Tuesday, October 21, 2014


The palette is vast and PTSlaveryS is omnipresent as an emerging force


Twenty-three authors, twenty-three plays covering a period of nearly sixty years (1935-1992) from the New Deal to the Clinton era. The plays are classified by theme which makes the book rather strange in a way instead of having chronological order: the value of a play does not come from the theme only but from the author and the period when it was written and performed. I will follow the book though to cover the twenty-three plays in the order of the book.

Langston Hughes, Mulatto, 1935
The white planter can have a black mistress, the two children he had from her are not his children but her bastards. He gave them some education but they are supposed to respect their position as black servants with no privilege whatsoever. Either they go away and stay away, or they stay and are field workers. The one who was rebellious was sent to some school far away to get some education; He makes the mistake of coming back one summer and he pretends to be treated as equal downtown, to use the front door of the house, and to eat in the dining room or sit in the sitting room, as the son of the owner. That ends badly of course. The lesson is that miscegenation necessarily creates evil. The only sensible solution is to live separate and apart. That is typical of Marcus Garvey’s ideology and Black Nationalism.

Paul Green, Richard Wright, Native Son, 1941
As compared to the novel, the play does not allow too many details and the play is thus slightly schematic and very cold because there are only dialogues and the minds of the characters are not visible, particularly Bigger’s, or explainable. It is obvious the humiliation and the castration the meal with Mary and Jan in the black restaurant where Bigger is known cannot be rendered on the stage. In the same way the furnace scene, both the burning of the body and the discovery of the remnants of this burning cannot be fully shown. The real battle during the flight and the end of it are not shown. Bigger does not kill his girl friend, which takes an important element out. Then the trial and the prison scenes are too long, too wordy, and hence very cold and distant. Too theoretical. The play is too much of a manifesto.

Louis Peterson, Take a Giant Step, 1953
Spencer, an 18 year old teenager lives in a three-generation black family in a middle-class white neighborhood and he is going to the high school of this neighborhood. He obviously has problems with his white “friends” and with white girls. He feels rejected, in many ways downtrodden or downgraded. His father is a typical Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome person, violent, authoritarian and probably vain. The child cannot stand the racist teaching he gets in his white school. He has to build a distance between him and that white school that would keep him safe. And that’s just what PTSS is for his generation: keep cool, play dumb, do not attract any attention. It is called mentalcide, or mental suicide. By looking innocuous you can survive in an all white surrounding. You can be invisible to the whites who are color-blid, provided you make yourself so innocuous that you become a non-entity. Too bad Spencer, but you must drop baseball. Quite ahead of its time (about 50 years) before such concepts as PTSlaveryS are developed by the Nation of Islam.

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun, 1959
A black family with five generations of slaves behind them. The new generation gets some insurance money for the untimely death of the grandfather and the grandmother has to decide what she does with the money. Will the money go to financing Beneatha’s studies (she wants to be a doctor) or Walter’s projects (he wants to buy a liquor store)? The grandmother yields and treats the grand son Walter as a man and entrusts the money to him for him to manage it. He gets into some dealing with a man who is supposed to get them, Walter and a friend of his, the liquor store and the license. All the money goes and of course the man is a crook. The whole family is ruined. They have to sell their house and move. We have a simple family with family problems and not a really black situation. They want to succeed in the world and they have forgotten there are crooks out there, many crooks who look just like you.

Lonne Elder III, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, 1965
The father is a barber who has no business. The daughter is the only bread earning person in the family. The two sons are bad. Theo wants to moonshine whisky. Bobby is a shoplifter. The daughter decides to get rid of the three men and stop taking care of them. The two boys get in touch with some crime circle and the barber’s shop becomes the center of moon shining and dealing whisky and a new number “game.” Theo becomes a slave of the whisky and the store: he must produce 24/7 and Bobby gets in more and more dangerous deals, till one night he is killed by a night watchman. The father has gotten completely off his rocker leading high life with women and alcohol. Theo is morally ruined. Adele becomes loose with boyfriends. The past is ruined and they can only live in PT Slavery S that leads them to the total dissolution of all their human values. They are just puppets manipulated by others.

