African American theatre in its revolutionary, and post-revolutionary phases (‘Topdog/Underdog’ and ‘Dutchman’)

During the early to mid 1960’s LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka founded a movement known as the Black Revolutionary Arts Movement, the cultural arm to The Black Power Movement. The Black Power Movement was created by a group of activists who believed that the non-violent protests of the Civil Rights Movement were ineffectual. They were separatists who believed that equality could only be achieved for African Americans by creating their own cultural institutions. Spokespersons for Black Power emphasised the need for social and economic independence within the black community and promoted ideas of self-defence. This approach to protesting and political activism became the foundation of Jones/Baraka’s Black Revolutionary Arts Movement which emphasized black consciousness, community involvement, separatism and revolutionary action, and new aesthetics in form and structure.

‘Dutchman’ written in 1964 is a perfect example of African American theatre in its revolutionary phase and one of the first plays written within these aesthetics, a simple, violent and shocking representation based on history. The title of the play refers to the legendary ‘Flying Dutchman’ a ship of the dead that is believed to haunt the seas. The subway car of the play is a representation of such a ghost ship, where a young black man is murdered, it is a ‘ghostly incarnation of racist fantasies’. The play operates on the black and white binary in which the white man or woman is the educated and privileged one, but in the case of ‘Dutchman’ this binary is reversed, consequentially resulting in Clays death as the white woman is so intimidated by the educated and self assured black man that she must kill him. In Scene One of the play Lula’s character flirts with Clay, and seems to be attracted to him but hints of inherent racism are clear from the very beginning of the play in lines such as ‘don’t you know what staring means’ implying that the black man is ill-educated or ignorant, and ‘I saw you staring [..] down in the vicinity of my ass and legs’ assuming the misconception of black sexual obsession and the black mans want for a white woman. Lula demonstrates her judgemental character in this scene, as Baraka uses her to make comments on white society such as ‘I lie a lot, it helps me control the world’. Her character is manipulative and controlling throughout the play, a reflection on the kind of control that the Black Arts Movement were rebelling against during this revolutionary phase in African American theatre.

This play represents the African American struggle against white oppression, as Clay is bombarded with questions and judgements by the white woman, who is all the time trying to transform him into something other than himself, so that he will fit into the stereotype she has for him in her imagination. By Scene Two of the play her hostility is growing towards Clay and she feels the need to mock him as an African American, telling him to ‘pretend […] that you are free of your own history’ and yelling ‘GROOVE’ at the top of her lungs in a pathetic attempt to embarrass him. Her hostility grows and grows throughout every scene of the play, and her actions become more and more calculated and provocative as she provokes Clay into hitting her, forcing him to act the way the white woman expects the black man to act, violently.

In Clays final speech to Lula we get the sense that this is in fact a speech from Baraka, and perhaps the entire black community at the time, to racist white America. He proclaims that they can’t see ‘the pure heart, the pumping black heart’ behind the coloured people, that Lula (representing many white American’s of the time) is a ‘great liberated whore!’, pretending to think so equally while acting on behalf of her racist, oppressive culture. He celebrates black identity as being more artistic and soulful than white identity in this speech, ‘let me bleed you, you loud whore, and one poem vanished’ stating that all white Americans are interested in is ‘Money. Power. Luxury’ that their souls are cold and dark. The murder of Clay in the subway car, with all its white inhabitants turning a blind eye, is a definite metaphor for the racist culture that would go to any length to keep the black man down and support the oppressive deeds of its fellow white man. This play promotes separatism and aims to encourage revolutionary thought, to incite strong political action and put anger into the hearts of African American audiences who were expected to leave the theatre with new understandings about the politics of race in America.

In contrast to the revolutionary style of theatre in ‘Dutchman’, Suzan-Lori Parks ‘Topdog/Underdog’ is in many ways more complex, dealing with human issues of identity and family struggles above, but including, the struggles of African American society. While ‘Dutchman’ is extreme simplistic revolutionary theatre, ‘Topdog/Underdog’ is a complex Beckett-type play with post-revolutionary views of identity and politics. The play represents contemporary life as a dog-eat-dog world, hence the name ‘Topdog/Underdog’, and dramatizes race ‘as a contradiction between dreams of a possible life and the reality in which the chance of their realization is the ultimate gamble’.  It is the story of a realistic conflict between two African American brothers who are trying to live their lives in very different ways.

The play has a large historical and cultural frame of reference with the brothers names, Lincoln and Booth, foreshadowing a grim fate that is suggested to be ‘part of a longer historical trajectory’. Lincoln’s fate is entirely determined by the part that he plays in his life, and the grand irony of it all is that he spends his whole life trying to avoid being shot, by working in a place where he is constantly shot, and ending up being shot in reality. The play begins with another foreshadowing of its ending, Booth practising his card game and nearly shooting Lincoln when he surprises him. The 3 Card Monte that the brothers play throughout the play is very significant, as everything in this story seems to be a game, the family relationships, the sexual relationships and both of the men’s identities.

The roles that the characters play are a comment on the roles that African American men are expected to play in society, either impersonating the white man or gambling, working illegal trades. While Lincoln is interested in working hard at an honest job to make money, Booth is interested in all the trimmings of Western culture and will do anything, dishonest or not, to get them. They both represent common stereotypes in post-revolutionary culture; the hard working ‘wanna-be-white-man’ and the ‘gangsta’ negro who’s only interest is in making money and being surrounded by women. But there is so much more to these characters than those shallow stereotypes, as Booth’s despair and feelings of hopeless, abandonment and loneliness are evident when he is alone and Lincoln asks the thought provoking question in Scene Two ‘Does thuh show stop when no ones watching or does thuh show go on?’. This very question is what makes the play one that deals with human issues rather than exclusively African American ones, the idea that our whole existence is just a series of performances. Indeed, both of these men do impersonate someone that they are not in the play, Lincoln is impersonating President Lincoln, and Booth is actually impersonating his brother, trying all the time to live up to the standards Lincoln has set with his card playing.

The play is composed in the same format as jazz music, with a constant repetition and revision of events. For example, Booth’s feelings of abandonment by his mother are repeated when Grace leaves him, and he sleeps with his brothers wife on the same day of the week that he witnessed his mother having sex with her lover. Sex plays a huge part in the identities of the characters also. Lincoln’s first sexual encounter was sleeping with women that his father had sex with, and Booth’s first sexual encounter was seeing his mother engaging in an affair in their own kitchen. These events shape the characters undeniably, as Booth relates to his mother and see’s Lincoln as a father figure in which he is trapped in an Oedipal love-hate relationship with, that ultimately ends in the father figures murder. Booth feels emasculated sexually and in his life, feeling the need to constantly reference his sexual life – ‘she let me do her how I wanted. And no rubber’, but he is all about the aesthetics of sex, how it looks and the status that it gives him, he even claims to wear ‘magnums’, (a brand of condom made for ‘the larger man’) a name that evokes the imagery of guns and violence.

There is ‘deft layering of verbal and visual images of racial violence’ in the play, for example in Scene Three when Lincoln describes how ‘people like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up […] not raggedy and bloody and screaming’. This is a statement on how America has dealt with African Americans struggles for equality, preferring to think of it as a neat little chapter in history that has been resolved rather than an ongoing and brutal fight for justice. In contrast to Amiri Baraka’s methods of violent and shocking representation to comment on social injustices for black people in theatres revolutionary phase, Parks uses imagery, realism and human issues to outline the underlying problems in post-revolutionary black society and how America has in many ways sanitized its history of black oppression and forced black men into these roles through years of slavery and inequality.

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