Amiri Baraka

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Amiri Baraka Drama Analysis

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Working with forms ranging from the morality play to avant-garde expressionism, Amiri Baraka throughout his career sought to create dramatic rituals expressing the intensity of the physical and psychological violence that dominates his vision of American culture. From his early plays on “universal” alienation through his Black Nationalist celebrations to his multimedia proletarian pageants, Baraka has focused on a variety of sacrificial victims as his central dramatic presences. Some of these victims remain passive scapegoats who allow a corrupt and vicious system to dictate their fate. Others assume the role of heroic martyr in the cause of community consciousness. Yet a third type of victim is the doomed oppressor whose death marks the transformation of the martyr’s consciousness into a ritual action designed to free the community from continuing passive victimization.

The dominant type in Baraka’s early plays, the passive scapegoats unaware of their participation in ritual actions, condemn themselves and their communities to blind repetition of destructive patterns. Their apparent mastery of the forms of European American cultural literacy simply obscures the fact of their ignorance of the underlying reality of oppression. Responding to this ironic situation, Baraka’s Black Nationalist plays emphasize the new forms of consciousness, their roots in Africa rather than Europe, needed to free the African American community from the historical and psychological forces that enforce such blind repetition. Inverting the traditional moral symbolism of European American culture, Baraka creates rituals that substitute symbolically white scapegoats for the symbolically black victims of his earlier works. These rituals frequently reject the image of salvation through self-sacrifice (seen as a technique for the pacification of the black masses), insisting instead that only an active struggle can break the cycle of oppression.

Because the rituals of Baraka’s Black Nationalist plays frequently culminate in violence directed against whites, or symbolically white members of the black bourgeois, or aspects of the individual black psyche, numerous critics have attacked him for perpetuating the violence and racism he ostensibly criticizes. These critics frequently condemn him for oversimplifying reality, citing his movement from psychologically complex ironic forms to much more explicit allegorical modes in his later drama; the most insistent simply dismiss his post-Dutchman plays as strident propaganda, lacking all aesthetic and moral merit. Basing their critiques firmly on European American aesthetic assumptions, such critics in fact overlook the central importance of Baraka’s changing sense of his audience. Repudiating the largely white avant-garde audience that applauded his early work, Baraka turned almost exclusively to an African American audience more aware of the storefront preacher and popular music groups such as the Temptations than of August Strindberg and Edward Albee. In adopting a style of performance in accord with this cultural perception, Baraka assumed a didactic voice intended to focus attention on immediate issues of survival and community or class defense.

The Baptism

First produced in leading New York theaters such as St. Mark’s Playhouse (The Slave and The Toilet), the Cherry Lane Theatre (Dutchman), and the Writers’ Stage Theatre (The Baptism), Baraka’s early plays clearly reflect both his developing concern with issues of survival and his fascination with European American avant-garde traditions. The Baptism , in particular, draws on the conventions of expressionist theater to comment on the absurdity of contemporary American ideas of salvation, which in fact simply mask a larger scheme of victimization. Identified only as symbolic types, Baraka’s characters speak a surreal mixture of street language and theological argot. While the slang references link them to the social reality familiar to the audience, their actions are dictated by the sudden shifts and thematic ambiguities...

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characteristic of works such as Strindberg’sEtt drömspel (pb. 1902; A Dream Play, 1912) and the “Circe” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).

The play’s central character, named simply “the Boy,” resembles a traditional Christ figure struggling to come to terms with his vocation. Baraka treats his protagonist with a mixture of irony and empathy, focusing on the ambiguous roles of the spirit and the flesh in relation to salvation. Pressured by the Minister to deny his body and by the cynical Homosexual to immerse himself in the profane as a path to the truly sacred, the Boy vacillates. At times he claims divine status; at times he insists, “I am only flesh.” The chorus of Women, at once holy virgins and temple prostitutes, reinforces his confusion. Shortly after identifying him as “the Son of God,” they refer to him as the “Chief Religious jelly roll of the universe.” Given these irreconcilable roles, which he is expected to fulfill, the Boy’s destiny as scapegoat and martyr seems inevitable; the dramatic tension revolves around the question of who will victimize him and why. Baraka uses a sequence of conflicting views of the Boy’s role, each of which momentarily dominates his self-image, to heighten this tension.

