Baraka, Amiri (Drama Criticism)
Amiri Baraka 1934-
(Born Everett LeRoy Jones; has also written as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amiri Baraka.) American poet, dramatist, short story writer, novelist, essayist, critic, and editor. See also Amiri Baraka Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 14.
A seminal figure in the development of contemporary black literature, Baraka is a controversial writer. According to some scholars, he succeeds both W. E. B. Du Bois and Richard Wright as one of the most prolific and persistent critics of twentieth-century America. His works, which cover a wide variety of literary genres, often concern such political issues as the oppression of blacks in white society and the oppression of the poor in a capitalist society. He received worldwide acclaim for his first professional production, "Dutchman," in 1964, and his subsequent work for the theater has provoked both praise and controversy. Various movements and philosophies have shaped Baraka throughout his life, from the Beat movement of the late 1950s to Marxist-Leninist thought which he has embraced most recently. The only constant in his life is change, making a study of his writing both a complex and challenging endeavor.
Born Everett LeRoy Jones in New Jersey in 1934, Baraka excelled in his studies, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen. He enrolled in Howard University in 1952 and just before beginning his first year, started spelling his name LeRoi. At Howard, Baraka studied with such famous black scholars as E. Franklin Frazier, Nathan A. Scott, Jr., and Sterling A. Brown who is regarded as the patriarch of African-American literary critics. Despite these exceptional teachers, Baraka found Howard University stifling and flunked out in 1954. He then joined the United States Air Force. In 1957, after being dishonorably discharged, he moved to New York's Greenwich Village and became part of the Beat movement. That same year he married Hettie Roberta Cohen and together they founded Yūgen, a magazine forum for Beat poetry. During the next few years, he also established himself as a music critic, writing about jazz for downbeat, Metronome, and the Jazz Review. Baraka first received critical acclaim as a poet, for his collection Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note…, which was published in 1961.
In 1960, he was invited to Cuba by the New York chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and the visit changed the young writer's life. Baraka came to understand that politics had a place in art and he made it his life's work to incorporate his political, social, and spiritual beliefs into his writing. He would no longer be content with art for art's sake, but would use poetry and drama to teach the people, opening their eyes to reality as Baraka saw it. Following the murder of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka divorced his white wife and move to Harlem. He dissociated from the white race and dedicated himself to creating works that were inspired by and spoke to the African-American community. This same year, he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem. He married Sylvia Robinson, a black woman, in 1966. Around this time, Baraka's hatred of whites peaked. When a white woman asked him what whites could do to help blacks, he retorted, "You can help by dying. You are a cancer." In 1968, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka, meaning "blessed spiritual leader."
In 1974, in another radical shift, Baraka dropped the spiritual title of Imamu and declared himself an adherent of Marxist-Leninist thought. Rejecting Black Nationalism as racist in its implications, he now advocated socialism as a viable solution to the problems in America. He also repudiated his past anti-Semitic and anti-white statements. He concluded: "Nationalism, so-called, when it says 'all non-blacks are our enemies,' is sickness or criminality, in fact a form of fascism." In the fall of 1979, he joined the Africana Studies Department at State University of New York at Stony Brook as a teacher of creative writing. His autobiography was published in 1984 and Money: A Jazz Opera (1982) was one his latest dramas produced.
"Dutchman" is widely considered Baraka's masterpiece in the drama genre. The play received an Obie Award for best Off-Broadway play and propelled the playwright into the public eye. "Dutchman" centers around an interracial encounter between Lula, an attractive, flirtatious white woman, and Clay, a young, quiet, well-dressed black intellectual. The seemingly random meeting on a New York subway ends with Lula murdering Clay. "Dutchman" is considered by many critics to be Baraka's first successful integration of the themes and motifs of earlier, less-successful works, merging mythical allusions, surrealistic techniques, and social statement. Another of Baraka's well-known plays, "The Toilet," is set in the bathroom of an urban high school and concerns a white homosexual boy who gets beaten up by a gang of black boys for sending a love letter to the leader of the black gang. The play is exemplary of several recurring themes in Baraka's work: the drama of the sensitive, isolated individual pitted against the social code of his community; marginalized individuals' self-hatred as perpetuated by society; and the failure of love, or of the ability to love in our society. During Baraka's period of Black Nationalism, he produced a series of works with increasingly violent overtones which called for blacks to unite and establish their own nation. Experimenting with ritual forms in his dramas, he wrote Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant, a vivid recreation of the passage of slaves to America that relies heavily on powerful images and music to help convey its meaning. His drama since 1974 reflects Baraka's latest political commitments to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought and Communism. S-l and The Motion of History are reminiscent of the agit-prop dramas of the 1930s, particularly in their appeals to working-class solidarity and in their suggestion that working class revolution is society's only hope.
