Renowned Black playwright, Amiri Baraka is attending the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina for the first time. One of his works Primitive World, will be performed for two days and Baraka is receiving the Garland Anderson Playwright Award.
Baraka has been writing plays for 40 years. During that time he has received numerous awards, among them: Obies, and Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Whitney Fellowships.
It was fortuitious that he and I were on the same flight to Greensboro, North Carolina. During the flight, Baraka shared his views of theater today and the survival of quality Black Theater in the U.S.
"Theater today -- it's mostly like fast food -- it's commerce. It's really organized like nachos, but it doesn't have to do with understanding people's lives...It's the whole social system -- you can't talk too seriously about anything, because it cast dispersions about the way this country is run."
Focusing on Broadway, he said, "It's a huge house of prostitution, more than anything else. It's only about money, it has nothing to do with theater. The majority of the 'successful' plays are English (British) plays. These plays have been developed with public funds in Britian. Then, sold to private enterprise in the U.S. The plays they sell give them a profit and they're able to put money into their public theater." Baraka is worried about, "The absolute destruction of reputable theater in the U.S. This is the only industrial country that doesn't have a National Repertory Theater. The people who own this country are mostly prostitutes -- corporate and private powers. The university presses and 'so-called' conscious of America-doesn't really exist. Therefore, the major theatrical establishment in America is so mediocre and laughable. How can America allow this to go on?"
Baraka passionately stated, "There's no National Repertory. In today's world, most of the new playwrights are encouraged, only if they fit into that commercial model."
He posed this solution for Blacks, "The question is to build some kind of self-determined structure to advance the arts, closer to the community. There are 40 million Afro Americans. If you can organize a theatrical circle to deal with 40 million, you've got a larger one than most in the world."
And furthermore, "To help quality Black Theater survive in the U.S., you must do the work to establish independent Afro American theater nationally -- independent venue and circuit. I'm not talking about separatist. I'm talking about self-determination. We are Americans, but also Blacks. We need to do what's right for us as Blacks. We've always been Black. The American thing is still in question."
--By Linda Armstrong