Responding to the Homosexual’s insistence that “the devil is a part of creation like an ash tray or senator,” the Boy first confesses his past sins and demands baptism. When the Women respond by elevating him to the status of “Son of God/ Son of Man,” he explicitly rejects all claim to spiritual purity. The ambiguous masquerade culminates in an attack on the Boy, who is accused of using his spiritual status to seduce women who “wanted to be virgins of the Lord.” Supported only by the Homosexual, the Boy defends himself against the Women and the Minister, who clamor for his sacrifice, ostensibly as punishment for his sins. Insisting that “there will be no second crucifixion,” the Boy slays his antagonists with a phallic sword, which he interprets as the embodiment of spiritual glory. For a brief moment, the figures of Christ as scapegoat and Christ as avenger seem reconciled in a baptism of fire.

Baraka undercuts this moment of equilibrium almost immediately. Having escaped martyrdom at the hands of the mob (ironically, itself victimized), the Boy confronts the Messenger, who wears a motorcycle jacket embellished with a gold crown and the words “The Man.” In Baraka’s dream allegory, the Man can represent the Roman/American legal system or be a symbol for God the Father, both powers that severely limit the Boy’s control over events. The Boy’s first reaction to the Messenger is to reclaim his superior spiritual status, insisting that he has “brought love to many people” and calling on his “Father” for compassion. Rejecting these pleas, the Messenger indicates that “the Man’s destroying the whole works tonight.” The Boy responds defiantly: “Neither God nor man shall force me to leave. I was sent here to save man and I’ll not leave until I do.” The allegory suggests several different levels of interpretation: social, psychological, and symbolic. The Boy rejects his responsibility to concrete individuals (the mob he kills, the Man) in order to save an abstract entity (the mob as an ideal man). Ultimately, he claims his right to the martyr’s death, which he killed the mob in order to avoid, by repudiating the martyr’s submission to a higher power. Losing patience with the Boy’s rhetoric, the Messenger responds not by killing him but by knocking him out and dragging him offstage. His attitude of boredom effectively deflates the allegorical seriousness of the Boy’s defiance, a deflation reinforced by the Homosexual’s concluding comment that the scene resembles “some really uninteresting kind of orgy.”

The Baptism’s treatment of the interlocking themes of sacrifice, ritual, and victimization emphasizes their inherent ambiguity and suggests the impossibility of moral action in a culture that confuses God with the leader of a motorcycle gang. The encompassing irony of the Christ figure sacrificing his congregation to ensure universal destruction recalls T. S. Eliot’s treatment of myth in The Waste Land (1922) and his essay “Ulysses: Myth and Order.” Eliot’s use of classical allusions and mythic analogies to underscore the triviality of modern life clearly anticipates Baraka’s ironic vision of Christian ritual. Baraka’s baptism initiates the Boy into absurdity rather than responsibility. If any sins have been washed away, they are resurrected immediately in pointless ritual violence and immature rhetoric. Although he does not develop the theme explicitly in The Baptism, Baraka suggests that there is an underlying philosophical corruption in European American culture, in this case derived from Christianity’s tendency to divorce flesh from spirit. Increasingly, this philosophical corruption takes the center of Baraka’s dramatic presentation of Western civilization.


Widely recognized as Baraka’s greatest work in any genre, Dutchman combines the irony of his avant-garde period with the emotional power and social insight of his later work. Clay, a young black man with a highly developed sense of self, occupies a central position in the play analogous to that of the Boy in The Baptism. The central dramatic action of the play involves Clay’s confrontation with a young white woman, Lula, who may in fact be seen as an aspect of Clay’s own self-awareness. In both thematic emphasis and dramatic structure, Dutchman parallels Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story (pr., pb. 1959). Both plays focus on a clash between characters from divergent social and philosophical backgrounds, both comment on the internal divisions of individuals in American society, and both culminate in acts of violence that are at once realistic and symbolic. What sets Dutchman apart, however, is its intricate exploration of the psychology that leads Clay to a symbolic rebellion that ironically guarantees his real victimization. Clay thinks he exists as an autonomous individual struggling for existential awareness. Baraka implies, however, that this European American conception of self simply enforces Clay’s preordained role as ritual scapegoat. As the Everyman figure his name suggests, Clay represents all individuals trapped by self-deception and social pressure. As a black man in a racist culture, he shares the more specific problem of those whose self-consciousness has been determined by white definitions.

