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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 411-428



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[Ed.] Bullins as Editorial Performer:
Textual Power and the Limits of Performance in the Black Arts Movement

Mike Sell


In Ed Bullins's one-act thesis play Malcolm: '71, or Publishing Blackness, there takes place a highly self-reflexive, racially charged drama of--of all things--editorial negotiation. The scene opens on "Blackman" in his study, surrounded by "books of Blackness, revolution, nation/building, Black poetry, drama, literature, How-to-be-Black, etc." 1 Blackman is both in a play and surrounded by plays. The phone rings. He answers, "Black Aesthetics Limited," punning on the conflict of revolutionary aesthetics, economic necessity, and racial-sexual-textual politics that constitutes the play's austere but vivid dramatic structure. On the other end of the line is the editorial antagonist "Whitegirl," calling on the recommendation of Professor "Jack Hack," "the white professor who teaches poetry and aesthetics at the new Black Revolutionary Third World City university . . . the Black Students' victory for burning down the administration building during that dreadful hassle over Black Studies." 2 She explains the nature of her project, an anthology of "Radical/Protest/People's Poetry." Meanwhile, in the background, a dog barks. After discovering that the canine is named "Malcolm" (as in "Malcolm X"), Blackman "gently hangs the phone up." 3 The drama climaxes with one group of texts rejecting another. By breaking contact with the off-stage editor and the even further off-stage Jack Hack, Blackman and his books evade inclusion in the anthology and, by logical extension, dog-like domestication in the lineage of "anarchists, wobblies, nihilists, etc." that will structure the proposed collection's chapters. 4

In Malcolm: '71, Bullins uses drama--a textual form that categorically assumes viewers and performers--to expose to a more "soulful" consideration the struggles of individual Black writers with the liberal American publishing industry. Specifically, he theatricalizes the ways Black writers contend with an economic and political system that exercises racist power through, among other things, the dispersal and control of [End Page 411] texts. As in all performances, the audience (both implied in the text and actualized in production) is crucial here; as a Black Nationalist play intended for a Black audience, 5 Malcolm: '71 exposes and criticizes textually-based white power within a kind of "closed communications circuit" consisting of Bullins and a politically and ethnically distinct audience, including readers of the journal The Black Scholar, in which the play was originally published in 1975. As a kind of Afro-centric Everyman, Blackman iconographically represents a community dealing with complicated questions about nationalist struggle and its relationship to the institutions of American life, especially the institution of text.

Malcolm: '71's theatricalization of the editorial process doesn't completely lack deflationary irony. This becomes clear when we look at the very different theatrical functions of the two characters. The editor is literally behind the scenes, an off-stage voice, a disembodied power able to indemnify partially her corporeal identity in the anonymity of the editorial process. Her lack of visibility makes her offer all the more seductive, her power all the more elusive. Editorial power is a veiled power in this play, unable to be seen, but nonetheless able to impact the process of textual production, circulation, and reception.

However, though Whitegirl grants a sexual charge to this drama of textuality, she lacks the on-stage corporeality of Blackman who enjoys (at least theoretically) sympathetic identification with the Black audience. Her "sexual/textual wiles" are partly denied her. Blackman's iconic, staged machismo exemplifies a distinct kind of communication between artist and audience that evades the merely textual. Staged for the Black activist/scholar, the play implies that texts must be embodied, infused with masculine power. Lacking such embodied, community-oriented presence, Blackness will be stranded in the disembodying, domesticating, white-controlled economies of textual production, circulation, and reception.

When we read this play as intended for performance, it implies that Blackness only exists while on view, when it enjoys the theatrical presence...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-332X
Print ISSN
0192-2882
Pages
pp. 411-428
Launched on MUSE
2001-10-01
Open Access
No
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