Amiri Baraka

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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...

(This entire section contains 1126 words.)

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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 andMoney: 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.

*Principal Works

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A Good Girl Is Hard to Find 1958

"Dante" 1961; also produced as "The Eighth Ditch" 1964

"The Baptism" 1964

"Dutchman" 1964

"The Slave" 1964

"The Toilet" 1964

"Experimental Death Unit #1" 1965

"J-E-L-L-O" 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

Police 1968

Four Black Revolutionary Plays: All Praises to the Black man 1969

"Resurrection in Life" 1969

Bloodrites 1970

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

s-1 1976

The Motion of History 1977

The Motion of History and Other Plays 1978

Selected Plays and Prose of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (dramas and prose) 1979

"The Sidnee Poet Heroical: In 29 Scenes" 1979

"What Was The Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production: A Play in One Act" 1979

Dim'Crackr Party Convention 1980

Boy & Tarzan Appear In A Clearing! 1981

Money: A Jazz Opera 1982

"Song: a One Act Play about the Relationship of Art to Real Life" 1983


Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note… (poetry) 1961

Cuba Libre (essay) 1961

Blues People: Negro Music in White America (essay) 1963

The Dead Lecturer: Poems (poetry) 1964

"The Revolutionary Theatre" (essay) 1965; published in periodical Liberator

The System of Dante's Hell (novel) 1965

Home: Social Essays (essays) 1966

Black Art (poetry) 1967

Black Music (essay) 1967

Tales (short stories) 1967

Black Magic: Sabotage, Target Study, Black Art; Collected Poetry, 1961-1967 (poetry) 1969

Black Spring (screenplay) 1968

In Our Terribleness (Some Elements and Meaning in Black Style) (poetry) 1970

It's Nation Time (poetry) 1970

A Fable (screenplay) 1971

Raise, Race, Rays, Raze: Essays since 1965 (essays) 1971

Strategy and Tactics of a Pan-African Nationalist Party (essay) 1971

Supercoon (screenplay) 1971

Kawaida Studies: The New Nationalism (essay) 1972

Spirit Reach (poetry) 1972

Afrikan Revolution (poetry) 1973

Crisis in Boston! (essay) 1974

Hard Facts: Excerpts (poetry) 1975

Three Books by Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones): The System of Dante's Hell, Tales, The Dead Lecturer (novel, short stories, and poetry) 1975

AM/TRAK (poetry) 1979

Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (poetry) 1979

"Afro-American Literature and Class Struggle" (essay) 1980; published in periodical Black American Literature Forum

"Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite" (essay) 1980; published in periodical Village Voice In the Tradition: For Black Arthur Blythe (poetry) 1980

Reggae or Not! (poetry) 1981

In the Tradition (poetry) 1982

"Sounding" (poetry) 1982; published in journal Black American Literature Forum

The Descent of Charlie Fuller into Pulitzerland and the Need for Afro-American Institutions (essay) 1983

The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (autobiography) 1984

Daggers and Javelins: Essays, 1974-1979 (essays) 1984

"Wailers" (poetry) 1985; published in periodical Callaloo

"Why;s/Wise" (poetry) 1985; published in periodicalSouthern Review

The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (essay) 1987

"Reflections" (poetry) 1988; published in periodical Black Scholar

*Works before 1967 were published under the name LeRoi Jones.

Author Commentary

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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, saying: "We're going to Harlem, we're going to start a theater in Harlem." Then all the people who argued that there was no such thing as Black theater, that there was no such thing as Black art were put in charge of it by Rockefeller. Rockefeller determined that since these niggers were making all this noise about Black theater, then "We need us a Black theater." But Black skin is the only prerequisite for this Black theater. Those people never believed in theater of change, theater of revolution, but they do meet the minimum requirement, which is that they be Black.

You can have a theater that has Black people in it, you can have Black directors, Black actors, Black everything, but suppose the theater is just the same kind of bourgeois decadent theater that you see on Broadway or Off-Broadway. Ultimately, it depends on the content. Skin color doesn't determine political content.

What revolutionaries would do is teach a revolutionary message through Black theater. They would actually make the theater a weapon for the liberation of Black people. That would be the purpose of Black theater. But if you're going to have a Black theater that only shows Black people aspiring to be in this system and do the same thing as the middle-class white majority, then the Blackness of their theater is finally irrelevant.

The popular theater of our time is television, and it's absolutely controlled. The major theme on television, if we analyzed it, would be, I guess, "Police are your friends," on the evening programs; I don't know about the daytime TV. Those images control a lot of people's consciousness. Now they don't ultimately control consciousness because they're unreal, and the people have to come away from those television sets and deal with reality. So you've got the reality versus the illusion the bourgeois can create. But at the same time, the people who are talking about change and transforming society have at least got to raise up some images that criticize the images that the rulers put out, and also put out alternative images. Theater can put out an alternative image, and I think in the sixties that's what the whole Black theater thing was doing.

Now they've transformed the whole Black theater thing into what it would be in commercial, bourgeois theater, which is namely skin. They take The Wizard of Oz and make The Wiz. They take Guys and Dolls and they make a Black musical. They bring back Porgy and Bess, Bubbling Brown Sugar, music, song, and dance. The bourgeoisie have the theater now, and the people who want to do it—Black or White—have to create an alternative to that.

Interview with Baraka (1987)

SOURCE: An interview in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 425-33.

[In the following interview with Sandra G. Shannon, Baraka explores his own vision as director of his dramas.]

[Shannon]: The questions that I'd like to ask you today are specifically oriented toward directing. My first question is this: I see that you have directed several of your own sixties' plays. What motivated you to want to direct your own works?

[Baraka]: Well, because directing was something that I hadn't done, but I always had a great appreciation for directing. Also, I thought that I could give the work an added kind of accuracy in terms of the interpretation. I like to direct actually. Directing is more work that people might think.

Does directing, for you, involve everything—such as teaching the actors how to convey a particular point in your works, incorporating music…?

Well, I think that first it has to do with helping the actors understand the play and to understand the characters because I think that if they don't understand what the play is about and what all of the characters are about… in particular, they've got to have some insight into their own characters. But they've got to know the whole play. They've got to know all the relationships, the history of the characters. Like a life situation, they have to know it like that and be in tune with it.

How is the fact that they know the play portrayed in the way they act? How can you tell they know the play?

Well, because their motivations ring true. What they do seems real or justifiable or legitimized in some kind of way. They have to understand the play, and I think too often you see people just sort of sleepwalking through a play or going through these kinds of formal blocking moves stage left and downstage right, and you don't see any acting going on. You see mostly people being placed on different parts of the stage.

So you 're saying that a certain amount of what they portray comes from within ?

Yeah. There has to be an understanding. To me, it's like a piece of music. You can't play it if you don't understand it. Or if you can't read the notes and it's a written piece of music, you're in trouble. I think you have to know the composer's intentions, what feelings the composer was trying to transmit. The same thing with the play—you have to know what the playwright was trying to say.

What directors have you worked with?

Well, I've liked quite a few people's directing, but the director that I've liked best has been Gil Moses, who did "Slave Ship." To me, he's one of the most intelligent and innovative directors that I've known. But I've had some other good directors. At the Black Arts, we had a guy named Jim Campbell—very good director. He's now a principal of an elementary school.

What do you think makes a good director?

Understanding the play and being able to put that in dramatic terms—to transpose it from literary terms to dramatic terms, which sometimes calls for things that the playwright has not seen that are obvious from the interpretation.

Do directors consult you? Do you feel it necessary that they consult you, or do you just leave them alone?

I usually leave them alone, but I think good directors always want to know what the playwright thinks, even if they don't agree with him. There are a lot of good directors around now, for example, the guy who's directing this play of mine at NYU named George Ferrinks. He's a white director. He's a good director. He's Hungarian. He understands texts, and he can improvise. Glenda Dickerson, a black woman who is out here with us at Stony Brook, is an excellent director.

What makes your job as a director easier?

Well, what makes it easier is if you have all of the resources to translate a play from literature into drama and into theater without a hassle. And the principal of those resources is actors—people who are intelligent. You've got some who are intelligent; you've got some who are sort of mediocre; and you've got some whom you shouldn't get stuck with under any circumstances.

To what extent do you get involved in the music which becomes part of the play?

See, music has ideas in it. People think that it's only if they hear lyrics that ideas are being communicated. That's not true. There are ideas in the music—what the composer wants to say, what he feels, what kind of emotional parallel music conjures up. There are all kinds of ideas and thoughts and feelings, of course, in music. And so the music, to me, is an added dramatic dimension—as narrator, as actor. Music, to me, is as much alive as the actors. It has as much importance.

So the concept, then, that you tried to get from the use of Sun Ra or, say, Albert Ayler was a certain disorderliness, unpredictability, anti-establishment feeling?

With Sun Ra, I wanted the feeling of some kind of otherwordly wisdom or dimension, which changes sometimes to fear, terror, contemplation of the laboratory, contemplation of what wisdom and knowledge really are [refering to his play Black Mass.] With Ayler, it was the kind of power and force that he has which is so striking when you hear him live. I've used him when I've wanted improvisation added to the text; in other words, let the musician look at the play and improvise. I've done that a few times. But I think that's interesting because the play is as much a generator of emotions as any other kind of thing. And if you have a musician improvising off the emotions he gets from the play, then it creates a kind of improvised life of the play at the same time that you have a kind of stated life of the play.

How do you deal with such production limitations as space and budget?

Well, you just have to do other things. You have to do things that don't require space, and you have to do things that are cheap. That's been my story all of my life—all of my theatrical life. There were a couple of times I thought I was going to have some money. We were supposed to do a jazz opera in the Paris opera and the Berlin opera, and the Americans got to the French to cancel it. They were going to spend a million and a half francs on it.

Oh really! What did the Americans say?

They said it was an anti-American play.

Your 1960s' plays leave much room for the creative director—for example, Black Mass. / listened to the album. I read the play. But I cannot understand how the beast is portrayed on stage. Do you settle for a facsimile of the hideous creature, or do you expect some other rigid interpretation?

How is it interpreted on the stage? I guess you could say that it is up to the imagination of the director. But what we did was take grease paint and paint all over the guy, and we had a red mask, which was turned into a tail like a dinosaur's tail. That was Ben Caldwell's design. I thought that it was something with room for improvisation.

In"The Slave"what stage props did you suggest to depict the surrounding race wars and the ultimate bombing of Easley's home?

The sound was going on throughout the play.

Was that an album or a sound track?

It was taped. Largely war sounds—shots, bombs—and, near the end of the play, it gets closer and closer and closer, and then there is the very final scene where they're up close with near hits, near misses, and direct hits. Then we actually had to use the kind of explosion techniques that you use in theater: smudge pots, a soft ceiling with plaster up in it that you could release, a blackout, turning chairs and stuff over, pulling down false walls—simple stage techniques. It was gradually a kind of closing in of war sounds.

Did you ever use colors to capture a particular effect? To what extent were colors involved? For example, if you would like to portray fire, did you just splatter orange and red?

You mean real fire and burning?


Well, again, we used different kinds of pots and things for fire—things that can actually burn. And sometimes to get a fire effect, we used lights. But we usually used pots that were turned on, usually electrically. The stage manager or the lighting person would handle that. It was a simple process, although those kinds of things can be dangerous.

In"Experimental Death Unit #1,"your stage notes call for "a white man's head still dripping blood." Can you explain how this was translated to the stage?

There was a friend of mine, a white painter, who made an exact facsimile of the actor's head out of papier-mâché, and it was so life-like that it actually created a kind of sensation. A guy named Dominique Capobianco molded papier-mâché face masks. He's an artist at Rutgers. He made papier-mâché heads that were exactly like the actors'. We had a special kind of dramatic effect that we used wherein the actors who were supposed to be beheaded would twist their heads down in their chests and pull up some kind of jackets we had. And they would fall so they were upstage and you couldn't see their heads, and then the guy who was cutting them off would look like he'd cut one off and he had the head already inside his coat. When he'd cut like that, you couldn't see the head struck and then he'd go down and his body would cover the dead man's body and he'd take the head out from under his coat and then come up with the head.


Well, theater people think of these things. When you get theater people and you've got a project, you discuss it. That's why set designers, prop people, lighting people—these people are key to directors. No theater production is a one-person operation. That's absurd. Some of the tech nical aspects of these things I wouldn't begin to be able to put together. I could just say, "I think it should be like this," and that would be the way it was done. You've got people who know the theater. That's why, in really doing heavyweight theater, you've got to have some skilled people with you to really bring it off.

I can imagine "Slave Ship" called for a lot of ingenuity.

Yeah. That's why I say Gil Moses, to me, … I directed "Slave Ship" first in Newark at the Spirit House, and that was like … I mean we had on-and-off lights: "Click, click." It was nothing but the first floor of a house that I had torn the walls of down. We had almost nothing at all to work with. But when Gil took it on and when he used his imagination and the kind of the technical resources that were available to us at the Brooklyn Academy, which were quite a bit, we were really able to do something good.

In 1967 you directed "Great Goodness of Life: A Coon Show" at the Spirit House in Newark. Can you recall how you portrayed Attorney Breck? "A bald-headed smiling house slave in a wrinkled dirty tuxedo crawls across the stage; he has a wire attached to his back leading off-stage. A huge key in the side of his head. We hear the motors 'animating,' his body groaning like tremendous weights. He grins, and slobbers, turning his head slowly from side to side. He grins. He makes little quivering noises."

Well, we were pretty faithful to that. Actually, we had … who played that? L. Earl Jay played that, I think, when we did it in New York. Are you talking about the wires and the big key in his head and stuff like that? Well, we made a hat like a hairpiece or something like that. Anyway, it sat up on his head and had a big key in it that whirled around—the key actually whirled around. It sort of fit over his head like a strap on top of his head. In other words, the key was the cap, and he put the cap on and then the key was attached to it on one side. It was like a rod coming down, off the cap and then the key stuck out of the rod. In the rod was the kind of mechanism that turned the key. And it was a key that you actually did wind up, and it was spring-loaded so that when you wound it up—when the attorney pushed the starter that he had on—it actually would turn: "Ch-ch-ch." It would look like the little toy soldiers or little robots that you see for kids.

Returning to your means of adapting to various limitations, at any time did your street plays, "Arm Yourself, Or Harm Yourself and Police encounter obstacles because of uncertain conditions due to temporary settings?

Yeah. Real police came into this loft where we were rehearsing. They had told us something about we weren't supposed to read poetry down in the cellar in Newark. There was some controversy around that, but, in those days, the Newark police were the worst on the planet. That was one of the reasons that we were so quick to get a black mayor. That was the only kind of respite that we got from the Negroes that had been running the city. They did cool out the police, and they couldn't have stayed in there if they hadn't because the people had demonstrated in 1967 what they would do. Police ran up in my rehearsal and actually took a script out of my hand. We were rehearsing and police came in there. That's the kind of harrasment outside in the street. We had to do plays, and we were never quite sure how we would be greeted by the powers that be—the police, etc. One time we did Junkies Are Full of Shhh… and a woman started beating the junky—started beating the dope pusher like she thought it was really happening. She started whipping Yusef Iman's butt. We had to pull her off him. She was going to beat him up. I guess her child had gotten involved in drugs. It's always uncertain outside.

Several prominent actors showed up in your early plays. Can you talk about the contributions of, say, Barbara Teer or Al Freeman?

Well, Barbara did "Experimental Death Unit #1," and as it turned out, the guy who was directing it first was a nut. I mean, he was absolutely a maniac and he and Barbara got to talking and he slapped her.

You're talking about Tom Hackensack?

Right. He slapped her face, and then I had to take over the direction. I thought she did a very very good job myself. That was one of the plays that I directed both downtown and up at the Black Arts. I think it came off all right. We did it at this benefit down at the Saint Mark's Theater, and we had the resources and stuff. I thought it was a good experience. There were a lot of things I learned directing then. Now, interestingly enough, Barbara—when we first started working—said there was no such thing as Black Theater. She said theater was theater. We used to stand out there and argue—she and this guy named McBeth, who later got to be head of the Lafayette. They were both opposed to the concept of Black Theater. They said it didn't exist. They said it was just theater. Later on, it is interesting that they came to understand the fact that there is such a thing as Black Theater and that they have gotten a great deal of success in Black Theater. Barbara is a good actress and a very capable director.

I don't know what she is doing now with the National Black Theater. But that was something that we called for in the 1968 Black Power Conference—a National Black Theater. The Negro Ensemble is the Negro Ensemble. But we need a theater that can encompass, coast to coast, the best actors, the best directors, the best playwrights, the best set designers, the best musicians who would tour the country and play to our people all over the country. That's what we need definitely.

I noticed that your wife was a member of the cast of Black Mass. To what extent has she helped in shaping and developing your I960's plays?

Well, my wife certainly has a great deal of influence on me—I guess just like everybody else's wife or husband has on them. We had just met some months before that. I was making a movie which never got seen by anybody except the FBI. They have records of this movie that we made and the images in it, and nobody has ever seen it. It's fantastic.

Did they confiscate it?

No. They were just watching when we made it. We didn't know it, but when I got the Freedom of Information Act papers, they had listed it in there. They saw us shooting out in the yard, and I had nooses hanging off the trees and people in KKK costumes marching. We had met not long before the time of Black Mass, and I think that it was subsequent to Black Mass that we began to see each other. But she has been a very strong influence upon me in terms of … you know, a lot of times you bounce concepts off people whether you know it or not. People do shape your concepts. In a lot of my earlier plays, the black woman is not dealt with well at all. And I think that she has been very very forceful in terms of trying to make me understand that, which I hope I have understood, and just generally in terms of helping me to give some weighty attention to black people's real problems rather than the problems of one sector of the black middle class, which, I think, is another one of my tendencies—to make my problems everybody's problems or my own kinds of concepts sort of automatically all black people's. So, I think she's helped clarify—to the extent that it can be called clarified—that thing. It's a continuing influence obviously. We work together. She was in the Spirit House Movers when it first began. Then the organization that we put together got in the way of that, and she wasn't in the Movers later on. Now we are working together with this group called Blue Ark that we have. We do poetry and we work usually with three musicians, and she's a part of that and hopefully we are going to do some more dramatic work together.