The stage directions for Dutchman emphasize the link between Clay’s situation and the decline of European American culture, describing the subway car where the action transpires as “the flying underbelly of the city . . . heaped in modern myth.” Lula enters eating an apple, evoking the myth of the Fall. Together, these allusions contribute a literary dimension to the foreboding atmosphere surrounding the extended conversation that leads to Clay’s sacrifice at the hands of Lula and the subway riders, mostly white but some black. Throughout, Lula maintains clear awareness of her symbolic and political intentions, while Clay remains effectively blind. Lula’s role demands simply that she maintain the interest of the black man until it is convenient to kill him. Meanwhile, Clay believes he can somehow occupy a position of detachment or spiritual superiority. Changing approach frequently, Lula plays the roles of temptress, intellectual, psychologist, and racist. Clay responds variously to these gambits, sometimes with amusement, ultimately with anger and contempt. Consistently, however, he fails to recognize the genocidal reality underlying Lula’s masquerade, unwittingly assuming his preordained role in the controlling ritual of black destruction. Much like the legendary ghost ship for which it was named, the Dutchman, Baraka implies, will continue to sail so long as blacks allow the white world to control the premises of the racial debate.

This rigged debate reflects Baraka’s reassessment of his universalist beliefs and his movement toward Black Nationalism. Clay resembles the early LeRoi Jones in many ways: Both are articulate natives of New Jersey with aspirations to avant-garde artistic success. Dutchman implies that both are subject to fantasies about the amount of meaningful success possible for them in the realm of European American culture. Lula alternately reduces Clay to a “well-known type” and condemns him for rejecting his roots and embracing “a tradition you ought to feel oppressed by.” During the first act, Clay stays “cool” until Lula sarcastically declares him the “Black Baudelaire” and follows with the repeated phrase “My Christ. My Christ.” Suddenly shifting emphasis, she immediately denies his Christ-like stature and insists, “You’re a murderer,” compressing the two major attributes of the Boy in The Baptism, this time with a specifically social resonance. The sudden shift disrupts Clay’s balance. Ironically restating and simplifying the thesis of Ralph Ellison’s universalist novel Invisible Man (1922), Lula concludes the opening act with an ironic resolution to “pretend the people cannot see you . . . that you are free of your own history. And I am free of my history.” The rapid movement from Clay as Christ and murderer—standard black roles in the fantasy life of white America—to the pretense of his freedom underscores the inevitability of his victimization, an inevitability clearly dictated by the historical forces controlling Lula, forces that Clay steadfastly refuses to recognize.

Clay’s lack of awareness blinds him to the fact that the subway car, occupied only by himself and Lula during act 1, fills up with people during act 2. Continuing to manipulate Clay through rapid shifts of focus, Lula diverts his attention from the context, first by fantasizing a sexual affair with him and then by ridiculing him as an “escaped nigger” with absurd pretensions to cultural whiteness. Abandoning his cool perspective for the first time, Clay angrily takes “control” of the conversation. His powerful soliloquy establishes his superior understanding of his interaction with Lula, but only in the theoretical terms of European American academic discourse. Admitting his hatred for whites, Clay claims a deep affinity with the explosive anger lying beneath the humorous surface of the work of the great black musicians Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker. Ridiculing Lula’s interpretation of his psychological makeup, Clay warns her that whites should beware of preaching “ rationalism” to blacks, since the best cure for the black neurosis would be the random murder of whites. After this demonstration of his superior, and highly rational, awareness, Clay turns to go. He dismisses Lula with contempt, saying, “we won’t be acting out that little pageant you outlined before.” Immediately thereafter, Lula kills him. The murder is in fact the final act of the real pageant, the ritual of black sacrifice. Seen from Lula’s perspective, the entire conversation amounts to an extended assault on Clay’s awareness of the basic necessities of survival. Seen from Baraka’s viewpoint, the heightened racial awareness of Clay’s final speech is simply an illusion, worthless if divorced from action. Clay’s unwilling participation in the pageant of white mythology reveals the futility of all attempts to respond to white culture on its own terms. Regarded in this light, Baraka’s subsequent movement away from the theoretical avant-garde and from European American modes of psychological analysis seems inevitable.

