Black Theater Matters

(Image: Mint Theater Company)

It is Integral to American Cultural Heritage and An Effective Learning Tool for Peace Education

For most of today’s American theater audiences and students of the dramatic arts, Black theater comprises Lorraine Hainsbury and August Wilson, celebrated for their groundbreaking truth telling about Black lives. Via film and television, they have gained recognition beyond the realms of those who frequent Broadway performances or are blessed with quality regional theater. They stand among the outstanding American playwrights of the twentieth century. Few audiences, however, are familiar with the treasure trove of earlier Black theater, largely omitted from our national cultural legacy. Peace studies and peace education should challenge this omission as it does other injustices.

Just as the “Brown vs. The Board of Education” Supreme Court case of 1954 challenged racial segregation in American public schools, with the argument that “separate but equal” was detrimental to Black children, the failure to fully integrate the works of Black playwrights into the repertories of stages and arts education is detrimental to the American theater and its audiences. This artistic segregation deprives all of us of a significant portion of our national cultural heritage. Americans of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds must learn together as members of a common polity and heirs of a common but diverse cultural history. That history should include talented Black artists of the past, taking their places with the contemporary authors now instructing our nation about systemic racism and the generations of oppression spawned by a culture and politics of white supremacy. Such inclusion would bring to cultural and literary studies the light of truth-telling that infuses all fine theater. It is at once an affective and effective means to transcend the separations that cheat us all of the fullness of the American culture.

This Global Campaign for Peace Education posting of “Black Theater Matters” celebrates the possibility of the requisite inclusion in the courses, dramatic productions and community events that comprise the learning and social environments of our schools and universities, an opportunity now presented to us by The Mint Theater. From my perspective as a peace educator, I argue that peace education and peace studies practitioners should take the lead in claiming this invaluable cultural heritage revealed by The Mint’s search for works of Black playwrights.

The arts, theater arts in particular, are recognized as effective vehicles through which to expose conditions of the racial bias and structural injustice that has for so long contradicted the values purported to be foundational to America’s asserted political philosophy. Within the frame of transdisciplinarity espoused by so many in our field, let us invite colleagues in Black studies, American Studies and all types of American literature programs to join in a common endeavor that will bring to our classrooms the inclusiveness so vividly evident in the multi-movement public manifestations inspired by the assertion that Black lives matter.

Recently, common outrages of racial injustice and the behavioral and institutional violence generated by our white supremacist ethos has been revealed more fully than ever before to our entire nation. The ubiquity of cell phones recording what now must be acknowledged as crimes against Black Americans in real time has made it impossible for this society to ignore the systematic violence which spawns the racist outrages. Citizens, refusing to be passive “bystanders” are recording and promulgating realities, reported by media, cited in courtrooms and, I hope, introduced into our courses.

This recorded racial violence is constitutive to all realms of peace knowledge.  So, too, are the works that articulate the experience of the violated, none more viscerally instructive than theater. Peace studies and peace education in addressing systematic violence against any group should provide a foundation of the histories and cultures of those who suffer the violence. Most especially, that foundation should include the culture that has enabled Black Americans to sustain their humanity and struggle for their fundamental human rights through centuries of oppression.

Surely, there is much for all to learn from those whose work has reflected this culture, and depicted its lived experience as only theater can. Mint Theater Company, whose research into obscure and obscured works of the English-speaking stage (outstanding among them Irish works that reveal experiences of another people who fiercely clung to their humanity in the face of oppression), has for years revealed long hidden gems. During this year of truth-telling about Black lives, The Mint has turned its attention to uncovering and teaching us about Black playwrights of past generations. The fruits of their search are a catalogue of biographies, works and production histories of gifted writers well worth the attention of any and all who enjoy theater arts; and certainly to all who seek to attest to the fact that Black lives and the articulation of the Black experience matter to all Americans.

Those seeking to review the trove of such works that the Mint has aggregated might consult Mint Theater Company’s curated collection “Lost Voices in Black History.”


-BAR, 4/26/21

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