- Black Feminism in Contemporary Drama
Lisa Anderson's Black Feminism in Contemporary Drama constructs a functional definition of a black feminist theatre aesthetic by cleverly synthesizing theories from pioneering black feminists and womanists, including Barbara Christian, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins, Barbara Smith, Valerie Smith, Deborah McDowell, and bell hooks. Anderson thus joins others who have worked to identify within American culture distinctive African American styles such as the black aesthetic, the black feminist aesthetic, the post-soul aesthetic, and the new black aesthetic, to name a few in an evolving history. Building upon this tradition to locate African Americans' intellectual and cultural contributions within American life, Anderson remarks on the "small number of black women who were, and are, involved in academic theatre and criticism," noting that "the majority of black women involved in theatre have been practitioners rather than scholars" (13). This slender yet impressive book is an important contribution to that endeavor.
The book begins by surveying the roots of a black feminist theatre aesthetic in plays written by late-nineteenth and early twentieth century playwrights anthologized by Kathy Perkins in Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays before 1950 (1990). While Anderson grounds her study within a rich African American theatre tradition, she quickly moves on to her primary goal: establishing a contemporary black feminist theatre aesthetic for the twenty-first century that focuses on "the elements of the text or performance that invoke a particular history, politics, and philosophy of a 'community'" (16). She most clearly articulates the elements of this aesthetic only at the end of the book, where she summarizes them for readers interested in identifying a black feminist aesthetic beyond the examples she provides. These elements include: the use of black people's history; the creation of imagined histories to fill in historical gaps; the direct confrontation of racist/sexist images of blacks; the confrontation of black women's abuse; the demonstration of the effects of institutional racism; an emphasis on the importance of reproductive freedom; the incorporation of oral culture; and an examination of the challenges facing young women (116).
Between the first and last chapters, Anderson examines the works of seven contemporary black women playwrights: Pearl Cleage, Breena Clarke, Glenda Dickerson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Kia Corthron, Shirlene Holmes, and Sharon Bridgforth. In chapter 2, "Pearl Cleage's Black Feminism," Anderson applauds Cleage for producing the most recognizably feminist plays: "Each of her plays combines struggles against racism and sexism; she uses specific historical moments to engage her audience in a moment in black history" (17). Anderson uses this chapter to construct from Cleage's plays Flyin' West, Bourbon at the Border, Blues for an Alabama Sky, and Late Bus to Mecca a framework by which to evaluate the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in other plays examined in her book. Chapter 3, "We [End Page 139] Are the Daughters of Aunt Jemima: Remembering Black Women's History," focuses specifically on a single play, Re/Membering Aunt Jemima: A Menstrual Show by Breena Clarke and Glenda Dickerson, to elucidate how it dismantles negative stereotypes of black women by using the master's tool of minstrelsy. Aunt Jemima's daughters—tragic mulattos, sapphires, revolutionaries, rape and circumcision survivors—assist in transforming Aunt Jemima "from the shadows of a reviled stereotype, a creation of white America, [into someone] beautiful, strong, and noble" (54).
Suzan-Lori Parks, the first black woman playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize and unquestionably one of today's most influential American playwrights, is the subject of chapter 4, "Battling Images: Suzan-Lori Parks and Black Iconicity." The chapter explores how Parks employs a black feminist aesthetic to address images and assumptions about African Americans. Venus, about Sara Saartjie Baartman and the sexual exploitation of black women's bodies, In the Blood, a vivid depiction of how social services and institutions often fail black women, and Death of the Last Black Man, a call for unity within the black community, all highlight Parks's commitment to a black feminist and womanist perspective...