Black Nationalist Plays

Baraka’s Black Nationalist plays, many of them written for community theater groups such as Spirit House Movers and the San Francisco State College Black Arts Alliance, occasionally employ specific avant-garde techniques. His earlier works take the techniques “seriously,” but even his most experimental nationalist plays, such as Experimental Death Unit #1, clearly attempt to subvert the values implied by the European American aesthetic. Determined to communicate with his community through its own idiom, Baraka sought new forms in the African American aesthetic embodied in dance and music, African chants, experimental jazz, rhythm and blues, and reggae. Particularly when performed in predominantly black contexts, his work in this idiom creates an emotional intensity difficult to describe in standard academic terms, an atmosphere often extremely uncomfortable for white viewers. Even while embracing and exploiting the aesthetic potential of the idiom, however, Baraka attempts to purify and transform it. Repudiating his earlier vision of universal alienation and victimization, Baraka no longer sympathizes with, or even tolerates, passive scapegoats such as Clay and the Boy. He does not, however, remove the victim from the center of his drama. Rather, he emphasizes two new types of victims in his nationalist rituals: the clearly heroic African American martyr in Great Goodness of Life (A Coon Show) and The Death of Malcolm X, and the whitewashed black and overthrown white oppressor in Madheart and Slave Ship, portrayed as deserving their death.


Madheart and Great Goodness of Life (A Coon Show) employ different constellations of these figures to criticize the failure of the black community to purge its consciousness of European American values. Like A Black Mass, Madheart borrows the image of the “white devil” from thetheology of the Nation of Islam (sometimes referred to inaccurately as the “Black Muslims”) to account for the fallen condition of black awareness. Beginning with a confrontation between allegorical characters identified as Black Man and Devil Lady, Madheart focuses on the Devil Lady’s influence over the Black Man’s Mother and Sister, whose red and blonde wigs indicate the extent of their corruption. Aided by the supportive Black Woman, Black Man rejects and sacrifices the Devil Lady, symbolically repudiating white culture. Mother and Sister, however, refuse to participate in the ritual of purification. Sister loses consciousness, believing that the death of the Devil Lady is also her own death. Lamenting over her daughter, Mother calls on white “saints” such as Tony Bennett, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Batman for deliverance. Clinging to their belief in whiteness, Mother and a revived Sister descend to the level of slobbering animals. Motivated by love rather than hatred, Black Man turns a firehose on them as the play ends. His concluding speech echoes Baraka’s basic attitude toward his suffering community: “This stuff can’t go on. They’ll die or help us, be black or white and dead. I’ll save them or kill them.” To avoid being sacrificed like Clay, Baraka implies, the African American community must repudiate its internal whiteness. The elimination of the white “devil,” far from being an end in itself, is simply a preliminary step toward the purification of the black self-image.

Great Goodness of Life (A Coon Show)

Extending this critique of the internalization of white corruption, Great Goodness of Life (A Coon Show), with its title ironic at several levels, focuses on the trial of Court Royal, a middle-aged black man accused of unspecified crimes. An offstage voice, supported by a sequence of increasingly respectable-looking Ku Klux Klan figures, echoes Lula in Dutchman, claiming that Court Royal has been harboring a murderer. Although Court Royal interprets the claim in concrete terms, the voice seeks primarily to bring about his repudiation of his black identity. Manipulating his fear of personal loss, the voice forces Court to preside over the ritual murder of a black martyr whose body is carried onstage to the accompaniment of projected slides showing martyrs such as Malcolm X and Patrice Lumumba. Ordering the disposal of the corpse, the voice says: “Conceal the body in a stone. And sink the stone deep under the ocean. Call the newspapers and give the official history. Make sure his voice is in that stone too.” In fact, the primary aim of the voice is to silence the African American cultural tradition by encouraging individuals to see their own situations as divorced from that of their community. Despite Court Royal’s dim awareness that the “body” is that of a collective figure, the voice forces him to deny his sense that “there are many faces.” After Court Royal acquiesces to this European American vision of individualism, the voice declares him “free,” stipulating only that he “perform the rite.” The rite is the execution of the “body.”

