Baraka's Concept of the Revolutionary Theatre

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1975

A 1969 television interview with Baraka conducted by David Frost (on the syndicated program The David Frost Show) became heated and confrontational; Baraka clearly represented a threat (Frost introduced him as a "provocative gentleman") to white society and his message of self-determination for blacks was misunderstood as white hatred. From the beginning of the interview, when Frost asked Baraka if his play Slave Ship is a "Get Whitey" play, Frost seemed to expect a battle from Baraka. He got one, and in the process missed Baraka's key point: that the playwright's quarrel was not with white individuals, but with a white culture that does not recognize blacks. At the close of the interview, Frost got in the last word but failed to realize that Baraka had achieved his goal: to reach the black audience, not to convince the white interviewer. The final words of their verbal boxing match follow. Frost had just accused Baraka of being too extreme, of offending white people, and he compared Baraka to others interviewed on his program:

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Frost: I have had people on this stage like Jesse Jackson and Billy Taylor, people who have made a great deal of sense making the points you have made, and doing so without...

Baraka: Let that be defined by your ability to understand what the world is about. You do not know, finally, what we are talking about. We are trying to use this media as a way to get to our own people. What you impose is in opposition to the truth. You don't understand...What is important to me is the ability to talk to black people, not the ability to make you understand. Do you understand that? [Applause.]

Frost: Yes, absolutely. But, on the other hand, what I was trying to say involved two things...

Baraka: You're trying to grade my paper. You're trying to tell me I wasn't as good as Jesse Jackson or Billy Taylor.

Frost: Right.

Baraka: Yeah, but who wants to hear that? [Laughter. Applause.]

Frost: I'll take that, yes. Seven out of ten for LeRoi Jones.

Besides the apparent animosity in the interview, Frost misunderstood Baraka's aim to discuss the need for a self-determined black population. In fact, instead of listening to and hearing Baraka, Frost treated him like a child, like one who should be admonished for behaving inappropriately. His demeanor towards Baraka simply reinforced Baraka's point: that white Americans feel privileges to judge and to condemn blacks according to a value system to which they alone hold the key. To Frost, Baraka was a madman, someone who simply made no sense. Baraka often faced this kind of assessment of his speech and writings, not because he was actually mad or incoherent, but because his mode of discussion did not fit into the prevailing and accepted (white) discourse, or way of communicating.

French philosopher Michel Foucault considered the control over discourse to be one of the key functions that protect the power (usually dictatorial in nature) of a society. Each society has rules and conventions that exclude the kind of discourse that would threaten its hold on power. Society will often define as mad those whose speech and actions do not conform to the standards and conventions of acceptable messages and modes of behavior. Defining nonconformists as mad makes it easier to ignore them, even to lock them up or have them "cured" by psychologists. "Madness" can run the gamut from complete incoherence to actions or speech that are merely unconventional (and therefore often threatening to "normal" society).

Baraka was often characterized as "out of step" with the rest of society—full of unprovoked, illogical anger. Why did he not follow the pacifist road of Martin Luther King, or, as one interviewer asked him, stick to his poetry and leave politics alone? The anger and hatred expressed in his plays, which became more...

(The entire section contains 3577 words.)

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