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  • How to Do Things with Stage Directions: Lessons from Contemporary African American Drama
  • Isaiah Matthew Wooden (bio)


At stake in this essay is a question that students frequently pose when discussing dramatic texts in the classroom or around the rehearsal table: namely, what should we do with the stage directions? Their previous experiences with examining and/or performing in plays, they explain, have yielded conflicting advice. Correspondingly, they seek a definitive answer about whether to give meticulous attention to the italicized, bolded, or bracketed information interspersed throughout a script—strictly adhering to any instructions therein—or perhaps to disregard that information altogether. While early on in my career as a professor and director I would attempt to provide a response to such queries that, although not conclusive, would nevertheless prove clarifying, I have found it both necessary and more productive to adopt a different, more nuanced strategy in recent years. Notably, instead of immediately endeavoring to address their questions about what to do with stage directions, I now encourage students to first spend time investigating what, in fact, stage directions do, and to contemplate the impact that the notes inserted in a script might have on how they read, envision, and/or enact a play. I then bid them to consider how, as interpreters of a text, they too might do things with stage directions, thereby opening space to make imaginative choices about ways to realize a play in performance or to render it vividly in their minds.

This essay explores the efficacy of this pedagogical approach, sharpening focus on how it at once empowers students to think rigorously and creatively about the various purposes stage directions serve, while also compelling them to interrogate the synergies and distinctions between a play’s form and its content, as well as between drama as a literary genre and theatre as a live and embodied art form. Synthesizing critical reflections and textual analyses, it specifically traces how I deploy and engage the dramaturgical innovations of African American playwrights Tarell Alvin McCraney and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins in my introductory theatre courses to demonstrate for students the important insights that pursuing their questions and curiosities about dramatic texts can supply. As Cornel West observes, African American artists have long “wrestled on a different terrain” (qtd. in Gates 5). For African American playwrights, this wrestling has often netted work that eschews theatrical conventions and defies audience expectations. The history of African American drama no doubt includes myriad texts that bear out this claim—from William Wells Brown’s The Escape; Or, a Leap for Freedom (1858), the first play published by an African American, to Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog (2001), the first play by an African American woman to garner the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, to both McCraney’s and Jacobs-Jenkins’s still-growing bodies of work.

What, in part, unites the aesthetically capacious category of African American drama is an enduring investment in introducing and demonstrating fresh possibilities for what Harry Elam Jr. and Douglas Jones Jr. call the “black dramaturgical imagination” (xxv). These investments have produced a wide range of theatrical texts that display formal and thematic inventiveness and ambition. Take as an example the 1966 one-page, one-act drama The Theme Is Blackness written by noted [End Page 217] African American playwright, theorist, and former minister of culture for the Black Panther Party for Self Defense Ed Bullins. Thin on dialogue and lean on plot, the play bids its audiences simply to sit in darkness for twenty minutes and to contemplate and experience the potency of its central character and theme: blackness. On the page, the chief action of the play is described and bound in parentheses; in other words, it is revealed as and through stage directions. Bullins shrewdly recasts and mobilizes stage direction conventions in the work to make “visceral and elusive, enveloping and intangible, material and conceptual” the blackness of blackness, to echo Jennifer DeVere Brody (681). While, as Jenkins-Jacobs’s Appropriate examples, not all the plays indexed in the category of African American drama are as explicitly interested in interrogating the meanings or complexities of blackness as Bullins’s one-act, they consistently...


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