For My People, All People: Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, Regina King; and Sharrell Luckett’s books Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches and African American Arts: Activism, Aesthetics, and Futurity
“Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born.”
—Margaret Walker, “For My People” (1937, 1942)
“Activism is understood as a type of action that has the express intent to address, highlight, and/or curtail actions that are unjustly harming a person or another entity. There are many ways to be involved in activism, including mobilizing bodies and/or creating art to address said grievances.”
—Sharrell Luckett, African American Arts (2020)
“I am the sum total of each of the women I have played. That they were able to survive the times, and the way in which they did it, made me a stronger person and allowed me to truly believe that all things are possible,” declared Cicely Tyson, featured in a silky high-collared burgundy gown in a two-page magazine spread, as well as on the cover, of the special “Art of Optimism” issue of Time (February 18 / February 25, 2019). The great actress Cicely Tyson, the star of the theatrical films Sounder (1972), The River Niger (1976), A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich (1977), Bustin’ Loose (1981), and Hoodlum (1997), as well as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) on television, has said that she was able to make a statement with her career. Tyson knew that more than a few of the things that give us pleasure, such as cinema and drama, literature, music, painting, and the other arts embody principles; and some of the things that examine and express principles, such as philosophy and spirituality, can give us pleasure when embodied in conversation, drama, or song. Sometimes when watching a film, the glances exchanged by actors, a gesture, a tone of voice, or a sudden gasp or shout, can tell you as much about humanity as a complete text. The film critic Pauline Kael (The New Yorker) said that in Sounder, a story of a Louisiana sharecropper family, Cicely Tyson as Rebecca, a woman of faith, love, and practicality, was the first great black heroine on screen, and that when Tyson’s Rebecca welcomed her husband Nathan back from a prison of hard labor, she did it with a cry that the most fabled of actresses might not have dared. Cicely Tyson’s work, exploring character within culture, and offering a different ideal and image, was a contribution to, and an intervention in, the history of cinema first established by legends such as Lumiere, Edison, Bernhardt, Griffith, Brown, Pickford, Gish, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Chaplin and Cukor; and in 2018 Tyson received an honorary Oscar for her artistry and contribution from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, and Regina King are generational figures of integrity, talent, and possibility in the theatrical arts; and their work and their success are affirmations of self, of study, and of the cultures out of which they come. Yet, their skills and talents are exceptional; and the questions for successive generations are always: What does such accomplishment mean; and, how can we make such accomplishment more likely in the future?
Cicely Tyson was on Broadway in Manhattan in the Horton Foote play The Trip to Bountiful and won a Tony award for best actress in a leading role in 2013, then reprised her performance in a film of the play, received the Spingarn Medal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 2010; was one of the celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015; and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. Such recognition put a crown on her success, which was earned and not at all predictable. Often, art and culture are described as being either timeless or temporary, major or minor, profound or provincial, with that of people of color being on the wrong side of the ledger, and Tyson had to contend with, and conquer, that. Cicely Tyson, who appeared in Richard Linklater’s 2017 film Last Flag Flying, had been born to Caribbean immigrants in Harlem, her mother a domestic and her father a pushcart operator; and, when her parents separated, Tyson herself would sell shopping bags on the street, before becoming an American Red Cross secretary, and then a model and an actor, studying in New York acting schools (one of her teachers was Paul Mann). Cicely Tyson’s religious mother did not approve of acting, and evicted Cicely for it, the two not speaking for a couple of years before reconciling. Cicely Tyson made her acting debut in Dark of the Moon (1957), written by Howard Richardson and William Berney, directed by Vinnette Carroll and choreographed by Alvin Ailey, a production of the Harlem YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association). Tyson was, with Ethel Waters, in the film Carib Gold (1957); and in The Last Angry Man (1959), starring Paul Muni. Cicely Tyson acted in the long-running Jean Genet Play The Blacks in a (off-Broadway) St. Mark’s Playhouse production in 1961, a metafictional political work using the rape and murder of a white woman as provocation. Tyson won awards (Vernon Rice awards) for her off-Broadway stage work. Tyson performed in the role of secretary Jane Foster on television, with George Campbell Scott as social worker Neil Brock, in the respected dramatic series East Side, West Side in 1963 – 1964, in which their two characters collaborated to respond to problems involving education, employment, health, housing, and racial discrimination. Cicely Tyson, a friend of Sidney Poitier, and a very intimate companion of Miles Davis, was in the films A Man Called Adam (1966), starring Sammy Davis Jr. as a much-troubled jazz musician, and The Comedians (1967), and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968). Tyson, who helped with dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchell to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, went several years without film work before doing the acclaimed and popular film Sounder (1972).
A film of sustaining family love amid a life of struggle, Sounder was based on a 1969 novel by William Armstrong with a screenplay by Lonne Elder (Ceremonies in Dark Old Men), and was directed by Martin Ritt, who had made films such as Edge of the City (1957) with Sidney Poitier and John Cassevetes as waterfront workers and friends, and Paris Blues (1961) with Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Hud (1963), and The Great White Hope (1970); and Ritt would go on to make The Front (1976); Norma Rae (1979), Nuts (1987), and Stanley & Iris (1990). In Sounder, Cicely Tyson’s character Rebecca Morgan, her hair braided and wrapped in cloth, works to get the crop in after her husband Nathan Lee Morgan (Paul Winfield) is arrested for stealing a ham to feed his hungry family. Rebecca’s son David Lee Morgan (Kevin Hooks) goes in search of the labor camp where his father Nathan is, and during his journey meets a teacher, Camille (Janet MacLachlan), who offers the possibility of a better education. Roger Ebert, a Chicago Sun-Times critic with a capacious heart (but whose writing I do not always trust—factchecker, please!), called Sounder compassionate and truthful, its characters real, and saluted the subtleties of Cicely Tyson’s work. Ebert’s appreciation was shared by many: American congressmen endorsed the film, and Harvard had a Cicely Tyson Day. Tyson was nominated for the cinema industry’s most glamorous recognition, an academy award, as was Diana Ross for interpreting Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, but Liza Minnelli took the Oscar home for her Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Cicely Tyson looked for challenging roles, and found one in the 1974 film adaptation directed by John Korty for television of Ernest Gaines’s 1971 novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, about a century of American life from enslavement to civil rights as seen through one woman’s eyes (a enslaved child, Jane grows old to enact a quiet civil rights protest). The book and film are so persuasive that, until today, many people think it a true story. The film brought Cicely Tyson an Emmy award for her performance.
“Significant was the sensitive dramatic leading lady, Cicely Tyson, who was unlike any female leading lady in Hollywood history. Dark-skinned with vibrant eyes and a short Afro—at a time when the Afro had not yet received wide acceptance—Tyson challenged Western standards of beauty,” wrote cinema scholar and critic Donald Bogle about Tyson in A Man Called Adam (1966) in Bogle’s intelligent and lush history Hollywood Black: The Stars, the Films, the Filmmakers (Running Press / Hachette Book Group, 2019; page 132). Tyson’s work, like that of many African-American artists, can be read as being part of two or more traditions. Cicely Tyson called Rebecca Morgan the glue and guts of the family in Sounder. Toni Morrison (Ms. magazine) admired Tyson as Rebecca. Sounder, about love, struggle, survival, hope, and the family dog, a film simple and wise, a work of reassurance and resistance, got good reviews in the Amsterdam News, the Chicago Reader, Variety, and the _Wall Street Journal. Schools took students on trips to the cinema to see it (I, Daniel, went with my class). Donald Bogle said that Sounder brought Cicely Tyson a stardom that was a long time coming. Her film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, illuminating the often imperceptible long arc of history, was broadcast on CBS television in January 1974, and was seen by an audience of more than fifty million people, and film critic Pauline Kael (Deeper into Movies) thought it might have been the best movie ever made for television. The young Armond White (The South End), appreciating its African-American consciousness and Christian ethos, exalted it above other films. Celebrated by Democrats and Republicans at the Kennedy Center, and much discussed in the nation, the motion picture was a cultural event.