Critics have praised "Dutchman" for its "power," "freshness," and "deadly wit." Others were outraged by its vulgar language, its perpetuation of interracial hostility, and its portrayal of whites. "The Toilet" also met with mixed reviews, described by one critic as an "obscene, scatological, bloody confrontation of the races." Many scholars, including William J. Harris, have observed that critical assessment of Baraka's work has fallen into two general camps. Harris remarked: "The white response… has been either silence or anger—and, in a few cases, sadness… One general complaint is that Baraka has forsaken art for politics… The reaction to Baraka in most of the black world has been very different from that in the white. In the black world Baraka is a famous artist…" Whatever the reaction to Baraka, no one is left unaffected by his works. People bristle at his depictions of "white America," critics assert, because he mirrors the ugly facets of American society.
A Good Girl Is Hard to Find 1958
"Dante" 1961; also produced as "The Eighth Ditch" 1964
"The Baptism" 1964
"The Slave" 1964
"The Toilet" 1964
"Experimental Death Unit #1" 1965
A Black Mass 1966
"The Death of Malcolm X" 1966
"Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself: A One-Act Play: A
Message of Self-Defense to Black Men" 1967
"Great Goodness of Life (A Coon Show)" 1967
"Madheart: A Morality Play" 1967
"Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant" 1967
"Home on the Range" 1968
Four Black Revolutionary Plays: All Praises to the Black man 1969
"Resurrection in Life" 1969
Junkies Are Full of Shhh… 1970
Columbia The Gem of The Ocean 1973
A Recent Killing 1973
The New Ark's A-Moverin 1974
The Sidnee Poet Heroical or If in Danger of Suit, The Kid Poet Heroical 1975
The Motion of History 1977
The Motion of History and...
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The Revolutionary Theatre (1965)
SOURCE: "The Revolutionary Theatre," in Home: Social Essays, William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1966, pp. 210-15.
[In the following essay, a reprint of the original which appeared in Liberator in 1965, Baraka outlines the goals and responsibilities of Black Revolutionary Theatre.]
The Revolutionary Theatre should force change; it should be change. (All their faces turned into the lights and you work on them black nigger magic, and cleanse them at having seen the ugliness. And if the beautiful see themselves, they will love themselves.) We are preaching virtue again, but by that to mean NOW, toward what seems the most constructive use of the world.
The Revolutionary Theatre must EXPOSE! Show up the insides of these humans, look into black skulls. White men will cower before this theatre because it hates them. Because they themselves have been trained to hate. The Revolutionary Theatre must hate them for hating. For presuming with their technology to deny the supremacy of the Spirit. They will all die because of this.
The Revolutionary Theatre must teach them their deaths. It must crack their faces open to the mad cries of the poor. It must teach them about silence and the truths lodged there. It must kill any God anyone names except Common Sense. The Revolutionary Theatre should flush the fags and murders out of Lincoln's face.
It should stagger through our universe correcting, insulting, preaching, spitting craziness—but a craziness taught to us in our most rational moments. People must be taught to trust true scientists (knowers, diggers, oddballs) and that the holiness of life is the constant possibility of widening the consciousness. And they must be incited to strike back against any agency that attempts to prevent this widening.
The Revolutionary Theatre must Accuse and Attack anything that can be accused and attacked. It must Accuse and Attack because it is a theatre of Victims. It looks at the sky with the victims' eyes, and moves the victims to look at the strength in their minds and their bodies.
Clay, in "Dutchman," Ray in "The Toilet," Walker in "The Slave," are all victims. In the Western sense they could be heroes. But the Revolutionary Theatre, even if it is Western, must be anti-Western. It must show horrible coming attractions of The Crumbling of the West. Even as Artaud designed The Conquest of Mexico, so we must design The Conquest of White Eye, and show the missionaries and wiggly Liberals dying under blasts of concrete. For sound effects, wild screams of joy, from all the peoples of the world.