How were the changes in your ideologythat is, from nationalist to Marxistreflected on stage?

I had a big falling out with the woman who played Lula when I directed "Dutchman" in Newark when I first came back to Newark in 1966. This white woman—I can't think of her name—she said something that I didn't like, and I said, "Well, you know. I don't even like white people. I don't even know why I'm standing here arguing with you." That kind of stupid stuff. Certainly, during my post-nationalist phase, I would not be involved in some kind of crazy stuff like that. I mean, when you just crack people over the head because you get angry with them, and then you take them out the worst way you can. I don't think I would do that. It was the nationalism certainly that fueled that kind of approach. I guess people can tell you stories about that. I used to do a lot of that.

I think the most important change has been in terms of the content of the plays—the line, the political line, the ideological line that comes out of the plays. I think that is the real critical change—from plays that pretty much focus on kicking white folks' asses and getting them off ours to trying to find a way to bring in the more complex reality that we live, which obviously is full of white supremacy, racism, and exploitation, with black people being on the bottom of the heap. But I think that what that is really is what I try to talk about: how it got to be the way that it is, and, I guess, what we can do about it—and that we can survive it.

Overviews And General Studies

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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 onBaraka '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 in Baraka's dramatic art. Set in a church, the play is actually a modern morality drama about a young boy who is accused by an old woman of masturbating while pretending to pray. As the action unfolds it centers on a growing contest for the soul—and body—of the boy. The contest pits the old woman and the minister of the church against a homosexual who is contemptuous of his opponents' hypocrisy toward sex and who expresses a frank need for love and for an honest sexuality. The minister and the old woman are revolting not simply because they are puritanical but because their puritanism is a thin disguise for sexual desires (for the boy in this case) that they are unable to express frankly. As the contest becomes violent they strike the homosexual to the ground and in turn they are cut down by the boy who now claims to be the Son of God. At this point the play ends abruptly: the boy is carried off by a motorcyclist who is supposed to be a "messenger" of the boy's father.

As a morality play centered on a moral struggle between love and puritanism "The Baptism" exploits an old dramatic tradition with special ironic effects. The usual conflict between good and evil in the morality play tradition of Christian culture appears here with significant modifications. The forces of evil are now associated with the Christian Church itself; love and charity are embodied by the homosexual, a conventional figure of moral and sexual "perversion." And given the ambiguous figure of the boy himself (child figure and Christ archetype) then the moral struggle takes on an ironically twofold meaning: it is traditional insofar as it involves a contest for the soul of the human individual; and it is antitraditional in that Christianity is no longer an unquestioned symbol of goodness but is actually associated with evil. Indeed the most crucial outcome of the play's moral conflict is the degree to which Christianity emerges as an inherently corrupting tradition which makes it impossible for the individual to experience love and sexuality to the fullest, except on nonconformist or rebellious terms. Social traditions in the play are inherently destructive because they sanction a pervasive lovelessness and a neurotic fear of sex and feeling. The church is the main target in this regard because it is the institution which embodies these traditions.

The morality design of the play is, therefore, basically ironic in conception. Baraka recalls the old morality traditions of early Christian drama in order to attack those traditions and the Christian ethic that they espoused. And insofar as "The Baptism" subverts Christian morality and art, it anticipates the use of the morality play format in Baraka's black nationalist, anti-Western drama. For in those later plays, as we shall see, political conflicts take on the form of moral contests in which a Western dramatic tradition (the morality play) becomes a device for rejecting the West itself. Moreover, this subversive, antitraditionalist use of tradition is reflected in the play's title. The ritual of baptism is no longer an initiation into the established conventions of religious belief and social morality. It has now become a ritual of exposure and subversion, one directed against the conventions themselves.

Similarly the ritual of religious sacrifice acquires a new significance in the play. The minister and the old woman insist mat the boy must be "sacrificed" in order to atone for his sexual "sin." But their demand is really a hypocritical evasion. The choice of the boy as sacrificial victim allows them to evade the consequences of their destructive attitudes towards sexuality. It enables them to divert attention from the repressed sexual longings that are so manifest in their "moral" rhetoric—especially in the old woman's suggestively detailed account of the boy's sin: "You spilled your seed while pretending to talk to God. I saw you. That quick short stroke. And it was so soft before, and you made it grow in your hand. I watched it stiffen, and your lips move and those short hard moves with it straining in your fingers for flesh. … Your wet stickly hand. I watched you smell it."

In effect the planned sacrifice allows them to avoid the sinfulness of their own hypocrisy and the emotional destructiveness of their puritanism by treating "sinfulness" as a problem that can be solved through the ritual sacrifice—of another. Indeed the very idea of ritual, whether of baptism or sacrifice, is associated in the play with elaborate systems of hypocrisy and self-evasion. Hence Baraka's adaptation of such rituals for the form of his play amounts to the ironic use of ritual as a form of protest and rebellion—against established rituals (systems) and their associated social values. And here too "The Baptism" anticipates Baraka's black nationalist drama where the idea of ritual and the forms of established ritual are associated with the culture that is being rejected by the play.

Both as morality play and as ritual drama "The Baptism" is distinguished by a marked emphasis on the idea of role playing. The characters have no names as such. They are presented as types (old woman, minister, homosexual, boy and messenger); and as such they are social roles reflecting the cultural values that are central to the play's themes. In this instance each character's personality reflects a theatrical self-consciousness about her or his role: the minister is the sanctimonious voice of Christianity; the old woman energetically acts out her identity as the symbol of female chastity; the homosexual deliberately exaggerates his role as a "queen" in order to emphasize his calculated contempt for social convention; and the boy moves self-consciously from being the familiar symbol of childhood innocence to being a Christ-child.

On the whole this pointed presentation of characters as roles has the effect of emphasizing the degree to which the conventions and values attacked in the play have encouraged individuals to assume roles mat reflect social norms instead of giving free play to honest feeling. In this sense the stereotypical nature of such roles is a form of social realism, for it underscores the limiting and deforming effects of established traditions on the human personality. This, too, explains the significance of self-conscious role playing in the other plays. In each instance the issue of roles reflects the dramatist's careful integration of his theme with his sense of dramatic art: the role playing of dramatic theater is also a symptom of social reality.

Altogether, then, "The Baptism " is an impressive example of Baraka's early ability to synthesize dramatic form and theme. And this synthesis is linked with the play's major theme—the failure of love in contemporary society. The very issue of forms, roles, and rituals is crucial in the play because they have become empty shells in the absence of any real feeling. Consequently moral statements and declarations of love are invariably hypocritical, particularly when they are made by self-consciously traditional figures. The role of the homosexual is therefore particularly ironic in this regard: the alleged pervert emerges as the healthiest of the lot because he frankly expresses his commitment to love and because he refuses to accept the puritan antithesis between flesh and spirit. He is the subversive outsider, pitted against the minister who is the loveless, and unlovable, apostle of Christian "love" and "charity." The homosexual's candor about love and sex (he does not disguise his erotic interest in the boy) amounts to a virtue. On the other hand the minister and the old woman attempt to disguise their love for the boy with the rhetoric of puritan morality. In so doing they corrupt their sexual response to the boy. Their puritanism has transformed it into mere prurience. As in Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note puritan hypocrisy has turned love into an evil thing. This kind of transformation is also the burden of the later, black nationalist plays where white racism and black self-hatred are linked to the general fear of love in society. It also dominates the theme of an early work like "The Toilet," where, as in "The Baptism," the general failure of love is thrown into sharp relief by the role of the homosexual as subversive outsider.

Originally produced in 1964, "The Toilet" is set in an urban high school toilet. The plot is rudimentary. Ray Foots leads a group of boys in crude horseplay which rapidly culminates in violence. The victim of the violence is Karolis, a sensitive boy who is accused of having written a love letter to Foots. Karolis surprises Foots by refusing to deny the accusation and by insisting on fighting him. Discomfited by Karolis's honesty and belligerence Foots tries to avoid the fight on the ground that Karolis has already been badly beaten by members of the gang. But Karolis persists, beats Foots, who has to be rescued by the other boys, and is battered into unconsciousness by the gang. Karolis is left lying on the toilet floor, but after a brief interval Foots sneaks back in tears to cradle Karolis's head in his arms.

The toilet setting remains throughout the play as its dominant symbol. Its appearance and smells suggest the ugliness and fifth that Baraka attributes to his characters' social and moral milieu. In turn this vision of America as toilet defines the personalities of the characters themselves. The choice of toilet as setting shrewdly duplicates the usual adolescent preference for the toilet as the stage for a certain kind of brutish bravado or for covert rebelliousness. In individual terms the filth and stench represent the unsavory personalities of Foots and his gang. Finally the privacy of the toilet lends itself to the theme of repression—the repression of love—which runs throughout the play.

The moral corruption that is suggested by the toilet setting is associated here with a kind of perverted masculinity. Foots and his gang represent a cult of manhood which takes the form of mere brutishness. This brutishness is reflected in the inane but violent dialogue and by an intense, neurotic need to dominate others in verbal jousting or in improvised forms of boxing and basketball. In turn this corrupted maleness is attributed to the failure of love in Foots's world. As in "The Baptism" the theme of moral and emotional corruption is heightened by a sense of irony. In this instance the irony is centered on the name "Love" borne by a member of Foots's gang. And as in "The Baptism" this irony is intensified by the fact that it is the alleged pervert, the homosexual, who emerges as the most humane of these young males going through the traditional rites of passage into manhood.

Karolis's humanism and heroism consist of the fact that he has the kind of courage which enables him to express his love in the incriminating letter and to affirm that love in the face of hostility. Ironically, the sleazy privacy of the toilet has become the setting for a certain kind of public declaration or self-revelation, one that strikes at the guilty secrecy with which society perceives love and with which Foots eventually responds to love. By a similar token the conventionally "masculine" hero, Foots, emerges as an antihero: he is contemptible in his fearful need to deny and punish Karolis's love, and is pathetic, at best, in that final moment of his belated, and secret, demonstration of love.

Finally, that secrecy ends the play on a note of unequivocal realism. It confirms the continuation of these prevailing social codes which encourage a guilty secrecy about sex and emotional experience. The toilet setting therefore remains crucially significant to the very end. It defines the filthiness that results from the denial of feeling in Foots and his kind. Foots's declaration of love at the end is actually corrupted by the social values which dictate secrecy; and the toilet symbolizes the persistent corruptions which result from those values. The play's setting is therefore a dynamic force in the action of the play and in the experience of the characters. And on this basis it reflects a rather impressive grasp of theater as the total integration of setting, action and character.

"Dutchman," first produced and published in 1964, also reflects a rather self-conscious use of setting. Here the setting is a subway, "heaped," according to the playwright, "ih modern myth." The subway is less intimately involved in the personalities and action of the play than is the toilet in "The Toilet." In "Dutchman" the setting owes its significance to the manner in which it evokes mythic materials that are, in turn, interwoven with the play's themes and action. The winner of the Obie award for the best off-Broadway production of 1964, "Dutchman" has perhaps been the most widely discussed of Baraka's plays; and this popularity is attributable, in part, to the interest of critics in the role of myth in the play.

In examining "Dutchman" as mythic drama it is important to take seriously Baraka's description of the setting as one that is "heaped" in myths. Any approach that singles out one mythic theme will miss the degree to which the play's structure depends in part on the interweaving of several myths. The underground setting recalls the holds of the slave ships, and this image is reinforced by the title itself: the first African slaves were reportedly brought to the New World by Dutch slave traders. The image of slavery is further reinforced by the possibility that the underground setting refers to the famous "underground railway" which assisted runaway slaves on their way from the South to the North. The Dutch reference may also be linked with the legend of the Flying Dutchman—the story of a ship doomed to sail the seas forever without hope of gaining land. This ship is also supposed to be a slave-trading vessel. In turn the theme of retribution in the legend of the Flying Dutchman links the idea of a curse with the history of slavery. Slavery insured the loss of American innocence quite early in American history. That is, it undermined the American's claim to some special kind of functional idealism. And here the complex formation of images and myths include biblical myth, for like the descendants of Adam and Eve after the biblical fall, contemporary Americans must cope with the consequences of a prior curse—in this instance the curse of slavery.

Finally, Adam and Eve have their counterparts in the play. The black Clay (Adam) and the white Lula (Eve) are both linked by America's fearful fascination with the sexual juxtaposition of the black man and the white woman. Clay is the black American Adam, tempted by the forbidden fruit of Lula's white sexuality. On her side, Lula's sexual fascination with his blackness is interwoven with her racial condescension toward him. The play's plot revolves around the ethnosexual implications of Baraka's handling of myths. As a white American Lula is both the forbidden sexual fruit and the Flying Dutchman, compelled by the curse of racism and historical slavery, to engage in a series of repetitive actions that reflect the recurrent guilt, fascination, and hatred with which whites view blacks in the society. Hence she boards the subway train, engages Clay in conversation (on race and sex), then stabs him to death when his initial attraction changes to scornful resentment at her racial condescension. And after Clay's body has been removed she prepares to engage another young black man who has just boarded the train.

The total effect of the play's mythic structure is twofold. It creates the impression of continuity in the issues with which the myths are associated—racial oppression, destructive sexual attitudes, and an emotionally paralyzing puritanism. But the structure also heightens our awareness of the characters as social types. Notwithstanding Baraka's well-known disclaimer [in Home: Social Essays, 1966] Lula and Clay are not simply unique individuals. They are clearly archetypal figures representing social traditions (racial and sexual) and exemplifying the behavior that results from those traditions. Lula, for example, is at pains to emphasize that she is a type; and she feels old because as a type she represents generations of attitudes. She also perceives Clay as a type whose personality seems quite open to her because he belongs to a well-known pattern.

Lula and Clay are both types in this sense. And at the beginning of the play they are clearly presented, on the basis of their interaction, as racial and sexual stereotypes—Lula the white goddess and white liberal, and Clay the naively middle-class black stud. This stereotypical dimension is a calculated aspect rather than mere defect of the play. It arises from the perception and behavior of the characters who have chosen to limit their humanity within the confines of racial and sexual stereotypes that have been molded by social conventions. They are deliberately acting out predetermined roles instead of attempting to comprehend and communicate with each other's humanity. The built-in element of theater operates at a conscious level in the play. Hence Lula elaborates upon her self-description as a type by remarking that she is an actress, and Clay suggests that their encounter has proceeded as if it had been written as a script. As in "The Baptism" role playing is not simply a theatrical device; it is also deliberately chosen pattern of social behavior. The protagonists' choice of stereotypical roles is a symptom of their limitations; and in turn, the roles which they choose are intrinsic to the dramatic structure of the play itself.

Moreover they are presented and judged on their acceptance of these roles, and on their ability to look beyond the pretence in their own roles and in the roles of the other. Lula is very conscious of her role as the white goddess of America's racial mythology and chooses to revel in the destructiveness of that role. By a similar token she is incapable of dealing with Clay when he ceases to be an Uncle Tom and a black stud. Her white indifference to the humanity of blacks and to the essence of their culture is epitomized by her shallow interpretation of the blues as mere "belly-rub" music. On his side Clay fails initially, insofar as he accepts Lula's stereotypical attitudes and insofar as he caters to those attitudes by being the black stud and Uncle Tom. This failure proves fatal in the long run because it allows Lula to establish the kind of interaction that leads to his death: having subordinated himself to her sexual fantasies and her liberal condescension, he inevitably drives her to destructive anger by asserting his humanity.

However, Clay's failure is not complete. He gains a limited triumph in that very assertion of humanity which makes his death inevitable. At first he shifts from the bland, selfeffacing acquiescence of the Uncle Tom to the covert hostility which allows him to agree, sarcastically, when Lula assumes that black history and black music evolved out of big happy plantations in the slave-holding South. This covert hostility is soon replaced by open resentment. He castigates Lula's one-dimensional image of blacks and mocks her inability to realize that in many instances the blacks who seem to conform with this image are really rejecting her by subversively acting out her fantasies. They are playing roles based on "lies."

Clay's own interpretation of the blues reflects his own growth from mere role playing to a complex rebel: the blues are not mere "belly-rub" music but the expression of complex experiences ranging from joy and sorrow to despair and rage. As Clay interprets the blues he himself grows into a complex humanity and away from the racial and sexual perspectives of Lula and her "type." In the process we discover in his character the same kind of rebelliousness that he attributes to the blues tradition. Lula destroys Clay the rebel because his rebellion threatens her by destroying the stereotypes and myths that are essential to her own sexual and racial roles.

Yet Clay also fails in the end because, although his rebellious perspectives are substantial enough, his identity as a rebel is incomplete. Even as he expounds on the power and integrity of black music, Clay unfavorably compares himself with the musician as ethnic artist. Clay himself is a poet whose art lacks, in his opinion, the ethnic integrity of black, grass-roots forms like the blues: as a derivative of Western literature his own writings are a "kind of bastard literature," and his poetry is an escape from direct rebellious action. His words as poet have become a contemptible substitute for the act: "Safe with my words, and no deaths, and clean, hard thoughts, urging me to new conquests."

Clay's bitter self-analysis is based on two familiar and recurrent themes in Baraka's work. As a black writer and intellectual Clay is caught up in a cultural conflict which paralyzes him, limiting his capacity for rebellious action, despite his intellectual awareness of the need for rebellion. On the one hand he is drawn to Lula's ethnocentric white culture, but on the other hand he responds to the black ethnicity represented by the blues. His death, therefore, represents the self-destructive consequences of this kind of moral and intellectual paralysis. Second, Clay's ineffectuality as rebel stems in part from the fact that his poetic art is self-contained rather than actively committed to social action. His is literary art for art's sake. He suffers from a fascination with words for their own sake. As Clay himself admits, blacks "don't need all those words." On this basis it is easy to see the close connections between the theme of rebellion in "Dutchman" and the advocacy of change in the more explicitly revolutionary plays of a later period. Given Clay's limitations, the issues of rebellion and change are curtailed in this play. Here the question is not one of advocating change as such. This is to come in the later plays. In "Dutchman" we are offered an analysis of those things which make rebellion and change little more than imagined possibilities in the lives of Clay and his "type," but which will become urgent options when the idea of rebellion combines word and act.

