Thursday, January 09, 2014

Amiri Baraka: With Us

In high school — in an experimental and, admittedly, audacious casting twist — I played Lula in our basement black box production of Amiri Baraka's Dutchman. I was about 16 and it’s a punch of a play. If you know it, you can imagine: The assignment changed my life. Perhaps even rearranged it.

Shirley Knight (Lula) and Al Freeman Jr. (Clay) in Dutchman, 
the 1967 film based on Baraka's play.

Over the years, reading (and reading about) Baraka gave me permission: To be an artist and unabashedly Black. To be bold and proud and speaking. To think like a beatnik sometimes. To be simultaneously poet, performance essayist and playwright. To be a race woman. To invest in my creativity, in the pursuit of liberation. To amplify. To connect. To endure.

I got to meet him in 2010. The UMass Amherst Department of Theatre brought us together for an event called "Voices of the Revolution." This was part of Art and Power in Movement: An International Conference Rethinking the Black Power and Black Arts Movements. I was dizzy with the dream come trueness of it. Sonia Sanchez, Ed Bullins and Lydia Diamond were there, too. Kirsten Greenidge joined us in spirit. We had all been invited to campus to share excerpts of our plays. To listen for the connections and wonder at the shifts. To celebrate our nerve. To ask: What does time do to the project of creating Black characters for the American stage? Who do our plays speak for? Who do our plays speak to? What are the rhythms of the speaking? What happens after the listening? For me, this was a very big deal. I was thrilled for the opportunity to share beside these s/heroes and elders. How would their ears touch my work?

Baraka sat in the front row, frazzled from arriving late and a bit distracted. There was a phone buzzing in his lap. He kept his coat on. During the first half of the event, under the gaze of legends, the student actors were all sweat, stutter and struggle. But when we got to my scene, I felt relief. I had written flirtatious dialogue between a student and her professor, an excerpt from an early draft of MERIT, a black feminist sex comedy. I was acting in it myself. Gilbert McCauley was my scene partner. We were facing off, being grown, having fun. With a straight face, my main character said something scandalous and Baraka actually gasped! He lightly slapped his knee, put his phone away and leaned in for the rest. "Good," I thought, "He’s with us."

After the event, we shook hands and got a good, close-up look at each other. He didn't speak but pointed his forefinger at my nose, nodding in approval, like a literati godfather. I smiled. Big. I said "Thank you, Mr. Baraka." It was all I could muster and what I said today upon hearing the news of his death.

Thank you, Amiri Baraka, for being here, for watching it all, for telling us about ourselves with the American music we craved and need. I'm dancing to it now. The work continues. And you’re with us.

(A version of this post first appeared on Facebook.)

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