Dave Kehr may have called Sounder honest and blessedly simple, and charming without being coy, in the Chicago Reader, but not everyone was wildly enthusiastic about _Sounder or The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Roger Greenspun of the New York Times wrote that Sounder “lacks the excitement that may have come from plumbing greater depths and discovering a few tougher, less accessible insights” and Greenspun found that while Martin Ritt is “an earnest, conscientious director, he seems to strive for classical plainness, but to succeed only in being ordinary” (September 25, 1972). Whereas Ed Guerrero (Framing Blackness) considered Sounder, like Lady Sings the Blues, to be of serious mind in comparison to the era’s black exploitation movies featuring caricatures, slang, sex, vengeance, and violence, film scholar Clyde Taylor demurred, and while introducing L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, a 2015 University of California Press study of films by Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) and Julie Dash (Illusions), Alile Sharon Larkin (A Different Image), Elyseo Taylor (To Promote the General Welfare), Billy Woodberry (Bless Their Little Hearts) and other African-American filmmakers, Clyde Taylor seems to go out of his way to declare, “The viewer of Killer of Sheep is not invited to view people under the sociological lens of Blackness as lack, with condescending pity, as in Sounder (Dir. Martin Ritt, 1972) or The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Dir. John Korty, 1974), but to spend sympathetic time with Black people in a narrative where the most significant meaning lies within them, not within the gaze of some idealized white observer, either inside or outside the text” (Preface; page xxii).
Cicely Tyson in make-up for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
Each of us has to decide what is complaint and criticism built on fact, logic, or sense, and what are false contrasts and conclusions; and audiences loved and respected the two movies. “Both Sounder and Jane Pittman were enormously successful productions in the United States and around the world,” wrote the Rutgers history professor Ruth Feldstein, who considers Cicely Tyson as a figure of authenticity and cultural progress in the 2013 Oxford University Press book How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement, which examines the work and reputation of Tyson and Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Abbey Lincoln, Miriam Makeba, and Nina Simone (page 144). Some of those women knew each other, were colleagues and friends, but, as Ruth Feldstein noted, “Community did not imply or require consensus, with regard to politics or aesthetics” (page 28); and several, if not all of them, “worked to reach audiences that crossed lines of race and class, at the same time that they also performed on smaller stages, on the cultural margins, and in politicized subcultures with more targeted niche audiences, and broader parameters for representing and talking about race” (page 48).
The work of artists such as Cicely Tyson, and Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to Do with It and Black Panther), Viola Davis (Fences), and Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), and the cultures of their participation, have been getting more attention from audiences, critics, and even scholars—and it is about time, long past time—in books like African American Arts: Activism, Aesthetics and Futurity edited by Sharrell D. Luckett (Bucknell University Press, 2020); African American Cinema Through Black Lives Consciousness edited by Mark Reid (Wayne State University Press, 2019); Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches edited by Sharrell D. Luckett and Tia M. Shaffer (Routledge, 2017); Black Hollywood Unchained: Commentary on the State of Black Hollywood edited by Ishmael Reed (Third World Press, 2015); Black Women as Cultural Readers by Jacqueline Bobo (Columbia University Press, 1995); Contemporary Black American Cinema edited by Mia Mask (Routledge, 2012); Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film by Mia Mask (University of Illinois Press, 2009); LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema edited by Allyson Nadia Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart (University of California Press, 2015); Look, A Negro!: Philosophical Essays on Race, Culture and Politics by Robert Gooding-Williams (Routledge, 2005); Mammies No More: The Changing Image of Black Women on Stage and Screen by Lisa M. Anderson (Rowman and Littlefield, 1997); and Philosophy, Black Film, Film Noir by Dan Flory (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008). “There is much work to be done to continue the success and celebration of Black culture and Black peoples. It is true that the Black existence in the United States is equally one of joy and pain. Since our ancestors arrived on these shores we have upheld values of family, love, and triumph, while at the same time combatted atrocities and injustices imposed upon us in response to our success and survival. Art has long served as a central medium to empower our people and address issues within and outside our communities,” write editors Sharrell D. Luckett and Tia M. Shaffer in the introduction to the anthology Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches (Routledge, 2017; page 8). Their anthology collects a range of commentary—advice, analyses, criticism, memoir—on theatrical life in a nation of conflicts, and on how to enlighten, encourage, and empower those who want to participate as makers of culture. The essays tell new stories and remind us of the importance of old stories. One can learn from both apprentices and masters such as Cicely Tyson and Angela Bassett.
Cicely Tyson as Myrtle in Dairy of a Mad Black Woman
Cicely Tyson, like Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, and Regina King, would find that great talent did not always guarantee great roles. Tyson said that as she became more established, and able to assert her own concerns and rights, the roles became fewer. Consequently, one reads a list of her credits with an appreciation of what she did and an awareness of what she might have done. One knows that she appeared in the family drama The River Niger (1976), a film directed by Krishna Shah and based on an award-winning play (the Pulitzer, the Tony) by Joseph A. Walker, with a wonderful cast: Tyson was the ill wife Mattie to James Earl Jones’s drunken poet husband Johnny, with Glynn Turman as their military member son Jeff, and Louis Gossett as Doctor Dudley Stanton. Cicely Tyson played a teacher on a school bus trip opposite Richard Pryor in the 1981 comedy Bustin’ Loose; and she was a teacher in a mining town in a Broadway production of the drama The Corn is Green in 1983; but thirty years passed before Tyson was on Broadway again, as a reminiscing older woman, Carrie, befriending a younger one on a bus ride, in Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. Tyson, who had won an Emmy award for playing Jane Pittman, received an Emmy for her performance as the housemaid Castalia in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994). Slave? Sharecropper? Housemaid? Those roles represent realities, but they are not the only realities. What other parts might have been conceived for Cicely Tyson? One only need read even a half-decent history of black women in America, or look over a list of African-American literary texts to consider some of the lost possibilities: or better, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America by Paula Giddings, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family by Jacqueline Jones, Black Women in White America; A Documentary History by Gerda Lerner; or the Norton Anthology of African American Literature and the dramas and fictions of Octavia Butler, Toni Cade Bambara, Jessie Fauset, Lorraine Hansberry, Zora Neale Hurston, Adrienne Kennedy, Nella Larsen, Toni Morrison, and Dorothy West. Tyson, who had appeared in, and was one of the producers of, a motion picture for television about Sojourner Truth, and who appeared with Angela Bassett in the television film The Rosa Parks Story (2002) directed by Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), and in Tyler Perry’s theatrical motion picture Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), is a smart, sophisticated, and fashionable woman. Tyson was the maid Constantine in the 2011 movie The Help, a member of a cast that included Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, but Tyson has been more impressive as a shrewd and beautifully dressed Harlem gangster in Hoodlum (1997), and as the charming, disturbed, forgetful, and meddling mother of Viola Davis’s character Annalise Keating in the television series How to Get Away with Murder, the legal, psychological, and social drama that began in 2014 and ended in 2020—and seeing two great actors, Tyson and Davis, together, was wonderful.