Despite its setting—a revolutionary race war—"The Slave" is closer to "Dutchman" than to the later revolutionary plays in that here, too, we have a work that analyzes the potential rebel. The subject of analysis in this case is Walker Vessels, the leader of the blacks in the race war. The action centers on his encounter with his former wife, Grace Easley, and her present husband, Bradford (both white), when he returns to Grace's home at the height of the fighting. It is a violent encounter that is marked by racial recriminations on both sides, and the sounds of the race war outside provide the background for this personal conflict. The confrontation ends with the house collapsing under shell fire. Grace dies just after realizing that her two children by Walker are dead, either as the result of Walker's war or directly by his hands.

It is easy enough to see the play, on its literal level, simply as another black militant fantasy of racial revenge. But such an approach does not really do justice to the more complex and interesting features of the work. Here, as in "Dutchman," the play's conflicts center on the tensions within the black protagonist. Although the play's action emphasizes the desirability of radical change, it is actually more significant as an extended analysis of those attitudes which stimulate or retard the capacity for radical ethnic change within the black psyche. In this regard we should view Grace and Bradford not simply as representatives of the white world around Walker but also as embodiments of his white, Western perspectives, those perspectives which inhibit his racial pride by encouraging self-hatred. As a poet, for example, Walker feels that his art has been compromised by a certain dependency on the Western tradition. Hence the white Easley is expected to recognize Walker's poetry and literary tastes because they both share the same intellectuality. Walker hates Easley as the white enemy outside, but he loathes and fears him as the symbol of the "whiteness" within himself.

Grace is comparable with Bradford Easley in this respect. She is the image of that white femininity that has historically attracted a certain kind of self-hating black male. Thus Walker's previous marriage to her represents a self-destructive obsession. It is an obsession that has formed the racial triangle of black man, white woman, and white man—even in Shakespeare. As Walker muses aloud to his two antagonists, "Remember when I used to play a second-rate Othello? … You remember that, don't you, Professor NoDick? You remember when I used to walk around wondering what that fair sister was thinking? … I was Othello … Grace there was Desdemona … and you were Iago."

In short, the black imitation of whites is represented by the Iago-Easley figure of teachery—teachery to one's racial identity. And the self-destruction that is inherent in that treachery is embodied by the half-man (Professor NoDick) whose alleged impotence represents Walker's crippled humanity as a black. In reviling Grace and man-handling Easley during their confrontation Walker tries to exorcise his crippling white self-perception. The contrast in the play between the strong, masterful black Walker and the weak white Easley has little to do with Baraka's alleged "endorsement of the stereotype of Negro sexuality" [Black Music, 1968]. It represents, instead, an internal conflict—within Walker—between an assertive racial integrity and the stunted awareness that results from the denial of one's black identity.

Easley, then, personifies the cultural values and racial attitudes that compromise Walker's role as revolutionary. This point is implicit in the title. Having progressed from the status of a slave in the prologue (where he addresses the audience in the guise of a field slave), Walker is going through a transitional stage in which he now recognizes his continuing intellectual serfdom as it is incarnated in Easley, his cultural alter ego. The "race war" of the plot is, therefore, less important as a literal happening than it is significant as an allegorical background for the conflicts within Walker. Indeed the manner in which Baraka presents Walker at the beginning and conclusion of the play emphasizes the allegorical nature of the race war. The physical violence and the emotional confrontations in the play are actually a projection of Walker's subjective experience as a split personality. And in keeping with that subjective context, these events assume a dreamlike form if they are viewed in relation to the words of Walker Vessels when he appears in the prologue as an old field slave: "We know, even before these shapes are realized, that these worlds, these depths or heights we fly to smoothly, as in a dream, or slighter, when we stare dumbly into space, leaning our eyes just behind a last quick moving bird, then sometimes the place and twist of what we are will push and sting, and what the crust of our stance has become will ring in our ears and shatter that piece of our eyes that is never closed."

Walker is actually preparing his audience for a "dream," a self-revealing vision that will disturb and awaken. And since this is to be a form of self-revelation then it will shatter that apathy ("stupid longing not to know") which characterizes the slave mentality. The shattering of this apathy can create "killers" (real revolutionaries) or "foot-dragging celebrities," who exploit their "militant" image for personal gain. Applied to the events that follow the prologue Walker's remarks imply that the race war incidents and the confrontation with Grace and Bradford Easley are the elements of a vision that reveals Walker's divided ethnic consciousness to himself and to the audience. That consciousness includes a capacity for revolution, for the radical reshaping of his ethnic perception.

In this connection, Walker's physical relationship with the main action of the play strongly suggests that the latter is a kind of dream sequence: he is an old man in the prologue, and at the end of the introductory speech he "assumes the position he will have when the play starts." If this physical transformation (from old field slave to Walker Vessels) suggests that there is a "fading in" to the main-action dream sequence, then the physical change at the end of the play is equally suggestive: as Walker the rebel leader stumbles out, he becomes "the old man at the beginning of the play"—signifying the "fading out" of the dream.

All of this brings up the question of Walker's actual identity. He himself points to his ambiguity in the prologue: "I am much older than I look … or maybe much younger. Whatever I am or seem … to you, then let that rest. But figure, still, that you might not be right." He is warning against a literal approach to his character, for he is really an archetype of the black experience. He is therefore both older and younger than he looks because he incorporates the past and the present; and his dream opens up future possibilities. The "old" field-slave personality is the key to this archetypal role. That role is ambiguous. In one sense his servile status symbolizes the subjection to white images and cultural values. But in another sense his identity as a field slave points up rebellious potential. In this latter regard he recalls Malcolm X's interpretation of the field slave's image in black history. Unlike the "house Negro" who loved the white slave-master, the "field Negroes" hated the master and were always eager to rebel or run away from slavery.

Malcolm X's field Negro and Baraka's field slave are the same archetype. He is characterized by a predisposition toward rebellion. And as such an archetype Walker represents both past and present ("older" and "younger") militancy. To return to the words of the prologue Walker's ideas involve the rediscovery of a long history of black militancy and resistance: "Old, old blues people moaning in their sleep, singing, man, oh, nigger, nigger, you still here, as hard as nails, and takin' no shit from nobody." Walker's consciousness of black dreams of rebellion and his interest in the blues as a tradition of resistance confirm his own rebellious predisposition. And in turn that predis-position lends itself to dreams of revolution—the kind of dream that constitutes the main action of the play.

Walker's capacity to dream of revolution in specific terms and his growing sense of commitment take him beyond Clay's rather muddled impulses in "Dutchman." But in general Walker is comparable with Clay in that he too suffers from a destructive split-consciousness. As in Clay's case this division stems from the unresolved tensions between his identity as a militant black and his continuing involvement with (white) cultural norms that inhibit his militant potential. And like Clay, Walker is hamstrung by a frustrating dichotomy between word and action. Hence his failure as a poet is not only caused by a self-hating imitation of white models. His poetry has also failed because it exists apart from his dreams of revolutionary change. The (literary) word and (revolutionary) action remain separate in his character. Hence whether it is considered as a literal event or, more interestingly as Walker's fantasy, the race war remains an inchoate happening rather than a concrete action informed by a shaping revolutionary imagination.

Black Revolutionary Drama

Baraka's involvement in the black nationalist movement stimulates a significant shift in his drama. In his black revolutionary plays theater is no longer a process of reen-acting or analyzing tensions, or conflicts, between the revolutionary idea or word and the political act. It attempts, instead, to be an example of the dramatic art as political action. That is, theater itself is a political activity by virtue of the fact that the play has become a form of political advocacy. But although the theater of political advocacy would seem to fulfill Baraka's ideological ideals—as black aesthetician and later as scientific socialist—the plays of this period seldom meet the criteria which he himself admires in Maoist aesthetics. Many of the plays are ideologically "correct," from Baraka's black nationalist viewpoint, but they seldom approximate that "highest possible perfection of artistic form" which Baraka is later to demand of political art.

A basic problem, one that is seldom resolved in this period, is that Baraka finds it difficult to use drama for sociopolitical purposes while maintaining convincing dramatic forms. Consequently, too, many of the plays are little more than the kind of bombast that appears in the preface to his Four Black Revolutionary Plays: "We are building publishing houses, and newspapers, and armies, and factories / we will change the world before your eyes."

A. Short Pieces

Many of the plays of this period are little more than agit prop. As we have already noted, several of these remain unpublished; and on the basis of these shorter pieces it appears that Baraka is not often interested in the play's dramatic design. At other times potentially interesting dramatic forms (street theater and ritual drama, for example) lack thematic substance. Some works are mainly polemics against white racism. "Home on the Range" (1968), for example, depicts members of a white suburban family through the eyes of a black burglar. They appear as a collection of dim-wits who talk gibberish. "The Death of Malcolm X" (1969) dramatizes the events leading up to Malcolm X's assassination as a white conspiracy involving brainwashed blacks. But the more interesting plays are less concerned with white society as such and are more involved with examining the black experience itself from a black nationalist point of view.

"Experimental Death Unit #1" (1965) belongs to this latter group. It depicts a street scene during an apparent black revolt. A patrol of black soldiers encounters a black prostitute and her two white customers and kills all three. The symbolism is obvious enough. Prostitution represents the broader historical experience in which blacks barter their humanity in order to be accepted or merely tolerated by white society (Four Black Revolutionary Plays).

The title of "Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself (1967) sums up the simple message: blacks who hesitate to arm themselves against violent whites (particularly the police) are choosing suicide. The suicidal nature of nonviolence is, therefore, emphasized by the death of three brothers at the hands of the police—as they stand on the street debating the merits of armed militancy versus nonviolence.

Police (1968) is partly based on pantomime. It centers on the dilemma of a black police officer whose job places him in the role of killing blacks on behalf of whites. He is hated by those whites, and he is despised by the blacks who eventually drive him to suicide during a riot. The police officer's life symbolizes the split loyalties which afflict many blacks. His death becomes the black community's symbolic ritual of expunging self-hatred and racial treachery. Significantly, the self-hatred that destroys the police officer is associated with older blacks. The young blacks are the revolutionaries. They drive the police officer to suicide, and at the end of the play they promise to return in order to take care of "some heavy business." The events of the play spark the promise of fundamental changes that are associated with a new (young) consciousness.

Black youth also spearhead the revolution in Junkies Are Full of SHHH… (1971). Here Damu and Chuma set out to rid the community (Newark) of drug pushers. In the process they kill the whites who control the drug traffic, and Bigtime, the principal black drug pusher. The play concludes with Bigtime's body being pulled out to be displayed on the street as a message to the community.

These plays are all linked by the fact that they are street theater. Their setting is primarily or exclusively the streets of black neighborhoods. Their themes are rooted in the "street" experience (prostitution, police actions, rioting, and drug traffic). And they are obviously aimed at those people whose lives are influenced by these street experiences. Moreover, as the rather grisly ending of Junkies demonstrates, street theater of this kind treats the street as a kind of medium, a communications device that may be used destructively (by junkies) or constructively (by young revolutionaries spreading their message). Consequently, the very idea of street theater exploits the familiar image of the street itself as a living dramatic environment, an environment that offers its audience a variety of messages. The play's setting defines its scope and action.

In addition to the theater of the street, Baraka also produced a number of other short pieces which are really based on ritualistic pantomime, dance, and chant. These are the plays of the later black nationalist period in which the emphasis is on the celebration of blackness rather than on exorcising white racism or black self-hatred. In this vein Bloodrites (1971) is a ritual dance. It features groups of blacks dancing around (white) devil figures and chanting black power slogans in Swahili. The devils wither away in exhaustion while the blacks gain increasing strength from their dance and chants. Black Power Chant (1972) is precisely what its title signifies: a group of dancers chant black power slogans as they move about on the stage. Ba-Ra-Ka, too, is based on song, dance, and political slogans.

On the basis of theme these plays are undistinguished. They never move beyond the obvious. The really interesting feature of such plays lies in their design and impact as spectacle. Dance (act) and chant (word) are integrated within highly stylized forms of ritual. And despite the intellectual thinness of these works they represent Baraka's continuing interest in ritual as drama, an interest that has obviously grown from the satiric subversiveness of "The Baptism" to the use of ritual as a legitimate medium in its own right. Here it is the medium of celebration, drawing upon the rhetoric of black power slogans, as well as the rhythms of black dance and music. In the process this kind of theater is intrinsically bound up with the experience that it celebrates: it is a an expression of black power—a symptom of the movement rather than simply an enactment of it.

B. The Longer Plays

Despite their obvious flaws Baraka's short plays are generally more interesting than most of his black nationalist dramas. These shorter works provide some direct clues to Baraka's dramatic imagination in terms of street theater, ritual drama, and theater as a committed art form. And as such they offer the audience a relatively more stimulating experience of theater than much of what Baraka has produced since the first major plays. The longer black nationalist pieces, however, reflect no significant innovations in Baraka's dramatic writing, although their themes are more ambitious than those of the shorter works.

Black Mass (1966), a science fantasy in the Frankenstein tradition, is typical of the limited achievement of the longer plays. As the title indicates, this is another example of Baraka's ritual drama. In this case the ritual is based on the religious myth, "Yacub's History," in the Nation of Islam (previously known as the Black Muslims). Here the idea and function of ritual are closer to the satiric themes of "The Baptism" than they are to the themes of celebration in the short black nationalist plays. The title is there-fore ironic: it confirms the evil connotations of black mass (black magic) and black identity in white, Christian culture; but at the same time it defines evil on an antiChristian, antiwhite basis. Hence the evil in the play is really caused by a black scientist, Jacoub, who creates the first white being, a creature that quickly turns out to be a monster. The beast corrupts and destroys blacks—including Jacoub himself—by tainting them with its whiteness.

The beast represents Jacoub's moral bankruptcy and his racial self-betrayal. In creating the beast Jacoub panders to what the black nationalist perceives as a sterile need to create for the sake of creation. Jacoub does not envisage his creation in any functional sense. And on this basis his scientific talent belongs to that tradition of a narrow, self-serving rationalism which Baraka repeatedly attacks in his writings. But Jacoub's scientific narrowness is not only suspect on this moral basis. It is also reprehensible be-cause it reflects his racial self-hatred. Creating for the sake of creating, whether in art or in science, is a "white" Western value system, and in catering to such a value system Jacoub betrays his racial and cultural tradition—a functional tradition, as defined in black nationalist terms. Thus the cries of the white beast ("White! … White! … Me … Me …" reflect Jacoub's self-destructiveness. Although the cries express the racist's megalomania in one sense, they also express that racial self-deprecation which has historically eroded black pride and cultural values. As Jacoub's fellow scientists warn him, his undertaking negates human feeling and decency and represents "the emptiness of godlessness," because it involves the betrayal of his ethnic and moral integrity.

The moral and ethnic implications of Jacoub's personality are also linked with Baraka's perception of time and history. Jacoub's invention involves the "discovery" of time; but, as his colleagues protest, time is merely a demon that turns human beings into "running animals." Jacoub's obsession with time is therefore suspect because it implies the subordination of the human personality to the rigid categories (exemplified here by time) of a narrow, rationalistic view of experience. And in ethnic terms this obsession is another symptom of Jacoub's racial self-hatred: his rationalism is clearly identical to that scientifically defined concept of time and history which Baraka repeatedly attributes to white, Western culture, and which associates "progress" and the very idea of human "development" with clock time.

Finally, the play contrasts Jacoub's rationalism with a more integrated and complex perception of science—science as complete knowledge encompassing reason, spirit and feeling, rather than as a narrow technology dedicated to the creation of systems for their own sake. The "compassionless abstractions" that Jacoub's colleagues deplore in him are therefore "anti-life" because they represent the "substitution of thought" for feeling. At this point Baraka's familiar redefinition of magic, especially black magic ("black mass"), is crucial. The "true" scientists (Jacoub's colleagues) are magicians in that here, as in the Black Magic poems, magic represents knowledge as an integrated and creative process. On the other hand, Jacoub's fragmented approach to science as an enclosed system is destructive. His is a limited kind of knowledge in that it is divorced from humanistic concerns and moral values. This kind of science is a perverted and destructive kind of "magic," and Baraka ironically invests it with all the negative connotations with which white, technological cultures have responded to nonwhite traditions of "science." That is, he is now treating Jacoub's "white" science as evil magic, as a form of "witchcraft" or "superstition." The very idea of black magic therefore emerges from the play as an ironically ambiguous concept. It connotes (a) the black nationalist ideal of a creatively integrated approach to knowledge and experience, and (b) the evil magic which Western culture and blacks like Jacoub develop from a limited approach to science—at the same time that they reject the nonwhite ideal of knowledge as mere "superstition" and "black magic."

On the whole the themes of Black Mass are full of complex possibilities. But the play is badly flawed. Quite apart from the theatrically unconvincing plot and the self-defeating shrillness, Baraka fails to exploit fully the idea of ritual that his title so deliberately invokes. The play's ambitious complex of themes therefore remain unlinked with the kind of formal, ritualistic design that is promised by the work's title and religious background.

"Great Goodness of Life," subtitled "A Coon Show," is one of Baraka's better black nationalist plays. While Black Mass harks back, unsuccessfully, to the satiric use of ritual form in "The Baptism," "Great Goodness of Life" continues Baraka's earlier interest in the theater's role playing as a symptom of social roles. The idea of the "coon show" is therefore bound up with the play's presentation of racial types. Blacks and whites are satirically presented as stereotypes which they have imposed upon themselves as well as upon others. The racial role playing of society is actually an extended coon show in which white racism fosters a sense of superiority by attributing the subhuman coon role to blacks. And in their turn blacks reinforce their inferior status by playing this attributed role. The coon in this show is Court Royal; and the setting, a courtroom, heightens the impression of a "show" or piece of theater by virtue of the dramatic nature of judicial proceedings.

Court Royal has been accused by the white court of having harbored a murderer. He knows nothing about the crime with which he is charged, but as a racially timid and conservative black he is easily intimidated into accepting the court's final edict: he must expiate his "crime" by shooting the murderer, and as a result his soul will be "washed white as snow." Court Royal complies with the edict, then celebrates his freedom and "white" soul without once reacting to the fact that the young "murderer" claims him as father in the moment of death. As the play ends Court Royal suddenly assumes a lively pose and announces to Louise (off-stage) that he is going to the bowling alley for a while.

