Melvin Van Peebles Critical Essays

Van Peebles, Melvin (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Van Peebles, Melvin 1932–

Black American playwright and filmmaker, author of Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death.

[Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death] ends with an old woman singing "Put a Curse on You," which is an indictment not of whites per se but of a whole rotten establishment that can compel a segment of the population to exist in such foulness.

The problem with all this is that, although its stark truth is instantly recognized by black members of the audience, most of the whites find the action so foreign to their way of life that, without denying its probable reality, they cannot laugh at its humor the way they did at the late Langston Hughes's Simply Heavenly or weep at its underlying tragedy the way they did at the late Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. They can only watch in distaste these intense flashes of daily ghetto squabbles and misfortunes and be thankful that their lives are less raw. Although he may presume it, the author doesn't show the whites that Harlem's shortcomings are the result of white neglect or white indifference. Nor does he make it clear to blacks that there is much they can do to improve the situation….

It is splendid, uncompromising work, and the fact that we frequently cannot translate it is perhaps an inevitable result of both our predispositions about theater and our unwillingness to face existence at this level.

Henry Hewes, "The Aints and the Am Nots," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, November 13, 1971; used with permission), November 13, 1971, pp. 10, 12.

With a combination of music, dialogue, dance, beautiful acting and soulful directing by a master, Gil Moses, Aint Supposed to Die [a Natural Death] presented us with an effective and meaningful evening in the theater. Broadway has never seen anything like it. Van Peebles' characters come alive and make us deal with them on their own terms. As Black people we understand their strengths, of which there aren't many, and their weaknesses, which are basically the result of being caught up in a death-dealing society.

Peter Bailey, "Annual Round-Up: Black Theater in America," in Black World (© April, 1972, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Peter Bailey), April, 1972, pp. 31-6.

Melvin Van Peebles' Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death is a luxury we can't afford. It is entertaining, especially if there is lurking in one's heart the conviction that Black people are, after all, helpless and depraved. The show is a musical production which boils down to a kind of panorama of life among impoverished city Blacks. The music (written by Van Peebles) is groovy, the set ingenious, the directing highly effective, the cast superb. But the whole thing is rather like a splendid mansion built on sand. The most important elements of drama—significant theme, character development, and ultimately a wise and compassionate vision of mankind—are totally absent.

The characters are prototypes of every imaginable ghetto ill…. With these same ingredients a serious artist can create a work that is a powerful human document of suffering and strength. But Van Peebles, unfortunately, lacks the vision of the serious artist. Virtually every character is warped, defeated….

Not one character transcends the hurting that life has put on him. Not one achieves even a slight understanding of his world or his role in it…. Not one character grows or is any wiser at the end than he was at the beginning. The only solution Van Peebles offers is unthinking, unplanned violence…. In a situation which should breed tragedy, these characters are far from tragic. They are pathetic clowns.

The women are particularly unlovely…. I am no women's libber, God knows, but I have too much respect for sex and for my own Black womanhood not to be offended by Van Peebles' image of femininity. Where are the strength and wisdom, the tenderness and beauty, with which Black women have weathered the centuries? The strength of its women has long been a vital part of the Black heritage….

[The] whole show was overloaded with filth. I am all for sex in life and in art. I am all for frank presentation of brutality and degradation when the presentation has a serious purpose. I saw no purpose in most of Van Peebles' smut. And there are limits….

Van Peebles has disguised in modern garb the same old false image of Black people which white America finds comfortable. And it is evident that the show is written to please a white audience….

At best. Van Peebles is a luxury we can't afford. At worst he is a menace to our selfhood. In any case, he is working against liberation.

Eugenia Collier, in Black World (© April, 1972, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Eugenia Collier), April, 1972, pp. 79-81.

'Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song' was written, produced, directed, scored—everything—by Melvin Van Peebles, who also stars….

'Sweetback' is about survival in the face of oppression, and the de-humanizing effects on all concerned of that oppression….

What do blacks think of all this?… 'Sweetback' … is symptomatic of the black ideology gap: those who've Made It on 'Ebony's' instant acceptability scale hate the film. It defies all their values, devalues their lives. But down there in darkest Watts, the brothers thought it was Right On…. As for the White Mothers, they cringed, and wrote long, long sentences divided by 'perhaps' about how all this exposed all sorts of psychological nasties that we'd sooner have left alone, but maybe it was better if we looked them in the face anyhow; because if 'Sweetback' was about anything at all, it was about the worst bogey of them all, the myth of black masculinity, the myth personified, the deep dark suspicion of the white American male that the black man knows something about sex and virility that he doesn't.

W. I. Scobie, "Supernigger Strikes," in London Magazine, April-May, 1972, pp. 111-16.

Melvin Van Peebles is a theatrical innovator of outrageous originality…. If there is a message in the drollery [of Dont Play Us Cheap], it's the homespun wisdom that everybody has a streak of devil in him, which can be easily tamed with a little help from his friends…. The separate elements he has assembled on stage have the makings of an uninhibited, uproarious, truly memorable party-to-end-all-parties.

Marilyn Stasio, in Cue, May 27, 1972.

There are still many places where the black man's lot is hard, unjust and unenviable. In the New York theater, however, it is not hard and unenviable, merely unjust. There Melvin Van Peebles, a black man of virtually no talent whatever (unless self-promotion can be counted as one), manages to have two musicals of zero value running concurrently on Broadway. I wrote briefly and dismissingly about Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death: a bunch of untuneful, gratingly monotonous and generally hate-riddled Van Peebles songs …, without anything resembling a book, served up as a musical….

What is the basis for Van Peebles's reputation? Three movies, all of them critical and all but one audience flops, and Aint…. So now we get a new Van Peebles musical, Dont Play Us Cheap. This does not resemble Aint in any way, except that, from aint to dont, it continues Van Peebles's war on that white chauvinist status symbol, the apostrophe. Otherwise, the new show differs in that it has a book, and that, abandoning the previous message of hatred for whitey, it proposes to celebrate the joy of being black. These apparently laudable undertakings prove, in the event, even less appealing than their opposites….

[The greatest] disaster is the words, both book and lyrics. They turn the principal characters into nonentities, while leaving the lesser ones insulting clichés. I shudder to think what would have been said of a white author, had he portrayed blacks like this….

Black theater—like any other—is to be allowed and helped to grow. But it is not the tired formulas and tin ear of Melvin Van Peebles that will bear fruit. The current show merely shows that if there is anything drearier than Van Peebles's hate, it is Van Peebles's love.

John Simon, "Don't Play Us At All," in New York Magazine (© 1972 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by the permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), June 5, 1972, p. 72.