Viola Davis in Widows
Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, and Regina King have different biographies, and have done different kinds of work, but they share African ancestry and a profession; and they speak out of, and to, more than one cultural tradition. What might occur if we accepted and remembered that fact? Those traditions could be complement rather than competition, means of appreciation and understanding, part of an accepted cultural pluralism, as philosopher Alain Locke advocated decades ago in “Race, Culture, and Democracy,” a 1943 lecture given in Haiti, published in the 2016 Palgrave Macmillan book African American Contributions to the Americas’ Cultures: A Critical Edition of Lectures by Alain Locke: “In the United States this relatively new philosophy of society and culture is being described as and promoted as ‘cultural pluralism.’ It is, a promising creed and already has many powerful intellectual and scientific adherents. I should like to commend it as the only fully democratic notion of culture and the only realistic and safe concept of nationality. For the majority factions, it imposes modesty, tolerance and a fraternal spirit; for the minority groups it is a boon of protection, self-respect and reciprocity” (page 14). Artists, writers, and thinkers in different disciplines and fields have drawn from diverse traditions throughout the ages, a practical multiculturalism, but that has been more complicated and controversial for some than for others.
June Jordan and Alice Walker, literary colleagues and friends, have written about domestic and international art and politics, appealing to communities of readers beyond demarcations of class, race, and gender. Jordan and Walker, women whose antecedents include Phillis Wheatley, Frances Harper, Ida Wells-Barnett, Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks, were part of an era of evolution in concepts of culture and politics. Yet, some of their allegiances and sympathies—for women, for bisexuals and gays, for Native Americans, Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Palestinians—have been criticized. In the book Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, an anthology of wide-ranging commentary by scholars of history and literature on artists, intellectuals, and activists spanning centuries, Rutgers University professor Cheryl Wall in “Living by the Word” discusses the creative writers and essayists June Jordan and Alice Walker, and their relation to western tradition as women of African descent in America. Jordan wrote about the conflict she felt between the beauties of civilization studied and learned in the academy (for her, Barnard College), and her mother’s frustrated ambitions and material sacrifices and the harsh distress in her neighborhood, matters not recognized by the academy. Walker wrote about Van Gogh, Kate Chopin, Zora Neale Hurston, Camara Laye, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other valued artists, many of whom were not taught in her college classes at Spelman and Sarah Lawrence, and her mother’s self-care, gardening (cultivation of beauty), and humiliation when in need. Walker saw more connections between her personal experience and her formal studies than Jordan. Cheryl Wall observed, “Like Jordan, Walker reflects, indirectly, on her relationship to Western tradition: she argues that making connections produces the larger perspective necessary to apprehend the whole story—‘the one American story’” (University of North Carolina Press, 2015; page 192). Sometimes advocating one’s claims and concerns requires incivility, or even withdrawal, as June Jordan suggests; but connections, recognized and respected, create understanding, as Alice Walker insists. Cicely Tyson appeared with George C. Scott—the viewer can see one without occluding the other. Angela Bassett appeared with Ralph Fiennes. One can see both, like both, understand both.
Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, Regina King, and Cicely Tyson claimed themselves before the world did, and they have been awarded with gold, but they also have spun straw into gold. What can a woman do? Bassett has had an impressive career, playing a greater range of characters than Tyson, Davis, or King. Angela Bassett is a woman of body, mind and spirit, of skill and talent, and an almost frightening authority and force; and, aware of theatrical styles histrionic and natural, she has used look, tone, and gesture to illustrate character, consciousness, and culture in her portrayals of activists, government officials, lovers, mothers, queens. Bassett, who grew up with a social worker single mother in Saint Petersburgh, Florida, was inspired by a high school trip to Of Mice and Men, a Kennedy Center stage production featuring James Earl Jones, and Bassett won scholarships to Yale, attending the Yale drama school. (She is married to actor Courtney Vance.) Angela Bassett is known for her demanding and dynamic performance as entertainer Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), a story of love and hate, indenture and liberation; and Bassett won a Golden Globe for best actress in a musical (and was nominated for the Oscar). Bassett has appeared in Boyz N the Hood (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Strange Days (1995), Waiting to Exhale (1995), Contact (1997), How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), Music of the Heart (1999), Akeelah & the Bee (2006), Notorious (2009), Black Nativity (2013), and Chi-raq (2015). She has done television projects, such as The Rosa Parks Story (2002) and Betty & Coretta (2013). She has been on stage in several August Wilson productions, and starred opposite Alec Baldwin in Macbeth (1998), and with her husband Courtney Vance in His Girl Friday (2005).
Angela Bassett’s work has been less tied to history than that of Cicely Tyson, but that meant that Bassett had to locate or generate her own meaning and purpose. Angela Bassett moves in a variety of spaces and times. Bassett projects authority, and sometimes anger and disdain; and one is compelled to think about her presence and participation—she is impossible to dismiss. I loved Angela Bassett in several things, particularly in the Spike Lee film Malcolm X as Betty with Denzel Washington as Malcolm, in which Betty’s sensitive but passionate interrogation of what is occurring seems to humble both Malcolm X and Denzel Washington; and as a friend and warrior with the haunted Ralph Fiennes in the futuristic Strange Days (1995), directed by Kathryn Bigelow, in which Bassett’s character is not the desired woman but the necessary one; and with Danny Glover in the allegorical and elemental Boesman and Lena (2000), a John Berry film of an Athol Fugard play on the intermingling of brutality, love, loss, and grief. (John Berry, once affiliated with Orson Welles and Billy Wilder, was director of the 1951 documentary, The Hollywood Ten, on people blacklisted for being communist, of which Berry was one, and Berry was director of the feature films He Ran All the Way, 1951; Tamago, 1958; Claudine, 1974; Thieves, 1977; and The Bad News Bears, 1978.) I loved Angela Bassett in Ryan Coogler’s magnificent Black Panther (2018), and in 9-1-1 (2018, 2019, 2020), the dramatic fiction television series set in Los Angeles and depicting the heroic work of first responders (police, firefighters, emergency phone dispatchers), in which Bassett is a resourceful policewoman, Athena, a wife and mother of two children whose father, Athena’s first husband, declared his homosexuality, after which the married couple separated, divorced, and she married a kind, plumply sweet-faced firefighter of Euro-American descent.
Angela Bassett in Strange Days
In Black Panther—which I often think of as Black Planet Chadwick Boseman starred as T’Challa, a prince who will be king of Wakanda, with Angela Bassett as his mother, the formidable and wise diplomat Queen Ramonda, in a tale offering models of action and alternative paths of development. Who will tell the complete story? The motion picture offered a wonderfully fantastical view, infused with genuine aesthetic and spiritual ideas, of a virtuous and vital Africa, a form of imaginary reclamation: whereas, as Sharrell Luckett stated in the 2020 Bucknell University Press book African American Arts, “Since the beginning of time, it seems, art has been endemic to African peoples, as they created sculptures, relics, body tattoos, and ritual playscripts, among other things, in relation to religion and ritual in ancient African” (page 3), much of African culture and history has been obscured and has required the research of historians such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, J.A. Rogers, John Hope Franklin, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Richard Powell, and Samella Lewis; and when the culture and history appeared as part of popular culture, their presence refreshed and strengthened some and mystified others. Here, a comic book begun in the civil rights era offered an appealing frame for something radical. “The revolutionary thing about Black Panther is that it envisions a world not devoid of racism but one in which black people have the wealth, technology and military might to level the playing field—a scenario applicable not only to the predominately white landscape of Hollywood but, more important, to the world at large,” wrote Jamil Smith in Time magazine (“Superpowered / The Power of Black Panther,” February 19, 2018). The popular film fable directed by Ryan Coogler deals with the death of a king and the struggle for a throne between a man of civility and ideas and a man of anger, and brings together an abundance of significant themes—history and power, colonialism, family and responsibility, trauma, morality, transgression, and redemption—while being very entertaining. Film historian and critic Donald Bogle, often astute about character in relation to society, setting, and scene, said Angela Bassett as Black Panther‘s Queen Ramonda embodied black cinema: “When Ramonda / Bassett is first seen, Coogler’s camera presents us with a regal and stately ‘elder’ goddess, wearing head gear that calls to mind a Zula headdress. For Coogler, Angela Bassett is both queen of Wakanda and one of the venerated queens of black movie history,” Bogle wrote in Hollywood Black, his illustrated history of cinema from D.W. Griffith and William Foster, Noble Johnson, and Oscar Micheaux to Quentin Tarantino and Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, and Ryan Coogler, noting that Bassett’s Queen Ramonda endeavors to save her son and country; and that Bassett was “much like the great Cicely Tyson, who was deserving of more than Hollywood was willing to grant her” (page 247).
