Amiri Baraka's Revolutionary Theater

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Rebellions and revolutions need witnesses and griots brave enough to testify as such. Without people who are willing to admit and articulate what they see during those healing crises and what their motives are for seeing or participating, it’s too easy to demonize what is at its core positive and necessary change, too easy to blame the so-called revolution for its catalysts.

Amiri Baraka was the most tenacious Black American witness we had after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. His ability to make work that was both lyrically beautiful and full of recriminations of the oppressive society his work blames for the ugly beauty of the black experience throughout the Diaspora, meant that he was quietly blacklisted by American publishers and cannon builders. Amiri is the rare black man who isn’t concerned with entertaining the audience while he tells them the truth about themselves, so that his work refuses to flinch in the ways that make the establishment comfortable with tokenizing it. His plays in particular, received praise and awards and were also deemed obscene and drastic in their vision. His vision is “we worship revolution.” and “The Revolutionary Theatre should force change, it should be change.” Most people don’t change until they are made uncomfortable by something that they are also seduced by, until they are subsumed, can’t look away or unsee the truth. Amiri’s plays serve us that traumatic seduction, the kind that forces us to worship revolution with him at least for their duration. ​

We will spend three evenings across October and November celebrating Amiri’s approach to theatre and performance, which he saw as both an essential elements of everyday life in healthy communities, and tools for the building and sustaining of revolutionary consciousness within the diaspora.

We begin on Thursday, October 18th with a screening of The New-Ark, a film he made in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, shortly after narrowly surviving the 1964 Rebellion. This screening will introduce us to the man behind the writing and frame our production of his play Dutchman, which we will stage as a read-through on November 17 with jazz and sound archival accompaniment, exploring this work as a collectively improvised ensemble situated in and expanded by the tradition of the music Amiri loved the most.

Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) was born in 1934 in the industrial city of Newark, New Jersey. After attending Howard University in Washington, D. C., he served in the United States Air Force. In the late fifties he settled in New York’s Greenwich Village where he was a central figure of that bohemian scene. He became nationally prominent in 1964, with the New York production of his Obie Award-winning play, Dutchman. After the death of Malcolm X he became a Black Nationalist, moving first to Harlem and then back home to Newark. In the mid-1970s, abandoning Cultural Nationalist, he became a Third World Marxist-Leninist. In 1999, after teaching for twenty years in the Department of Africana Studies at SUNY-Stony Brook, he retired. He stayed active and productive as an artist and intellectual until his death in 2014.

Harmony Holiday is a writer, dancer, archivist, myth scientist, and the author of Hollywood Forever (Fence Books, 2017), Go Find Your Father: A Famous Blues (Ricochet Editions, 2014) and Negro League Baseball (Fence Books, 2011). Her upcoming books include A Jazz Funeral for Uncle Tom (Birds LLC, 2019), and Maafa and Reparations (Fence Books, 2019).

Image by Associated Press