- The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre ed. by Harvey Young
This book serves as an innovative companion to African American Theater. It collates thirteen scholars in the field, each of whom provides, to quote the introduction, “an in-depth engagement with the history of African American Theatre” (13). The contributors are a mix of the best newly minted scholars, including Soyica Diggs Colbert and Douglas A. Jones, Jr., and established scholars such as Harry Elam and Sandra Richards. Together, the essays and their respective authors build a strong, if necessarily partial, vision of the field: one that begins with slavery on American shores and concludes with the unstable, but “fertile ground [that is supporting] the emergence of new plays and new debates around the notion of how, where, and what, as Suzan Lori-Parks says, Black theatre ‘IZ’” (276).
In the concise introduction, Harvey Young, the volume’s wonderful editor, explains, “The book opens with August Wilson’s address in 1996 to demonstrate that the work of building African American theatre remains both incomplete and controversial. These themes—an ongoing desire to build and create spaces to stage African American experiences, and the challenges that attended these efforts—recur throughout” (original italics, 2). Thus, ideas of construction and reconstruction serve as a through-line for the book. The individual chapters are organized chronologically by historical period such as the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Black Arts Movement, and the Age of Obama. Young’s prose is clear and his arguments persuasive if not necessarily innovative.
Attention to the construction of identity markers such as race, gender, sexuality, region, ethnicity, religion, and class do not appear in the index, but rather receive attention to varying degrees in the essays themselves (there are two essays on black women playwrights in different historical periods). One could, for example, take issue with the decision to include “mostly artists who worked to revise the stereotypes and negative images of blackness and to bring a more accurate and recognizable representation of African American experiences to the stage” (9). Such concepts that are wedded to ideas of experience and fidelity (not to mention reparation) might have been explicated with greater care, even though the editor suggests that, in addition to the chronological ordering, “exploring the book from the first page to the last . . . reveals a gradual shift from archive-based historical criticism to theoretically informed critical analysis” (13). DuBois figures prominently throughout the volume as do key playwrights such as the aforementioned August Wilson, as well as Lorraine Hansberry, Adrienne Kennedy, Alice Childress, and Amiri Baraka. The volume also contains a helpful, if highly abbreviated, chronology that begins in 1529 when the first African slaves arrived in North America and concludes with Audra McDonald’s winning of a Tony Award for Best Actress for [End Page 87] her performance in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 2012. So, too, the suggestions for further reading significantly help to round out the volume and give a sense of field. Such aids are presented without any belabored discussions of historiography and this kind of straightforward style actually appears in all the essays. This is another way of saying that the volume is well suited for undergraduate classroom use and, despite the range of themes covered and the varying areas mentioned, there is indeed an aesthetics (and also a politics) to the volume that can be characterized as solid, substantive, and sober.
Readers can learn much about selected milieu (although less so about specific plays) and a number of articles in the volume provide open-ended contexts that would be useful for teaching different eras. For example, Soyica Diggs Colbert has a sweeping essay on “Drama in the Harlem Renaissance,” Aimee Zygmonski focuses on the Black Arts Movement, and Douglas A. Jones discusses “Slavery and the Design of African American Theater.” Jones’s ground-breaking essay draws on Saidiya Hartman’s work to flesh out the paradoxes of slave performance, and Harry Elam’s superb piece, “Black Theater in...