That closing vignette contrasts with the opening scene which is set outside an old log cabin, presumably in a rural setting that is far removed from the urban environment of a bowling alley. The shifts in time and place are comparable with similar changes in "The Slave." The juxtaposition of past and present, black rural roots and black urban present, dramatizes the continuity and the pervasiveness of the destructive attitudes represented by the coon show. And as in "Dutchman" these continuities are reflected in the play's deliberate emphasis on social types and role playing: by their very nature the stereotypes of the coon show underscore the enduring nature of the racial attitudes that they embody.

In his other major black nationalist play Baraka returns once again to a dramatic form that he first utilizes in his early drama. "Madheart" (1966) is subtitled "A Morality Play," and it therefore recalls the morality play tradition upon which "The Baptism" draws. In "Madheart" the "moral" conflicts of the morality drama are defined in terms of black nationalism. They center on an ethnosexual battle for the black male's soul, or more precisely, for his sexual allegiance. At the same time these conflicts involve a struggle for the racial integrity of the black everywoman who is torn between the old desire to imitate white models of femininity and the new black insistence on racial pride and black beauty.

The ethical and ethnic struggles of the play's themes are developed within an unconvincingly melodramatic plot. Black Man and Black Woman vanquish the seductive arrogance of the (white) Devil Lady. Then they undertake, in the spirit of black unity, to "take care" of the sick ones—Mother and Sister—who are still fascinated with white standards of sexual beauty. On the whole the moral tensions of the play are linked with the black male's consciousness and personality. He feels compelled to destroy the "whiteness" of Sister's self-hating images of white femininity, not only for her own sake, but for his own: he needs to eradicate from within himself his destructive obsession with the white woman as a supposedly superior being. He is both repelled by and fascinated with the white woman (Devil Lady) for these reasons. And this fascination-abhorrence is emphasized by the scene in which he destroys Devil Lady. The manner of the execution is both a form of revenge and a kind of self-betrayal: he thrusts arrows, a spear and a stake into her genitals, thereby tainting the act of execution with the suggestive connotations of rape.

In this connection it is significant that Devil Lady is presented as a masked figure. The white mask suggests not only a white presence as such but a white image imposed upon and accepted as a sexual norm by black men and women. And in this latter sense the "execution" of Devil Lady is really an act of self-cleansing by the black man and his ally, Black Woman. In turn this cleansing has implications that go beyond the immediate sexual issue. The Devil Lady image represents white culture at large as it is interpreted from a black nationalist viewpoint—a culture in which moral and social values, as well as goods, are marketed through the media by the exploitation of the (white) woman's sexual image. In the inelegant language of Baraka's Devil Lady, "My pussy rules the world through newspapers. My pussy radiates the great heat."

The sexual issues that Baraka explores here are not essentially innovative insofar as they are related to the black experience. But in linking mese issues with the broader social context as well as with the racial theme, he offers a potentially complex and interesting view-point of his subject. Despite that potential, however, "Madheart" is unconvincing at best and more often than not is offensive and bombastic. The main problem stems from the dramatist's sexual perceptions, especially his perception of female sexuality and female roles in society. On one level, for example, it is possible to justify the manner in which Black Man executes Devil Lady by indicating that this reflects his lingering fascination with the white woman's sexuality even in the very moment at which he attempts to expunge the myth of white (sexual) superiority from his consciousness. But on another level, it is difficult to es-cape the conclusion that this kind of crude genital violence reflects a deeper, disturbing response to female sexuality as such, irrespective of race. It is the kind of re sponse in which the ideal woman is the subjugated woman and in which the most attractive form of female sexuality is one that is accessible, for whatever reason, to a neurotically masculine need to engage in repetitive rites of phallic domination.

In effect the rather shrill themes of ethnic regeneration amount to little more than a thinly disguised rehashing of certain male preconceptions that Baraka, black nationalism notwithstanding, shares with nonblack men. Black Man's disposal of Devil Lady bears all the hallmarks of old, universal traditions of masculine dominance. So does Black Man's relationship with Black Woman. From a certain point of view that relationship is no more satisfac-tory than the ethnosexual order of things that it is supposed to replace. Both the "new" black man and the "new" black woman have disposed of their sexual and racial self-loathing in order to reaffirm all the traditional values of masculine superiority and feminine submissiveness. He therefore demonstrates his need for her by slapping her, and his new sense of "manhood" depends upon her sub-mission to him and to her defined role as mother: '"I want you, woman, as a woman. Go down' (He slaps her again.) 'Go down, submit, … love … and to man, now, forever."' She assures him of this newly found "strength" by submitting to his strength—and his sperm: "I am your woman, and you are the strongest of God. Fill me with your seed."

The sexual ideal that Baraka espouses here is also advocated in his political essays. Indeed Kawaida Studies reflects his personal confusion and distress at the possibility that the conventions of female subordination may be replaced by new sexual roles based on equality. The black woman, he insists, is the black man's "divine complement." As for sexual equality, "We do not believe in 'equality' of men and women. We cannot understand what devils and the devilishly influenced mean when they say equality for women. We could never be equals … nature has not provided thus." And according to this natural scheme of things the black woman must inspire her man and teach the children. Curiously enough it does not strike Baraka the black nationalist that a political ideology which demands equality for blacks while denying equality to women is self-contradictory. And this contradiction severely limits the scope and depth of "Madheart."

On the whole Black Mass, "Great Goodness of Life," and "Madheart" are centered primarily on attacks upon white society and white attitudes among blacks. And Baraka develops these attacks in a generally less interesting way than the manner in which he handles themes of ethnic growth and celebration in the other major plays of his black nationalist period—"Jello" and "Slave Ship." "Jello" was written in the middle 1960s and was originally scheduled to be published with the other works that eventually appeared in Four Black Revolutionary Plays in 1969. But the publisher balked and the play finally appeared separately in 1970. It is a satiric parody of "The Jack Benny Show," featuring all the main characters of the original television show—Jack Benny, his black valet Rochester, Dennis, Mary, and the announcer Don Wilson.

In "Jello" Rochester is no longer the surly but basically compliant servant. He is now a black militant who stages his own rebellion by refusing to work for Benny. He quits his job after robbing Benny and the others. The effectiveness of the play depends in part on its close parody of the original show. Baraka captures the style and personalities of the Jack Benny program. Indeed the play self-consciously underscores this similarity: hence Rochester is able to "rebel" with relative ease because for much of the proceedings his antagonists assume that his actions are all part of "The Jack Benny Show" itself, that the entire incident is just a joke.

In turn this leads to another aspect of the play's effectiveness. The well-developed scenes in which Rochester's victims believe that this is all in fun have a twofold effect. They dramatize the degree to which "reality" and "fantasy" are blurred in Rochester's world. White fantasies about blacks are part of a social reality in which the "good" black is the docile Uncle Tom (the old Rochester) and in which the idea of black militancy is something of a joke. And, ironically, such fantasies make it difficult for whites to recognize the validity of militant claims when blacks do break away from the docile stereotype. Moreover, the banal fantasies of television, including programs like "The Jack Benny Show," are mirrors of that general insipidity which Baraka consistently attributes to American culture at large. In this regard "Jello" is comparable with "Home on the Range," where the gibberish of the white suburban family is presented as an echo of television. Finally, the realism of the play allows the audience to perceive convincing links between Rochester, the new militant, and Rochester, the old Uncle Tom. Despite his compliance the original Rochester is sufficiently saucy in his relationship with Jack Benny to suggest a certain predisposition toward rebelliousness. And Baraka's militant really brings out into the open the rebelliousness that seems to lurk under the surface of the Uncle Tom image.

As in "The Slave" the militant's violence implies a previous, long-standing potential for revolt. Unlike "The Slave," however, "Jello" is a literal statement in the sense that Rochester is no mere dreamer of revolutions, as Walker Vessel's is. Rochester's actions are not invested with those ambiguities which confirm the suspicion, in "The Slave," that the race war is an imaginary event taking place in Walker's fantasies. Indeed in "Jello" there is a sustained emphasis on the contrast between (white) fantasies and (black) action. Consequently Rochester is an unreal or imaginary rebel only when he is perceived through eyes that can see him only as Benny's lackey, as the comically irreverent but fundamentally docile Uncle Tom. Thus while the play gradually strips away Benny's white liberalism to expose the racism with which he views Rochester, it simultaneously forces whites to awaken slowly from their racial fantasies and to see Rochester's personality and actions as they really are. In effect the play seeks to confront whites with what is really happening, notwithstanding deeply rooted needs to ignore or distort the realities behind black militancy.

Despite Rochester's personal success in forcing the recognition of his actions and new attitudes, "Jello" as a whole avoids that facile wish-fulfillment which too often mars Baraka's black nationalist writings. Thus although Rochester escapes with the stolen money and compels his victims to recognize him as he is, his triumph is counter-balanced by the continuity of the social order against which he is rebelling. Thus before he is knocked out and robbed by Rochester, Jack Benny's announcer (Don Wilson) assures the television audience that "The Jack Benny Show" will return as usual the following week. The announcement amounts to an assurance of continuity—the persistence of white fantasies even after the revelation of black attitudes. Indeed the play as a whole is a wry tribute to the power of the media, especially television, in reinforcing and perpetuating entrenched viewpoints in white America: Rochester's individual rebellion, like the actual revolts of the 1960s, has become a television "event," recognizable as an actual experience with disturbing implications for the white audience but easily transformed into an entertaining spectacle that leaves old fantasies untouched after the initial moment of disturbance. Hence the play as a whole balances the celebration of a black revolutionary idealism against the persistence of certain social attitudes in white America. But, paradoxically, the intransigence of white attitudes actually heightens the importance of Rochester's rebellion by underscoring the need for black modes of perception that arise from a new black awareness in-stead of depending upon the old, and continuing, white indifference. This blend of revolutionary idealism and social realism is rare in Baraka's black nationalist writings, and it is largely responsible for the success of "Jello" as a complex drama and entertaining theater.

"Slave Ship," (1967), "a historical pageant," is one of Baraka's more successful experiments in ritual drama. The plot is minimal. It consists of images, dances, and pantomime together with sporadic dialogue; all is designed to dramatize the physical and psychic experiences of slavery from the holds of the slave ships to contemporary American society. The play's real strength lies in the audiovisual impact of its materials. Much of the action takes place in darkness or half-light. This suggests the hold of a slave ship, and the relative lack of lighting accentuates the variety of sounds upon which Baraka builds his themes and his dramatic effect—African drums, humming of the slaves, cries of children and their mothers, shouts of slave drivers, and cracking sounds of the slaver master's whip.

The succession of audiovisual forms is integral to the pattern of ritual upon which Baraka bases his historical pageant. The sights and sounds of the slave ship remain throughout, but they alternate from time to time with other forms which depict successive stages of black American history—the plantation of the slaveholder, the nonviolent civil rights movement, and the black nationalist movement. History itself becomes a succession of rituals, particularly the ritual of suffering which gives way after repeated cycles to the new rituals of racial assertion and cultural awakening. The music which dominates the play is integral to the ritualistic pageantry of history. At first the main sounds are those of the African drum, accentuating the fresh African memories of the new slaves. Then as the plot moves toward the contemporary period the sounds of the African drum are gradually integrated with the musical forms that evolved in black American history since slavery. And this musical progression culminates in the blues and jazz idioms both as forms of protest and as the celebration of black nationalism. By a similar token the humming of the slaves in the holds of the slave ships gradually gives way to the sounds of protest and eventual triumph.

But throughout all of this the audience is always in touch with the persistent sounds and sights of the slave ship itself, for this is the setting that remains for the duration of the play, and the subsequent historical epochs are actually superimposed upon it in sequence. The historical pageant is, therefore, both progressive in direction (moving from slavery to the black nationalism of the 1970s) and circular (reinforcing a sense of the moral and social continuities of the society: the slavery of the past exerts a powerful influence on the circumstances of the present). Moreover, the persistence of the slave ship images has the effect of defining history itself as movements (progressive and cyclical) through time. Similarly the ritualistic forms of the play (dance, chant, and pantomime) are each a microcosm of the historical process: each synthesizes the materials inherited from a previous generation with the experiences of the contemporary period. And by extension this kind of synthesis characterizes the play as a whole. As a pageant that combines past and present experiences, traditional forms and new materials, it reenacts the historical process as Baraka defines it.

Socialist Drama

"Slave Ship" predates Baraka's major socialist dramas by several years. But the play's historical themes, and historically defined structure, make it a direct forerunner of The Motion of History and S-l. And this remains true despite the fact that "Slave Ship" is not committed to socialist ideology. The perception of history in all three plays is intrinsic to Baraka's emphasis on the theater as a teaching device. In black nationalist drama like "Slave Ship" the reenactment of history fulfills a major assumption of black nationalism: the full understanding of black history is crucial to a vital sense of black identity because the crippling of black pride in the past has been partly the result of white distortions of black history. Moreover, the very process of reenactment becomes a form of celebration, the celebration of that black ethnicity which emerges from the exploration of the past.

On the whole this approach to the play as teaching device and as celebration is similar to the fundamental premise of Baraka's socialist drama, although in the latter there is a far more explicit self-consciousness about the teaching role. The norms of "scientific socialism" reflect a certain commitment to education: the inevitability of the socialist revolution is partly the consequence of politically enlightening the masses. Art, especially dramatic art, facilitates the revolutionizing process by depicting the past and its im-pact on the present. While the black nationalist's historical sense enhances the discovery and celebration of a distinctive black culture, the historical perspectives of scientific socialism encourage the social awareness that will hasten revolution across racial lines. As Baraka himself describes The Motion of History and S-1, "both plays are vehicles for a simple message, viz., the only solution to our problems … is revolution! And that revolution is inevitable. The Motion of History brings it back through the years, focusing principally on the conscious separation created between black and white workers who are both exploited by the same enemy."

Both plays also reflect a continuing weakness in Baraka's committed art. In this socialist phase, as in the black nationalist period, he suffers from a tendency to indulge in ideological wish-fulfillment at the expense of social realities. Hence the earlier habit of exaggerating the depth and breadth of black nationalism in America has been replaced by unconvincing images of one great socialist rebellion in all the countries of the world (The Motion of History) and by the highly unlikely spectacle of the American labor union movement as an anticapitalist, prorevolutionary force. Of course these "weaknesses" are less troublesome if we are inclined to accept the underlying purpose of such plays: they are concerned less with strict social realism as such, and more with the advocacy of social change.

The realities that invite "scientific" analysis in these plays are the facts of history, the kind of historical data that forms the plot of The Motion of History. The play is actually a series of historical vignettes. The first act depicts scenes from the early civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in order to attack the futility and self-destructiveness of nonviolent protest. Thereafter the play interweaves the ethnic and labor union movements of the twentieth century with past rebellions. The earliest slave uprisings, the abolitionist movement, and the political conflicts of the Reconstruction period are all dramatized as responses to a repressive caste system that is based on class and economics rather than race. Racial conflicts that do occur are portrayed as the outcome of a deliberate policy, by the ruling elite, of stimulating racial divisiveness in order to prevent solidarity among the working classes.

Like "Slave Ship," The Motion of History dramatizes the "motion" of history on two levels. The multiple historical episodes which form most of the play emphasize the cyclical nature of American history by presenting exploitation and rebellion as continuing features of the society. But the play's conclusion emphasizes a progressive movement toward the kind of radical change that will dispense with the traditional cycles of continuing repression and abortive rebellion. And by emphasizing history as a progressive force, the play's theme and structure dramatize the "inevitability" of socialist revolution as the culminating result of that progression.

S-1 is less heavily dependent on historical data than is The Motion of History. There are a limited number of scenes that depict examples of judicial and political repression in America's past. But on the whole the plot centers on a mythical incident that is historically significant because it is an extension of the old repressiveness and because it hastens the historical inevitability of revolutionary reaction among the masses. The thin plot centers on the passage of a law (S-l) that severely limits political activities and freedom of expression. Revolutionary groups organize resistance to the passage of the law, and after it comes into effect they plan widespread defiance of it. The play concludes on an optimistic note: the revolutionaries celebrate their unity and purpose. The play's real strength, and one of its few merits as theater, lies in Baraka's ability to integrate his dramatic form with the conflicts that constitute his political scenes.

In this regard S-l achieves a limited success of the kind that The Motion of History never approaches. Thus Baraka is able to eke out some sense of the dramatic from the series of confrontations on which the play's plot is based.

The judicial debates on the merits of the new law, in the Supreme Court, are enhanced by the inherently dramatic setting of the courtroom; and this setting is again exploited to effect in the trial of Red (one of the revolutionary leaders) on charges of treason. In a similar vein Congress provides the setting for another series of confrontations—the debates between "liberals" and "conservatives" about the law and the current social unrest. The dramatic experience centers here on the interaction of ideas. This is the theater of ideological positions rather than one of character and situation, and in this respect S-1 is the culmination of a trend that has been developing in Baraka's dramatic writings since his earlier black nationalist plays.

This kind of drama does have its built-in limitations, of course. The characters are rudimentary types conceived in very broad terms, so broad indeed that the revolutionary figures of S-1 are indistinguishable not only from each other but from their counterparts in The Motion of History. Scenes in which ideological conflicts are presented are severely underdeveloped, largely because the extreme sketchiness of the characterization limits the possibilities of the very confrontations that are supposed to dramatize the clash of ideas. And as a result of all this the audience is left with a theater of rhetoric in which potentially interesting situations and personalities are inundated with a flood of repetitive statements from all sides of the political landscape. Ironically enough Baraka's lack of emotional control in his ideological statements and his increasing indifference to characterization have resulted in a thin, one-dimensional drama that contravenes his own ideal of dramatic art as one that fuses word, act, and idea. Instead what he has produced is largely a loosely connected series of scenes filled with the shopworn clichés of reactionaries and revolutionaries alike. At its worst this method exemplifies the predominance of ideological word over dramatic art, the very kind of imbalance that Baraka himself abhors in theory. Curiously enough, at this stage of his career as dramatist his theory of effective drama is less compatible with the kind of plays that he prefers to write, and it is more appropriate to the early plays which he does not choose to mention in his introduction to The Motion of History and Other Plays.


