Mo’ Better Baraka
On “Fear and Loathing and Amiri Baraka” (Dec. ’91): Hilton Als is designated as a Village Voice staff writer, but he writes more like a staff assassin. All I could perceive from Als’s redundant diatribe is that he perhaps has a personal dislike of Baraka which he wants to share with the readers.
Als indicts Baraka for coming from a nice middle-class home ultimately to embrace a form of Marxism. So the Engels what? Als asks: “Does anybody perceive the delicious contradiction in playing by white-boy rules and getting to be ole nappy-headed LeRoi-chile, too?” This is a universal contradiction in African-American social behavior and artistic expression; we are regarded in America—including the Voice premises—with wary ambivalence, and our perception of that regard and its concrete results generally renders us ambivalent both towards ourselves and white folks in general. Hardly an indictable offense. Als characterizes the 1960-65 Baraka as “the sexy Messiah of an oppressed race long deprived of language.” He feels Baraka should have explored “this role and its conceivable meaning and terror—for himself and the world.” Instead, Als says, Baraka used “language as a tool for examining nothing but the self.” Wow! “Der schwarze Bohemien” (as Als nastily refers to Baraka) truly deserves critical incineration for making such a choice.
Als insists that Baraka is didactic and that he condescends towards the “black, poor, working class” because of his “breaking things up for a child, like food that’s not easily digestible.” Baraka certainly simplified some complex ideas, presented alternative political and socio-economic perspectives that were unsettling, and he has been didactic; he’s a teacher. So what?
Finally, Als declares that Baraka has not written anything of value since Dutchman. Such a judgment makes Als sound like the Clarence Thomas of arts and letters. It presupposes that Als knows what “true” language and speech are. I don’t know what his personal grudge against Baraka is about and I don’t honestly care, but I think it foolish to excoriate Baraka because he came from a nice middle-class home, was young and idealistic, and has explored unpopular ideas. I suspect Als is just out to make a name for himself. Po’ boy!
OyamO (Charles F. Gordon)
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Apocryphal stories are often more interesting than the truth. For example, Mel Gussow’s account of how Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival settled into Central Park when its truck broke down there while touring in 1957 (“Summers in the Park with Joe,” Jan. ’92). I was the photographer for the group that summer and we toured three shows, Romeo and Juliet, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Macbeth. Each toured the boroughs and then played in Central Park. That was the plan and that was what happened. The argument with Robert Moses about establishing a more permanent performing space came later.
Matt Wolf has every right to dislike Arthur Miller’s latest play (“Miller and Hare in Less than Top Form,” Jan. ’92), but I have grown increasingly tired of constant carping about American playwrights over 45 who are declared “used up” after having made lasting contributions to the American Theatre. Why do we feel called upon to hound and dismiss playwrights from O’Neill to Odets, Inge to Williams, Albee and beyond, who are trying to keep body and soul together? What kind of message does that send to those of us who are younger?
Shouldn’t we be celebrating what they’ve done to bring us this far? Every other culture does this but our own. Our worship of “young, promising” dramatists at the expense of the older represents an insidious kind of ageism and lack of respect—for ourselves as much as anyone—that damages all our potential for creative growth. The American theatre community’s scorn for older, established writers makes us seem a vicious, cannibalistic group. And maybe we are. We eat our artists raw—flesh, bone and mind.
Marc Robinson’s article on the June meeting of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas poorly reflects the serious discussions which took place concerning the importance of community-based theatre (“Only in My Back Yard,” Sept. ’91). In particular, I take exception to his statement that it “should be a truism that when artists are encouraged to satisfy their communities, the art becomes drastically limited.” The experience of Alternate ROOTS and its 250-plus member artists (as well as numerous community-based artists across the country, from Pregones in the Bronx to Dell’Arte Players in Blue Lake, Calif.) demonstrates exactly the opposite. The quality of an artist’s work can be stronger and its impact deeper when that work is connected directly to the artist’s community.
That does not mean, as Robinson implies, that this work is strong only when presented to its natural community, as illustrated with his examples of Tennessee Williams in New Orleans or Wole Soyinka in Nigeria. That both of his examples are geographical communities reveals his basic misunderstanding of the term “community.” (To be fair, it’s a common misunderstanding.) “Community” can be other than place; there are communities of tradition, culture, ethnicity, history or spirit, communities that are chosen, created or inherited. For example, Seven Stages of Atlanta, a ROOTS member and a theatre with strong links to the urban communities it serves (note the plural, please), presents plays from Germany, Eastern Europe and South Africa routinely as part of its efforts to serve its communities here. This is a far cry from Robinson’s undefended assertion that “audiences see reassuring portraits of familiar experience, but never the foreign or mysterious.”
The links between the current and important movements of interculturalism and community-based approaches to art should be obvious, and were in fact well addressed in your excellent October ’91 issue on multiculturalism. The importance of the community movement goes far beyond theatre, dramaturgy and art. There are many artists who are responsible to their communities, fully vested citizens, working at the center, not the fringes, of society, helping to create a culture and an art that means something to someone other than its creator.
Kathie deNobriga, executive director
Although as a struggling playwright I share Diane Ney’s frustration with the reading process, I feel she is being harsh and unrealistic in her demands on artistic directors (“Re: Readings,” Jan. ’92). I don’t know where she’s sending her stuff, but my experience is that any theatre willing to take a chance on new scripts is full of dedicated people living terrifyingly close to the edge themselves.
I have known the frustration of being called a month after the fact with the first word of a reading in distant lands. I have been paid a pittance for a reading after hauling myself clear across the country on my own steam to see it—but then been shamed into giving that pittance and more back as a donation when I see what the folks are doing on no budget to speak of. I’ve been put up for a few months of rehearsal by kindly artistic directors and seen how they work full-time day jobs, care for ailing parents, direct, design, build sets and costumes all on a diet of peanut butter and jelly when there’s no time to wash the jelly knife or money for takeout.
So though I may agonize over my missing scripts, fret over who might be fondling them in what dark alley, and long for the day when there might be lavish funding for all, I can still do no more than pat artistic directors (and dramaturgs, literary managers, set builders, stage and house managers, lighting designers, prop people and actors) on the back and tell them to hang in there.
Salt Lake City, Utah
An item in the Feb. ’92 Stages section incorrectly characterized the recent New York production of Cheryl West’s Before It Hits Home as a co-production. The play was produced solely by Second Stage, in association with the New York Shakespeare Festival, which provided a theatre for its month-long run. The announcement of Tim Bond’s appointment as artistic director of Seattle’s Group Theatre (Jan. ’92) should have indicated that he replaces founding artistic director Ruben Sierra. Paul O’Connell continues with the theatre as producing director.
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