"Time that won't quit": Recurrence, Reclamation, and Black Identity on the American Stage
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In her “Elements of Style,” Suzan-Lori Parks suggests a certain perpetuity of the past when she defines history as “time that won’t quit.” Knowingly positioned within the theatrical discipline, her words encourage a frank confrontation of the evolution of racial representation on the American stage, a representation that has from its beginnings been contentious. The theatre is a prime vehicle by way of which to explore race through cultural, anthropological, geographical, and sociological lenses. Theorists such as E. Patrick Johnson, Daphne Brooks, Eric Lott, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have sought to probe the ways in which performance acts as a conduit for African American racial embodiment. Even more importantly, black playwrights themselves have embraced the ability of dramatic texts and their subsequent physical manifestations to challenge and contest historical traditions of racial representation and to cultivate newer, authentic avenues for black expression. My study seeks to chart this evolution of identity, asking how the history of race within performance has affected its subsequent presentations. A survey of 14 separate representative dramatic texts from the last 150 years reveals a progressively more radical trajectory in the national black theatrical experience. I begin by examining minstrelsy, America’s first authentic cultural art form. Driven by white authority, its impact was such that it dictated the image of the African American for over a century, establishing a theatrical “tradition” that limited ideas of blackness to fallacious white constructions. Yet as American theatre continued to grow and change, so too, despite the limitations of tradition, did the ways in which blackness was embodied onstage. Black theatrical artists of the early twentieth century rejected the white majority’s representations of their identity in favor of more accurate histories and authentic theatrical traditions. Over time, however, black playwrights began revisiting a troublesome past previously abandoned by their artistic community, acknowledging its impact on the evolution of black theatre. Their works sought cultural reclamation by exploring, incorporating, and rebuffing historical notions of blackness, in turn proving true Parks’s suggestion that American theatre is cyclical in nature. Since its origins, the black theatre community has pushed for authenticity in all forms: an authentic body, an authentic voice, an authentic tradition. Members of that community have probed the African American’s existence within particular spaces, questioning how environment—be it physical, social, psychological, or spiritual—impacts black identity. In the early twenty-first century, playwrights and performers have begun to deconstruct the very nature of identity, shifting its onstage portrayal from one of pure physicality to one of shattering theoreticality, challenging received notions about race, performance, and the act of being itself.
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