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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 then, sad to say, he almost literally sends it all up in smoke, under what I feel is the mistaken impression that in order to have point and impact a good story must be given general and even symbolic implications. Himself a Negro, Mr. Jones presents a young Negro who is accosted in the subway and subjected to a sort of mocking seduction by a crazy, though fascinating, blonde in a tight-fitting jersey dress. At first, the girl seems just a nutty bohemian type and scarcely dangerous—which, indeed, she turns out to be. She begins by needling him and trying to provoke him in every way, and ends up by goading him with such trigger words as "Uncle Tom" and "nigger." Finally, he can stand it no longer and tells her off in an outburst of fury that goes on for quite a while and encompasses all the anger of the Negro against white people. There is no doubt that this anger is justified, but there is also no doubt, I think, that in this case it is inartistic, weakening the character and the play. Up to the time of the outburst, the boy has been winning every round anyway, and it just won't do to suddenly cast him as the representative of the exploited telling off his exploiters. Much of what he says, however deeply felt it may be, has been said before. There are echoes of James Baldwin's essays, and even of Adrienne Kennedy's "Funnyhouse of a Negro." At any rate, somewhere in the middle of the harangue the rage sounded hollow to me—cooked up rather than real—and I stopped trusting the playwright. It is too bad to see a writer as gifted and as one-of-a-kind as Mr. Jones forcing himself into any sort of familiar mold. Still, the pre-outburst dialogue could scarcely be funnier or more painful or fuller of surprises, and even much of the monologue is forceful and satisfying to an invective fan like me. The language and some of the business are as rough as any I've ever been exposed to in the theatre, and both seemed to me entirely appropriate to the characters and the situation.

Mr. Jones has written two wonderful parts, and Jennifer West and Robert Hooks do them justice. Miss West is remarkably vivid and willful and funny and strange, and Mr. Hooks is good, too, recording any number of changes in emotional temperature and not letting one word of his scathing lines go to waste. The actors who play the silent, onlooking passengers display an indifference to the lethal vendetta taking place before their eyes that surely marks them as marrow-deep New Yorkers enjoying public transportation.

John Simon (review date Autumn 1964)

SOURCE: A review of "Dutchman," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Autumn, 1964, p. 424.

[In the following unfavorable review, Simon condemns what he considers to be an overtly allegorical plot, simplistic symbols, and pretentious language in "Dutchman."]

In LeRoi Jones's "Dutchman" an intellectual, artistic young Negro is picked up on the subway by a weird, taunting white temptress. He is to take her along to a party he is going to, in exchange for which she'll later take him home and to her bed. The girl provokes him with jeers at his attempts to become assimilated into white society and culture; hers in a vicious combination of inviting nympho-mania and castrating rejections. He finally explodes in a philippic hurled as much at some other white passengers as at the girl herself; when she further provokes him into swinging at her, it is she who pulls out a switchblade knife, kills him, and, with the help of the other passengers, dumps the body onto an empty platform. As the play ends, she has spotted another well-dressed, bookish young Negro who has just boarded the subway car, and she prepares to repeat the entire bloody ritual.

That the play is preposterous on the literal level is obvious enough. Yet allegory or symbolism, to be effective, must first function properly on the literal level. But does "Dutchman" work even figuratively? Does the white society woo the Negro with a mixture of promises and rebuffs only to destroy him utterly when he shows his just resentment? Perhaps. But it looks to me as if resentment were finally beginning to pay off. Whites, moreover, have been treating Negroes with a simpler, though no less damnable, cruelty. They have been neither so Machiavellian, nor so psychotic, as "Dutchman" implies. Add to this Jones's often consciously arty language and the vacuity of his symbols: the girl plies her victims with apples, an assembly-line Eve; the title presumably refers to the Flying Dutchman, but whether this describes the girl, fatally traveling up and down the subway line, or the boy, needing to be redeemed by the true love of a white girl, is unclear and, in either case, unhelpful. "Dutchman" [is] merely propaganda, which can add some fuel to a sometimes necessary fire; [it is] not truth, which alone can free us from our eternal enemy, ignorance.


Tom S. Reck (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Archetypes in LeRoi Jones' 'Dutchman,'" in Studies in Black Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1970, pp. 66-8.

[In the following article, Reck examines archetypal symbolism in "Dutchman," and argues that Baraka's play pities the white world, leaving Lula stuck in it and setting Clay free through death.]

Most viewers and readers of LeRoi Jones' play "Dutchman" acknowledge its power and recognize the timeliness of the theme. No one has really shown, however, how the elements of myth which it contains make it, at least in a literary way, considerably more than a topical drama of American Racial strife. Newsweek magazine in its review gave token recognition to the quality of myth which raises "Dutchman" "above sociology" to something that is "perennial among men: the exploitation of one another for satisfaction of dreams and hungers"; but it did not analyze Jones' use of myth very specifically.

The stage action of "Dutchman" is simply this: a white girl encounters a black man on a New York subway. When he refuses to fit her erotic dream of the primitive black, she proceeds to taunt him with her sharp mind and her beautiful body until he drops his white disguise to become a Negro and deliver a tirade against the claim that whites can ever understand what being a Negro means. His attack ends in his own ruin, however, when she suddenly murders him.

Jones' early stage directions point toward his purpose to build his message on legend and mythology. He describes the setting as "the flying underbelly of the city" and notes that the subway is "heaped in modern myth." "Dutchman" is, in fact, worked around the most archetypal of all myths: the seduction of the male by the beautiful but deadly female, with particular inference to the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The name of the Negro male, Clay, seems to suggest an Adam and an Everyman; and the white temptress, Lula, is not only a direct descendent of Lilith, Circe, and Delilah, but particularly of Eve. When she enters the subway car, Jones has her eating an apple, which she soon will offer to Clay ("You want this?"). Clay later muses that "eating apples is always the first step" and will even ask: "Hey, what was in those apples?"

As the fall of Adam may be sexual allegory, Clay's destruction is also sex-oriented. Lula's opening remark is ". … I'd turned around and saw you staring through the window in the vicinity of my ass and legs." She obscenely provokes his frenzy with: "Let's rub bellies on the train. The nasty. The nasty. Do the gritty grind, like your ol' raghead mammy. Grind till you lose your mind."

Yet the girl versus boy is only surface; it is only symbolic of white versus black. She refuses to let him be white by damaging his self-image with "God you're dull" and by accusing him of crawling "through the wire" and making tracks "to my side." When he is finally black, however, ("Kiss my black ass"), she kills him. The black man is first condemned when he emulates the white (he is destined to be only a poor imitation anyway). And if he is willing to be totally black, he gets death rather than ridicule. A form of survival if he submits to imitation; death when true to his own nature. With Lula as an Eve and with Clay as a kind of Everyman, Jones seems to be saying that the Negro is man in a natural and primitive and virtuous state: Adam, as it were, before the fall. He is tempted to corruption by white socialization, represented by Eve/Lula and the apples.

Yet it is the white world which Jones seems to finally pity. So the play's title implies, although no one has apparently recognized it. The title is obvious reference to the myth of the Flying Dutchman, condemned to sail the seven seas through eternity, denied the peace of a death. After Clay's murder, Lula moves to apparently repeat the pattern against another Negro male, a device that a number of critics have objected to as theatrical and contrived. Yet, the repetition is essential, since like the ancient Dutchman, she has been condemned by her own bigotry and frustration to act out this ritual through eternity, accompanied now by the hideous screaming of the twentieth-century subway.

Robert L. Tener (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Role Playing as a Dutchman," in Studies in Black Literature, Vol. 3, No. 3, Autumn, 1972, pp. 17-21.

[Tener refutes the widely-held belief that the title of Baraka 's play "Dutchman, " refers to the legend of the Flying Dutchman.]

Although the critical material on LeRoi Jones' dramatic works has been steadily accumulating, one of his best plays has not received the varied attention it deserves. "Dutchman" has intrigued a few critics like Harold Clurman, Hugh Nelson, Susan Sontag, Sister Mary John Carol Blitgen, and John Ferguson. Each has sought to interpret the complex events leading to Clay's murder. For Blitgen, Nelson, and Ferguson the title refers to the legend of the Flying Dutchman. The most comprehensive treatment of this point of view is provided by Professor Nelson [in "LeRoi Jones' 'Dutchman': A Brief Ride on a Doomed Ship," Education Theatre Journal, March, 1968]. His thesis is that Jones had converted the legend to a modern myth in order to reveal the "symbolic relationship of Clay and Lula."

Professor Nelson draws parallels equating the subway car of the play with the legendary sailing ship and its doomed crew. The most important, yet awkward, parallel equates Lula with the cursed Captain. The problem in this parallel is caused by the necessity to explain the reversal of sexual roles. According to the Wagnerian version of the legend, the curse on the Captain can be removed only if he is released by the love of a pure woman. Lula, in her surrogate role, therefore, has to find the love of a pure man. As Nelson points out, Lula cannot be released by Clay's love. She can only use him. Professor Nelson concludes, then, that the legend is "an indication of the doomed fatality of the situation and of the characters who live through it." For Nelson the mythical pattern of the play involves the heroine's quest for redemption (Lula needs to be taken as a human being not as a sex machine), the discovery of the proper object of her quest (Clay), her apparent failure through betrayal (Clay cannot respond properly to her), the violent denouement (the quarrel), and the last minute union of the lovers in death.

A closer analysis of the play suggests that other views are possible without the necessity of the subsitute sex scheme to make the old legend apply. Indeed the play needs to be examined as part of that body of literature that treats the duel of the sexes. Its immediate dramatic ancestors are Strindberg's Miss Julie, Ionesco's The Lesson, and Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Against this back-ground the legend of the Flying Dutchman appears too barren a myth to explain the ambiguities in the play.

The title of the play suggests a possible interpretation that has heretofore been ignored. No definite article precedes the title. The play is called "Dutchman," not "The Dutchman." The implication of this omission is that Jones had no specific individual or legend at hand. Instead, it is more likely that what he intended is the theatrical term meaning a strip of cloth used to hid the crack between the seams of flats, or, in a more general sense, a contrivance used to hide a defect of some kind.

From this perspective the play acquires a meaning different from what Professor Nelson has suggested. The theme of the play is anchored to the defects in character and in personality of a black man and a white woman and to the devices which they use to hide those defects. Both Lula and Clay have lost their identities as human beings and use role playing to hide their loss and subsequent alienation from meaningful relationships between man and woman. Inasmuch as Clay is black, the play also reflects the historical relationships between blacks and whites on an abstract, highly generalized level. In this sense the subway (on which the action develops) is similar to the underground railroad of slave days that carried slaves north to their freedom and to their new identities. The subway is obviously a train and it is underground. It takes Clay and Lula somewhere, perhaps to freedom. But that freedom is defined differently for them. The train takes Clay to his death; it frees him from his self-imposed dependence on the devices of clothing and white middle class values. It takes Lula to other victims. She can find herself only in the repetitive killing of others. As Harold Clurman pointed out in his review of "The Toilet" and "The Slave," Lula is the "concise and piercing dramatic image for the killer our society generates through its metallic emptiness" [The Naked Image, 1966].

Lula has as her heritage both the Lilith and the Eve patterns. She is female and equal to man; she is the temptress and needs to determine man's reactions to her. Her first role or device to hide her emptiness is to be the aggressive seductress searching for a man. Once she has discovered him, she defines the situation between them in sexual and political terms. She maniupultes Clay's reactions by telling him lies and deducing part of his life style from the stereotyped pattern his clothing suggests he has become accommodated to. Her second strategy is to pretend to be the white liberal intellectual who sees the world in terms of labels. Not being able to accept meaningful relationships, she tells lies to create illusions and to give meaning to the situations which she helps develop. She turns relationships into games, especially the sexual feelings between men and women. With her hand on Clay's knee she says that he is going to a party and that she is a poetess.

But she is also a creative puppet master. Conceiving a dramatic event, she develops the dialogue, creates the situations, and then, because she has substituted knowledge of the stereotype for knowledge of the real Clay, wants him to act and even become the character she has created falsely. She is an author in search of a character who is necessary to her creative abilities. As a consequence of this quality in her role playing, her relationship to Clay tends to be ritualistic and depends on sexual and political attitudes, on the game of a false white liberality, and on her desire to substitute her illusions of life for what she senses is already dead.

Although she plays other roles to hide what she is, the early incidents in the play have presented her defect. She is one of the living dead. Like Clay, she is the product of her racial past. Embedded in her are the desires of the white master who wants to exploit the sexual resources of the black slave, who wants to shape the image of the black man according to his white vision. By that act of manipulation, the master loses his identity. The relationship between a master and his slave is frequently characterized by the tendency of the master to lose his human identity in treating his slave and to exploit the slave through habit. In the end he cannot relate to the slave like one human being to another. He responds to what he senses is a thing, a piece of property. In this sense Lula cannot love.

Having lost her identity, literally having no valid historical roots which enable her to relate to Clay, she becomes bored. In the next instant she turns sharply on Clay, rejects him, then shifts to him the burden of their incipient sexual involvement. She accuses him of trying to get fresh with her. In the historical context of racial America, her actions are equivalent to jamming the black into a dangerous, ambiguous position which many whites would interpret as damaging the honor of a white woman. In the past some whites would have lynched a black man caught in such an act. Clay's response to her actions cannot be divorced from the historical consequences. He has become a type which she knows well.

She pretends also to be the new white liberal who appeared on the American scene in the 1960's. She knows how blacks should act and what it means to be black. In this mask she attacks his stereotyped clothing and reveals her digust with him because he has not resisted the pressures of white society. Believing that she knows what his identity should be and how he should find himself, she tells him what he is not while ignoring what he might wish to be. Hers is here again the role of the racist killer. She sneers at his lack of tradition; she ridicules his acceptance of white middle class values. But like Clay, she too has lost her historical antecedents which gave her life meaning. As an actress of dead roles, she symbolizes the white attitudes which Jones has come to attack so often in his plays.

Helene Keyssar (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Lost Illusions, New Visions: Imamu Amiri Baraka's 'Dutchman,'" in The Curtain and the Veil: Strategies in Black Drama, Burt Franklin & Co., 1981, pp. 147-76.

[In the following excerpt, Keyssar argues that Baraka has portrayed the main characters of "Dutchman" realistically, not just symbolically, thereby intensifying their effect on the audience.]

There is, as in most drama, an attempt in "Dutchman" to change the spectator's way of looking at the world. "Dutchman," however, works in such a way that for spectators as well as stage characters, changes in perspective vary according to whether one is black or white. "Dutchman" makes manifest the ambivalent intentions that have been disguised or latent in earlier black dramas. While "Great Goodness of Life" and other black revolutionary dramas urge the need for separate dramatic strategies for black and white audiences by aiming their intentions only at black spectators, "Dutchman" acknowledges the encounter of two worlds and two modes of seeing within the one world it constructs onstage and within the space of the audience for which it is played. The play presumes our differences and confronts them; some elements of its strategy will work similarly on black and white spectators, but its essential strategic devices affect not what black and white spectators share as human beings, but what separates us as black and white Americans.

In "Dutchman," the imprisoning paradoxes that black dramas had been revealing for forty-five years are boldly and baldly thrust at the audience; in the world of twentieth-century urban America that Baraka synthesizes and mythologizes, it becomes an insult to call a black man middle class. It is also possible in this world at once to perceive a black man as middle-class, a bastard, and the son of a "social-working mother." This is a play in which not to be a nigger is to be a "dirty white man," and in which, as "Dutchman" goes on to expose, not to dance with Lula, the drama's emissary from the white middle class, is to choose death as your partner.

For the many spectators who have witnessed productions of "Dutchman" since its first performance in 1964, it has remained singular, baffling, and troubling. For forty-five minutes we listen to a white woman, Lula, delineate what it means to have "made it" in modern America, to be middle-class. But Lula not only catalogs middle-class attributes—having an education, being able to make appropriate small-talk, wearing a three-button suit—she presents the other main character, the black man, Clay, to himself and to us as a model of these characteristics. While some, particularly those who are black among the audience, may be suspicious and angered from the beginning of the play by Lula's easy assumptions, it is not until Clay's long and explosive speech near the end of "Dutchman" that white spectators are fully forced to acknowledge their disorientation and black spectators are led to unmuted fear. At the end of Clay's speech, he warns Lula and the audience that the day may come when black Americans are indeed accepted into the fold of white middle-class society, and that will be a day when "all of those excoons will be standup Western men, with eyes for clean hard useful lives, sober, pious and sane, and they'll murder you." This is not simply a threat that the rage of black people against racism will eventually and inevitably explode, it is a warning that the very central image of the good American life, the open door to the middle class, is not only a deceptive fantasy but a death wish if realized.

The inclusion of blacks and whites in the world of "Dutchman" is not, then, the "integrated" world of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. It is a world in which a black man and a white woman meet in the rushing anonymity of the subway, engage in conversation at once intimate and estranged, and come to a mutual recognition through violent action. Clay, the black man, and Lula, the white woman, are in the same physical place, but neither they nor we ever see them as alike. Lula attempts to seduce, taunt, bewilder Clay; Clay tries to ignore, rebuff, enjoy, and humor Lula. Finally, only rejection is possible. Clay's refusal is violently verbal; Lula's literally murderous: She kills him. In the end, we learn from this play that black people cannot rest peacefully in the same world with white people like Lula.

Although there may be a moral to "Dutchman," the play is not a fable. Baraka has urged that we regard his "Dutchman" characters as human beings, not primarily as symbolic figures: Lula, Baraka has said, "does not represent anything—she is one" [Doris Abramson, Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925-1959, 1969]. Lula is not a fantasy or an emblem; she is not a character created by a synthesis of Baraka's understanding of important elements in the white American character (or even just the white American female character). Nor is she a figure like Edward Albee's young man in The American Dream—a creature who could never exist in the real world but who functions as a kind of flag to illustrate what that world is elementally like. Lula and Clay are real people, or, in theatrical terms, realistic characters, who can and do exist. We could not encounter Albee's young man on a subway train; we can and do, find people like Clay and Lula on a subway every day, even if we do not recognize them.