Viola Davis has said that the world wants women to be pretty and kind, and that cinema has reflected that often, but artists have more to give and to show. Viola Davis, who was born in South Carolina and grew up in Rhode Island and graduated from Rhode Island College and the Julliard School, and married Julius Tennon, is an actor of intelligence and pathos, giving performances that are impressive in their intimacy, and Davis has become a respected and beloved figure. Viola Davis, who played Vera in playwright August Wilson’s Seven Guitars (1996), received one Tony award for August Wilson’s King Hedley II (2001) and another for appearing as Rose with Denzel Washington as the feisty Troy in Wilson’s Fences (2010), before getting a best supporting Oscar for her role as the honest, loving, and moral Rose in the film Fences (2016), co-starring and directed by Denzel Washington. Davis was in Steven Soderbergh films Out of Sight (1998), Traffic (2000) and Solaris (2002), and in Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven (2002); and Davis has said she usually was offered small parts of equally small remuneration in significant films. Davis was one of a long line of actresses who have hoped a gatekeeper, a studio chief, producer, director, writer, famed actor, or casting director would remember her name, her face, her skill and imagine more for her: among them, Mary Alice and Louise Beavers, Halle Berry, Diahann Carroll, Rosalind Cash, Nellie Conley (Madame Sul-Te-Wan), Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Kimberly Elise, Aunjanue Ellis, Tyra Ferrell, Gloria Foster, Robin Givens, Jasmine Guy, Theresa Harris, Lena Horne, Sanaa Lathan, Sharon Leal, Hattie McDaniel, Lonette McKee, Juanita Moore, Judy Pace, Lillian Randolph, Anika Noni Rose, Diana Sands, Tika Sumpter, Brenda Sykes, Fredi Washington, Ethel Waters, Lynn Whitfield, and Alfre Woodard. Viola Davis, eventually, came to great public attention in films such as Antoine Fisher (2002), directed by Denzel Washington, and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2008) and Tate Taylor’s The Help (2011). Davis, who worked with director Tate Taylor to develop her character Aibileen in The Help, about the relation of white southern ladies to their black maids, said that the maids were women like her mother and grandmother, but that the motion picture did not present enough of their visions and voices.
In Bell Hooks’ anthology of essays Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice, published by Routledge, educator and iconoclast Hooks in her essay “Solidarity: Women and Race Relations” examines the book on which the Tate Taylor film featuring Viola Davis and Cicely Tyson was based: Kathryn Stockett’s successful novel, The Help, focusing on southern white women and the black ladies who worked as their domestic servants in the 1960s American south. Kathryn Stockett has said Stockett was inspired by the love between employer and employee. Who will tell the complete story? Bell Hooks notes, “In her insightful book _Between Women Domestics and Their Employers, sociologist Judith Rollins examines both the perspectives of black women working as domestics and the white women who hired them. Documenting no talk of bonding with love from either group, she shares the complexity of dominator culture as it impacts women working for women in the domestic household. Rollins’s work reveals that there was a clear recognition of the way in which race and class differences have militated against the formation of bonds of affection” (Routledge, 2013; page 43). Hooks finds that Stockett has written from a privileged, sentimental perspective that endorses stereotypes of selfless love and service: “her book is as grossly stereotypical as any fictional book in the history of American letters” (page 50). Hooks, as correction, affirms excellence and study, dialogue, honesty, feminism, and a critique of interlocking oppressions. Bell Hooks, whose mother did domestic work, wrote, “I do not remember any of the grown people I grew up with in the segregated world of our town talking about loving, or even liking, white folks. Admiration sometimes, envy, jealousy, awe, even, but never declarations of love. This was equally true of the circle of black women who were mama’s colleagues and friends” (page 52). Why does that matter? Popular images go far in defining, dominating, and denying African-American realities, charging literature and cinema with special power.
Viola Davis, after The Help, was featured in the science fiction movie Ender’s Game (2013), the James Brown biographical picture Get on Up (2014), Blackhat (2015), and Suicide Squad (2016). What can a woman do? Davis can be cool and sleek, or rough and raw, showing us the secret places, the profound pain, in someone’s life. Viola Davis’s performances are very impressive, delivering the clarity of focus and genuine emotion the magnifying lens of the camera requires, and defying the typical work day’s discontinuous filmmaking and short takes, in her challenging roles in Won’t Back Down (2012), Lila and Eve (2015), and Widows (2018). Won’t Back Down, with Maggie Gyllenhaal and directed by Daniel Barnz, centered on women working together to solve problems in education; Lila and Eve, with Jennifer Lopez, about grief and violence, was a project Davis and her husband produced, directed by Charles Stone III; and Widows, a Steve McQueen art film that is also a heist thriller focusing on women who replace their husbands for a dangerous job: all three motion pictures should be seen by those who want interesting characters and stories, and strong themes. Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) had been interested in the Widows project for decades (it had been a British television series); and McQueen saw in Davis a paradoxical, volatile talent. Viola Davis had won an Emmy award in 2015 for her television series How to Get Away with Murder (2014 – 2020), a program that entertained matters of masking, morality, and murder, and in which Davis played a charismatic professor and amoral activist lawyer, Annalise Keating, a brilliant, taunting woman full of anger, desire, pity, and shame. “The only thing separating women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” Viola Davis said upon accepting her Emmy, before praising black women in history and the arts. Film scholar Donald Bogle has said that while Davis’s role in The Help was that of a traditional nurturer, her Annalise Keating was complicated, glamourous, sexual, an advance. How to Get Away with Murder, a creation of writer-producer Shonda Rhimes, tackled issues of addiction, ambition, bisexuality, child abuse, computer hacking, honesty, interracial relations, mass incarceration, police malfeasance, psychiatry, poverty, prejudice, and trauma. Viola Davis, who has acknowledged the food insecurity she knew as a child and made that social phenomenon one focus of her charity, has spoken of the necessity of women helming their own productions, and described artists as the articulators of humanity.
