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STAGE : Black Theater--Its Decline Since 1960

January 31, 1988|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

PALO ALTO — "I think of the best efforts of the '60s, of all the pain we went through. Now we find we're sinking to the bottom."

They came neither to bury the '60s nor to praise them. But everyone at the black-theater conference at Stanford University who listened to C. Bernard Jackson utter his sad words had in mind one of the glory periods of American culture, the brief era in black theater that began with Lorraine Hansberry's "Raisin in the Sun," rose with the tidal passion of the Black Power movement, and unaccountably gutted out in a myriad of lost or dead-ended causes.

The conference was billed "Black Theatre: Moving Towards the 21st Century," with the subhead "A Conference on the Health & Future Directions of California Black Theatre." Ostensibly it was about looking ahead, but its underlying theme was an uncertain "What has happened to us, and what can we do about it?"--a question that echoes far beyond the lives of the 50 or so academics and theater professionals who showed up.

For if blacks--who were first brought to the New World as chattel and have withstood more than 300 years of attempted cultural obliteration--are feeling themselves at a loss (as this conference indicated), the rest of us who are more or less being forcibly resettled at a loss of individual identity into the global village may not be far behind.

There was the old guard, which included Jackson (who is managing director of Los Angeles' Inner City Cultural Center) and producer-director Woodie King Jr., among others, and the new. There were academic types, bureaucrat types, producers and directors, two writers, several performers, one savvy black lady who worked for a corporation but whose soul hungered for the theater (she had several enterprising tips), and one self-described white "bourgeois" (Edward Hastings, artistic director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater).

Some of it was cumbersome, as when Ray Tatar of the California Arts Council (one of the sponsors of the event) said such things as "our staff can help to demystify processes that seem to be exclusionary."

Some of it was unintentionally amusing. What would the first boatload of half-starved, exhausted and terrified African slaves, huddling on the dock at Jamestown under the mercenary gaze of a colonial auctioneer, have said to UCLA Prof. Beverly Robinson at hearing that they had just debarked, not from a stinking, disease-ridden hulk, but from the black Afro-American's "first performance space"?

On the surface, the atmosphere was generally convivial, even jocular--the theater is a small world, and many of these people have known each other for years. No one wanted to challenge or confront anyone else, which sometimes led to painfully unanswered questions hanging in the air.

Midway through the weekend, for example, one conferee said: "We've talked about everything except the aesthetic considerations. What about what you present on stage? Do you think of appeal, or of ideas and issues?" Hastings fished for an answer. "Art is basically a personal vision," he said, and came up with the insipid: "Politics may be involved in varying degrees. It's the excellence of the product." No one followed. The moderator asked Woodie King, "Any comments you want to add?," to which King replied "No."

Given the success of Ron Milner's "Checkmates," and the number of black actors working in television right now, the tenor of the conference seemed surprisingly guarded, even embattled. Nobody seemed heartened by "Checkmates" or the TV numbers--the topics never even came up. Several people spoke about the need of "connecting with each other" to an audience that remained politely noncommittal even in the face of controversial ideas.

Hanging over the conference was, of course, The Memory, when the good times rolled for black American theater. There's no thrill quite like that of self-discovery. It surged through the creaky melodramatic framework of Charles Gordone's "No Place to Be Somebody" like some bold and glorious new music issuing out of a dilapidated house. It rumbled like deep laughter in the black barbershop where Lonne Elder III played out his "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men." It rose as alluringly as the moon over Derek Walcott's Monkey Mountain, in whose haunted forest a mythic memory of Kenya blazed through the colonized soul of a black West Indian policeman.

A hundred years after the end of the American Civil War, black theater had at last come up out of the underground. Black life was no longer a forbidden American reality. Blacks saw the variety of their experience on stage for the first time. A great many whites saw blacks for the first time. In "The Great White Hope," James Earl Jones was emboldened to reveal an old, old secret--the rage and pain that often hides behind a great black smile.

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