Thomas Pawley, The Tumult and the Shouting, 1969
This is not a black play really. The fact that they are black is in fact marginal since they are locked up in an all black college so that the color problem hardly exists. Note we have to be before integration and integration will mean the death of many of these black colleges because they will not be able to integrate. The past is nothing but a past of misery: poverty + poverty + 1929 + New Deal + WW2 + NAACP and that’s the end. The father Pr Sheldon is a man of pride and authority. The campus and his family are his kingdoms. He has to retire and cannot accept it, especially moving out of the campus house that is not his, and yet he has to. So the closely connected family gets completely scattered all over: The mother moves to the dorms to keep her job as a custodian, the daughter moves to the senior dorm. The son Billy is sent to a sanatorium and then set in a room alone, the son Julian goes back to Roanoke and his own family, the son David goes to Iowa, and Pr Sheldon goes to a boarding house. The family that had been very close-knit just explodes when the father retires and loses the campus house in which he had lived all his adult life or nearly. But once again it is not specifically black, except that the close-knit characteristic of the family is typical of a Post Traumatic situation and here it is the one inherited from the past of slavery. But in a similar post traumatic situation white people might very well react the same way.

Langston Hughes, Limitations of Life, 1938
Very pessimistic small two page scene. “Once a pancake, always a pancake!”

Abram Hill, On Strivers Row A Satire, 1939
A black upper middle class family. It is black but that is a convention more than a real asset or stake here. The behavior of these rich people is the behavior of any rich narrow-minded people who believe appearances are more important than reality and real self. The press at the same time is shown as perfectly rotten and ready to publish any lie for a personal profit. In fact thus family are one of the few black families that benefited from the New Deal but then they became standard middle class muck, what’s more what they believe they are is one rung higher, upper middle class, but muck all the same.

Douglas Turner Ward, Day of Absence, 1965
This is a reverse minstrel show in which the all black cast makes all white parts be played by black actors with whitened faces. Real pandemonium. One morning all black servants and customers, and passers-by just plain disappear for the day. The whites are not able to cope since then they do not have servants, their businesses are suffering and the general surrounding environment is different. They are at a loss. The whites then try to bring the blacks back but nothing works and the blacks can’t be found anyway. And on the following morning they all come back from the non existing planet where  they had been for twenty-four hours. And nothing has changed. Back to normal. Back to Normal, really? Yet, maybe in the memory of that day the whites might have learned a lesson and the blacks might have learned about their power. But Might! Might! Might! And nothing else. Promises, Promises!

James Baldwin, The Amen Corner, 1954
This play is one of the most important plays in the book and in the history of Black theater.
A very important and fascinating play from the black stage. Not so important because of the power struggle in this black fundamentalist Christian church but because of four other dimensions: The role of women in society; the place of religion as an alienation in society; the musical perspective in society; and the place of love for father, mother and son in society. These four questions are universal, and yet the play situates them in the black community of New York. I will not develop the power struggle. One younger woman took over from an older man and is pushed aside by another woman who takes over. This church, maybe most churches, is the locale of ambition and social climbing. The arguments of this power struggle have nothing to do with religion. It is plain power struggle for the sake of power which also means financial resources and some kind of comfort represented by a brand new Frigidaire, though such a position is always fragile. What’s most shocking is that the arguments used are private, intimate and personal, often under the belt: they have nothing to do with religion that is only the covering of the personal ambition and rivalry if not hatred of these church elders. Music is important in this play, as always with James Baldwin. The father, Luke, is a jazz trombone player. The son, David, is, or is to be, a jazz piano player. Music is fundamental in this church too with an evolution about how to use it from a plain piano, or keyboard today, which is the very minimum in a black church, though with a lot of singing, to the introduction of drums and horns of some kind coming from a sister church in Philadelphia. Music is here again the core and heart of David’s self and objective in life. Note he is perfectly well named since King David was the founder of the music school of Jerusalem some 25 centuries ago. The father, Luke, is also well named since he is one of the Gospel writers and Luke’s Gospel is supposed to be the most sensitive and empathetic, Luke being a doctor by profession and well accustomed to dealing with suffering. A lot should be said on these two names and men.

Owen Dodson, The Confession Stone A Song Cycle, 1960
Jesus’ death in a poignant poem. It is based on the fake social contacts in the group that in fact isolate Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Judas completely from all others. These are shown as being taken over by so much pain that empathy from others is impossible. Jesus’ death seems to have made them absolutely schizophrenic. They just want to die to live for ever with their recollection of Jesus un changed and unchanging. God’s position is even worse: God and Jesus have lost their souls: they gave them to men in a sort of supreme self-castration bot auto-castration and castration of the self. There are a few facts that we know better nowadays. James, Jesus’ brother, is absent. Paul is present though he was nothing at all to Jesus. Joseph has only one wife and only one son: he was a widower and had at least four children. Mary was married several years after she was sixteen. Absurd. She was married to Joseph in her early teens when she got pregnant in her position as a weaver of the Temple’s veil.. Mary Magdalene is deranged by love, unsatisfied love, love of total submission or love for total submission expressed in her washing Jesus’ feet. And what about Judas who answers God’s order in order to make Jesus’ teachings immortal? That’s the most modern element in the fable. But the poem is poignant all the same.