Creating the understanding that Lula is one of the people who ride the subway and is not only a representative of them, is central to Baraka's strategy. The playwright wishes to prohibit the audience from maintaining an intellectual distance from Lula and Clay. We are not to be allowed to say, "Well, yes, she does represent elements of American society, but there is no one around really like her." Literary symbols can trouble an audience, but they do not frighten us as would "real" people, because they cannot act like a real people.

Yet Baraka's intention is not limited to our recognition of Lula and Clay as a real white woman and a real black man. The subway on which we discover Lula and Clay is, according to Baraka's stage directions, "heaped in modern myth." From its title, "Dutchman," through its use of apples and its allusions to places like "Juliet's tomb," Baraka's play is "heaped in myth." We are to perceive Lula and Clay, then, as real and mythical figures. This is not a contradiction. As anthropologists have shown us, myth is not a false or fictitious description of events in the world; rather, it is an expression of the particular, common, basic, and necessary ways in which men and women relate to each other and the world around them. The power and magic of myth are that it isolates and enables us to acknowledge those structures of human relationship that define who and how we are in the world. This power and magic are at the core of Baraka's strategy in "Dutchman."

The Toilet"

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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. Jones has exciting and moving things to say. Once again, as in "Dutchman," he discloses a sure grasp of the theatrical image.

But he cannot resist the urge to shock by invoking violence and all the obscenities he can think of. There are times when these shock tactics perform no useful dramatic function, when they clarify no meaning, when they merely set up needless resistance to what the play is saying.

When Mr. Jones sets out to be literal, he is about as un-subtle as the law will allow.

"The Toilet" occurs in a toilet of a boys high school. Larry Rivers has obliged the author by designing a retreat with all the equipment you would find in a men's room. Leo Garen has staged the opening moments of the play to indicate realistic use of the equipment. Mr. Jones and his colleagues apparently assume that nothing can be left to an audience's imagination.

The students, nearly all of them Negro, drift into the toilet. Again Mr. Jones, his director and his actors are nothing if not realistic. The talk is latrine language. The boys are ugly, mindless, full of bravado and violence. They are waiting for a fight to be fought between two boys. Meanwhile, the Negroes assail each other and are particularly vicious to a white boy who has drifted into the room.

Karolis, apparently a Puerto Rican, is finally hauled in, already bloodied from a beating he has received en route to the arena. Foots, a bright boy, whom a teacher has called "a credit to his race," is waiting to take on Karolis. Foots is angry because Karolis has sent him a love letter. Though badly hurt, Karolis rises to fight, and as he is getting the better of Foots, the other Negroes savage him.

For all its violence and "ritual filth," to use Mr. Jones's phrase, "The Toilet" ends on a note of tenderness. The denouement of the play is moving as only a natural dramatist can make it, and underneath its coarseness there runs a strong sense of the needless debasement of human beings. One is sure, however, that Mr. Jones could have made his points without the shock tactics.

Henry Hewes (review date 9 January 1965)

SOURCE: "Crossing Lines," in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, January 9, 1965, p. 46.

[In this review of "The Toilet, " Hewes finds that while the gratuitous violence and obscenities may scare off many viewers, the play is nonetheless "a vivid and indelible work of art."]

LeRoi Jones's two new plays confirm the impression this thirty-year-old playwright made last season with his "Dutchman" and "The Baptism." Mr. Jones is less an astute dramatic craftsman than he is a Negro creatively expressing his portion of a total anger that his race has had to suppress in the centuries since the first slave-owner committed an injustice on the grounds that the Negro was sub-human. His plays are poetic and prophetic views of the total situation by one individual human being in search of a vital identity.

"The Toilet," written in 1961 (before "Dutchman"), is deliberately as unrelievedly obscene a play as Mr. Jones can make it. Against the smelly and profane background of urinals and scrawled-upon lavatory walls we watch a bunch of Negro high school students as they demonstrate the insensitivity, the foul language, and the exercise of gratuitous violence one finds among groups of boys attempting to maintain tough-guy status and a supermasculine virility. Amid all this, the necessity has arisen for a washroom fight between a white boy and a Negro honor student to whom he has written a homosexual love letter. The action is brutal, an example of how society can force people to behave at their worst. But if Mr. Jones deplores this, he also recognizes its essential reality as he seems to present the white boy's extreme pain and humiliation as being somehow inherent in his attempt to reach across the battle lines of moral and racial taboo. Furthermore, his tender ending tells us that only as two non-group-associated individuals can their genuine feelings be shared.

Director Leo Garen has staged the play beautifully and unevasively. Larry Rivers has constructed a realistic men's room, complete with urinals, on the small St. Marks Play-house stage. And the performances are most convincing. Where the play has difficulty is in its violence, which goes on much longer than necessary to make its dramatic point (although not as long as did the Living Theater's The Brig) and its deliberately redundant use of the sort of unimaginative obscene vocabulary adolescent boys use to show that they are one of the gang. Because of this un-pleasantness many will walk out. Those who stay are not likely to feel sufficiently rewarded with esthetic or intellectual gratifications. Yet they will have experienced a vivid and indelible work of art.

Myrna Bain (review date 23 March 1965)

SOURCE: "Everybody's Protest Play," in National Review, New York, Vol. XVII, March 23, 1965, pp. 249-50.

[In the following excerpt, Bain calls "The Toilet" "straight bathroom drama, with little if any plot and absolutely no uplift."]

Did you know the exclamation point was dead? Or that the Western white man had failed to realize "the idealization of rational Liberalism"? Or even that these questions could possibly be serious points for stage adaptation? Probably not. But for playwrights Lorraine Hansberry and Le-Roi Jones, the theater is a perfect place to act out these serio-comic problems.

Mr. Jones, the latest bombshell among the hip writers, is currently enjoying a successful run at the St. Mark's Play-house with his two one-act plays, "The Slave" and "The Toilet." Anarchic and prurient in tone, language and style, these two plays present a nightmare of twisted logic that will probably, by next season, descend in waves on Shubert Alley.

Played in the hermetic atmosphere of a small theater-inthe-round, "The Toilet," first up, locks the audience in with the oddest collection of subway marauders, basket-ball junkies and cool boppers to be seen anywhere outside of the hallways of Boys High. And these eleven boys, all of them mentally and linguistically retarded, leave the viewer with the decided impression that if Jones is not trying to prove that Negroes are "inherently inferior" to whites, he certainly is not making any effort to clear up any misconceptions. For this play is straight bathroom drama, with little if any plot and absolutely no uplift.

The curtain rises on five urinals and a rusty sink. And the first character to enter, Ora (described in the script as "short, ugly, crude, loud"), ought to set the mood sufficiently; but just in case you don't get the message, Ora next engages in a bit of highly graphic mime action ("He enters, looks around, then with one hand on his hip, takes out his penis and urinates …"). As I said, this is done in mime action, but it was the only concession made to sensibility for the rest of the play.

Gradually the other characters "bop" on stage. And it becomes apparent that a murder or near-murder is going to be the central act of the play. LeRoi Jones has always been fascinated with murder; there was a killing in his previous production, "Dutchman." In "The Toilet," Jones portrays the stylistic obscenities of the boys as the "natural" flowering of their primitive natures, but there is one added touch in this and the other play, "The Slave"—the white characters (there are two in each play) are characterized in such a devitalized fashion that all the brutalities appear almost "necessary." The two in "The Toilet" function as alternate and unsightly copies of the nine Negro boys. And their lines are so written that, when the first one is "sounded" out of the room and the other dragged in, bleeding and battered, his possible death horrifies but does not necessarily repel you.


Robert L. Tener (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "The Corrupted Warrior Heroes: Amiri Baraka's 'The Toilet,'" in Modern Drama, Vol. XVII, No. 2, June, 1974, pp. 207-15.

[Below, Tener claims that "The Toilet" explores the negative affects of white society on the maturing process of black boys.]

At the time mat Baraka was composing "The Toilet," most blacks did not have black heroes to emulate in shaping their psyches. They had primarily white mythic or historical or athletic or artistic models. But the feeling was abroad that the white culture was dying and that the dependency on white models could only destroy the black identity. James Baldwin had pointed out in The Fire Next Time that "white people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being." Much later Eldridge Cleaver emphasized in Soul on Ice that the white race had lost its heroes. Its youth had come to see that its historical white heroes such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were really arch-villains. Young whites began to "recoil in shame from the spectacle of cowboys and pioneers … galloping across a movie screen shooting down Indians like Coke bottles."

As Amiri Baraka himself suggested in "The Myth of a 'Negro Literature,'" most negro literature is mediocre because it imitates white literature and models, its creators not being able to maintain "their essential identities as Negroes." What was of most importance apparently to Baraka at the time of that essay (first given as an address in 1962) was to maintain a black identity among blacks without its being weakened through the imitation of white models and to make certain that black art reflects "the experiences of the human being, the emotional predicament of the man, as he exists, in the defined world of his being."

Does "The Toilet" offer the viewer the new black identity or does it reveal the black psyche dehumanized by its imitation of white models? It would seem in "The Toilet" that Baraka is trying to show how the black youths, except for Foots, act according to their inner vision of what is a man, an image affected by the white mythic heroes, and have, consequently, lost some of their dignity and worth as black boys. They have been corrupted by the white society. In addition it also seems possible that Baraka is intending to reflect the black experience under the eroding influence of the white middle class society which not only debases the black identity but also destroys the vitality of the white group. The only two positive characters in the play are Ray (the name Karolis uses for Foots, the gang leader) and Karolis. Both have some dignity as human beings and are involved emotionally with each other. Ray resists fighting Karolis; he returns after the gang members have left to share himself with Karolis. On the other hand Karolis is willing to fight Foots but loves Ray, as though he senses the split identity of the young gang leader. Of importance also is Baraka's strategic conception of Karolis, the only white in the play, as a homosexual. The characterization suggests perhaps the demoralization and confusion of standards for behavior within the white system.

The operating world of the gang is the urine stinking toilet in a high school with white and black students. It is a male world. Here, the image of a man, derived partly from heroes in the outer world, stigmatized by the stench of man's excremental functions and his sexual confusions, is incompletely expressed by the boys. That image is an epic one minus its heroism. It captures the heroic warrior from a classic past with its emphasis on physicality, but it is transmuted by the alchemy of the white dream into the picture of a fighter or athlete. It is reflected in the gang's emphasis on physical contact, in their tough talk, their games, their actions, their assumptions, and especially in their limitations.

The male relationships in their world are given in terms of physical contact. It is boy strength versus boy strength as muscle tests muscle. Love holds the door against Ora who thumps the door but does not get angry; Holmes and Love spar a few minutes with each other, then Hines joins in the action. In another instance Holmes and Ora square off, after Ora has already punched Holmes, "both laughing and faking professional demeanor." Love and Hines play an imaginary game of basketball. In all of these examples the physical involvement shifts its emotional strength, always threatening to move from fun to violence. Ora nudges Karolis with his foot or he pushes Karolis into Foots. In turn Foots pushes Karolis away. Except in the relationship with Karolis, the rules of the physical contact game do not allow the contact to turn into serious fighting. Their function apparently is to allow the gang members to express in an acceptable but restricted manner their contradictory impulses to be both dominant and dominated, to be both independent as well as bound by some cohesive force. Ora clearly threatens the group physically, but he cannot subdue George and he accepts Foots as the leader.

The emphasis on physical contact, like that expressed in the training of some warrior or athlete, is reinforced in their male world by their excessively tough language. But it is a young male world activated by the image of man as a fighter-hero who battles the forces of evil mechanically (not all know why Karolis must be forced to fight) and who ignores the effects of his sexual changes. But such a warrior-athlete, if he is successful, is rewarded with sexual adulation, his female counterpart being reduced to serving him. The inhabitants of this male arena talk about the two characteristics of a man related to that image: fighting (what all their physical contact is directed towards as though they were going through a training process) and sex (what their changing glandular systems are preparing them for).

Their talk about fighting is always done in the context of their still being boys. The proposed fights are imagined, not real. Those in between are affairs of honor, involving an imagined or felt ideal, and following a definite ritual, borrowed possibly from white western movies or Batman comics. When Foots asks Knowles to stop drumming on the walls, Knowles threatens to drum on Foots' head. Ora threatens to "stomp mudholes" in Farrell's head if he doesn't shut up.

The central incident, however, is a matter of honor. The gang has dragged Karolis to the toilet room where he is supposed to fight their leader Foots. According to Hines the gang does not intend to beat him up. But by the time that they get him to his destiny, he has been considerably mauled. Foots pays homage to Ora who has hit Karolis by saying "You a rough ass cat, Shot. He sure don't look like he's in any way to fight anybody." But Foots is supposed to fight Karolis because the white boy had written him a letter calling him beautiful and saying "that he wanted to blow him." The talk among them is of killing as though the fighting were to be for real on some battlefield. But it is not. When Karolis pulls himself up unsteadily and says that he wants to fight Foots, Knowles exclaims "You mean that sonofabitch wasn' dead?" Or when Foots comes in and first sees Karolis on the floor, he asks "Damn! What'd you guys do, kill the cat?" Even Karolis says "I want to kill you" to Foots. All such comments refer not to the actual destruction of a human being but more than likely to an emphasis on fighting, hitting, or beating up, to some process not likely to end in death but which releases their internal tensions. Their language thus continually suggests that they are in a probationary period when all their actions are training sessions for the real thing. In the world of the play, however, they can never have the real thing.

But it is their language about sex and their sexual terms that most readily reveals their participation in a male world where their concept of maleness is affected by the masculine images provided by a white society. In the first place the emphasis is on their talking about sex; nowhere in the play do they actually engage in sexual activities. While they are not necessarily virgins or neophytes, they are certainly in that transition period where they lose their sexual innocence. But their uncertain sense of masculinity and of heroism has not taught them how to cope with their ambivalent sexual feelings and responses or how to express them. Under their internal pressures they play the game of the dozens in which they insult each others mothers. As Ora says, he would "rub up against" Love's mother, and Love replies "Ora, you mad cause you don't have a momma of your own to rub up against." But it is a game. They do not rub up against real women, not yet. They are not free enough of their maternal-female image to develop a separate sexual-female concept. In their rhetorical playing, the force is on talk and male dominance, as in the love of tall talk on the American frontier. Their language does not reflect the subtleties of the sexual feelings between men and women and the ways in which those feelings permeate all other relationships. Their vocabulary reveals their almost new yet crude concern for their penises, a self-interest which bothers them somewhat, perhaps even embarrasses them. They relish the names for their sexual masculinity which has suddenly become important to them. Perhaps that is why they want Foots to fight a duel with Karolis. As Perry says, Karolis wanted to "blow him" and Ora calls the white boy a "dick licker."

Their sexual reactions have yet to be directly transferred to women. They do not discuss going with girls, or bedding with them, or marrying them. They are still boys and apparently embarrassed or confused by their bodies and sexual stirrings. They conceive of sex in the terms of comic books, of sexual relationships in the metaphors of the white mythic heroes. They relate sex to their male egos and their need to dominate. Almost in retaliation for their changing selves, they stress their obvious maleness to each other in ritualized language which is often euphemized. They refer to a penis as a "joint." In the toilet or commode, like little boys they want to play with their urine. Even Ora, the most obviously physical boy, tends to giggle and grin as he pees over the seat of a commode; he flushes all the urinals in a row when he leaves. Hines tells Holmes that Love is in the toilet "pulling his whatchamacallit". And when Holmes asks him why he doesn't get Gloria to do that, Love says "She-et. [Grinning.] Huh. I sure don't need your ol' lady to be pullin' on my joint. [Laughs. …]". They even call each other "cocksucker," a term which when it applies to them is less pejorative, perhaps even complimentary, than the term "dick licker" which they apply to Karolis.

When Love says that Karolis never bothered him, Ora turns his reply into the dozens by saying that Karolis always tells everybody that "he bangs the hell out of Caroline, every chance he gets." Holmes answers by asking if that's the name of Love's mother. Even Ora calls his own penis a "nice fat sausage" for Karolis. Such excessive use of euphemisms suggests their sense of embarrassed de-light and highly limited response to their sexual organs. For them it is insulting to be compared with a girl. Knowles says to Ora, after Karolis had struggled to his feet, "Shit, Big Shot, you must hit like a girl."

Their range of emotional responses to each other is apparently limited by their inner sense of manhood. They tend to eschew girls; they emphasize physical touch; they pretend to play basketball. In general they tend to transfer their sexual impulses into such games as the dozens, bluff, or the affair of honor. Their reaction to their emotions and to the problems of personal involvement with each other suggests the same mechanical quality that strikes one in the behavior of the Lone Ranger, Superman, or any of the other mythical heroes of white society.

The actions of the gang members, furthermore, strengthen their unconscious imitation of such models. The boys stress agility, strength, a super-masculinity. They feel insulted by the thought of a white boy calling one of them beautiful and wanting the pleasure of intimacy. Perhaps their unconscious image of a super, but false, masculinity can best be seen in their relationship with their leader Foots.

It is Foots whom Karolis says that he wants to kill, not Ray. The implication is that Karolis sees Foots as two different persons: Ray, a human being, beautiful, whom he wishes to be involved with; and Foots, a stereotyped leader of a gang of corrupt heroes. Like Foots, Karolis has some dimension to his development in the play. But the other persons are nearly caricatures in Baraka's strategy.

They are hardly the models for black dignity. Their stereo-typing is most obvious. Foots, the leader, is short and intelligent. On the other hand Ora is short and ugly. Most of the others are tall, like Hines who is "big" and "husky." Foots does not rule the gang through physical strength. He cannot even break Karolis' choke hold. Instead he rules by cleverness, by wit, or by some charisma he holds for the other boys. The authorities in the high school, whom he mocks, find him smart, a credit to his race. In explaining why he is late for the duel, Foots says that he was detained by Van Ness, symbol of the high school authorities, who wanted him to help keep all the unsavory boys in line. Foots directly implies in his statement that his gang are some of the "unsavory … elements." Neither the gang members nor the high school authorities, apparently, accept Foots as a person. Rather both groups see him as an agent whom they can exploit for some particular quality he has, perhaps his cleverness or sure intelligence. Whatever it is, their relationship with him is mechanical and stereotyped.