Regina King is not far behind, if she is behind at all. Her acting has a spiritual quality, while conveying elements of intellect and truth. Regina King, born in Los Angeles, attended Westchester High, and began acting before she was old enough to vote. King played Tish’s mother Sharon in Barry Jenkins’s much-praised 2018 cinema adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), a tale of young love, of sculptor Fonny and Tish, beleaguered when Fonny is accused of a crime: “Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo)—in a pair of outstandingly rich, sensitive, and, importantly, joyful performances—who make sacrifices right alongside their daughter, and who, like her, seem to find new strength in themselves,” observed Vanity Fair‘s K. Austin Collins after a Toronto film festival screening (report online September 10, 2018). Regina King won an academy award, the Oscar, as well as a Golden Globe award, in 2019 for her supporting performance in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018); and for her television work, King has won several Emmy awards in 2015 and 2016 for supporting roles in a limited series, and an Emmy in 2018 for a lead role in a limited series. Regina King is fond of Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day (1993); and her work own work has included comedy and drama. King was in the television series 227 (1985 – 1990), and on shows like Northern Exposure (1994), New York Undercover (1994), Living Single (1995), The Boondocks (2005 – 2014), The Leftovers (2015 – 2017), and American Crime (2015 – 2017). Regina King could seem profound in television’s impressive American Crime (2015 – 2017), a John Ridley project. King has appeared in the films Boyz N the Hood (1991) Poetic Justice (1993), Higher Learning (1995), Jerry Maguire (1996), Enemy of the State (1998), Ray (2004), and Our Family Wedding (2010). Regina King, partnered with Cuba Gooding Jr. as her sportsman husband, played a woman, tough and funny, championing her husband’s marketing prospects in Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy Jerry Maguire; and, partnered with Will Smith, King was a wife painfully worried about her husband’s working with a past lover in the Tony Scott political thriller Enemy of the Street. The New York Times reviewer Anthony Scott said that Regina King was splendid in both John Singleton’s Poetic Justice and If Beale Street Could Talk. What can a woman do? King, like Viola Davis, Angela Bassett, and Cicely Tyson, reminds us that each person contains multitudes, different sides, different ways of responding to events, a useful knowledge. Regina King has become a director, too, directing episodes of Insecure (2018), The Good Doctor (2018), This is Us (2017) Scandal (2015 – 2016), Being Mary Jane (2015), and Southland (2013). What does such accomplishment mean; and, how can we make such accomplishment more likely in the future?
Regina King in Jerry Maguire
The works of Regina King and Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, and Viola Davis are part of the culture and history of the late twentieth-century and the early twenty-first century, their advances occurring with those of other women, African and African-American, Latina and Asian American, Asian, Australian, Middle Eastern, and Euro-American, in education, literature and the arts, philosophy, science, and business. Women actors have become more prominent; and more women film directors, such as Julie Dash, Cheryl Dunye, Ava DuVernay, Leslie Harris, Kasi Lemmons, Darnell Martin, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Dee Rees, have emerged. Some of them have found inspiration in the plays, novels, and stories of African-American, and African, women and men—one hopes more will. There, certainly, are more women playwrights becoming known to both specialists and the general public: Jocelyn Bioh, Pearl Cleage, Kia Corthron, Erika Dickerson-Despenza, Lydia R. Diamond, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Danai Gurira, Katori Hall, Lorraine Hansberry, Aleshea Harris, Vy Higginson, Zora Neale Hurston, Adrienne Kennedy, Sarah Jones, Dominique Morisseau, Lynne Nottage, Antoinette Nwandu, Dael Orlandersmith, Suzan-Lori Parks, Stacey Rose, Tori Sampson, Ntozake Shange, and Anna Deveare Smith. They seek truth and transformation. Their plays examine and express self and society, sometimes with a serious tone and sometimes as satire, lamenting, liberating, contemplative and violent, polite and discomforting. Yet, those distinctive figures and their works exist within a larger culture that sometimes misunderstands their purposes and plays, making their reception more difficult than they have to be. Sharell Luckett, a scholar and artist, an actor and director, has pondered that problem, and engaged work that is simultaneously aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and political, as well as practical in its professional preparations.
Sharell Luckett, the director of the Helen Weinberger Center for Drama and Playwriting and a University of Cincinnati assistant professor of drama, founded the Black Acting Methods Studio, and Luckett has produced two remarkable anthologies featuring varied contributors: Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches and African American Arts: Activism, Aesthetics, and Futurity. A diversity of art practices in relation to social issues are pursued in the book African American Arts, an anthology of scholarly essays that include discussion of fashion designer Patrick Kelly, film and entertainment critic Armond White, African-American participation in opera, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, African spirituality (the Kongo cosmogram) as an influence on Sun Ra and Houston Conwill, the public voices of black women (including Beyonce), and projects of conciliation. That book offers a broad view of culture, but the book Black Acting Methods offers thinking and tools regarding a subject at once appealing, controversial, and significant. The black performer and her (his) purpose and representation have been an ongoing focus of discussion for decades; and Black Acting Methods, edited by Sharell Luckett with Tia M. Shaffer, brings together essays on mental and physical preparation for creativity, on cultural grounding, on philosophy. The essays recognize spiritual life, its holism, injury, burdens, and the possibility of healing.
Sharell Luckett founded and worked as artistic director of Empowered Youth Entertainment, with the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) of Greater Atlanta, a teen ensemble studying acting and addressing racial justice and bullying, for which students won awards in various theatrical competitions, and subsequently have become working artists in Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, and beyond. Black Acting Methods, edited by Luckett and Shaffer and featuring the essays of scholars and artists, contains methodologies for working with teachers and students, actors and directors, as well as history, aesthetic criticism, and cultural commentary. The book seeks to strengthen both confidence and creativity (and was followed by attention in academic journals, and a two-day September 2019 symposium in Atlanta). The essay, “The Hendricks Method,” which Luckett wrote with Tia Shaffer, profiles Freddie Hendricks and his instructional and producing work with the Youth Ensemble of Atlanta, a project focused on community, memory, and orality, facilitating individual and collective improvisation, and supporting spiritual awareness and well-being, and encouraging self-confidence. “Greatness is inevitable when focus marries passion, and the desire is just as strong as the need,” says Freddie Hendricks (page 33). In the “Hendricks Method,” a significant topic is identified, usually by Freddie Hendricks, and the group discusses, researches, and presents their own ideas, scripts, and music—and selections are made. The creation of such projects, the process, is called devising. Hendricks encourages participants to think of themselves as artists, as creators and connectors, in the broadest terms. The Youth Ensemble of Atlanta (YEA) created and performed seven musicals, with varying topics: child abuse; apartheid; school violence; AIDS; teen pregnancy; self-hatred and self-love; friendship and unconditional love. The YEA group utilized spiritual and Biblical content in its songs and productions, as spirituality joins the divine, the community, and the individual, an expression of African and African-American cultural inheritance. The group, which celebrated its twenty-sixth anniversary in 2016, participates in a ritual prayer circle (sometimes pouring water libations, calling ancestors’ names). The process brings together one person and another, past, present, and future—seeking wholeness.
Cristal Chanelle Truscott, knowing that acting is more than the presentation of artifice, that it has roots in experience and living culture, in her Black Acting Methods essay “SoulWork” proposes collaborative creative work that combines intention, interaction (both leading and following), and expression grounded in awareness and sensitive response to place and people, facilitating a unity of flesh and spirit, resulting in a unique contribution to culture and community. People live and work in different places, from different positions, of course—some at the center, some in the margins. Incarcerated women dramatizing their own stories is the subject of Rhodessa Jones’s “Nudging the Memory: Creating performances with the Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women.” While some of the participants in Jones’s project are amateurs, some participants are serious, even professionals; and in their shared work, personal, cultural, therapeutic, has transformed lives. Improvisation as sacred play, in which there is liberty and love, is discussed by Lisa Biggs in “Art Saves Lives — Rebecca Rice and the performance of Black feminist improv for social change,” with recognition that there are more ways than one of responding to received conditions, with art confirming and deepening spiritual health and social possibilities.
The besieged nature of African-American history and life means that many of the concerns of African-Americans are infused with both doubt and urgency, are practical and philosophical: education, housing, employment, health care, and also aesthetics, ethics, logic, and metaphysics; and these concerns can be, at once, points of separation and points of connection within and beyond the group. Most cultures, including that of African-Americans, are conservative: fundamentally, that is what culture is, the preservation of the arts, manners, practices, and rituals we like, respect, and find useful; but, of course, one person finds consoling what another finds confining, and one finds liberating what another finds lashing or limiting. Certain cultures may have the means, if not the impulse, to adapt easily; and other cultures may be forced by circumstances, for the survival of body, mind, and spirit, to adapt, to invent. The invention of the new, no matter how smart, sensible, or sensual, usually is distressing to someone—even to many. Much of the assembled essays in both Black Acting Methods and African American Arts ask and answer the question, How does one relate to the recognized center if one feels oneself in the delegated margins? What is one’s relation to established canons? “Every year, Shakespeare is the most produced playwright in America—no other playwright even comes close,” states Black Acting Methods contributor Justin Emeka in “Seeing Shakespeare through brown eyes” (page 89). Who could object to Shakespeare’s comedies, histories, and tragedies, with his embrace of human diversity and gift for revealing personality, philosophy, and politics? Justin Emeka knows that the King James Bible, beloved by African-Americans, and Shakespeare share a language, but there can be distancing felt when Shakespeare is traditionally, and rigidly, presented.