Assuring Court Royal that the murderer is already dead, the voice nevertheless demands that he actively contribute to the destruction of the African American tradition by sacrificing the “murderer” within. To distract Court Royal from the genocidal reality of his act, the voice delivers an intricate statement on the nature of ritual action. Court, caught in the trap of European American rhetoric, ironically assumes the role of the white God and executes his symbolic son; the young black man cries out “Papa” as he dies. His soul “washed white as snow,” Court merely returns to his night-out bowling. His voice sunk beneath the sea, he can only echo the white voice that commands his passive acceptance of European American rituals. Where Clay was killed by white society directly, the martyr in Great Goodness of Life (A Coon Show) is killed by white society acting indirectly through the timorous and self-deluded black bourgeois. Ritual murder metamorphoses into ritual suicide. Baraka clearly intimates the need for new rituals that will be capable of presenting new alternatives not under the control of the white voice.

Slave Ship

Slave Ship, Baraka’s most convincing and theatrically effective Black Nationalist play, develops both the form and the content of these rituals. Thematically, the play places the perceptions of Madheart and Great Goodness of Life (A Coon Show) in a broader historical perspective. Beginning in West Africa and progressing through the American Civil War, Baraka traces the evolution of African American culture, stressing the recurring scenes of betrayal in which traitors, frequently preachers, curry favor with their white masters by selling out their people. Such repeated betrayals, coupled with scenes of white violence against blacks, create a tension that is released only with the sudden ritual killing of the white voice and the black traitor. This sacrifice emphasizes Baraka’s demand for an uncompromising response to the forces, inside and outside the community, responsible for centuries of black misery.

The real power of Slave Ship, however, stems from its performance style, which combines lighting, music, and at times even smell, to create an encompassing atmosphere of oppression that gives way to an even more overwhelming celebration. The sound of white laughter and black singing and moaning surrounds the recurring visual images that link the historical vignettes. A drumbeat reasserts itself at moments of tension and seeming despair, suggesting the saving presence of the African heritage. The drum, joined by a jazz saxophone as the black community rises to break its chains, initiates the celebratory chant: “When we gonna rise up, brother/ When we gonna rise above the sun/ When we gonna take our own place, brother/ Like the world had just begun?” Superimposed on the continuing background moaning, the chant inspires a communal dance that combines African and African American styles. Invoking the choreography of the “Miracles/Temptations dancing line,” Baraka calls the dance the “Boogalooyoruba,” compressing historical past and present in a ritual designed to create a brighter future. Following the climactic sacrifice, the severed heads of black traitor and white oppressor are cast down on the stage. Given ideal context and performance, the dancing of the Boogalooyoruba will then spread through the audience. Slave Ship thus exemplifies African American ritual drama of the 1960’s; merging aesthetic performance and political statement, it marks the culmination of Baraka’s Black Nationalist work.

Plays of the 1970’s and 1980’s

Baraka’s later plays express the Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong philosophy he embraced in the mid-1970’s. Gauging the success of monumental dramas such as The Motion of History and The Sidney Poet Heroical is difficult, in part because they are rarely performed, in larger part because of a generally hostile political climate. The texts of the plays reflect Baraka’s continuing interest in multimedia performance styles, incorporating a great deal of musical and cinematic material. Both plays comprise numerous brief scenes revealing the action of historical forces, primarily economic in The Motion of History and primarily racial in The Sidney Poet Heroical. Both present images of martyr-heroes and oppressor-scapegoats. On the page, however, both appear programmatic and somewhat naïvely ideological. The climaxes, for example, feature mass meetings intended to inspire the audience to political commitment, a technique anticipated in proletarian dramas of the 1930’s such as Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty (pr., pb. 1935). The cries “Long live socialist revolution” and “Victory to Black People! Victory to all oppressed people!” that conclude The Motion of History and The Sidney Poet Heroical obviously require both a sensitive production and a politically sympathetic audience to work their desired effect. In the political climate of the late 1970’s and 1980’s, neither element was common, and Baraka’s plays of this period could be considered closet dramas.