What does Foots receive from them? From the high school authorities, he probably gets a good laugh; what he receives from his gang cannot be so easily answered. In terms of his reaction to Karolis, what Foots desires is some acceptance of himself as a young man, a recognition of his feelings. Karolis has appealed to him in a way that his gang friends cannot. The white boy sees beauty and love in him. Instead of trying to use Ray, Karolis is willing to risk his person for the black boy's love. As a human being needing and responding to love, Foots has to return, therefore, to the beaten boy. In the solitude of the room, the loneliness and stench intensifying his compassion, as Ray he holds Karolis' head in his arms. At that moment with another human being, Ray expresses a mature tenderness and love which his mythic destiny had denied him with his gang. The relationship between the two has to be private to be meaningful, to take place in a toilet in order for it to rise above the stereotyped and artificial responses of the other boys.

In its dramatic strategies "The Toilet" implies Amiri Baraka's awareness of how a white society has affected the lives of black boys. At a critical time in their passage from boyhood to manhood, their conceptions of manly behavior, conditioned as they are by the mythic heroes of a white culture, have made them incapable of responding fully as complete human beings. They have no expression for beauty, for compassion, for selfless love. No black music penetrates their world; no blues affects their body rhythms. To all appearances the gang members are alienated from the world at large. Their center of operations is a crude and foully smelling toilet room where they stand revealed as rough caricatures of mythical heroes, like puppets created in some lesser image of an imperfect dream.

They leave the room carrying their wounded, Foots, after what has been a mock battle of honor. The stage is left for those who have some acceptance of their new sexual feelings; the future belongs to Foots. He leaves the gang for love and tenderness. He is needed for himself, not for his leadership qualities or his ability to be a credit to his race. He has become a man, or at least he alone has the possibility of becoming a man. In his past are the unhuman mythical heroes of his gang. Perhaps his future is to be a human being, black, a different kind of model for his gang.

Werner Sollors (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)," in Essays on Contemporary American Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim, Max Hueber Verlag, 1981, pp. 105-22.

[In this excerpt, which appeared originally in Sollers' book Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism," the critic calls "The Toilet" a play about race and acceptance for blacks in a white world.]

"The Toilet," first performed in 1962, is set in an urban high school and deals … with loving self-expression in terms of homosexuality. The one-act play contrasts the homosexual relationship of two protagonists with the hostile and threatening, all-male outside world. … Homosexuality is viewed positively by Baraka both as an outsider-situation analogous to, though now also in conflict with, that of Blackness, and as a possibility for the realization of "love" and "beauty" against the racial gang code of a hostile society. But there is [another] element of race consciousness in the play.

In the course of the one-act play, Black student Ray Foots has to deny and denounce his love for white student James Karolis. Although Ray had written him a love note, he feels compelled in the presence of other students to deny his own feelings, to act tough, and to let the other students rough up his beloved. Only after the others leave the latrine can Foots express his feelings by cradling the beaten Karolis. In "The Toilet," the Black protagonist has to choose between his generic identity as "Foots" and his individual peculiarity as "Ray." While Foots denotes a "lower" kind of "plebeian" existence, that is closer to the ethnic roots and the soil, "Ray" suggests a more spiritual personality with a cosmic genealogy.

On one level, "The Toilet" is the affirmation of Ray's individual self-expression—of a person different from that majority which defines his reality negatively. "The Toilet" contrasts the possibility of the free expression of homosexual love, as admission of "any man's beauty," not only with the repression of this freedom of the protagonists through a "social order," but, more than that, with a total inversion of the positive metaphor of homosexuality into the perversion of sadism.

"The Toilet" is undoubtedly an indictment of a brutal social order, depicted fittingly against the background of a filthy latrine. This time, however, in Baraka's familiar confrontation of outsiders with the group, the representatives of the "social order" are young Black males; they are the kind of group Baraka increasingly attempted to speak for, and with whom he tried to identify, in opposition to "Liberals."

The approach to the play as a perverted "love story" is thus challenged by an interpretation of the majority-minority relations that inform "The Toilet." With this focus, the function of homosexuality and the roles of Ray Foots and James Karolis appear in a different light. Instead of representing love and the situation of the outsider, homosexuality now becomes a metaphor for acceptance in the white world. In other words, homosexuality becomes the gesture of individual assimilation, of trying to rise above the peer group, of "liberal" betrayal. As a consequence, the identity of a down-to-earth "Foots" would now seem somewhat more desirable than that of the lofty "Ray," who has removed himself from his ethnic reality. For, if the "love story" is a sentimentalization of "Ray," the "black-and-white story" is a bitter acceptance of Foots. And this acceptance, which implies a painful exorcism of interracial and homosexual love, was increasingly felt to be necessary by Baraka.

Henry C. Lacey (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Die Schwartze Bohemien: 'The Terrible Disorder of a Young Man,'" in To Raise, Destroy, and Create: The Poetry, Drama, and Fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones), The Whitston Publishing Company, 1981, pp. 27-39.

[In the following chapter excerpt, Lacey states that race is not a central theme of "The Toilet" and Baraka's involvement with the Beat movement is evident.]

["The Toilet"] derives much of its power from Baraka's faithful presentation of the experiences of the adolescent boy. The writer's ability in this area is seen again, and perhaps to best advantage, in the stories of Tales. Everything belongs in this extremely naturalistic play. The earthy language, rivaling even that heard in "The Baptism," is a real and necessary part of this world of young, primarily black, urban school boys. The language of "The Toilet" emphasizes the intense but misguided efforts of these adolescents to assert their manhood. Likewise, the setting, a "large bare toilet of gray rough cement…" and resembling "the impersonal ugliness of a school toilet or a latrine of some institution," is right for this work. The setting is symbol of our bleak and viciously regulated world. In retrospect, even the strong introductory stage directions do not seem excessive. The play opens with these instructions: "The actors should give the impression frequently that the place smells." After seeing one of the actors urinate into one of the commodes, "spraying urine over the seat," we are ready for the first lines of "The Toilet."

As pointed out by Paul Witherington in "Exorcism and Baptism in LeRoi Jones's 'The Toilet'" [Modern Drama, Sept. 1972], the boys wish to show their masculinity by discarding all maternal or "soft" values. At the same time, however, they are driven to find means of expressing love within the group. Consequently, the boys have a real need for affection as well as a fear of the demands of love. Their thwarted libidinal urge is expressed in the form of violence. The dialogue, often funny and firmly rooted in the black idiom, not only focuses on universally identifiable character types (the bully, the coward, the "signifier"). It simultaneously probes the various ways by which the boys enforce the taboo against tenderness.

Driven to deny impulses which they consider "unmanly," the boys exhibit hostility in varying forms throughout the play. These actions culminate in the desperate actuality of physical violence against Karolis. However, the violence takes a more subtle appearance in the early stages of the drama. The boys engage in name-calling and the well known ghetto game, "the dozens," at the start of the action. Both activities serve to shield the participants from the greatly feared overt expression of love, an expression that is ironically manifested in the very need for the gang. Yet, the boys feel that as long as they can call one another "bastid" or "cocksucka," they remain safely within the boundaries of masculine behavior. The same motivating factor is in evidence in the playing of "the dozens," a game in which the participants exchange slurs about one another's parents. The slurs are usually of a sexual nature and directed against the mother. Witherington is perhaps correct in seeing this game as additional evidence that the boys are attempting to exorcise maternal values. It is no less indicative of their desire to show their hardness, their ability to give and take the most crushing blows short of actual violence. The winner of "the dozens" competition is invariably the "man" who through his sheer poetic skill and bawdy imagination can force his opponent to actual violence, or worse, tears. …

Although repressed behavior is seen in all the boys, with the exceptions of Karolis and Farrell, it is most glaringly present in the brutal Ora. Ora evinces an absolute horror of compassion, and justly so. If we consider the controlling metaphor for love in the drama, i.e., homosexuality Ora shows himself most vulnerable to its expression. We see it, first, in his frequently invoked appellations ("cock-sucka," "dick licker"). He, furthermore, attempts to engage in oral sex with Karolis and is only interrupted by Ray's entrance. Ora is a latent homosexual. In terms of the metaphorical implications of the play, however, he has a tremendous desire to express love. Because his world does not allow this expression, he inverts his desire. While the callous Oras can live with this necessary inversion, the sensitive Rays cannot.

Foots/Ray is Baraka's earliest presentation of the skinny, intelligent, bug-eyed, middle-class black boy who figures so prominently in the author's writings. We see him as a young child in "Uncle torn's Cabin: Alternate Ending" (Tales). In some of the stories, even the name Ray is used. Much of the writer's own life went into these various portraits.

Ray is the middle-class black boy who is torn between two cultures. The dramatist's description of him as "manic" is not extreme. His psychic trauma stems from the schizoid nature of his existence. His problem will be articulated later by Clay in "Dutchman." We get our first glimpse of Ray's problem and the boys' understanding of it in Hines's statement concerning Ray's whereabouts. Hines says:

I think he's still in Miss Powell's class. You know if he missed her class she'd beat his head, and then get his ol' lady to beat his head again.

The white teachers take a special interest in Ray because he is "one" worth saving. The other boys are lost causes. The knowledge of his special treatment causes Ray intense feelings of guilt. Hence, his tremendous desire to belong to his black peers. His feeble attempts to laugh at this situation only serve to intensify our appreciation of his pain:

That goddamn Van Ness had me in his office. He said I'm a credit to my race. (Laughs and all follow.) He said I'm smart-as-a-whip (imitating Van Ness) and should help him to keep all you unsavory (again imitating) elements in line. (All laugh again).

This halting laughter reveals the insecurity of all concerned. Ray is whiter. His homelife most assuredly is closer to that of the teachers than to the black peers. His good grades are sure to lead him to college and a comfortable niche in mainstream society. His upwardly mobile mother, the stereotypical Yiddish mother in blackface, will be there to counter every backsliding move on his part. In spite of these things, he manages to hold onto his role as leader. He does it through sheer intellectual prowess and the actor's ability to project a consummate "macho" image, which is all the more important to Ray because of his fragile physique.

Whereas the gang will tolerate a bourgeois intellectual as a leader, it will never accept a leader whose masculinity is in doubt. Consequently, Ray must deny his relationship with Karolis in order to belong. He must be Foots, not Ray. At the height of the fury, Karolis tells the gang members as much:

[ … ] his name is Ray, not Foots. You stupid bastards. I love somebody you don't even know.

Karolis understands that his lover is "Foots" only when he surrenders to the gang's debased concept of manhood. The nickname itself implies a plodding, lock-stepped entanglement. "Ray," on the other hand, implies freedom and the light of the spirit, able to shine only when free of the restraining pressures of the group.

"The Toilet," despite its violence and ugliness, does conclude on an optimistic note. After the climactic confrontation, the boys leave Karolis bleeding on the urine-soaked toilet floor. Ray manages to sneak back to his side undetected. The play ends in silence, but with the following stage directions:

the door is pushed open slightly, then it opens completely and FOOTS comes in. He stares at Karolis 'body for a second, looks quickly over his shoulder then runs and kneels before the body, weeping and cradling the head in his arms.

In this markedly maternal gesture, Ray rejects the "macho" role demanded by the gang and asserts another understanding of "manhood." The real man is again the individual with the strength to divorce himself from the inhibiting influence of the majority. In these early works that individual is the homosexual. In the ensuing works the black American takes over this role, as Baraka becomes increasingly convinced that "any black American, simply by virtue of his blackness is weird, a nonconformist in this society."

Though this play has little explicit to say concerning the issue of race, the final scene causes some critics to see the whole work as a statement on race relations. Even Baraka himself seems to have forgotten the real issue of the play. Speaking of the conclusion, he says:

When I first wrote the play, it ended with everybody leaving. I tacked the other ending on; the kind of social milieu that I was in dictated the kind of rapproachment. It actually did not evolve from the pure spirit of the play. I've never changed it of course, because I feel that now that would only be cute. I think you should admit where you were even if it's painful, but you should also understand your development and growth. … But that was ground that I walked on and covered, I can't deny it now.

Baraka is, of course, right in saying that the Beat milieu dictated the concluding scene, but he is wrong in implying that "that kind of rapprochment" should be read "racial rapprochaient." Were Karolis black or Ray white, the play would carry the same thematic weight. Basically, "The Toilet" is no more concerned with race than is "The Baptism." A measure of the writer's total involvement in his milieu is seen in his ability to populate his works with blacks and whites, even in conflict, and yet not be obsessed with race as central theme.

Although "The Baptism" and "The Toilet" are obviously products of the same period in the writer's development, their dissimilarity in style is worthy of comment. "The Baptism" is in no way an attempt at "representational" drama. Markedly expressionistic in technique, the work is evidence of the writer's awareness of the absurdists, who gained prominence in the '50's and '60's. Like the works of the absurdists, "The Baptism" is a conscious rejection of realistic theatre. This anti-realism is effected in a number of ways. First, the existence of the characters as "believable" examples of everyday humanity is purposely undercut by their lack of personal names. Minister, boy, old woman, etc. bear testimony to the de-personalizing consequences of modern society. The fragmented, often nonsensical, speech of the characters, strikingly similar to some of the more private lyrics of Baraka, is exemplary of the conscious cacophony of the absurdists. The general effect of distortion and unreality is enhanced also by the abundance of raw sounds, especially "moaning" and "screaming." Because of these and other effects, "The Baptism" frequently approaches the realm of cartoon. The humor is, however, balanced by the viewer's unsettling knowledge that the play images the chaos of his own life. Finally, "The Baptism", like the best works of the absurdists, is impervious to any definitive analysis. The play, like the world of which it is a part, refuses to yield an absolutely logical meaning. This is not the case with "The Toilet."

"The Toilet" is a drama of extreme realism, or naturalism. Everything about the play is intended to enhance the viewer's belief in the actuality of the situation. The setting is of extreme importance in that it grounds the viewers in the tactile. Indeed it is no accident that Baraka emphasizes the solidity of the scene ("The scene is a large bare toilet built of gray rough cement."). Like the setting, the other aspects of the drama, characterization, diction, and action, express the same concreteness. The boys are all flesh and blood "types" with particular names. They also speak an understandable, earthy idiom. Furthermore, their actions, urinating intermittently, and giving the "impression frequently that the place smells," add to the viewer's illusion that he is secretly observing life in a public school "John" in all its squalor. "The Toilet," unlike "The Baptism," offers a meaning as explicit as its technique.

"Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant"

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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 dishonest.

This is a propaganda play. It is a black militant play. It is a racist play. It purports to counsel black revolution. It is a "get whitey" play. Its attitudes are ugly and prejudiced, and its airily total condemnation of the white American is as sick as a Ku Klux Klanner at a rally.

To an extent it is a celebration of the death of white liberalism. Some people might see in it a hymn to the assassination of Martin Luther King's moderation, for it is also a sad celebration of the death of black liberalism. The play says to hell with moderation—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—away with the idea of a black man being a white man who has had an unfortunate accident in the color of his skin, and burn, baby, burn.

Were I black I would, I think, be militant. But I am not black, and my concerns are for justice, not revenge. Every white man, every black man, seeing this play is forced to look at himself very carefully in the mirror of his heart.

Is black racism less reprehensible than white racism? You cannot possibly see "Slave Ship" without confronting this question, for it is a play that is as much a political statement as a work of art. What are you going to choose?

If you are like me you will perhaps decide that black racism is less reprehensible because it is more understandable. To be brought to a country as a fettered slave is very different from arriving as even the poorest immigrant.

Also, black racism is perhaps a taken affair. It may be part of the business of establishing racial pride. The shooting that this play clearly advocates has luckily not yet started. If it ever does then we will all have decisions to make far more important than the consideration of a play.

Mr. Jones is a clumsy, fantastically gifted playwright. I understand his political concerns, but, as a drama critic rather than a man, I cannot but observe wryly that if he could spare the time and energy to the business he could be a most unusual playwright.

"Slave Ship" is riveting. But it is riveting on two accounts for its deliberately segregated audience. The whites feel shame, compassion and that kind of pointless guilt that can have no absolution because it has no cause. The blacks—and here I am guessing—feel shame, compassion and a certain self-righteous satisfaction in the discomfiture of whitey. It is—ritually turning the other cheek—their all too civil right.

The play is set in the hold of a ship and the conscience of a nation. We see the slaves, chained, humiliated, treated like animals, behaving like animals, being brought in long and tortuous pain to America. We witness—painfully and, yes exhaustingly witness—their degradation.

Mr. Jones, helped by the emphatically realistic staging of Gilbert Moses and the violently brilliant acting of the cast, has already made his point. And what follows is almost a predictable extension of his basic theme of slavery.

Using a very free-styled theatrical form, he shows African tribal vignettes, a coon-like Uncle Tom, a black uprising and a very telling scene suggesting the rejection of Christianity. The play ends with the symbolic destruction of white America. Whitey is got—black panther banners are unfurled. This scared and horrified me. I am whitey.

The play looks as if it has been thrown together like a casual omelette. Yet Mr. Jones's command of the medium and control of his craft is sufficient to insure that although the play is artistically as ragged as burlap, it remains remarkably effective. But I wonder whether he worries about its artistic effectiveness.

Mr. Jones is a poet of politics. I would like to call him brother, but I am too smart to be that presumptuous. Are we all, including Mr. Jones, going to be too smart? Peace "Slave Ship"—do your thing.

Harold Clurman (review date 2 February 1970)

SOURCE: A review of "Slave Ship," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 210, No. 4, February 2, 1970, p. 125.

[Clurman finds "Slave Ship " a masterpiece of living theater.]

From what I had read about ["Slave Ship"] after its first performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music I expected it "to scare me to death." Nothing of the sort happened. I was fascinated by the play—full of raucous sound but very few words—as a theatrical phenomenon.

It begins with a picture of the sufferings inflicted on Africans being shipped in the filthy holds of boats to be sold as slaves in America. It proceeds to equally horrendous scenes in the slave markets of the South. It then turns to the consequences of Nat Turner's rebellion. Following this we witness the false place of religious prayer meetings among the blacks and their later determination to rise against oppression.

None of this is "new" except for the excellence of Gilbert Moses' direction, guided by the arrangement of Eugene Lee's construction of the playing areas. These are on several levels: the ship's deck and hold (later used for the auction of slaves) and various other platforms placed all about us and from which players speak, music is played, semi-choral movement and song are projected. The audience is caught in the overall ferment, made aware of an enormous ground swell which is at once obscure and throbbing with gigantic energy. One realizes the possibility of a frenzied and overpowering outbreak.