“Black cultural expression, in a way, serves as a tool to counter the overt and covert assault of White cultural imperialism,” states Justin Emeka in his honest and thoughtful essay, “Seeing Shakespeare through brown eyes” (page 97). Emeka writes of Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson as Othello, and of working with actor Avery Brooks and director Hal Scott on an Africanized Shakespeare, in which their King Lear assumed—with reference to Ivan Van Sertima’s history They Came Before Columbus—Africans having come to America and establishing a kingship and culture. Emeka writes against the kind of color-blind casting that distorts a black actor’s performance, asking him or her to pretend to be white. Writer Justin Emeka had been led by his own acting and directing experience, which requires mastering texts and bringing personal experience and imagination to them, to “move beyond color-blind casting toward practices that encourage audiences to see race and incorporate its significance into an author’s story” (page 89). In “Seeing Shakespeare through brown eyes,” Justin Emeka, the son of a white Oregonian mother and a black Arkansan father, felt alienated from aspects of the established western theatrical tradition, including Shakespeare, found connection in African-American studies, blues music, and plays by Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, and Ntozake Shange. Performing in a color-blind cast production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town Emeka felt “like a tree severed from its roots,” censored, forced to wear a figurative mask (page 97). Justin Emeka calls for a revolutionary imagination that sees black life and culture on stage in works new and old, as attempted with a well-received interpretation of Midsummer Night’s Dream that used West African mythology for illustrating magical forces in the text, and embraced the actors’ cultural backgrounds and accents.
Shakespeare. Chekhov. Who could fail to be moved by Anton Chekhov’s beautifully comprehensive grasp of intelligent but inert characters in a changing society, in which we can read the past and the present? Shakespeare and Chekhov are great writers, but the specifics of the works they create can describe or evoke a sensibilities and societies that may feel other. Imagination and interpretation can bring the reader, performer, and viewer closer. In “Ritual Poetic Drama within the African Continuum — The journey from Shakespeare to Shange” in Black Acting Methods, Tawnya Pettiford-Wates writes of her own personal experience of alienation when studying the ironic, melancholy plays of Chekhov in traditional ways, citing the Moscow Arts Theatre actor and director Constantin Stanislavski whose influential training emphasized research, personal memory of like situations, and physical detail, feeling as if she was training her body while neglecting her spirit. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates had studied at the Central School of Drama in London, Carnegie-Mellon University (studying with Israel Hicks), and Union Institute. And enamored of British culture and theatrical life, she, while at the Central School, was in the milieu of Richard Burton and Maggie Smith, sometimes in the same room, but Al Freeman Jr., while working in London, advised Pettiford-Wates not to be too enamored, not to let the training inhabit her. Later she found that her graduate school study, despite having done plays by Miller, Odets and Williams as well as plays by Douglas Turner Ward and Melvin Van Peebles directed by Israel Hicks at Carnegie-Mellon, had not prepared her to interpret Ntozake Shange’s very original For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, a beautiful work of confrontation and transformation, encompassing drama, poetry, and symbolism, history, memoir, fiction, and music. Community and spirituality are fundamental aspects of African culture, of African-American culture, and of Shange’s vision. For Colored Girls was poetic drama, different in many ways—full of sensuality and feeling; a ritual of imagery, music, and dance: offering access to altered states of consciousness, an embodiment of rites of passage. Experience and understanding of the institutions, ideas, and impulses within African-American culture must be drawn on for presenting work inspired by, and unique to, that culture, such as that.
Contributor Clinnesha D. Sibley, as well, advocates the significance of interpretation in “Remembering, rewriting, and re-imagining,” writing on Afrocentric approaches, while being aware of the compromises that the commercial arts demand, which can threaten personal and cultural integrity. Daniel Banks offers workshop exercises for development of stories and performances in “The Hip-Hop Theatre Initiative, We the Griot,” connecting art to social justice. Banks’s teaching is oriented to the idea of the storyteller in African society, creating a circle, a community, for the initiation of new stories, looking for common elements among them, and possibilities for sharing or staging them. An interdisciplinary approach that is also international is advanced by Aku Kadogo, combining African-American and Australian aesthetics, drawing on anthropology and using poetry, music, and dance, in “Kadogo Mojo — Global crossings in the theatre.” Creating a space of welcome, learning, and experiment for college students, informed by political realism and hip-hop, is discussed by Kashi Johnson and Daphnie Sicre, in the dialogue “Unyielding Truth – Employing culturally relevant pedagogy.” The last section includes quotes from theatrical practitioners and further recommendations, featuring black directors on plays, personal experiences, methods, and rituals. Black Acting Methods is “an exceptional addition to the field,” wrote DeRon S. Williams of Eastern Connecticut State University in the book review of the Journal of American Drama and Theatre (Vol. 31, No. 2, Winter 2019; online January 28, 2019); but, “the inclusion of additional acting exercises would have made the book even more user-friendly within acting classrooms.”
Sharrell Luckett’s subsequent book, the anthology African American Arts: Activism, Aesthetics, and Futurity (Bucknell University Press, 2020), is a compendium of provocative, smart contemporary thought on the politics of culture and possibilities for progressive interventions; and it surveys various fields, identifying figures and projects of worth. The book’s main text is presented in three parts, and it has a foreword by Carmen Gillespie, editor of the Griot Project book series on African diaspora art and history, opening art illustrations by Carrie Mae Weems, an illustrations list, and a concluding play on the politics of sports by University of California theater department chair Rickerby Hinds as an afterword, and acknowledgments, contributors’ biographies, and an index. The contributors to African American Arts include Lucy Caplan, a Harvard lecturer; Jasmine Coles, a performance artist and educator affiliated with the Conciliation Project, a social justice arts forum; Florencia Cornet, a senior editor of Athena, affiliated with the University of South Carolina; Abby Dobson, founder of the Freedom Now Sonic Ensemble; Nettrice Gaskins, a writer of the PBS series Art in the Twenty-First Century; Genevieve Hyacinte, author of Radical Virtuosity on Ana Mendieta; and Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor and the artistic director and founder of the Conciliation Project.
The book’s three reigning rubrics are focused on bodies of activism, on personal and cultural identities; on music and visual art as activism; and on institutions of activism: and those include transgender identity and afrofuturism; fashion as education, comment, and self-liberation; choreographer Pearl Primus; Josefina Baez’s biographical performance text Dominicanish; film critic Armond White; blacks in opera; Jean-Michel Basquiat and his articulation and embodiment of male vulnerability; Erica Campbell and her use of hip-hop and American southern slang in gospel music; the Kongo cosmogram, a religious symbol (a circle or spiral) used for life affirmations, rituals, and in the arts, including music, painting, and sculpture; black female voices; Beyonce and intersectionality, and queer influences and radical vision; Every 28 Hours, a theatrical project created in response to the regular state-sanctioned killing of black people, featuring playwrights, directors, and actors throughout the United States; dance; performance instructor and theatrical director Freddie Hendricks; and the Conciliation Project. The Conciliation Project is very interesting, as it engages drama and discussion, examining cultural mythologies and current events (some of its work, involving role-playing and satire, revising received stories, correcting the public record). Actors speak to the audience—and the audience members share their own stories. One of its works was a reconsideration of the American minstrel tradition, featured students who were Latina/o, East Asian, Pacific Islander, and Euro-American (subsequent was the participation of black woman performer Jasmine Coles), and it used both whiteface and blackface as part of its presentation. However, an essay in African American Arts that discusses film critic Armond White’s professional principles and transitions is very interesting too.
