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Black Theater Today: Alive and Global

Michael Bandler - Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State

Washington - In the early 1970s, as the civil rights movement gained strength across the United States, a group of black men and women produced a bold body of work for the stage.

The playwrights of the 1970s and 1980s - Charles Gordone, Joseph Walker, Charles Fuller, Ntozake Shange and others - brought the experiences of the inner city and their own awakened consciousness to their audiences. In the late 1980s, August Wilson burst upon the scene, with a series of 10 plays chronicling the lives of black Americans throughout the 20th century in the urban Hill district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The plays, although focused within a geographic microcosm, chronicled 100 years in the life experiences of black Americans everywhere.

Now, a new generation of black dramatists has arrived, using historical insight to create a range of characters spanning the spectrum of social class and experience. "In the old days, playwrights were working the same territory, and now they've broken out," says Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey. "It's so exciting that there's absolutely no place these writers won't go. It's a thrilling group of writers who have something to say in very different ways."

In the past few years, many playwrights of this new generation have produced works of exceptional power. One such work - Fetch Clay, Make Man, by Will Power - explores the mid-1960s-era relationship between prizefighter Cassius Clay, as he was evolving into Muhammad Ali, and aging film actor Stepin Fetchit. One was on the ascent, and newly empowered. The other symbolized lingering stereotypes of the past and was reconciled to that image, but on his own terms.

Another recent standout is Ruined, by Lynn Nottage. The play follows several courageous, endangered women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country wracked by civil war. Nottage was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and since then, Ruined has been staged across the United States and in London.

Other notable dramas include Lydia R. Diamond's Stick Fly, which presents a portrait of the black elite through the eyes of one family; Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brother/Sister Plays, a trilogy that focuses on characters struggling against difficult circumstances in the bayou country of Louisiana; and Danai Gurira's Eclipsed, which tells the story of five young Liberian women coping and surviving in the midst of a brutal civil war.

"There's something just deeply human and not necessarily grievance-oriented about what these folks are writing about," says Mann. "And I find it interesting, too, that they're involved in research and travel, and finding out about people" whose lives and experiences are so different from their own.

Suzan-Lori Parks, a dramatist who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for her play Topdog/Underdog, has a different perspective on why so many black playwrights have emerged lately. "The writers are getting produced today," she explains. "In the 1970s, besides Gordone and Walker and Fuller, there were tons of great writers writing with all sorts of points of view who weren't getting produced with the kind of regularity and high-profile venues" that newer writers often enjoy. What has changed, she says, is that "the culture has become more receptive" to these writers' plays "because of August Wilson, but also the hip-hop culture" and Barack Obama's election to the presidency.


In March 2010, three new plays with black themes were staged by noncommercial (off-Broadway) New York City theaters. Two were presented at the Public Theater: Parks' latest work, The Book of Grace, which focuses on a son's confrontation with his father, and Tracy Scott Wilson's The Good Negro, which looks back at the political struggles of the 1960s civil rights movement and the people who led it. Meanwhile, Playwrights Horizons produced Kia Corthron's A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick, which examines issues of ecology and political activism through the story of a young African in a U.S. town threatened by drought.

Also, in London, American Katori Hall became the first black female playwright to win the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for her play The Mountaintop, which takes place in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. King is the main character in the two-person drama.

For his part, Power says: "There's no way I could have written Fetch Clay, Make Man 30 years ago. Nobody would have wanted to hear about Stepin Fetchit, even if [the story] was thrilling and complex. What the playwrights today are trying to do is to bring out the irony of what is going on in black culture and American culture in general. A lot of the plays of the past were written with broad strokes, celebrating black culture and bringing it to the forefront. Today, a lot of us are either looking at [contemporary] issues, or looking back at the past with a 2010 eye, filling in some of the pages of history by bringing out the nuances."

"As a post-civil rights generation child, I'm building upon what my parents' generation laid down."

See "Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess' Celebrates Its 75th Anniversary ( http://www.america.gov/st/peopleplace-english/2010/February/20100129141845GLnesnoM0.9974939.html )" and Feature: Celebrating Cultural Heritage ( http://www.america.gov/preserving-minority-culture.html ).

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