This does not signify "kill all whites!"; it implies a situation from which great devastation may ensue. What affected me most, however, was not any ideological pronouncement or triumph of stagecraft; the outstanding factor was the quality of the cast. Some of the players have enough stage experience to do justice to individual roles in other than mass dramas, but here all the actors move together, adjust to one another with a seemingly spontaneous coordination and unity which can be achieved only when a common inspiration of blood and brain, heart and flesh inform the whole. This therefore, apart from any other consideration, is theatre.

Such groups as the Living Theatre aim at similar attainments, but the results for the most part are forced, unsightly and sympathetic only by an extra stretch of will. The very sophisticated and artful Grotowski ensemble arrives at something like this coherence in "wildness." The "Slave Ship" company is in the purest sense of the term tribal, hence unassumingly impressive.


Stefan Brecht (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "LeRoi Jones' 'Slave Ship,'" in The Drama Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, Winter, 1970, pp. 212-19.

[In the following excerpt, Brecht explores the images in Baraka's play, "Slave Ship."]

The production [of "Slave Ship"] is spectacle, the play being imagist & exhortatory. It does not develop: it shows. Its style is somewhat epic—what little interaction exists is either demonstrative (commiseration, rape) or semi-ritual-istic, having the form of recall (Christians vs. Africans: the child-ignoring preacher vs. the member of the tribe pressing the child on his attention)—& the rhythm is the uneven, leisurely one of telling, not the drive of process. The music underscores this epic rhythm, but also builds up the emotional intensities. (The play does not afford much scope for Archie Shepp's marvelous lyricism.) These intensities attach to the affects to whose representation the acting is devoted: suffering & affection, degradation & dignity. The acting style is idealizing naturalism—more or less the same as "socialist realism" or Broadway (minus Jewish irony). Its sentimentality & bathos strike me as the most "European" thing about the production's form. But I think they naturally result from the effort required by Jones' Africanism: an effort to recover & express a basic humanity (male & female), which is conceived of as by nature simple. This old-fashioned European notion of savages ironically & even tragically engenders artificial culture-products of a complex sort: stereotypes of sincere insincerity. Reductionism can never furnish the basic, & in any event the basic is never simple, if for no other reason than that human existence is inappropriate to human essence.

Though historical in content, the play is not historical drama. It evokes history metaphorically: as information about the essence of a present state. It exposes the audience to the action of successive images of a human condition. Each image identifies a dimension of this condition present but subsidiary in the other images. Image no. 1 (about twenty minutes) identifies its genesis, no. 2 its nature, no. 3—the last—its immanent overcoming. The condition is that of the audience: slavery. Being, like all human conditions, one of alienation, its dramatic form is a dialectic of identity: deprivation of identity, alienation, retrieval of identity—a struggle in mind. It resolves into a feast with the audience over which the theatre officiates, revealing itself as active participant in the life imaged. The theatrical evocation of a still actual history turns out to be an act of (political-artistic) participation in a communal life comprising the theatre & the audience.

The play conceives of identity as communal natural identity, which it in turn defines as cultural identity animated by sexual identity through the generation of pride by love.

Slavery is identified by the first image as forcible removal from home; by the second, as destruction of family, pride, & culture; by the third, as un-Christian revolt.

In the first image, the slaves are brought aboard one by one. In the hold (which is under the stage, we have to bend to see), they are segregated by sex. The white man rapes a black woman: the blacks restrain sex among themselves. Wives manage to join husbands, chastely. There is love, suffering, song. The agitated suffering provides the keynote while the guard on deck listens, rapes, laughs, sleeps: a powerfully nervous rhythm, orchestrated by Shepp. I do not think Gil Moses has directed this well. Yet its valuable aspect, in the context of contemporary European theatre (e.g., the Living Theatre), is that it's not abstract. Just as Jones reminds us of concrete love, so he reminds us of real suffering, tangible unfreedom, physical attempts at liberation—instead of obliterating natural life with psychological reflections or metaphysical analyses.

The second image theatrically, though not analytically, correlates the destruction of the family (a mock marriage, selling man & wife apart, etc.) with cultural alienation, which is portrayed by the two classic species (cf. Frazier, Keil) of the cultural house-nigger, the self-abasing clown who has turned his existence into its own denial (the tolerable bad nigger) & the gibbering preacher (the good nigger) who in a foreign tongue (scat) preaches the message which denies his essence. The plantation Tom (Garret Morris: a virtuoso performance, but perhaps less profound than Tim Pelt's portrayal of the preacher) betrays a conspiracy for a pork chop; the Reverend (could Jones have King in mind?) obstinately disregards a wounded baby pressed on his attention, stepping over it as he preaches. Both are shown as maniacs; they have lost their minds. Nostalgic racial memories of the homeland evoke the destroyed identity: male & female pride in their respective chores of home- & war-making, expressed in integral culture: dance, song, prayer.

The third image is of revolt, but the play shows the Afro-American in revolt from the first crossing of the gangplank. From the beginning until now, not acceptance or inertia, but superior brute force abetted by treason have kept him down. This is a historically incorrect idealization (cf. Du Bois & Genovese vs. Aptheker) which is valid, within the framework of Jones' conception of identity, as revelation of the repressive power that generated inertia & acceptance, & also valid insofar as Jones is using history as symbol for present condition. They resist being loaded into the hold; in the hold they work at ridding themselves of their shackles; in America they sullenly plan assassinations. The point is not merely to give heart, but that no new cultural identity emerged from the alienation into slavery.

Identity is tied to communality. The community is shown as integral, especially in the hold: many spontaneous gestures of concern for & succor of others; a perennial unreasoned orientation toward collective suffering & collective revolt, & by nature religion—itself a collective self-awareness relative to revered familial forces (and implicitly contrasted to the Christian alienation of man from nature).

The family is shown as the living cell of community, its love the community's energy. Acting & directing stress male supremacy. The woman stands silently behind her man. (But finally all take arms.) Seeing the destruction of the family as major evil & as root-danger to identity is a personal thing with Jones (cf. his beautiful account of his youth) & part of a trend (cf. the Black Muslim). This male suprematism seems to fit better into the revolt against decadent European civilization than does the idolization of the small family. But for Jones it's a matter of what's natural & therefore good & black. The play upholds the "petty-bourgeois" values of heterosexual love, monogamy, male leadership, parental child-rearing, as sources of communal strength—& as nourishing place of that pride, which for Jones is the core of personal identity & the source of cultural being.

The final revolt is a genocidal call to arms to the young Afro-American audience—a call for the killing of the white man. But the only enemy killed is a black man. This may be significant. Not only because of the alleged killings of Malcolm X by Black Muslims & of Black Panthers by Karenga's men, but because it suggests that Jones' stress on cultural community identity may ultimately override his advocacy of social revolt. There is a symbolic overthrow of Uncle Sam. The play joins the present with clenched fists, hymns, new flags. It not only joins the present, it joins actuality—unlike Paradise Now, & in the opposite sense from that recently fashionable "audience participation" which invites the audience to join the play. This audience, having enjoyed the play, joins in, walks out dancing.

Kimberly W. Benston (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: '"Slave Ship': Vision Meets Form," in Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask, Yale University Press, 1976, pp. 243-54.

[In the excerpt below, Benston explores Baraka's use of music throughout his work, especially in "Slave Ship. "]

In his drama Baraka has constantly used music. In "Jello," Rochester dances soul-steps while robbing Bennie. In A Recent Killing, dances and songs help fill empty dramatic spaces and serve as entertainment. In "Home on the Range," music becomes a metaphor for judgment and apocalypse in the wild "nigger" party. The most interesting use of music before "Slave Ship" is in "Dutchman," where Lula's dance, Clay's discussion of the blues and Charlie Parker, and the Negro conductor's final soft-shoe are crucial theatrical and thematic elements of the play.

It is with "Slave Ship," however, that Baraka elevates music to the dual position of central metaphor and primary theatrical vehicle. … The drama of "Slave Ship" is fundamentally the same as that of Blues People: African Spirit endures Western (specifically, American) oppression and rises to perfection in musical form. The genius of Baraka's play lies in the manner in which the complex black music aesthetic is given precise theatrical embodiment.

These, then, are the primary forces that inform the nature and use of music in "Slave Ship." As one might expect from this diverse background, music operates on many levels and in many ways to give form to Baraka's thought in the play. Every effect of feeling and every physical condition is portrayed through sound. The props call for ship "noises," ship "bells," sea "splashing," whip and chain "sounds." The slave-characters evoke the state of misery with constant moans, cries, curses—all bare intonations which, rather than describing a condition, become its essence. Baraka's observation in the poem "Ka'Ba," that "our world is full of sound," is concretized in "Slave Ship": here, sound fully becomes the world.

The experience of the play, then, is less one of watching than of listening. If sound is the world's substance, then the particular organization of sound into music is the world in process. Music in "Slave Ship" is the form of idealized historicity as projected by the successive "pageant" images. Thus religious, civilized Africa is the music and dance-oriented rite of the opening image. Africa survives on the slave ship and in America in the incessant drumbeats, ritual chants, and tribal dances that remain a basic means of expression among the slaves. On the slave ship, the life of the black people is assured almost thoroughly through the rising "chant-moan of the women [ … ] like mad old nigger ladies humming forever in deathly patience," and in the percussional beating upon planks and walls. The white man's being is his hideous laughter; the entire Middle Passage is composed by Baraka as a sound-war between this laughter and the music of the black collective will (which is also internally threatened by "the long stream of different wills, articulated as screams, grunts, cries, songs, etc."). At times, the "laughter is drowned in the drums," but these moments are always followed by silence (a stand-off) or the rise of white laughter (repression). The tribal humming endures; the African civilization is brought to America with the slaves.

The musical expression of the Afro-American does not simply parallel history; again, it is the complexity of the slaves' alienated existence. The gospels, presaged by the patient moans of women in the hold, take over as the constant undertone of black resistance. The traitorous Tom's shuffling, jeffing "dance" represents the degradation of the masked dancer of the opening fertility rite. Yet subversively, in darkness, the pure and ancient culture remains, juxtaposed to the Tom image:

(Lights off … drums of ancient African warriors come up … hero-warriors. Lights blink back on, show shuffling black man, hat in his hand, scratching his head. Lights off. Drums again. Black dancing in the dark, … scratching his head. Lights off. Drums again. Black dancing in the dark, with bells, as if free, dancing wild old dances. Bam Boom Bam Booma Bimbam Boomama boom beem bam. Dancing in the darkness … Yoruba Dance/lights flash on briefly, spot on, off the dance. Then off.)

With the suppression of the plantation revolt, African war drums subside into "the sound of a spiritual," a song of American experience and African spirituality: "Oh, Lord Deliver Me … oh Lord." White laughter howls in triumph; for a moment, it drowns out what has now become the complex African/American musical fusion.

Now, modern rhythms: the gibberish of the preacher-Tom takes up the gospel's "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus …"; against him, the African/American voices sing new notes—jazz and blues scatting—and "new-sound" horns scream the old war chants. The drums persist as the unvarying keeper of the old rhythms. As the community coalesces once again, the original humming gathers and reaches toward climax. White laughter rises sporadically above the swelling sounds of chant, scream, hum, scat, horns, drums; all is "mixed with sounds of [the] slave ship." History gathers all its imagined moments in an anarchy of sonority and becomes imminently apocalyptic. The chant of "when we gonna rise/up" grows with the music; "the white man's laughter is heard trying to drown out the music, but the music is rising."

Eventually, the chant becomes song; African drums, slave-ship noises, and contemporary visionary jazz (Sun Ra, Archie Shepp) become one poem of black experience, one tangible weapon of black revolt. The preacher's voice "breaks" before he dies; the white man gasps on his laughter as the horde descends. Finally, the triumph—spiritual and physical—is expressed as dance. Again, this is an African/American synthesis, "Miracles'/Temptations' dancing line" merging with African movement in a "new-old dance": what Baraka amusingly but pointedly calls "Bogalooyoruba." The improvisational essence of this Afro-American musical sensibility becomes the ultimate statement of transcendence, and this is the audience's achievement. The quickly created "party" is an ecstasy of "finger-pop, skate, monkey, dog" in which each participant's thing is everyone's thing and individual improvisation becomes communal form: in the words of the street-wise saying, 'everything is everything.'

Music is thus strength, memory, power, triumph, affirmation—the entire historical and mythical process of Afro-American being. The mythical curve of return to primordial power is enacted in the dance, for the final dance of the audience in the womblike hold returns us to the site of the whirling fertility goddess. By integrating the spectator with the opening dance, Baraka has moved "Slave Ship" out of drama and into ritual; that is, he has reversed the process by which the Western (particularly Greek) theatre evolved from rite to drama. In Greek theatre, the spectators became a new and different element added to original ritual. The dance was not only danced but also watched from a distance; it became a "spectacle." Whereas in ritual nearly all were worshippers acting, the spectators added the elements of watching, thinking, feeling, not-doing. The dromenon or rite, something actually done by oneself, became drama, a thing also done but abstracted from one's doing. The members of Baraka's audience, on the contrary, are transformed from spectators of drama as "a thing done" but apart from themselves, to partakers of ritual, "a thing done" with no division between actor and spectator. Just as the opening African ritual is refashioned at the end into a higher act, one of communal triumph as well as celebration, so the audience is brought to a higher role. No longer merely observers of an oft-forgotten tradition, they themselves now perform a ritual, affirming by their deed the complete communality of the theatrical event. The collectivity of ritual has supplanted the individuation of drama.

The final rite, with its mimed cannibalistic aspect, is apocalyptic in both a mythical and a religious sense. In its mythical dimension, the ending completes the absorption of the natural, historical cycle into mythology. Its mythical movement is one of comic resurrection and integration, completed by the marriage of the spectator into community and the birth of the "old-new" black nation. This fertility ritual clearly has a religious dimension that has been prepared for by the continuous prayers to Obatala and Jesus, curses of the "Godless, white devil," and litanies such as "Rise, Rise, Rise, etc." Indeed, by creating basic images of resurrection with accompanying sensations of magic, charm, and incantation, Baraka returns the black audience to the most fundamental religious ground of tribal ceremony from which sprung the two greatest epochs of Western theatre (Greek and Christian), and which gave life to the archetypical African spirit. The spectators are as integral a part of the work as the congregation of a black Baptist church is of its service, and they function in much the same way. The nationalist myth of African-inspired renewal and Afro-American triumph is taken up by the audience because Baraka has called upon the community's shared aesthetic—the genius for musical improvisation.

This recreation of the mythical and religious through music points Baraka's art toward the Nietzschean Dionysian state. Here the end of individuation becomes possible, for the Dionysian essence for Nietzsche was a musical one: "In song and dance man expresses himself as a member of a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk and speak and is on the way toward flying into the air, dancing" [The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufman, 1967]. By claiming African roots in their totality, the black community controls its destiny as Clay, the middle-class greyboy, could not. Now, Baraka's black heroes, not the witch-devil Lula, dance in triumph. The tragedy-burdened slave ship of "Dutchman" has become the dance-filled celebration of "Slave Ship"; musical transcendence has risen from the spirit of tragedy.

Further Reading

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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.


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.

A collection of essays by noted critics, including overviews of Baraka's career, a biographical essay, music criticism, and articles focusing on Baraka's prose, his poetry, and his drama.

Bigsby, C. W. E. "LeRoi Jones." In Confrontation and Commitment, A Study of Contemporary American Drama: 1959-66, pp. 138-55. Kansas City: University of Missouri Press, 1967.

Covers Baraka's early career up to 1967 and calls him talented though lacking in discipline.

Brown, Lloyd W. Amiri Baraka. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980, 180 p.

Study of Baraka's poetry, prose, and drama.

Hudson, Theodore R. From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works. Durham: Duke University Press, 1973, 222 p.

Biographical and critical study of Baraka and his work.

Islam, Syed Manzoorul. 'The Ritual Plays of Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)." Indian Journal of American Studies 14, No. 1 (January 1984): 43-55.

Describes ritualistic use of cruelty "with a graphic exactness that borders on repulsion," especially in the plays "Slave Ship," 'The Slave," and "Dutchman."

Marranca, Bonnie. "Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka)." In American Playwrights: A Critical Survey, edited by Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta, pp. 121-33. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981.

Outlines the prevailing themes of Baraka's plays.

Sarma, M. Nagabhushana. "Revolt and Ritual in the Plays of LeRoi Jones." Osmania Journal of English Studies XI, No. 1 (1974-75): 1-9.

Discusses "Revolutionary Theatre" and Baraka's place in it.

Sollors, Werner. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism." New York: Columbia University Press, 1978, 299 p.

Sollors traces the development of Baraka's work through the four major political and aesthetic phases of his life.

Werner, Craig. "Brer Rabbit Meets the Underground Man: Simplification of the Consciousness in Baraka's "Dutchman" and "Slave Ship." Obsidian: Black Literature in Review 5, No. 1 & 2 (1979): 35-40.

Werner identifies a continuum in Baraka's drama in which "Dutchman" represents the failure of "obsessive comtemplations of contradictions and consciousness" as a reaction to stereotyping and white oppression. This failure necessitates a simplified reaction—"a clearly defined vision of the threat to black survival posed by a genocidal white world"—which is presented in "Slave Ship."


Levesque, George A. "LeRoi Jones' 'Dutchman': Myth and Allegory." Obsidian: Black Literature in Review V, No. 3 (1979): 33-40.

The criticism of "Dutchman" is analyzed, supporting some of it and disagreeing with other conclusions.

Weisgram, Dianne H. "LeRoi Jones' 'Dutchman' : Inter-racial Ritual of Sexual Violence." American Imago 29, No. 3 (Fall 1972): 215-32.

Explores, indepth, the sexual roles of the lead characters in Baraka's famous play.

Additional coverage of Author's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Black Literature Criticism; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24 (rev. ed.); Contemporary Authors Bibliographic Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 38; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5,10,14, 33; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography 1941-1968; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 7, 16, 38; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 8; Discovering Authors, Major 20th Century Writers; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 4.


Baraka, Amiri (Contemporary Literary Criticism)