The Present’s Responsibility to Our Past and Future
How African American Theatre History teaches us to use Art to fight Injustice…
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Some may argue that celebrities (including but not limited to: Artists, athletes, comedians, etc.) should “stay in their lane” and not attempt to make a difference outside of their specific field. I would argue the opposite. Whether celebrities like it or not, they sign what I call “The Social Contract” when they become household names: They gain fame and fortune in exchange for a lack of privacy regarding social issues. Artists need to take the responsibility of fighting injustice through their Art. African American Theatre History teaches us that Artists of any group (but especially those of a marginalized group), not only have the right to make a difference-they have the moral and societal obligation to do so.
Holocaust survivor and novelist Elie Wiesel once said:
“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”
In 2018, Nike created a commercial featuring shunned NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick started an entire civil rights movement by taking a knee during the national anthem played before professional football games. This was a peaceful protest to the horrific police brutality that has predominantly been affecting young African American men. Even though he has not been signed to a team since 2016, he is the NFL Most Valuable Player in my book, because he used his celebrity influence to stand up for his fellow African Americans. Just as Kaepernick refused to stay silent, so did Nike itself by taking a stand and featuring him in their commercial; sending a message to the world that they stood with African Americans. While many people were outraged at Nike for getting pseudo-political, I believe they didn’t just have the option to take this stand-they owed it to the world because of their extremely high level of influence. (Now, don’t mistake this for Citizens United v. FEC, which allows corporations to act like individual citizens in regard to campaign financing. I am simply saying that companies like Nike have a societal voice, and it is their societal responsibility to use it.)
Interestingly enough, Nike may have been righting a previous wrong with the Kaepernick commercial, because they had previously released a commercial with NBA Most Valuable Player Charles Barkley in 1993, where he stated, “I am not a role model. I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” I could not disagree with him more. Whether Barkley liked it or not, he had a huge amount of influence on those who watched and worshipped his style of play.
Despite Fox News Host Laura Ingraham saying that NBA superstars LeBron James and Kevin Durant should just “shut up and dribble,” the bottom line is that if children have LeBron’s last name on the back of the jersey they wear every day while shooting hoops in their back yard, then-whether Ingraham likes it or not-LeBron has influence over them. LeBron has the right to make political comments just like everyone else, but his comments inevitably hold a lot more weight. Of course, it is also important to note that LeBron used money earned playing basketball to open up a school for impoverished children and that those children are now recording higher test scores than they were before attending his school. Thus, celebrities absolutely can and must use the power of their influence to strengthen society.
Artists have the unique potential to use both their influence and their craft to change the world for the better. In Ben Caldwell’s play The First Militant Preacher, or; Prayer Meeting, Caldwell uses satire to help get a similar point across that Wiesel made by having a burglar persuade a preacher to not just wait and see what happens but instead to take a stand and fight to protect African Americans. When the preacher argues that the laissez-faire approach is best for African Americans, the burglar responds, “So you want things to stay just as they are. You tell them to do nothin’ but wait. Wait and turn the other cheek. As long as you keep them off the white folks you alright with the white folks. My people got to keep catchin’ hell so you can live like this!” Despite the fact that the play is extremely short, Caldwell used his Art to touch upon extremely important themes such as Racism, Police Brutality, African American Religiosity, Anti-Blackness within the Black Community, and African Americans who seek to emulate whites (or even to anchor themselves to stereotypes about themselves).
In Day of Absence, Douglas Turner Ward touched upon important themes such as Racism, Defying Stereotypes, and Inequality. What’s most interesting about Ward’s approach is that he used his Art not to plead for freedom like so many other plays about race, but instead put black actors in whiteface to satirically show how desperately white people need black people to survive.
In Ntzoke Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, Shange brilliantly uses the art of her poetry to create a sense of community for women of color. However, one could argue that the brilliance of the play transcends race, because I personally had a physical reaction to “a nite with willie beau brown”. Despite the fact that it is happening to a black woman in New York and I am a white man from south Florida, I have felt hopelessness, desperation, helplessness, and trauma from abuse. So, while I have never been in the specific situation that the Lady in Red is in, Shange’s Art helped me feel even more sympathy toward black women than I already did because I was truly able to relate to how they were feeling, not through specific circumstances but through specific emotions. I had a similar experience with the play Ruined, written by Lynn Nottage (an African American female Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright).
In Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, a black man is seduced and eventually killed by a seductive white woman on a subway. Clay is a young black man, and this slightly older, very beautiful, blonde, seemingly harmless white woman is heavily seducing him. Again, despite the fact that I have never had dark skin and have never been in Clay’s specific situation, I could not help but emotionally connect to him because of the power of Baraka’s writing. I could not help but think to myself, “What straight man, regardless of race, would immediately be suspicious of a beautiful woman coming on to them? I know I wouldn’t! What straight man wouldn’t let down their guard and start to give in to the woman’s manipulations of him?” One could easily blame him for not being alert at, for example, the sight of a man in a white hood. But a beautiful woman half his size? He’d come off as paranoid and prejudiced against white people (and sexist against women) if he didn’t immediately drop any logical red flags and assume her intentions were all good.
I had a similar sensation relating to the father in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Walter Lee Younger is facing immense pressure to take care of his family, despite societal and racial obstacles completely getting in his way. While I may be more naturally privileged than Younger because of where I was born and the color of my skin, I absolutely feel an immense pressure to take care of my whole family despite seemingly unbeatable obstacles in my way. Hansberry, like Baraka and Ward and Caldwell and Shange, used their Art to help society understand the struggle and plight of the African American by forcing us to connect to their characters on a deep emotional level.
Even though race relations still have a long way to go, one cannot deny how far the Civil Rights Movement have come, especially through the power and vehicle of Art. We cannot live in the past, but as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is why studying African American Theatre History is so important-so we can learn from the progress and mistakes of the past to make a better and brighter future for all marginalized people!
Thanks for reading! For more things Datz, check out eddiedatz.com!
For further reading, check out The Theoretical Development of African American Theatre and Drama, written by Dr. Mikell Pinkney (Associate Professor of Theatre and Diversity Affairs Coordinator at the University of Florida).