Whenever I am reading any of Amiri Baraka’s work I have to remind myself to breathe. Dutchman left me speechless. I kept picturing the 1964 audience members sitting in their seats (at the play’s premiere) enraged, proud, afraid, frustrated and relieved. Some folks probably even walked out of the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York, some likely stood proud. Baraka gives us an intimate look into a charged human exchange. How could I sit and stay calm after Dutchman when we are fifty years past it and America’s racial tension is still, as Baraka describes the city, “Steaming hot?” You can’t just read Baraka and be cool. You haven’t just read a play. You’ve been pulled in close to racial strain. You’ve experienced an artist trying to create social change through language. This is Baraka’s genius. I also kept thinking about the Black men around me who are walking around every day bottled up, trying to stay cool, trying to stay alive. I thought about Cam Newton and the nonsense he’s currently going through. I had to pop in my Kendrick Lamar CD, “To Pimp a Butterfly” to calm down. I needed to blast his song “The Black the Berry”. Lamar is Baraka. Lamar is Clay. Clay is Cam. Cam is Baraka. I think, actually, that Baraka was always seeking a way to bleed through generations and shout for his people, hoping his words could move them to liven up. I wonder if Lamar knows Baraka’s work. I hope Cam has read Dutchman. If so, we should probably find a stronger word than influence to describe Baraka’s magic. And to think, Baraka wrote Dutchman in just one sitting (see Hilton Als 2007 review of the play in The New Yorker), which clearly shows his outpouring of frustration. I’m always wondering if there is another male Baraka out there —someone with unapologetic fire and bravery. Baraka says what some people don’t want to say or hear. In 2015, Claudia Rankine wrote a riveting review of Baraka’s latest book (published one year after his death), “S O S: Poems 1961-2013” in The New York Times. Rankine writes, “To know his fury was to understand both his limits and his genius.” Yes, Baraka is genius. Didn’t you forget you were reading a play in Clay’s final explosive monologue? I certainly did. I’m like: “Breathe, girl! This is Baraka!” This is what writing should do. Art should make you feel something; it should move you to try, confront, laugh, and toughen up…SOMETHING! Otherwise, it is not engaging and no one is impressed. Carry on.
On to Jacobs-Jenkins. Perhaps he has read a little Baraka (maybe not). Jacobs-Jenkins is concerned with race and emotion and it seems he also figured he could (and should) use theatre as a platform to express, inform and move audiences. In an interview with Eliza Bent, Jacobs-Jenkins says he wanted An Octoroon “to talk about the illusion of suffering versus actual suffering and ask: Is there a relationship between the two?” His work doesn’t seem as aggressive as Baraka’s Dutchman, but emotions definitely seem high, urgent and hysterical. My favorite line in An Octoroon comes early in the prologue. Jacobs-Jenkins writes, “Well what happens if I shit where I starve?” Jacobs-Jenkins theatrical sarcasm is brilliant. This line is a gem because it illustrates being in a no-win situation. It reminds me of the old adage, “It can’t get any worse.” I am reminded of Paul Lawrence Dunbar while reading An Octoroon, particularly the dialect. Jacobs-Jenkins illustrates that, unfortunately, not much has changed and we are still talking about the same ole, same ole. Our conversations are still condescending and filled with sarcasm, hatred, insecurity and strife. We are still deeply struggling with identity. We are still hurting from the past.
I admire how accurately Baraka, Jacobs-Jenkins and Ludlam capture boldness and dialect. Their approach is sophisticated and fearless. They are vocalists for the invisible and misrepresented. These authors write the unspeakable. They know how to make readers re-read a line for confirmation that they’ve really read what they think they’ve just read! They even splash humor on top of it all, which is to self-consciously say, “Laugh at my pain.” I love the sass and confidence in Ludlman’s characters, especially Marguerite and Varville. There seems to be little regard for other people’s feelings. Empathy is often absent and Ludlam flawlessly captures this reality. The variety of voices throughout Baraka, Jacobs-Jenkins and Ludlam is valuable. There is nothing flat, dull or unrealistic in any of these works. The authors are unabashed about race, class and gender. I applaud them for their boldness and honesty. They are unafraid of confronting stereotypes. Any writer with a movement attached to his or her name should be looked up (see Baraka’s Revolutionary Theatre and Ludlman’s Ridiculous Theatre). I appreciated the digging up of old works and making them fresh and relevant. And yet, I also felt sick to my stomach considering that we are still in conversations about the tensions behind gender, class and race. However, I also know these tensions are not going away so we might as well confront them with intensity and rattle audiences.