The Revolutionary Theatre must take dreams and give them a reality. It must isolate the ritual and historical cycles of reality. But it must be food for all those who need food, and daring propaganda for the beauty of the Human Mind. It is a political theatre, a weapon to help in the slaughter of these dim-witted fatbellied white guys who somehow believe that the rest of the world is here for them to slobber on.
This should be a theatre of World Spirit. Where the spirit can be shown to be the most competent force in the world. Force. Spirit. Feeling. The language will be anybody's, but tightened by the poet's backbone. And even the language must show what the facts are in this consciousness epic, what's happening. We will talk about the world, and the preciseness with which we are able to summon the world will be our art. Art is method. And art, "like any ashtray or senator," remains in the world. Wittgenstein said ethics and aesthetics are one. I believe this. So the Broadway theatre is a theatre of reaction whose ethics, like its aesthetics, reflect the spiritual values of this unholy society, which sends young crackers all over the world blowing off colored people's heads. (In some of these flippy Southern towns they even shoot up the immigrants' Favorite Son, be it Michael Schwerner or JFKennedy.)
The Revolutionary Theatre is shaped by the world, and moves to reshape the world, using as its force the natural force and perpetual vibrations of the mind in the world. We are history and desire, what we are, and what any experience can make us.
It is a social theatre, but all theatre is social theatre. But we will change the drawing rooms into places where real things can be said about a real world, or into smoky rooms where the destruction of Washington can be plotted. The Revolutionary Theatre must function like an incendiary pencil planted in Curtis Lemay's cap. So that when the final curtain goes down brains are splattered over the seats and the floor, and bleeding nuns must wire SOS's to Belgians with gold teeth.
Our theatre will show victims so that their brothers in the audience will be better able to understand that they are the brothers of victims, and that they themselves are victims if they are blood brothers. And what we show must cause the blood to rush, so that pre-revolutionary temperaments will be bathed in this blood, and it will cause their deepest souls to move, and they will find themselves tensed and clenched, even ready to die, at what the soul has been taught. We will scream and cry, murder, run through the streets in agony, if it means some soul will be moved, moved to actual life understanding of what the world is, and what it ought to be. We are preaching virtue and feeling, and a natural sense of the self in the world. All men live in the world, and the world ought to be a place for them to live.
What is called the imagination (from image, magi, magic, magician, etc.) is a practical vector from the soul. It stores all data, and can be called on to solve all our "problems." The imagination is the projection of ourselves past our sense of ourselves as "things." Imagination (Image) is all possibility, because from the image, the initial circumscribed energy, any use (idea) is possible. And so begins that image's use in the world. Possibility is what moves us.
The popular white man's theatre like the popular white man's novel shows tired white lives, and the problems of eating white sugar, or else it herds bigcaboosed blondes onto huge stages in rhinestones and makes believe they are dancing or singing, WHITE BUSINESSMEN OF THE WORLD, DO YOU WANT TO SEE PEOPLE REALLY DANCING AND SINGING??? ALL OF YOU GO UP TO HARLEM AND GET YOURSELF KILLED. THERE WILL BE DANCING AND SINGING, THEN, FOR REAL!!(In "The Slave", Walker Vessels, the black revolutionary, wears an armband, which is the insignia of the attacking army—a big red-lipped minstrel, grinning like crazy.)
The liberal white man's objection to the theatre of the revolution (if he is "hip" enough) will be on aesthetic grounds. Most white Western artists do not need to be "political," since usually, whether they know it or not, they are in complete sympathy with the most repressive social forces in the world today. There are more junior birdmen fascists running around the West today disguised as Artists than there are disguised as fascists. (But then, that word, Fascist, and with it, Fascism, has been made obsolete by the words America, and Americanism.) The American Artist usually turns out to be just a super-Bourgeois, because, finally, all he has to show for his sojourn through the world is "better taste" than the Bourgeois—many times not even that.
Americans will hate the Revolutionary Theatre because it will be out to destroy them and whatever they believe is real. American cops will try to close the theatres where such nakedness of the human spirit is paraded. American producers will say the revolutionary plays are filth, usually because they will treat human life as if it were actually happening. American directors will say that the white guys in the plays are too abstract and cowardly ("don't get me wrong… I mean aesthetically…") and they will be right.
