On February 11th, in the Black Cultural Center, there was a screening of Black Theater: The Making of a Movement. The film documented the inception and development of the African-American theatre movement that arose from the civil rights movements of the 50s, 60s and 70s. The documentary follows the lives of several prominent actors and playwrights heavily involved with Black theatre’s development. It begins by recounting its history which traces its origins from informal community theatre ensembles and their desire to see Black narratives presented. These ensembles eventually proliferated and matured into prominent cultural establishments. As time went on, and McCarthyism spread throughout the United States, the theatre became a form of protest that stood fast against widespread cultural repression.
One important point that the documentary made was that these shows were not merely a form of entertainment but were fundamentally political in nature. African-American productions challenged the perception of theatre by completely subverting it. Their structure was more fluid, characters less typed, and plotlines, if any were to be found, were atypical. By challenging the conventions of theater, directors opened up the potential of what theater could be and, in that regard, altered the ways in which the audience consumed these productions themselves.
By overthrowing theatrical norms that guide and, to some degree, even dictate a viewer’s experience, many Black productions freed viewers of the expectations conclusions usually deduced from a format. This allowed viewers to interpret the performance as a whole and consider their own reactions as part of the ensemble itself. In a sense, Black theater’s extemporaneous and fluid character opened up the genre of performance art but further played upon the interactionary forces of what is performed and what is perceived.
Shortly after the screening, there was a brief discussion on what was learned and specifically how the goals of the Black theater movement have found their way into contemporary art. Some prominent examples were mentioned such as Moonlight and the Last Black man in San Francisco; both of which not only depict black life, but structurally differ from traditional cinema. In my opinion, however, one of the best examples of the realization goals of this entire artistic movement can be found in Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Everything about the album is subversive; from the content of the lyrics itself that simultaneously critique the black culture that made Kendrick and the capitalist culture that made Kendrick famous to dissonant and jazz heavy sound of the album itself. Most rap albums attempt to create sinuosity via sonic and thematic continuity, TPAB did so in such an intricate way that the official demarcations of one track to another seem like arbitrary boundaries. The album is made to be understood holistically and meaning is only extracted in the contemplation of how the work interacts with life. For these reasons, it is a perfect example of the persistence of the subversive goals that black theater brought inspired in Black Art itself.