Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Black Feminism in Contemporary Drama

By Lisa M. Anderson. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, November 2008. Cloth: ISBN 9780252032288, $35.00. 142 pages.

Review by Elizabeth Johnson, Governors State University, Illinois

In Black Feminism in Contemporary Drama, Lisa Anderson gives a history of black feminism in the United States from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries and what role black feminism plays in the lives of women today. Anderson, an associate professor in women’s studies and theatre at Arizona State University, looks at the position of theorists, artists, and black feminist aesthetic to critique fourteen plays by black playwrights. Few books explore the development and principles of black women's plays and feminism; therefore, both academicians and thespians will find Anderson’s book valuable. Black female playwrights’ work is for the most part hidden from mainstream attention, and the critique of black feminist theatrical dramas is almost nonexistent (13).

How does one critique black feminist drama? Anderson explains that she examined each play by how they bring to light histories that have remained buried in dominant society. Such burials hide the challenges to the lives of young women today. Anderson’s descriptors and dissection of the characters in each of the plays allows the reader to truly visualize the image of black women’s pains, joys, hurdles, and triumphs throughout the history of the U.S. Anderson shows that black feminist dramas are not only instructing and entertaining viewers, but more importantly, provoking the audience to conscious action. Readers should be moved to consciously act on communicating awareness they’ve gained regarding the complex lives of African American women in American society, past and present. Students of theatre can benefit from the primary and secondary sources of the first, second, and third waves of feminist movements, which positioned women as speaking subjects in the theater as opposed to just submissive objects for visual consumption. Anderson’s concept of black feminist aesthetic involves the image of black women, the history of black women across the diaspora, violence against black women, homophobic fears and alienation, and other identities (14). Anderson investigates nine black female playwrights through the foundation of black feminist scholars and helps the reader understand how these playwrights all had a range of components that constitute black feminist drama. A few of these components are: confronting racist imaging of black men, abuses that black women suffer at the hands of all men of all races, the importance of reproductive freedom for black women, oral folk or oral culture, and the impact of institutional racism.

Anderson does what few works of scholarship have attempted: she exposes the commonalities in plays that tackle black feminism and black nationalism. Anderson is very successful in showing how the plays were situated, constructed, shaped, and informative of the politics of black feminism. The playwrights Anderson selected represent different writing styles; this serves as a strong asset for the book. The major strength of this book is showing how black female identities can be and are reinvented to exclude negative stereotypes but still are impacted by race, class, and gender oppression.

The first playwright examined is Pearl Cleage and three of her plays. The dramatic review of these plays all shared the obstacles that black women faced in the late 1880s, 1930s, and 1960s. The next playwrights are Breena Clarke and Glena Dickerson, for their play Re/Membering Aunt Jemima: A Menstrual Show. This play is examined as a parody of minstrel shows, commingling recent and contemporary contacts with historical ones (53). For example, the story of how plantation miscegenation during enslavement was political for the offspring, is commingled with the tragic life of mulatto actress Dorothy Dandridge, whose acting career was hampered by her neither “black enough” nor, because of her black blood, “white enough.” Most importantly, this play shows the complexity of womanhood, and how black women are dishonored, through the main character Aunt J (Aunt Jemima). Three plays by Suzan-Lori Park, a new up-and-coming artist, are explored: Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Venus: A Play, and In the Blood. Anderson gives a dramatic commentary on the victimization of women in each play.

The chapter “Signifying Black Lesbians: Dramatic Speculations,” as its title indicates, counters the general tendency to keep the history of black lesbian and gay history buried. The last playwrights in this chapter, Kia Corthron and Shirley Holmes, self-identify as lesbians. Their plays tackle sexual orientation and acceptance/rejection within the black community. Anderson makes known how identification as a black lesbian is political, and black lesbians’ relationships are often challenged: they are often considered not truly black and at the same time not truly lesbian, because acceptance of such lifestyles is (questionably) viewed as a white, middle-class issue (98). This chapter may be for many an eye-opener, as it promotes understanding the history of black lesbian identity in the black community, which for the most part was invisible in black plays until the 1960s (97). The plays selected, overall, are a valuable addition to the field of black feminist theatrical criticism because they bring to readers’ attention the works of a number of overlooked black feminist playwrights and provide a language to recognize and discuss black feminist drama (126).

