- Amiri Baraka’s Participatory and Ceremonial Theatre:From Mimesis to Methexis
Several theatre critics and commentators have stressed that the Black Theatre Movement of the 1960s invested in new forms and techniques pertaining to scenery, costuming, sound effect, and lighting. The objective was to inject new patterns into theatrical practice. Amiri Baraka, one of the notable figures of the Black Aesthetic, castigated psychological drama for its concentration on existential questions. Baraka’s manifesto, “The Revolutionary Theatre,” served as a buttress for the bandwagon of the Black Arts Movement. Baraka declared that the “Revolutionary Theatre must take dreams and give them a reality.”1 Black theatre and art must depict and reflect as honest a portrayal of reality as possible. Similarly, Ed Bullins opted for a black-oriented realism, because black lifestyle, experience, and resistance required confrontation with the reality of oppression through showing anger and rage on stage. Bullins set a mirror before his African American spectators to display the vehemence and ruination that they were perpetrating against themselves within their own communities. In his treatise “Towards Our Theatre,” William Kgositsile repudiated European American theatre and criticized its dependence on theatrical illusion and complex onstage representation.2 Adhering to a theatre of poetics that combines image, symbol and rhythm, Kgositsile championed a theatre that was sensitive to didactic content and propagandistic import. Black theatre in the 1960s and 1970s also reappropriated the African American tradition of song, music, and dance and incorporated these elements as tools to reassert that tradition. John O’Neal, one of the leaders of the Black Theatre Movement, proclaimed that the new Black Theatre intended to develop “an active and critical rather than passive audience.”3 Clayton Riley, one of the major contributors to the [End Page 25] Black Aesthetic, proclaimed that the theatre should be “structured to take people away from basics, from fundamentals, into a special kind of chapel atmosphere for rituals.”4 Playwright Paul Carter Harrison introduced ritual in his quasireligious theatre. He described ritual as “the effective technique common to most theatrical exercises in the black world.”5 Harrison, intent on developing a ritualist theatre, eliminated actors and spectators from his drama. Instead, he included what he termed “activators and participators.”6 For him, participation called for the incorporation of the audience in the onstage enactment. Spectators, or participants in Harrison’s understanding, became full partakers in the performance. This new experimental technique transformed the audience member from a passive spectator to an active contributor to the action. The aim was to make the audience conscious of the centrality of community mobilization and joint action. Thus, participation as a physical act turned out to be a technical tool to provoke activism. “This movement is one from mimesis,” Kimberly Benston argues, “to methexis.”7 Methexis refers to the collective keeping and continuation of the action. It stands for a joint effort to uphold the action; it is veering away from the imitation of the action to a direct participation in it.
In this article, we shall explore a number of concepts that can be seen operating in Baraka’s plays, ranging from participation, methexis, communitas, to audience interaction and ceremony. The objective is twofold: 1) to show that participation arouses audience members’ capacity to act and mobilize, reacting directly to the action, and 2) to spell out how ritualization results in the ceremonial with its destructive and festive facets. The works of Victor Turner in cultural anthropology and Margaret B. Wilkerson and Kimberly Benston in theatre criticism touch upon the notion of participation in many respects, offering anthropological, as well as theatrical tenets that will illuminate this study of participatory theatre. This article pivots on the following questions: What is the nature of the theatrical enactment on Baraka’s stage? And what is the rationale for audience participation? The answer to these questions bolsters the current analysis, and structures this study of Baraka’s theatre.
The proclivity to invite the audience to contribute to performance is pervasive in Baraka’s nationalist and Marxist plays.8 It is significant to note that Baraka went through positional changes since his withdrawal from white bohemia. His transition from rebellious bohemianism to a materialist...