Daniel McNeil, an associate professor of history at Canada’s Carleton University and a visiting faculty fellow at the University of Toronto, defines Armond White as a humane African-American and Pan-American thinker and writer who considered popular culture—film and music—part of political struggle, while recognizing that White has been controversial and seen as a contrarian. In African American Arts, Daniel McNeil’s essay, “Ethnicity, Ethicalness, Excellence: Armond White’s All-American Humanism” recounts the film critic’s history and contributions: Armond White has written for progressive (The City Sun, The Nation) and conservative (New Republic) publications, criticizing liberal and radical political rhetoric, and criticizing manipulative and misrepresentational commercial artists. Who will tell the complete story? Armond White could be brilliant, funny, irreverent, insightful, outrageous. His sensibility and sympathies have been seen as strange for their combined cultural, religious, and sexual aspects—a mix of the mainstream and the marginal. Yet, Daniel McNeil sees Armond White as a consistent reader of cultural tensions, conflicts, and negotiations, something that was evident since White, a son of Pentecostal parents and a high school admirer of Pauline Kael, was a Wayne State University student writing for The South End (The Daily Collegian), which appealed to students and the surrounding black community. White, a cultural advocate and passionate journalist, is described as writing then in an engaging style, attractive to liberals and radicals, and championing domestic and foreign films of quality.
Artists, particularly in cinema, create moments that seem spontaneous and true, while suggesting an interpretive understanding of the scene. The critic observes the acts and the scenes, and the forms that contain them, placing them in a larger artistic and social history. Armond White pursued his master’s degree in history, theory, and criticism in Columbia University graduate arts program in the early 1980s, studying with Andrew Sarris, learning more about the auteur theory and European New Wave cinema, but White’s education was interrupted by opportunity: White wrote for the City Sun (1984- 1996), celebrating artists White saw as courageous and lambasting those he thought lazy and weak. White, following the demise of the City Sun, would receive his master’s degree in history, theory, and criticism in 1997; and he began to write for New York Press, often making jabbing remarks about hipsters, but forming with Matt Zoller Seitz and Godfrey Cheshire one of the strongest film criticism staffs. Many observers thought Armond White became much more conservative after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. He defended traditional American values and institutions; and was skeptical about skeptics, even coming to the defense of George W. Bush. White’s commentary could seem crazed, paranoid, rude; but Daniel McNeil sees a fundamental principle of conscientious dissent active in much of White’s work.
Knowing of Sharrell Luckett’s interesting work in Black Acting Methods and African American Arts, I wondered if she might be interested in answering some questions her work, about culture and politics. I have enjoyed discourses, whether oral or written, fact or fiction, for the longest time: Platonic dialogues, transcribed intellectual seminars, conversations and interviews with Studs Terkel, Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Barbra Streisand, James Baldwin, Mari Evans, Cecil Taylor, Wayne Shorter, Peter Bogdanovitch, Caryl Phillips, Teju Cole, George Yancy, Ilan Stavans, Jorge J.E. Gracia, and thoughtful speech in novels and plays, and more. Ed Gordon’s book Conversations in Black (Hatchette Book Group, 2020) features people in various disciplines and fields, including Stacey Abrams, Michael Eric Dyson, Alicia Garza, DeRay McKesson, Eric Holder, Van Jones, Michael Steele, Maxine Waters, Hakeem Jeffries, and Tarana Burke and more, people who understand political obstructions require the application of political force, answering questions about the state of black America, about Barack Obama, voting, leadership, activism, education, economics and business, the personal struggles of black men, black women, and arts and entertainment. Conversations in Black contains startling statements, such as Michael Steele describing how as Ohio lieutenant governor Steele spoke with some black parents who were envious and resentful of the opportunities of their own children, who were getting the education they did not get. I was a little surprised, as well, by there being among discussants both admiration and ambivalence regarding Obama. People thinking and talking together can teach you things you need to know about human nature and the world. No one person knows or tells the complete story—the experiences of all of us, past and present—but anyone can remind us that each person has her/his own sense of society, and story. I have been lucky to have my own dialogues with some scholars and writers on literature, film, and music, and was glad when Sharell Luckett agreed to receive my questions. I sent them, and she sent me her responses, here below:
Questions for Sharrell Luckett (An Internet Interview)
Daniel Garrett: Who are some of the philosophers, writers, artists, and other public actors who have influenced you?
Dr. Sharrell D. Luckett: My mother for starters (Rev. Beverly Luckett). She loved to write. Others include: Freddie Hendricks, bell hooks, Molefi Kete Asante, Patricia Hill Collins, George G.M. James, Suzan-Lori Parks, Eartha Kitt, Shirlene Holmes, and many of the ancient African performance philosophers whose work is improperly attributed to the Greeks.
Daniel Garrett: America has produced several very original and important playwrights, such as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Lorraine Hansberry, and Tony Kushner, but two of the most significant are the very different writers August Wilson and Adrienne Kennedy, one traditional, one experimental—and recently Lynn Nottage and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins have impressed many. Who are some of the playwrights whose works you think we should be paying more attention to, and why?
Dr. Luckett: Rickerby Hinds, a pioneer in hip-hop theatre. I’m also working to read more of Eisa Davis’s plays. My colleagues have also been telling me to check out more of Nambi E. Kelley’s work. I did get an opportunity to see a draft of her new musical on the life of Maya Angelou and I enjoyed that. And Dominique Morisseau. I’m playing the lead in a regional premiere of her play Pipeline. Though I think she is being read more now.
Daniel Garrett: What are some of the plays you have directed? Why did you choose the plays and how were they received and what did you learn from the experience?
Dr. Luckett: Some plays I have directed include: Ruined by Lynn Nottage, Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, In the Red and Brown Water by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Split-Tale Reflection by Shirlene Holmes, Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, The Diary of Anne Frank by A. Hackett and F. Goodrich, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange and my own musical about the life of Saartjie Baartman. Many of these plays were produced at universities, so often times I pitched the play to the department. Plays interest me for various reasons. If I read it in one sitting, that usually means I either want to direct it or the play is very troubling to me. But usually don’t direct the troubling ones. I just wonder why it’s popular. In general, my plays have been received really well. When I directed Shange’s piece, the university newspaper said that I had revolutionized the theatre program. I love directing. Each experience is quite different. What is constant is my need to incorporate live music in the show. It doesn’t matter the show, I need a drum, a piano, some chimes, a rain-stick, something live. That aesthetic is influenced by the theatre director Freddie Hendricks. I am not at all saying that the plays are “rhythmic” or “musical,” it’s just that I need some music to complement the text, like an underscore.
Garrett: In the book How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford University Press, 2014) scholar Ruth Feldstein discusses Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and other performers and their relation to art and politics, fact and fantasy. There have been many wonderful black women performers—among them, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Viola Davis, Dorothy Dandridge, Kimberly Elise, Whoopi Goldberg, Lena Horne, Regina King, Janelle Monae, Diana Ross, Tessa Thompson, Kerry Washington and Ethel Waters, not all of whom fulfilled their cinematic promise. Do you think many performers today are getting the opportunities they deserve?
Dr. Luckett: Of course not. Many black performers’ talents are underutilized, and of course that is a direct result of racism and white supremacy. We just have to keep doing the work of helping white people understand that black women are not monoliths. Or, we could just do our own thing, like we’ve done in the past.