Primitive World

In his 1984 Primitive World: An Anti-Nuclear Jazz Musical, he presents the money gods as the arch-fiends. Displeased at the audacity of the humans—and especially, the poor—to “want things,” these money gods decide to put an end to human history. Speaking of the “grim moral” of his play, Baraka said, “we seem to be more endangered by greed and selfishness than we are by the weapons we have created to destroy each other.” In this play, as in his earlier work, Baraka attempts to exorcise the demons and the demonic element within each human being that seem bent on nothing so much as the destruction of humanity—and, ultimately, of humankind.

In his speech on “Poetry and the Public Sphere” at the 1997 Conference on Contemporary Poetry, Baraka addressed more generally the recurrent theme of his work: “it is this wailing, this defiance, this resistance, this joy in the overwhelming of evil by good, that is at the base of our poetic traditions, our history, our continuing lives.”

In his 1969 poem “Black Art,” the poet asks that his poem “clean out the world for virtue and love”; and, bidding his poem scream, he cries, “Let Black People understand/ that they are the lovers and the sons/ of lovers and warriors and sons/ of warriors Are poems & poets &/ all the loveliness here in the world.” In his still earlier drama A Black Mass, his black priest Tanzil speaks of reaching “back to warmth and feelings, to the human mind, and compassion. And ris[ing] again, back on up the scale, reaching again for the sphere of spheres, back to original reason. To where we always were.” The exorcism of the demon oppressor in A Black Mass is not left to the imagination/intellect of the viewer as it is in Primitive World. The narrator of A Black Mass speaks to the audience of the need for diligence in the seeking out and in the destruction of the evil that the priests have let loose on the world in their experiment-gone-wrong—in their creation of the “soulless [white] monster.” The oppressors in neither play recognize or employ the reason and the compassion possible to the occupants of this “sphere of spheres.”

Later Plays

When “White people. . . made [him] famous” for Dutchman, Baraka felt that they were making it possible for him to “continue [the] tradition” passed on to him by his people:I don’t know if y’all still have that in your homes. . . . I can’t speak on that, but I know that is what we as writers have to do, continue that tradition. The only way I can see that tradition being extended is through the role and function of the writer in the community.

It is not surprising that, while he was praised by such prominent African American authors as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Ntozake Shange, and Maya Angelou, the admittedly vengeful nature of much of his art did not afford him a sustained popularity with mainstream audiences and he found himself unable to make a living as a writer. According to Baraka, his 1982 Money: A Jazz Opera was even “banned in France by the United States” because it was considered “anti-American.”

Baraka’s 1990’s plays The Life and Life of Bumpy Johnson and Meeting Lillie were somewhat less strident and, perhaps as a result, somewhat better received by mainstream critics.

Addressing a group of aspiring writers in 1998, Baraka spoke of his being readied by his parents and his grandmother for his life’s work as out-of-the-mainstream writer and activist:It was like you had been doctored on by masters. . . . Every night at dinner, they’d be running it. . . . They would be telling you the history of the South, the history of Black people, the history of Black music and you would be sitting there. . . . My grandmother would tell me all the time about this Black boy they accused of raping this woman and they cut off his genitals and stuffed them in his mouth and then made all the Black women come there and watch. . . . Why would your grandmother tell you that story? . . . Oh, you still know the story, you still got it in your mind sixty years later. . . . Well, that’s why she told it to you.

Baraka in his body of work strives to exorcise soullessness and to restore loveliness and humanity to humankind. Twentieth century African Americans, from Nobel Prize-winning author to factory worker, were influenced by the man who abandoned the title but not the role of imamu—spiritual leader. It remains to be seen whether the twenty-first century mainstream can overlook Baraka’s and its own subjectivity in order that it may benefit, as well, from the spirit of his work.


Baraka, Imamu Amiri (Vol. 2)


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