Delta Blues: The Life and Times of The Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music

By Ted Gioia. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, October 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-393-06258-8, $27.95; also available on’s Kindle, $9.95. 448 pages.

Review by Timothy J. O’Brien, University of Houston

Music lovers and researchers have long been fascinated with the mystery and imagery of the blues. The story of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson’s going to the crossroads and selling his soul to the devil in exchange for a superior talent to play the blues is the primary blues myth. Decades after his death, the public fascination with Johnson translated into Grammy awards, sales of over a million copies of the boxed set of his music, movies, and numerous books. Robert Johnson and his legend became the most profitable commodity in blues music. All the attention is focused on a performer who only lived twenty-seven years and recorded less than thirty songs. Despite the enormous posthumous popularity of Johnson, very little is known about his life.An understanding of the Mississippi Delta region and its musicians is necessary to contextualize Johnson’s role in blues history. Although Gioia’s book does not add any details to Johnson’s biography, it excels in sketching a broader picture of the musicians’ lives and the music of the region. Gioia begins by setting out the origins and history of the music. In an early chapter he explains the success and significance of W.C. Handy and blues women Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, and others. Discussions of the environment of the blues such as plantations and Parchman prison further set the stage for the musicians’ lives. After filling out the cultural context and the formulation of the music, Gioia organizes his study by biographies of both popular and lesser-known blues figures.

Although the book does not have a thesis, the title argues that the subject musicians were responsible for revolutionizing American music. The author allows that the absence of definitive data in many facets of the Delta blues necessarily permits numerous interpretations of the material that is available.

Early on there are warning signs that Gioia will engage in hyperbole. For example, he sets out unsupported assertions that the Delta blues hold “second place to none” and “possess the deepest roots of all” (5). The book does not contrast or compare Delta blues with blues from any other region, so the reader is left to take those declarations on faith. However, for the most part, Gioia refrains from objectifying and romanticizing his topic.

The sources are mostly secondary, but Gioia did conduct some archival research at the Library of Congress. The relative scarcity of original research is supplemented by in-depth interviews with the leading researchers in the field. Gioia’s knowledge of the topic, and his smooth and engaging prose, are also strengths. In addition to digging deep into the existing scholarship, he listens hard to the music, searching for answers and meanings in the lyrics. He steers clear of jargon, complex academic theories, and technical music terms, which makes the volume accessible to a general audience. At times he reverts to a conversational or thinking-out-loud writing style that invites the reader to join him in looking for answers as he sifts through the evidence.

Gioia devotes a whole chapter to examining and reviewing Johnson’s life and the myths that surround it. He runs into the same barricades earlier researchers encountered. With so little known about Johnson, what can a writer add? Gioia settles for reviewing and analyzing the research and theories of Mack McCormick, David Evans, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Elijah Wald, and others. Gioia notes McCormick’s claim that he found Robert Johnson’s supposed killer but was unable to get McCormick to disclose the name. The chapter includes a concise look at Johnson’s influences and examines his songs and their themes. After weighing and discussing the theories and myth surrounding Johnson’s life, Gioia takes the position that the deal at the crossroads “may have never happened” (168). He ultimately comes to the conclusion that researchers are unlikely to ever solve the mysteries of Johnson’s life.

The limitations of the Delta-centric view of the blues show up in the chapter on the blues revival. Gioia notes Samuel Charters’s book The Country Blues “as a signal event in the history of the music” (351). However, he fails to note Charters’s 1959 rediscovery and recording of Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins, a Texas bluesman, and its importance in kicking off the blues revival. Instead, Gioia skips ahead to the rediscovery of the Delta blues men Ishmon Bracey and John Hurt in 1963.

It is commonly recognized that the blues impacted American music, and that the Mississippi masters whom Gioia examines were important blues artists. He never does quite flesh out the title statement that these masters revolutionized American music. He needs to connect the dots. Although he begins to develop this argument in the chapter on Muddy Waters, more evidence and examples would have strengthened his study. For example, merely listing famous musicians like Bob Dylan, Bo Diddley, Bonnie Raitt, and Carlos Santana who credited John Lee Hooker’s music is not enough. Gioia should explain how that Mississippi master influenced their art. That quibble aside, this is a solid contribution to the literature. It synthesizes a century of the blues and expands and updates Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues, the gold standard for Delta blues scholarship.