout the course; 2) mixing historical with contemporary dramatic literature; and 3) insisting that all students physically embody African American characters within in-class performances. This essay offers an overview of how I teach African American drama at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. My courses cover historical and contemporary literature and combine readings with embodied practice with the aim of helping students learn the vernacular of black performance.
African American drama is a topic that spans a variety of cultures and approaches to crafting art. The “African” part of the term requires familiarity with the theatrical practices of the African continent. These include practices such as acknowledging ancestors through public rites and rituals, maintaining storytelling traditions through griots,1 using performance gestures that originate in the torso and hips, and speaking within rhythmic structures based on percussion patterns. The introduction to the now out-of-print anthology Kuntu Drama: Plays of the African Continuum, edited by Paul Carter Harrison, does an excellent job of spotlighting and describing examples of African aesthetics that frequently emerge within the black theatre canon.2 My own tendency is to draw from dance-studies scholars like Brenda Dixon Gottschild (Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance), Thomas DeFrantz (Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance), and Jacqui Malone (Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance). Dixon Gottschild’s book traces specific elements of African aesthetics—such as the displacement and articulation of the hips, improvisation, energy, attack, off-centeredness, polycentrism, and ephebism3—in the choreography of mainstream dance artists, including George Balanchine, Deborah Hay, Bebe Miller, and Doug Elkins. Dancing Many Drums, on the other hand, provides useful case studies of specific African American artists who work with movement vocabularies. Learning about the expertise of dancers who execute ring shouts, social dances like the Lindy Hop or the black bottom and club dances contribute to students’ understanding of how the African American body can communicate African continuities. Steppin’ on the Blues describes movement styles that are more familiar to students: black marching bands, step teams, and popular music-step styles (e.g., the moves of the O’Jays and Temptations). These authors collectively describe how African dance-performance styles resonate within US entertainments.
Within my courses, I frame discussions of African continuities as “the vernacular”—the spoken and physical expressions of daily life that originate within African American and other communities. In the opening days of the semester, I encourage students to remember and share vernacular expressions from their own lives: folk expressions (“don’t step on a crack”), double-dutch steps, step-dancing routines, spirituals their parents might sing, “the dozens” insults (often “yo’ mama” jokes), and hand-game chants. When students remember and/or access these forms, they come to understand just how much sound and gestic language influence their daily interactions. Locating [End Page 59] the vernacular helps students to understand that performance involves more than text—that sound, gesture, and physical actions are a part of cultural communicative practices. When students share and perform their own vernacular, they come to understand how the vernacular can enhance dramatic encounters and situations.
Dialogues about the “African” continuities eventually lead to a discussion of race. To spur conversations, I ask students: “What is the difference between ‘African American’ drama, ‘black’ drama, and ‘Negro’ drama?” With this question, class members are forced to consider the construction of blackness across time. Who are (or were) the blacks? The Negroes? The Africans? Equally important, how did they come to be called this? Often I begin by describing the “wonder cabinets” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in which all of the...