CONTINUUM: The Journal of African Diaspora Drama, Theatre and Performance  ISSN 2471-2507
Volume 4 Number 1
 - August 2017

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Editor's Notes:  Black Bodies in Performance
Freda Scott Giles

There is an African proverb that states, “When an elder dies, a library has burned down.”  So much knowledge, wisdom and insight leaves us.  But we are not fully bereft.  The elder leaves a legacy for those who come after.  Three of our elders have recently left us.  One, Derek Walcott, is a Nobel laureate, an icon of world literature.  The other two, Jeanne-Marie A. Miller and Barbara Molette, left their own iconic legacy as builders and chroniclers of African American theatre.  As a song sung by Tina Turner says, “For every life that fades/Something beautiful remains.”  We honor these three who have joined the ancestors, we thank them for all they have given us, and we dedicate this issue to them.

            Derek Walcott’s (1930-2017) birthplace, the island of St. Lucia, formed his appreciation for the complex mixture of cultures in the Carribbean and his love for nature and the sea.  Though he died at his home in St. Lucia, he is often associated with Trinidad, where for many years he ran the Trinidad Theatre Workshop.  He published his first book of poems, In a Green Night, in 1962.  Even earlier than that, in 1950, his first play, about the Haitian revolutionary leader Henri Christophe, was produced in St. Lucia.  His best-known plays, Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1958) and Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967), are wrapped in Caribbean culture, myth and metaphor. He has left us a legacy of two dozen poetry collections, eight books, and close to thirty plays.  His many honors include a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

            Jeanne-Marie Anderson Miller (1931-2017) earned her Bachelor’s Master’s and PhD in British and American Literature at Howard University, where she entered into a long and distinguished professorial career.  She published approximately eighty articles, most of them on African American drama and theatre.  She was a fellow of the Ford Foundation and the Southern Fellowship Fund and a grantee of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies, among her numerous  honors and awards. Her scholarship was greatly appreciated; on a personal note, when I was writing my dissertation, I read hers and gained a great deal of knowledge and insight on African American theatre history from it.  She assisted, trained and encouraged a number of scholars in the field today who remember her fondly.

Barbara Molette (1940-1917) has been described in her obituary as “a model, actresses, scholar, sculptor, painter, costume designer, prolific writer and entrepreneur that loved to travel the world. “  As a young actor, she appeared in the film, “Bright Road,” starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge.  As a scholar and playwright, she is highly regarded as co-author, with her husband Carlton, of over twenty plays and two books.  Black Theatre:  Premise and Presentation.  This text has been used in theatre classrooms throughout the nation.    Barbara Molette was the first theatre M.F.A. to graduate from Florida State University and earned her PhD at the University of Missouri; she retired as professor emerita from Eastern Connecticut State University.  She was a solid supporter of Black Theatre Network who influenced and inspired many.

            Through the kind permission of Carlton Molette, Barbara Molette’s partner in life and often, in writing projects, we are reprinting an article of hers that first appeared in the final edition of a great periodical, Black World.  It was later reprinted in the tenth anniversary edition of Overture, an annual journal published by AUDELCO (Audience Development Committee) in 1976.  “They Speak, Who Listens” is a call for action.  Molette first lays out all of the obstacles that mitigate against plays by Black women playwrights getting produced, then identifies the need for more Black theatres and more women in positions of authority in theatre and film to get plays and film scripts by Black women produced.  This is not a new call, but it is sobering to see how long it has taken to even approach fruition of the ideas that Molette advocates.  Through reading her passionate and cogent appeal, we can more fully appreciate how far we have come and how far we need to go.   

            Deanna Lynette Downes took inspiration for her essay, “Embodied Practice:  A New/Old Directive for Black Theater” from women playwrights of the Negro Renaissance period and critical writings penned during the Black Arts Movement.  Combining her research and praxis, she has crafted a manifesto that calls for an additional paradigm for contemporary Black theatre:  readings in homes and other private spaces performed by non-professional actors for the purposes of self-expression, consciousness raising and empowerment.  She recommends that these readings be directed by professionals who would combine knowledge of the craft of theatre with the ability to contextualize, analyze and frame the plays.  Through connecting Black citizens (and Black women in particular) to Black drama in a “safe” environment, Downes also sees a means of making people see the past as present and inspiring them to take action.   She points back to a time when journals like Crisis published African-American authored plays that could be read in African American homes; the old becomes new because it has been revitalized as an avenue for promoting social action.  Downes calls her methodology for staging home play readings “embodied practice.”

            Nina Angela Mercer shows another form of embodiment in her close reading of a performance by Taja Lindley, Trinity.  Mercer connects Lindley’s performance to African and African diaspora ritual, social protest, and neo-burlesque, the empowerment and reclamation of the body from the dominant culture’s gaze through the embrace of the body’s sexuality in performance.  As Sassabrass the Poom Poom Priestess, Lindley explores the necessity for facing memory and history, the need to turn mourning into social protest and action, and the liberation of the Black body from shame and humiliation that moves toward an empowering celebration of its sexuality.  The performance started out at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX) and toured from there.  Mercer shows how Lindley uses performance as a tool of resistance, in keeping with her background as performance artist and social activist.

            In all three of the essays in this issue, we see different perspectives on embodiment.  Barbara Molette advocates for more opportunities for Black women playwrights to re-embody and re-form Black characters in the service of more truthful representations.  Deanna Lynette Downes, takes the embodiment of Black characters out of the hands of professional theatre practice and practitioners  for the purposes of consciousness raising and socio-political action.  Nina Angela Mercer shows how Taja Lindley ‘s neo-burlesque deconstructs and reconstructs the perception of the female Black body and makes it a site of resistance to oppression.  Downes and Mercer both use Black feminist theory and queer theory as critical lenses for examination of the issue of embodiment.  The Black body is still fighting for its right to survive on its own terms.