Why Not BAM with Some Pigs Feet Thrown in the Mix?
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The Black Arts Movement (BAM) began in the mid-‘60s and was considered the “aesthetic and spiritual sister” of the Black Power concept. BAM gave the example that you didn’t have to assimilate. You could do your own thing, get into your own background, your own history, your own tradition and your own culture.
BAM’s message of community engagement and empowerment through culture resonated in cities throughout America and was implemented on the ground through the development of black theater groups and black poetry performances and journals, which had close ties to community organizations and issues. Black theaters served as the focus of poetry, dance, and music performances in addition to formal and ritual drama. Black theaters were also venues for community meetings, lectures, study groups, and film screenings.
By the summer of 1968 BAM had gained so much momentum that the Drama Review, dedicated a special issue on black theater edited by Ed Bullins. In that issue, black arts theaters proudly emphasized their orientations in distinct, and often antagonistic, contradiction to traditional theaters, which were either commercial or strictly artistic in focus. Their concerns were not much different from those who now criticize Perry’s involvement with For Colored Girls
By 1970, black arts theaters and cultural centers were active throughout America. The New Lafayette Theatre (Bob Macbeth, executive director, and Ed Bullins, writer in residence) and Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre led the way in New York, Amiri Baraka’s Spirit House Movers held forth in Newark and traveled up and down the East Coast. The Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) and Val Grey Ward’s Kuumba Theatre Company were leading forces in Chicago, from where emerged a host of writers, artists, and musicians including the OBAC visual artist collective whose “Wall of Respect” inspired the national community-based public murals movement and led to the formation of Afri-Cobra (the African Commune of Bad, Revolutionary Artists).
There was also David Rambeau’s Concept East and Ron Milner and Woodie King’s Black Arts Midwest, both based in Detroit. Ron Milner became the Black Arts movement’s most enduring playwright and Woodie King moved to New York and became its leading theater impresario by forming the New Federal Theatre.
In 1974, during this fecund period, Ntozake Shange began work on For Colored Girls in San Francisco with help from BAM practioners, Raymond Sawyer’s Afrikan-American Dance Company, and Halifu Osumare’s Spirit of the Dance, and a year later she moved her production to New York City and workshopped it at Woodie King’s New Federal Theatre. Once at the New Federal the play took off, and caught the attention of renowned Broadway producer Joseph Papp.
Papp had already had experience with BAM when a year earlier he produced Ron Milner’s What the Wine-Sellers Buy for New York’s Shakespeare Festival at Lincoln Center. Based on the packed houses at New Federal and the success he had with Milner’s play, Papp knew Shange’s work was ready for a larger stage. Once it finished its run at New Federal, he produced it first at his Public Theatre and then on Broadway at the Booth Theatre. The rest, as they say is history.
Ironically, as For Colored Girls’ star rose, BAM fell into rapid decline. The primary reasons for its decline are disputed. Some say it was the commercial success of Shange’s piece that enabled the mainstream to co-opt other non-politically oriented BAM works like Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play , while others say that it was BAM’s reliance on a non-profit philanthropic model for capital that was its ultimate undoing.
Both reasons have truth to them, but as somebody who sits on the board of a non-profit theater company in Trenton, New Jersey, I know how difficult it is to sustain any type of theater primarily on philanthropy. So I side with the economic perspective. Self-sustainability through a cooperative revenue generating model should have been a primary goal of BAM’s, unfortunately it wasn’t.
Whatever the reason, BAM as we know it was dead by the early ‘80s. Its death wasn’t a death of the production of black plays, but instead it was the death of the ideal that through culture and entertainment, black communities could be engaged, empowered, reinvigorated and ultimately economically viable.
This death opened the door for the so-called Chitlin Circuit or what I’d prefer to call the Touring Urban Theater Circuit. Unlike BAM, Touring Urban Theater had no high minded ideals nor sense of collective movement. It was and is very much about generating a profit in order to sustain itself by providing earthy entertainment to black audiences that weren’t necessarily regular theater-goers. Though Touring Urban Theater may lack a sense of collective struggle it is very much an organic, guerilla movement.
The plays that laid the groundwork for Touring Urban Theater were Vy Higginson’s Mama I Want to Sing and Thomas Meloncon’s The Diary of Black Men. Both premiered in 1983 and in both cases the creators used their own money to produce their work and rent out their respective venues. There was no subsidy and no room for failure.
This do or die incentive forced Higginson and Meloncon to be just as creative in marketing as they were in content. To that end they made heavy use of black radio, church groups, beauty salons and barbershops to promote their shows . This was their template and both were successful beyond their initial expectations—Mama I Want to Sing ran consecutively at the Hecksher Theater for more than two years, while The Diary of Black Men is still on tour. It also must be said, that though neither Higginson or Meloncon singularly focused on community building through art in the way that BAM did, they did care very much about artistic self-expression and serious cultivation of black audiences.
Their successes inspired fledgling creative talents in black communities nationwide to follow their template. Before Perry, the most successful of these “disciples” was Shelly Garrett’s Beauty Shop. Garrett admittedly was driven first and foremost by a desire to make money and not an artists burning need for creative self-expression. So much so that, the usually open-minded Woodie King’s take on Garrett was as follows, “He’s not doing anything for any type of black community. It’s not like he’s going to make money and then find five derserving woman writers and put on their work. It’s always going to be about him.”
Since he cites Garrett as an influence, this opinion has been undeservedly transferred to Perry by many of his harshest critics, but Perry is no Shelley Garrett. True, Perry has made a truckload of money and does trade in a good deal of self-promotion, but it is also true that he’s used his money and influence to support black issues the Philadelphia swimming pool incident (see “Tyler Perry surprises kiddie day campers at Disney World” by Richard Elderidge, Atlanta Journal Constitution, 3 August 2009), as well as involve himself in his own brand of community empowerment by building his Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia—a predominantly black city.
Meanwhile, on the creative front there are some folks that see Perry as having legitimate creative chops and worthy of adapting For Colored Girls. One of those being none other than Woodie King. King had this to say about Perry’s work, “Tyler goes way beyond the clichés. When Madea is trying to convince a girl to change her life, there’s an honesty and brilliance. He taps into that wisdom of our grandmothers and mothers, and we sit there and say, ‘Yes.’”
Why not Tyler Perry?
Certainly none of this absolves Perry from criticism and definitely doesn’t ensure a first rate adaptation of For Colored Girls, but what I’d like to see from the black critical community is broader criticism in the context of the Black Arts Movement. What if Perry is able to make For Colored Girls a financial hit on the order of Madea Goes to Jail? The implications are significant. It will mean that he was able to achieve what BAM architect Ed Bullins characterized as populist postmodernism—a theater that would be self-supporting, but with elevated aesthetic and production values targeteting a mass market.
Taking Bullins’ thoughts a step further, if Perry’s version is successful, then in the same way that Perry can build a studio in Atlanta, why not work with the black business and artistic community to create self sustaining performing arts and cultural centers in black communities nationwide and give communities the opportunity to revitalize black life in America through culture. It could be the rebirth of the Black Arts Movement with some pigs feet thrown in for good measure and good profit. This is truly what is at stake, and this is why I’m so excited to see what happens with For Colored Girls in Perry’s hands.