The force we want is of twenty million spooks storming America with furious cries and unstoppable weapons. We want actual explosions and actual brutality: AN EPIC IS CRUMBLING and we must give it the space and hugeness of its actual demise. The Revolutionary Theatre, which is now peopled with victims, will soon begin to be peopled with new kinds of heroes—not the weak Hamlets debating whether or not they are ready to die for what's on their minds, but men and women (and minds) digging out from under a thousand years of "high art" and weak-faced dalliance. We must make an art that will function so as to call down the actual wrath of world spirit. We are witch doctors and assassins, but we will open a place for the true scientists to expand our consciousness. This is a theatre of assault. The play that will split the heavens for us will be called THE DESTRUCTION OF AMERICA. The heroes will be Crazy Horse, Denmark Vesey, Patrice Lumumba, and not history, not memory, not sad sentimental groping for a warmth in our despair; these will be new men, new heroes, and their enemies most of you who are reading this.
On Black Theater (1978)
SOURCE: "On Black Theater," in Theater, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 59-61.
[In the essay, below Baraka discusses the commercialization of American theatre and the role of the Black theatre as an alternative to traditional American theatre.]
At the end of 1975, beginning of 1976, I wrote two plays. The shorter one is called S-1, and the other which is called The Motion of History is about four hours long. I'm not writing plays regularly—perhaps that's why they come out so long. I'm now writing a play called The Factory that I hope to have produced soon. We have a workshop called "The Yenan Theater Workshop" that meets in New York. We're getting ready to do a poetry reading of revolutionary poetry from around the world, and then we're going to orchestrate it with music. We're going to put it together so we can do it in Soho, in a little theater that seats about eighty people.
I talked to Woody King [a theater producer] last night about directing Langston Hughes' Scottsboro Limited, which is a play that's sort of been covered-over. Very few people know about it. It was printed in 1932 in a pamphlet called Scottsboro Limited. Langston during the thirties was very strong, an incredibly strong, incredibly beautiful writer. I'm interested in bringing that thirties work into people's minds. It's much closer to what I want to do—being a Marxist—than the stuff that he did before and after. In the thirties he was very strong, very clear, fearless, and that's what I want to raise up.
Reading that verse play of Langston's (Scottsboro Limited) makes me realize how effective poetic drama can be. I used to write drama consciously as poetry—when I started writing drama, I tried to write poetry. And then later on I just tried to write dialogue. Hughes used a rhyme scheme, but the context of it makes it move. It's the kind of rhyme heard on the street—it's like playing the dozen, it's a very close kind of rhyme scheme. This is the time to bring that back. The Depression that's here is not going to let up, it's going to get worse. Beyond that real deep Depression there's a war, another war.
Everything in this country is in the main controlled by a very few people, mostly millionaries and the bourgeois capitalists. And as you become less and less clearly useable in their terms—theater as a commodity—you have less and less use for them, and they make less and less of you. That's something that I had to understand; I knew it theoretically, but having to understand it in a real life practical way is another thing. The only way you can deal with it is the way I tried to deal with it when I was very young, which is to do it yourself. Get it on, get it up, publish it, whatever. If you're interested in making a statement, you have to make it independent of any kind of… angel. You have to do it outside of the commercial things…
There's a whole tradition of American writing that's generally obscured by the academics, and by those people who come into urban centers thinking they're writers, because a lot of them have been shaped by the academic conception of what constitutes art and writing. For the most part that's a right-wing conception. When we go to school we learn from anthologies that are tilted to the right. We learn about Ezra Pound, who was a Fascist. We learn about T.S. Eliot, who was a Royalist. But in terms of the whole other stream of writing—they always hold up Henry James over Melville, for instance. They say that Mark Twain, who was a democrat, is "awkward" and "cynical," see that Jack London is obscure. But to actually see that stream as a progressive stream of American writing, and then to align yourself consciously with it, gives you more strength.
I don't think there was any such thing as American drama until the early twentieth century. People like O'Neill and Howard and Rice initiated American drama. The time they initiated it is the same time they began to talk about Blacks realistically. I mean more realistically than say, minstrel caricature. American drama doesn't exist in any human dimension at all before that. It's not until they can begin to talk about Black people in any kind of way approximating humanity or reality that American theater exists. It doesn't exist just because of that—it's the fact that they've managed to disconnect themselves from European models sufficiently to create an American drama. An American drama has to deal with America, and you cannot deal with America without the question of the Afro-American, you cannot deal with America without the question of slavery, because the country's built on it.
