Contemporary African American Theater: Afrocentricity in the works of Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka, and Charles Fuller
Nfah-Abbenyi, Juliana Makuchi
Anadolu-Okur, Nilgun. 1997. Contemporary African American theater: Afrocentricity in the works of Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka, and Charles Fuller. New York: Garland. $44 hc. 234 pp.
JULIANA MAKUCHI NFAH-ABBEHYI UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI
Contemporary African American Theater contributes to the study of African American drama “based on theoretical aspects of drama” (ix). Nilgun Anadolu-Okur writes this book in reaction and response to the treatment of African American drama as an appendage of the poetics of Aristotle or as a by-product of American literature up until the 60s. The author is troubled by the persistent focus of critical studies on the European American theatrical tradition and its claims to universalism, stating “it must be recognized that not only has African American theater history been ignored and misinterpreted for many years, but it has also been considered non-existent under the pressure and scrutiny of a foreign set of values and standards” (xv). Anadolu-Okur posits the need to evaluate African American drama using its own aesthetic standards and critical judgments. The author does not deny connections to a European tradition; after all, we are told, as “we approach a new century, the ‘secret’ has been revealed, albeit hesitantly, that African culture and theater by way of Egypt may have preceded Greek culture (xxix). The introduction takes us through a long discussion that situates the ancestral origins of African American Theater and aesthetics in Egyptian rituals and their impact on Greek festivals/drama. Anadolu-Okur draws the conclusion that this transference of African aesthetics via Egyptian cosmology and epistemology has maintained a continued existence in the African American world view right through the enslavement of Africans in the 1600s to the “true origins” of Africalogical approaches to African American drama in the 1960s. The thrust of this argument grounds Anadolu-Okur’s discussion and use of Afrocentricity to evaluate African American drama. However, Anadolu-Okur does not provide us with a critique of Afrocentricity. We are simply told that, lately, “intellectual and scholarly debates in the arena of African American studies center around arguments for and against the cogency of African agency as maintained by Afrocentrists” (5), but no time is devoted to what these debates are or their critical evolution, if any. Similarly, Mary Leftkowitz is mentioned and dismissed for undermining “not only the Afrocentric perspective, but also the global advance of multiculturalist reform movements” (67). If an African-centered perspective “is just one among many viewpoints, one that rests upon a non- linear, non-hierarchical perspective” (67, emphasis in the original), then, surely, the critics/critiques of Afrocentricity should have been given an in-depth discussion and not merely mentioned in passing.
Anadolu-Okur’s African-centered analysis demands an understanding of the impact of the African aesthetic on the African American aesthetic. In this study, Anadolu)kur develops and proposes nine assumptions which are “at the foundation of the Afrocentric critical method” (113). The author finds the origins of Afrocentricity specifically in the Black Arts and Black Theater movements and also in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 60s and 70s. “The aesthetic values promoted during the Black Arts movement proposed a separate terminology, symbolism, mythology, iconology, and methods of critique, inaugurating a cultural revolution in art and ideas” (20). Anadolu-Okur is heavily indebted to Afrocentric theorist Molefi Kete Asante and the Temple School for whom “Afrocentric critical theory centers its argument on the perspective of the critic as well as the perspective of the playwright” (3). We are told that the Afrocentric idea, with its emphasis on the role of the artist and his art within the African American community, capitalizes on the transformative power of Nommo, the word. Anadolu-Okur’s study thus “aims to explore the transition from the Black Arts movement to African-centered ideology. Simultaneously it examines the aggregate influence of both on contemporary African-American theater” (7).
Anadolu-Okur builds on Black Nationalism, showing how the social and political climate of the 60s was fertile ground for the makers of a “second renaissance,” prominent among whom were Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka and Charles Fuller, the three playwrights who, the author contends, were the forerunners of an African-centered approach to drama (4-5). Anadolu-Okur’s Afrocentric analysis of these playwrights is replete with detailed, albeit valuable, biographical information that unfortunately becomes repetitive as Neal, Baraka, and Fuller are progressively discussed in reference to the other. Neal is described as a revolutionary poet, a literary and cultural prophet, the “precursor of the Afrocentric movement” (127), Baraka as “the chief designer” who uproots and reorganizes existing patterns (95), and Fuller, whose work spans the Black Arts movement to the Afrocentric movement of the SOs and 90s as “a modern Afrocentric playwright because he combines historical context with self-critical analysis” (137). However, the author reads Neal more as a theoretician than a playwright, who is said to have adamantly sought to distinguish himself from the integrationist politics of his predecessors of the Harlem Renaissance. Anadolu-Okur maintains that Neal’s Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings paved the way for Afrocentric theory and criticism and for a cultural and aesthetic theory grounded in collective intimacy. Similarly, building on Neal’s work with the Black Arts movement, Baraka is discussed as a black cultural nationalist who made his mark with the Black Theater movement. He is read as both a theoretician and “the practitioner of a new outlook in theater with his radical propositions engendered in the Revolutionary Theater” (99). Baraka’s (black) nationalism, his constantly changing ideological positions, and his radical rejection of Eurocentric beliefs and value systems are discussed through a reading of his plays. Whereas Anadolu-Okur criticizes Baraka for his dramatic idealization of the African American experience and for his unwillingness to acknowledge a multi-cultural experience inclusive of White America, Fuller is credited with conveying la realistic picture of the black experience in its multiplicity. His portrayal is often from the standpoint of analytical historicism, avoiding both racially biased and Eurocentric preoccupations” (138). Anadolu-Okur celebrates Fuller’s ability to reexamine the roles played by African Americans in American history and his ability to hold them accountable for their actions. Fuller’s plays are read as embodying historical realism, self-critical analysis, and African-centered ideology.
It is noteworthy that Anadolu-Okur does bring to our attention what the author considers to be non-Afrocentric aspects of some of the plays under discussion: for instance, Clay’s brutal murder of Lula in The Dutchman or Walker’s failure to construct an Afrocentric perspective in The Slave. Similarly, some of the disagreements between these authors, whether personal or ideological, (for instance Neal/Baraka , Baraka/Fuller [132, 138]) are raised in the discussion of Afrocentricity as critical method. A similar critique or self-analysis of Afrocentricity as ideology and movement would have been valuable to the study.
Copyright West Chester University Winter 1999
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