One of the most politically controversial playwrights of the 1960’s, Amiri Baraka is best known for his brilliant early play Dutchman and for his contribution to the development of a community-based black nationalist theater. Throughout his career, he has sought dramatic forms for expressing the consciousness of those alienated from the psychological, economic, and racial mainstream of American society. Even though no consensus exists concerning the success of his experiments, particularly those with ritualistic forms for political drama, his challenge to the aesthetic preconceptions of the American mainstream and the inspiration he has provided younger black playwrights such as Ed Bullins and Ron Milner guarantee his place in the history of American drama.
Already well known as an avant-garde poet, Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, first rose to prominence in the theatrical world with the 1964 productions of The Baptism, Dutchman, The Slave, and The Toilet, which established him as a major Off-Broadway presence. Shortly after winning the Obie Award for Dutchman, however, Baraka broke his ties with the white avant-garde to concentrate on the creation of a militant African American theater. As his mainstream reputation declined, he gained recognition as a leading voice of the Black Arts movement, ultimately assuming a position of public political visibility matched by only a handful of American literary figures.
Baraka’s many awards and honors include the Longview Best Essay of the Year award (1961) for his essay “Cuba Libre”; the John Whitney Foundation fellowship for poetry and fiction (1962); the Obie Award for Best American Off-Broadway Play of 1964 for Dutchman; a Guggenheim Fellowship (1965-1966); second prize in the First World Festival of Negro Arts (1966) for his play The Slave; a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1966); an honorary doctorate from Malcolm X College in Chicago (1972); a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in drama (1981); a National Endowment for the Arts poetry award (1981); a New Jersey Council for the Arts award (1982); the American Book Award (Before Columbus Foundation), for Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women; a PEN-Faulkner Award (1989); the Langston Hughes Medal (1989) for outstanding contributions to literature; Italy’s Ferroni Award and Foreign Poet Award (1993); and the Playwright’s Award from the Black Drama Festival of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1997.