Now if the slave master's culture does not develop a theater until 1918 or 1920, then Black theater will have to develop a little later. The Black theater movement of the sixties paralleled the Black liberation movement, as the arts generally parallel the development of society. The Black theater movement actually developed out of, and took its shape from, the development of the Black liberation movement. The people who were talking about Black art were essentially people effected by Malcolm X, people who wanted to make a distinction in art that Malcolm made in the whole question of political struggle—let's say the distinction between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins.
So the people who were talking about Black art were trying to make the same kind of distinction about what their art should be—a weapon of change, let's say, as opposed to the Civil Rights art of Ellison, Baldwin, Hansberry. And the problem was and is that there is no really revolutionary political organization in this country—I mean there is no political party in this country to guide or direct the struggle. In order for the people to win their struggle, they cannot just rise up spontaneously, because this country is not spontaneously governed. And ditto for the Black arts movement, because it was not characterized by any kind of scientific development either. It was mostly spontaneous, eclectic—a little Mao and a little Elijah Mohammed and a little Che Guevara, a little of this, mix them all up and you don't have anything, you've just got some phrase-mongering. So what happens? The movement rises and falls; with spontaneity it's always going to rise and fall, until we get a revolutionary party, a Marxist-Leninist political party that can be the focal point of the struggle for the people, to lay out the things we should be doing, where our emphasis should be put, to actually guide the people themselves in the struggle against this system.
Some Black theaters went the route of the antipoverty thing, accepting grants so they can exist as long as that exists. Others went the foundation route, you know, the Ford-Rockefeller thing: the New Lafayette, the Negro Ensemble Company. NEC is sort of the flagship of the grants. NEC was actually the Black folks that were left in the Village once the Black arts movement had cried out that we were all leaving the Village, once all the people who were the best known writers left downtown,...
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Overviews And General Studies
Lloyd W. Brown (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: "Drama," in Amiri Baraka, Twayne Publishers, 1980, pp. 135-65.
[In the following excerpt, Brown demonstrates Baraka's poignant use of dramatic form and his careful integration of plot, character, and setting. Brown also comments on Baraka 's manipulation of such traditional forms as the morality play to criticize conventional social structures, values, and beliefs.]
The Early Plays
"The Baptism," first produced in 1964, is a useful introduction to Baraka's drama because it includes features that dominate the earlier plays and others mat foreshadow subsequent developments...
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Edith Oliver (review date 4 April 1964)
SOURCE: "Over the Edge," in The New Yorker, Vol. XL, No. 7, April 4, 1964, pp. 78-9.
[In the following excerpt, Oliver praises the "deadly wit and passionate wild comedy " of "Dutchman, " but felt that the anger expressed by the black character, while justifiable, was ineffective.]
LeRoi Jones whose "Dutchman" is the final one-acter of "Three at the Cherry Lane," is an original and talented young dramatist. For about three-quarters of the way, his play has a kind of deadly wit and passionate wild comedy that are his alone, and...
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Howard Taubman (review date 17 December 1964)
SOURCE: "'Slave' and 'Toilet' by LeRoi Jones Open," in The New York Times, December 17, 1964, p.51.
[In the following excerpt, Taubman calls Jones an angry and gifted playwright.]
LeRoi Jones is one of the angriest writers to storm the theater—and one of the most gifted. On the evidence of his new one-acters, "The Slave" and "The Toilet," one wonders whether his rage is not at war with his instincts as an artist.
In both halves of the double bill, which opened last night at the St. Marks Playhouse, Mr....
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"Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant"
"SLAVE SHIP: A HISTORICAL PAGEANT"
Clive Barnes (review date 22 November 1969)
SOURCE: A review of "Slave Ship," in The New York Times, November 22, 1969, p. 22.
[In the review below, Barnes outlines the political message of "Slave Ship," and praises Baraka's provocative delivery of his black militant outlook.]
LeRoi Jones's new play, "Slave Ship," … raises for a white critic somber and awful problems. It is a strong, strange play that once seen will never be forgotten. But to regard it simply as a work of art and to sidestep nimbly its implications would be nothing but...
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Reilly, Charlie. Conversations with Amiri Baraka. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994, 271 p.
Collection of twenty-five interviews covering Baraka's life and career.
OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
Andrews, W. D. E. "The Marxist Theater of Amiri Baraka." Comparative Drama 18, No. 2 (Summer 1984): 137-61.
Concludes that Baraka's Marxist plays are his least effective dramas.
Benston, Kimberly W., ed. Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones): A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1978, 195 p.
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