Adrienne Kennedy, Funnyhouse of a Negro, 1962
This play is an absolute marvel as for the description of Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome. The black father is haunted by what his mother wanted: she wanted him to be Jesus, to walk in Genesis, to save the race, heal the race, heal their misery and take the blacks off the cross. This black man had intercourse with a white (in fact very pale but black: one drop, etc. . . . ) woman who probably was a whore along with heavy allusions to rape. The daughter that came out of this union is black. She is haunted with the guilt of being black. The father and the daughter then turn the racist violence from outside onto themselves and are typical willing PTSS victims. The father hangs himself in a Harlem hotel. The daughter hangs herself out of the haunting guilt of being black, colored, yellow. Behind there is a Black Man who is not really identified except as a rapist. Patrice Lumumba is just the ghost of the violence applied onto blacks by whites. And all that guilt and those guilty feelings are projected back onto the “white” mother who is in fact a very pale black woman. Why? Because she was not really white? Because she was a disguised black woman? Because of the one drop of black blood theory? She is anyway the designated guilty agent of it all.

Alice Childress, Wine in the Wilderness, 1969
The play is about how intellectuals and artists have to go back to real life to escape clichés. At the same time, real life people are just “tomming” (behaving like Uncle Tom in the famous cabin) towards intellectuals and artists in order to make the latter like the former. The artist though confronted to some riot in Harlem is changing his project about the triptych he wants to paint to represent the fate of blacks in America. His vision of the present and the future has changed. The present is no longer the lost, whoring, neglected social reject of a woman he had in mind at first but in fact she is the queen, the glamorous model given as the perfect model for black women, and the future is no longer young people lost in crime and drugs but the young people he has in front of him, full of love and empathy. But that is possible because he remembers slavery and brings it back into his vision while being surrounded by a riot. In other words he is coping with his PT Slavery S by recuperating his past, his ancestry and projecting it into the present and the future as the healing element. He is inventing the cure the Nation of Islam is advocating today.

Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, 1976
The absolute PTSS vision of a trauma that leads people to the worst illusions about life and final crimes as if killing children were a solution to past slavery.

Robbie McCauley, Sally’s Rape, 1989
This play is trying to recuperate the real experience of slavery for women, the real survival instinct of the slave that has been carried through and is till in full existence today. Women have retained from this old slavery time the practice of submitting to a rape which is not just being relaxed and easy but on the contrary to keep tight, tight enough to give the rapist the impression he is raping, forcing, breaking through. He only finds his pleasure in that force he has to exercise to penetrate the woman who has the obligation if she wants to survive to give him the impression he is doing it for real. The memory that comes back is that for a black slave to accept to have children from the white master was the way she could protect her own children she had from a black slave. Note there is no love in sex. There is only love from the mother to the children no matter who the father is or may be because only the mother counts.

LeRoi Jones, Amiri Baraka, Dutchman, 1964
PTSS is a trap. Lula is the temptress who delivers the temptation to be a black clown for her sole pleasure to a young black man. And when he refuses to be that servile non-entity, she just kills him and moves to the next victim. What is surprising is the absolute accompliceship of all the people around the event. For them it is nothing but entertainment. In fact the killing is the normal consequence of her negating the young man’s blackness: “You middle-class bastard. Forget your social-working mother for a few seconds and let’s knock stomachs. Clay, you liver-lipped white man. You would-be Christian. You ain’t no nigger, you’re just a dirty white man. Get up, Clay. Dance with me, Clay.” That racial castration she practices in fact is echoed in the male character by his own desire to rise over the race and to castrate the race in him, but her castration actually tries to castrate him of his desire to be white, of his desire to castrate the black man in him to be a white man.

Ed Bullins, Goin’ A Buffalo, 1966
A sad play about a band of low life who survive by being strippers or prostitutes or both for women, and being pimps or thieves and gangsters for men, and I should say girls and boys because none of them are adult. There comes one who is an adult and he is introduced because he saved the life of the main man in the band when he was in prison. That intruder will manipulate them all into going onto a big drug deal. He will have the cops there. They will all be arrested except the girl who was driving and stayed in the car at some distance. He will elope with her and all the cash available in the den of this little gang. It takes a real man to clean up a plate of immature girls and boys who behave as if they were men and women, or vice versa, and keep for himself the dough and the butter.

Ban Caldwell, Prayer Meeting: or the First Militant Preacher, 1967
A common situation in black ghettoes and communities. A young male is killed by the police and a demonstration is being planned. The local preacher is trying to defuse it. But a black burglar manipulates him when he is praying and makes him believe his voice is God’s and while he is getting out the window all the goods he wants he gives him a lesson of how to preach when you are a proud black preacher in front of an assault on your community. Funny. This theme of the preacher’s responsibility in front of segregation and racial violence is common in black literature, but here it is humorous and even satirical.

