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Black Dramatic Theory

A New Approach

by Hershell Norwood

The central focus for any aesthetic theory for black theatre naturally begins with Du Bois, 1903. He was first to define the “cultural” problem, the living contradiction and dual nature that American society has forced on blacks, the phenomenon of a “double consciousness.”

My study focuses on the turn of the 20th century in Harlem as the complete paradigm of Negro life in America. Black society in Harlem was framed by historical developments that influenced the entertainment business, law and politics, world political ideologies, but most profoundly national economics of this country. These influences coupled with the ideology of double consciousness greatly shaped Negro culture and by extension its theatre.

Henry Miller detailed the double consciousness influence in the “art or propaganda” dramatic theory debate in the Harlem Renaissance. In ’67, Harold Cruse charged the black intellectual leadership of that period with “failing to establish an aesthetic system” to resolve the Negro’s most critical cultural problem, that in fact Du Bois had originally described. (Miller, 21-22, 117; Cruse, 58, 158-159)

My attempt to offer a solution to the problem lead me to first ask how African Americans have historically dealt with the imposed contradiction and double–mind thinking. Generally speaking, I call their protest, or kinds of “resistance” the theory of Signifying Double-Consciousness (SDC). The work of both David Krasner and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. contributes understanding to this concept. (Krasner, 5, 29-33; Gates, 54, 89-94)

The Dubois ”double consciousness” establishes the foundational base. Black signifying, defined by Henry Louis Gates as obtaining “direction through indirection” demonstrates the multiple variations of the double consciousness theme. I’ve developed a chart to better explain the concept and include the details in my study.

African Americans have historically dealt with social oppression by utilizing various means of resistance, SDC. I explain this action in terms of utilizing a mode of aggression. These actions can be categorized into one of three groups.

The middle class, educated black intellectuals and integrationists of Harlem used a semi-aggressive SDC means. Their main idea was to show white American society they were equal and just as good, or better, in all ways.

The nationalistic followers of Marcus Garvey, who later developed the Black Arts Movement, used less “indirecton” and more direct means — a militant-aggressive SDC mode to operate.

Black workers in Harlem had migrated largely from a share-crop culture in the south. Generally, they functioned with a high degree of illiteracy and suffered more directly in an overly oppressive American Jim Crow society. In order to survive they used a mode of accommodation, gaining direction through indirection, and operated by passive-aggressive SDC means.

These three modes used to fight racial oppression have their limits. Essentially, they all hit a cultural brick wall, a control construct built into the historical fabric of American society. History in our country has thus far proven the educated middle class black will never be accepted as “equal,” a militant class and a greater percent of the defiant urban black youth, particularly males, are controlled by a legal system, incarcerated, or categorically eliminated. And poor blacks, if they choose to remain in that status, receive less return for their efforts in life if they operate in a mode of pure acceptance and accommodation.

My attempt to determine how African Americans can reap any real creative “return” for their personal artistic efforts and operate on a more “equal” basis in our country lead me to an absolutely critical idea. In order to effectively counter the “control construct” built into American culture any black aesthetic theory approach must have an economic component. I call my theory idea a z-factor derivative. In simple terms the principle states: make the system make a profit on what it opposes.

When the final “maximized” profit for a black art project reaches the top of the American economic pyramid, it is absolutely imperative that the black artisan reap the “lion share,” or greater per cent of that profit for his personal creative work. It is by this means I think African Americans can have a chance to equally share the rewards for their input into the larger American culture.

Bibliography Source:

Cruse, Harold. Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: William Morrow & Co, Inc., 1967. (pp.58, 158-159)

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. (p. 54, 94)

Krasner, David. Resistance, Parody, and Double Consciousness in African American Theatre, 1895-1910. New York: St. Martin’s Press,1997. (p. 5)

Miller, Henry. Theorizing Black Theatre Art Versus Protest in Critical Writings, 1898-1965. New York: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011. (p. 21-22; 117)