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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 523-524
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Enactments of African-American Modernism
Performing Blackness: Enactments of African-American Modernism. By Kimberly W. Benston. London: Routledge, 2000; pp. 400. $85.00 cloth, $27.99 paper.
Seven years ago, in a Time magazine issue devoted to contemporary African-American culture, Henry Louis Gates declared the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s the shortest and least successful African-American literary renaissance. Gates's comments are unfortunate and ironic; the formation of Black Studies programs, changes in curricula, and the affirmative hiring of African-American faculty in humanities departments across the US during the late 1970s and 1980s were due, in significant part, to the militance of Black Arts artists, writers, performers, and critics and the conceptual power of the "Black Aesthetic."
Though Gates's The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (Oxford, 1988) and Houston A. Baker's Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (University of Chicago, 1984) show the influence of the Black Aesthetic, not since Stephen Henderson's Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References (William Morrow, 1973) has a critic openly admitted the theoretical and practical importance of the movement. Needless to say, it has been just as long since a book affirmed the importance of performance to the movement. In part this silence is due to Larry Neal's untimely death in 1980, a death that denied the Black Aesthetic a forceful voice in the upper echelons of academic discourse.
Fortunately, Neal's student, Kimberly W. Benston, affords an important opening for the burgeoning conversation about the Black Arts Movement (BAM) that has picked up in recent years, a conversation further energized by Kalamu Ya Salaam's forthcoming The Magic of Juju: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement (Third World Press). Most importantly, Benston's book anchors the conversation to performance. Though he pays careful [End Page 523] attention to texts such as drama, music, poetry, sermons, criticism, and autobiography, the focus is always on their performativity.
Do not be mistaken--this is a book about poetics. Thus, Benston tends to play down the anti-textual bias of the BAM. And he does not often consider the concrete political dimensions of the works he discusses. This is due in part to the fact that these dimensions are hard to measure unless we apply performance studies methods to, say, the BAM's situational exploitation of the text-context dynamic or, as a second example, the ways the Movement intervened in public discourse about race through site-specific performance agitation. But Benston never wanders far from these concerns and his choice of texts and his exploration of them are intriguing, insightful, and concrete as far as performance is concerned.
Eight chapters cover a range of concerns; all are anchored to the notion of "expressive agency" described by the author as the effort of the community to become a self-interpreting entity through the use of semiotic and practical modes that systematically dissolved the borders among cultural idioms (17). As a consequence, the aesthetic modes of the BAM "creatively emulated its philosophical guides--indeed, theory and practice have rarely been as sensitive to each other" as they were in the BAM (51). To support this assertion, Benston structures the chapters in pairs so that specific theoretical concerns can be considered within related but formally distinct aesthetic modes. For example, the chapters devoted to BAM theatrical theory map its presence in the dramatic texts of Ed Bullins and Ntozake Shange. The performance theory embodied in the work of jazz innovator John Coltrane is compared to the surrogational Coltrane poem genre. The idea of performativity in the poetry of Imamu Amiri Baraka is placed in relief against Adrienne Kennedy's plays. The intersection of vernacular and critical models is read across two genres, the modern chant-sermon and contemporary African-American autocritography.
Benston's agile exploration continually returns to the question of audience participation. The complexity of the movement from "mimesis to methexis" is demonstrated in the...