Ted Shine, Contribution, 1969
The old black granny, openly subservient to whites, has killed white masters all her life with poison. Her grand son is hesitating on the project of going downtown and “integrating” the white local drugstore. She boosts his morale and at the same time she has the breakfast pancakes of the Sherriff delivered to him just before the integration of said drugstore and the sheriff will not survive this last experience of what he loved best in life: his breakfast cooked by this subservient old black woman. The integration of the drugstore goes through without a hitch, because the white crowd outside have lost their main leader, the Sheriff himself. Grief is a great integrationist. Extremely BLACK (all possible meaning) humor!!!

Kalamu ya Salaam, Blk Love Song # 1, 1969
This play is the most surprising piece of male chauvinistic theater I know. African Americans have been negated in their fertile man-ness, in their fertile men. African American men are supposed to recapture their fertility and their position in society as the leading force. Women are only the ones who carry the men’s seeds to create Africa. “A man is a wondrous creation, a dawn, a deep night, a whole world.” The assertion of the future of blacks is in the black seed. Racial purity; procreational future; narrowly-defined existence (black, pure black, black-minded, heterosexual, everything white rejected); definitely sectarian in the rejection of all that does not fit the model: racial bastards, sexual faggots and all whites of course. The only ideological reference is to the Quran and Islam: “As salaam alaikum my brother, my sister.” And it all started with an evocation of the middle passage and of slavery. It does not correspond to the present practice of the Nation of Islam, but this attitude has many roots in many black approaches from Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X and many others. “Where is the seed of Africa? When will they come home? Where is the seed of Africa? When will they come home? How long before from the seeds a new Black nation shall bloom. Let a new Black nation bloom. Let a new Black nation bloom. Let us a new Black nation bloom.” And they can sing their song “Shake the sun.”

George C. Wolfe, The Colored Museum, 1988
Eleven scenes or exhibits, since we are in a museum. They are all extremely humorous, very black and tense but at times hilarious, at least if they are not seen as a monstrous reality or its inversion. The Slave Aircraft, the middle passage in modern times. Soul cooking or how to cook little niggers. Become a glamorous photo in a black magazine and the squalor of life will not exist any more. The black soldier who kills his comrades for them not to experience war time and after war suffering. The Gospel helped the blacks to trade their drums for respectability. The duel between the Afro hair piece and the blonde hair piece is the fate of black women. Let’s turn three hundred years of oppression into an all-black musical. Only one thing is missing, a Jewish composer and conductor and it would be an opera. Symbiosis is the dilemma of the century: adjust to symbiotic integration or end up extinct [. . . like Neanderthals?]. A metaphor: the old girl in any girl has to die to let the new girl in that girl be born, but the newly born new girl will never be able to forget the old girl to whose death she owes her existence. A metaphor again of a pregnant woman giving “birth” to an egg and with that egg she shifts back from the mono-rhythmic simple-minded one-sided reality of today to the old roots of polyrhythmic music from Africa. This again is in the woman and she gives birth to her past, to the past of the whole race. We are back at the beginning with this end and it is the very assertion of the reality of PTSS. “I have no history. I have no past. . . Being black is too emotionally taxing, therefore I will be black only on weekends and holidays. . . You can’t stop history. You can’t stop time. . . Repeat after me: I don’t hear any drums and will not rebel. I will not rebel.” And we are back on the slave aircraft of the first exhibit.

Aishah Rahman, The Mojo and the Sayso, 1989
This is a parable. Acts the father, Awilda the mother and Blood (Walter) the son are the absolute victims of PTSS. But they find their salvation in the father’s creativity: he is able with his own hands to renovate an old dumped car into a marvelous beauty and they can take the road with it, the three together, the trinity reformed after many difficulties, particularly for the son. The American myth of the mile-eating car is the liberation tool of a family trinity of black PTSS survivors as much as victims. It is beautiful to believe that the car is a liberator of all evils.

Anna Deavere Smith, Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities, 1992
A set of very small interviews that are monologues for some radio. They are very sad because of the anti-Jewish or even anti-Semitic story it tells. Though it is positioned in the rap mind of the black people who are ignorant of the real world, of the real truth. A son is killed, possibly because he is Jewish, or maybe he is killed by the Jews. It is at least not clear, but the whole thing is seen through the eyes of a father and mother who are witnessing the death of their son. It is like a reflection on that anti-Jewish discourse many rap singers actually advocate or air. It is also a vision of what the killing of a young man, by the police of by a mob can be for his parents. Ferguson you are so close at times!



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