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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: the arts and the black revolution

Curvin, Jonathan
Book reviews: revising an image,   pp. [326 and 327]-330 PDF (5.5 MB)

Page 328

328      and performs to audiences that have
never seen a play, fulfilling the mission
of the group's director, John O'Neal.
"What we're trying to do," he says,
"is to promote the growth and
self-knowledge of a black audience.
We want our people, and others, to see
the black experience portrayed for
them in a way that is honest and hasn't
been done before in the South."
Black Drama offers plenty of evidence
from American theatrical history to show
that our stage has not on'y
misrepresented the Negro experience,
but that it also stands guilty of
particularly insidious discriminatory
practices. Mr. Mitchell's passionate
resentment marks his every page.
Of all art forms that of the theatre
(including the film) has the greatest
power to set and reinforce images
which the unthinking general public
will accept as true. Sometimes the
consequences are amusing, as when the
small boy actually believes the impossible
deeds of derring-do which cowboys
perform in the mythical West he sees on
the movie or television screen. It is
less amusing, it is frightening, when
that same boy conceives a race of
man in multiples of a freakish
distortion. Moreover, we know that
adult theatre audiences can be quite
as childishly gullible. Professing
to "suspend disbelief" for the duration
of a "show," they have been known
to emerge from this happy state
with some appalling misconceptions.
The Negro has been a notable victim
of misconceptions shaped in the
theatre. His agony calls to mind
Marcel Marceau's celebrated pantomine
of the man straining to tear from his
face a grotesque mask. What may be
most important about the history
of the Negro in the American theatre
is not contained in the records of
plays or performances or dates on
calendars, but rather in his struggle
to change his image.
In the eighteenth century began
the tradition of using the stage Negro
as an object of laughter. The white
man's laughter. He appeared as he
ignorant primitive, cheerful despite his
lack of genteel manners and the
niceties of correct grammar. He was
the happy slave: "Mungo," in a play
entitled The Padlock, which Lewis Hallam
staged in 1769; a year later as "Sambo,"
in The Triumphs of Love, by James
Murdock. He appeared under various
facetious names up to 1845, when
Anna Cora Mowatt used him as "Zeke,"
a farcical ingredient of her social
comedy, Fashion. By mid-century our
playwrights had successfully conditioned
audiences to respond to nearly every
appearance of Negro "characters" with
a condescending guffaw.
At the same time, in that curious
ritual entertainment, the minstrel show,
the clownish end men, Tambo and
Bones, were beginning to sing
and dance and chortle over innane
jokes at the expense of "Mr. Interlocutor."
Needless to say, their comedic license
was restricted. They were permitted
only to indulge in harmless gags, devoid
of satiric thrust or bearing on life.
These minstrel caricatures were
reassuring. For how could the Negro
be a "problem," since he so obviously
had not a care in the world? When,
after the Civil War, the best minstrel
companies were composed of all-Negro
casts, the falseface of what had been a
"white masquerade" was simp.y
transferred to the Negro performers.
Although the Georgia Minstrels, the
Colored Hamtown Singers and the
Famous Negro Minstrels opened the door
to regular employment and training

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