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In the Spring of 1998 at Dartmouth College, a plethora of African American theater’s most distinguished scholars and practitioners participated in the National Black Theatre Summit “On Golden Pond.” Chief among their objectives was to grapple with three questions that surrounded the African American stage from its inaugural moments. Does African American theater have a defining aesthetic? And, if so, what are its tenets and how can we account for them? After several days of conversation and debate, The Committee on Aesthetics, Standards, and Practices drafted “The Aesthetics Declaration.” The declaration not only provided a sixteen-point list of aesthetic principles unique to Black theatre in the United States, but also served, and continues to serve, as a programmatic manifesto for “authentic” Black plays.
This course provides a broad survey of canonical African American plays and playwrights that shine light on the manifesto’s critical achievements and pitfalls, and offers a panorama of African American theatrical production spanning from (1850 to 2002). Issues addressed will include: the place of “plantation performances” in the development of minstrelsy and its mimetic inversions, the central role played by the pulpit (or African American Christianity) in determining the function of performance before and after Civil War, the manifestation of so-called “African retentions” in Black theater, the reworking of these retentions by playwrights associated with the Black Arts Movement, and the various manners in which African American theater has ritualized theatrical spaces to preserve and create African-American identity and its cultural values, affinities, and affiliations throughout the course of its existence, from its inaugural beginnings to its most recent productions. We will read works by William Wells Brown, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Ntozake Shange, and August Wilson. Evaluation will be based on active and engaged participation, short reading quizzes, a midterm, and a final paper.