The Invisible Playwright
"Where really lies Americans,’ America’s passion? What does its citizens really hope for?" Harry Belafonte
I first read Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Adrienne Kennedy, Amiri Baraka, Jean Genet, and Ed Bullins, while attending a public junior high school in the South Bronx. I didn't think they were (specifically) speaking to me, a twelve year old African American (and I argue nor did they) but I was taught to learn a language, for which I am eternally grateful. I am also grateful for the language of their unapparent heirs, writers whose works are largely considered (by the commercial majority) as non-translatable; vestigial members of a dying breed who embark upon an investigation of a theoretical construct of reality as shared by human experience, in order to cultivate expression as a means of invading one’s own privacy and building a rhetorical pluralism of epistolary narratives. For me, there is no wall dividing reality from the unconscious. Those things considered otherworldly are tangibles. In my own work, often one character is represented as two characters, and introduced as a gradual emerging of characters as it occurs via a sharing of gestures, and a synchronicity in language. Neither time nor space, according to traditional theatre conventions, is important. My characters are split into dualities. Their thoughts come from the conscious and the unconscious, concentrating heavily on the perceived gap between the two. The texts concentrate on bodies and cities in ruin, referencing C. G. Jung's Mysterium Coniunctionis; performance texts combining dance, music, dream theory, and Greek mythology into an American context. If this constitutes an American playwright then Yes, I Am.
Following the broadcast of the 64th annual Tony awards, Jill Dolan, Annan Professor in English and Theatre at Princeton University, asked a question, “Where are the Women?” (posted in the Huffington Post 6/10/2011). She wrote, “The Tony Awards season confirms what anyone concerned about the status of women in theatre has long come to expect: plays by women are excluded from the nominations once again. When will power brokers and critics realize that until work by women is produced and recognized, Americans will continue to hear only one side of the stories of our lives?” Dolan’s erudite question prompts many questions: What is American theatre, who is it written for, and who are its authors? If the answer to the latter is American playwrights, does that mean, by definition, U.S. writers of plays or U.S.-born writers of performance works? How and why do they differ? Since 2000, of the forty-eight titles nominated by the American Theatre Wing for Best Play only six have been written by women, only three written by a single African American male (August Wilson), only one play written by an African American woman (Suzan- Lori Parks) and only one play written by a gay Latino male (the last two received Pulitzers) and only one written by a French-Jewish-Hungarian of Iranian descent has won, and none written by women or Asians or indigenous peoples or … .
As Dolan points out, no American women playwright have won Best Play since the turn of the twenty-first century. Only 12% of those nominated have been written by women, which begs the questions, do Americans write America? Further, are American theatregoers’ ears no longer attuned to the complexity of, say, Adrienne Kennedy’s fractured psyche? For me, Ms. Kennedy’s plays are an example of an insurgent métier where a bloody Patrice Lumumba and a Black woman's conversion into a screeching owl are tropes of American colonialism, charting the cartography of Ms. Kennedy’s self in cold war America. I have listened as she painfully expressed her disappointment with an abysmal place called “American theatre” where young writers are not trained to defend the illogical structures of dreams according to principles of ritual. Does this mean the creative output of writers like Adrienne Kennedy are just the forgotten musings of a theatre that came to light amidst an era of experimentation when language, protest, music, performance genres, and image clashed about like so much overhead shrapnel? Is this no longer relevant or viable to an American theatre audience? What is the responsibility of those of us who teach theatre in the brutal place called Academe, where—as Ms. Kennedy’s mentor Edward Albee once said to me at a dinner party with Sir David Hare and John Guare— “playwrights are not taught to write, they are taught to RE-write.”
I am often reminded, when reading mainstream theatre criticism, of an absence of real cognitive tools enabling critics to review the non-linear. It seems to me American theatre co-ops the detritus of regurgitated classics, managing to marginalize, oppress, and exclude new living forms. As Professor Dolan points out in her post, old dead white male playwrights remain the relevant majority of the American theatre organism. This tactic of celebrating the old and oppressing the new acts as codified exclusion. The conceit of copy given to American theatre seems all too concerned with the twitter of excitement concerning something monumental coming over the horizon, such as the musical version of Spider-Man. The soup the rest of us are drowning in is a dense mud trying to thin itself out into a pool of discourse. We wade through it as best we can, demanding (perhaps hoping against hope) for the language of mad ramblings that moves us toward a contemporary realm of experience, and the only light at the end of the tunnel is that (I believe) there remains a gulf between what the people want and what critics see.
Admittedly, we all come to the theatre with different intentions. The ones who come to the theatre with the least expectations are the ones who walk out of the theatre with the heaviest load. As an invisible playwright, according to James Baldwin, the responsibility of the writer is to “excavate the experience of the people who produced him (because) we don’t yet exist in the imagination of this century, and we cannot afford to play games; there’s too much at stake.”