Garrett: How has Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches (Routledge, 2017) been received by the theatrical and film establishments?
Dr. Luckett: When the award-winning book Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches (BAM) was released, renowned scholar Molefi K. Asante declared that this book created the “rubric that defines what comes next” in the field of actor training. While more recently, at the esteemed Stella Adler Studio of Acting’s Black Arts Institute, Peter Jay Fernandez, actor and professor at Columbia University, offered that Black people finally have a book that in many ways theoretically validates and makes legible the past and present work of diversifying actor training programs. Significantly, Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches introduced “Black acting methods” as a distinct, revelatory field of study. This book, for all races and cultures, highlights new performance pedagogies and culturally relevant frameworks for acting and directing teachers, in both theatre and film, who seek to enhance their lessons with diverse pedagogical approaches and perspectives to teaching acting and directing. Black Acting Methods is positioned as the vanguard in the most recent wave of work to overhaul actor training curriculum. Before the field of “Black acting methods” was introduced, practitioners of acting had almost nowhere to locate and/or place in conversation particular methodologies rooted in Black performance theory and Black American aesthetics, methodologies that were created in similar historical, socio-political contexts. In other words, the recent moves to diversify acting curriculum are undergirded by a rich, decades-long history and legacy finally amplified for a general public in a groundbreaking text. BAM serves as the foundational text that articulates, canonizes, and centers black performance theory. So, the response from theatrical and film establishments have been overwhelmingly positive. Everyone feels like they need this work, and now. The book actually helps others do the work. Notably, in 2019 the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London (one of the top acting programs globally) issued an acting instructor job ad, and in the ad the Royal Central School listed methodologies that they would like applicants to be versed in. The School included the Hendricks Method (the methodology that I codified). This was a major milestone in the field of actor training. To my knowledge, this is the first time an acting school “named” and “requested knowledge of” specific Black American acting methodologies in a job ad. Ultimately, BAM is galvanizing theatre and film instructors nationally and globally. This is precisely what I had hoped this particular research would do.
Garrett: What are some of the bonds and differences between personal and social identities; and how do those identities relate to civic or social participation?
Dr. Luckett: I think here of Toni Morrison. How her given name is attached to her private identity. That separation is important in my life as well.
Garrett: Do you value visual arts such as painting and sculpture and opera, ballet, and classical music, the arts traditionally called fine or high – and, if so, why?
Dr. Luckett: Absolutely. All art forms offer ways to express oneself. Self-expression is important to identity building and connecting with others (if that is desired). Many art forms offer ways to say something without actually speaking. I just enjoy the fact that there are so many ways to express yourself.
Garrett: In your anthology, African American Arts: Activism, Aesthetics, and Futurity (Bucknell University, 2020), you have essays devoted to aesthetics, ethics, politics, and the nature of identity and the significance of culture. There are cultural and countercultural moves, such as fashion designer Patrick Kelly’s professional frustration with America then going to Paris and having success there; and Patrick Kelly’s recognition of the negative appropriation of black images by Europeans and Americans and Kelly’s using those images in a more amused and loving way. “What many people remember about him, however, is the way he used derogatory Black imagery that had been historically employed to stereotype African Americans as his brand’s marketing strategy. The designer collected more than 8,000 items of racially charged memorabilia during his career. Images such as Aunt Jemima, golliwogs, and the pick-a-ninny were at the forefront of his brand,” notes the “Designing Our Freedom” writer Rikki Byrd (page 33). Kelly suggests that it is not the image but its reception that is a problem, and that a different attitude or response can transform what the image signifies. Is that a model for interpreting much else that has been negative in the response to African-American being and culture?
Dr. Luckett: I guess I would ask, a model for whom? In terms of black folks interpreting black images as negative, it really depends on what and whose values are guiding their interpretation. The reception is also connected to who is consuming and critiquing the images and with what tools. Kelly is simply talking about re-mixing meanings of images, which black folks do so well, including language. Whenever black people are concerned about images that are put into the world, such as Tyler Perry’s work, I often ask are you more concerned with the image or the reception of the image by other cultures and races. Their answers vary, but many times they are concerned with white people consuming images and re-mixed images of blacks and black culture that uphold and strengthen negative stereotypes. I think the image can be a problem, but not always, because many images of black people that are perceived as negative by some whites and sadly some blacks are actually just a part of our being, i.e. beautiful kinky hair and dark skin. So again, I think you have to identify which audience(s) you are privileging when discussing the re-mixing of images and their reception.
Garrett: What are the strengths and weaknesses of mediums such as radio, television, and the internet and the forms or programs they endow?
Dr. Luckett: Radio asks people to listen in ways that other mediums do not. There is just a voice, so it also asks you to construct an image of the person you are listening to, sometimes. Television and the internet are great for disseminating information to large bodies of people, but that is also the weakness or danger. Often, false or grossly misrepresented information is distributed.
Garrett: What influences society more, civics and education or mass communications and popular culture?
Dr. Luckett: I wish I could say civics and education, but I think mass communications and popular culture is the winner. However, these two choices are not mutually exclusive, as they inform one another.
Garrett: There are many good African-American scholars and critics in different fields, but not many of them have become known to the general public. Why do you think that is?
Dr. Luckett: Because scholars often talk to each other. Even the ones that feel they are “public-facing.” This talking to each other, however, is very important because the job of a scholar can be very lonely. They can’t see each other often. So, publishing in journals and presenting at conferences are ways to converse. I also think there is an issue of access here, i.e., some scholars are not writing to a lay audience. But there are those like Melissa Harris-Perry and Cornel West who do have a strong presence with the general public.
Garrett: What are your hopes for current electoral politics?
Dr. Luckett: Yo, what is really going on? I do appreciate the fact that the big band-aid was pulled off for the Americans who thought we had made significance process.
Garrett: Do you believe in transcendence?
Dr. Luckett: Oh, absolutely.
Garrett: The Kongo cosmogram is signified by a circle, a circle of life—universe, earth, seasons, a lifetime; acknowledging cycles, changes, crossroads, and communities. Nettrice Gaskins sees the symbol in African-American spiritual and aesthetic practices—in Savannah’s First African Baptist church, breakdancing, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Houston Conwill’s visual art installation Rivers, Basquiat’s paintings, Xenobia Bailey’s crocheted mandalas and more. What will make this African philosophical content more accessible to the general public and to African-Americans in particular? Could comparative studies between and among philosophies or fields help? What is the responsibility of educators, or critics?
Dr. Luckett: It would be helpful if more libraries carried scholarly titles, but also, I think scholars should converse more with secondary education teachers. These two groups do not speak to each other often. A strong connection between the public school system and higher education could possibly forge positive exchanges of information for public consumption. And it might also help scholars to stay “grounded” in what is happening and what is of importance in the “real world.” I think this easily happens with ethnographic work that studies the public in some way, but it could stand to happen more in many other fields.
Garrett: Often conservatives are seen as concerned with the foundation and fundamentals of society, and liberals with freedoms and possibilities, the things that are seen as built on foundations and fundamentals. How do you see conservatism and liberalism?
Dr. Luckett: Conservatives are people who are conservative and know it. Liberals are people who are conservative and don’t know it. Lol. I’m just saying, where is the change? If liberals existed en masse I think we would see more positive change, quickly.
Garrett: Are you concerned with climate change?
Dr. Luckett: Yes. We must do better.
Garrett: What are your hopes for the future?
That love for all prevails. That all of the folks whom I have “mothered” will live in a better world than me.
“Let’s not sit inside our sorrows, let’s not describe things to death,” said poet, essayist, teacher, and organizer June Jordan to filmmaker Pratibha Parmar in “Other Kinds of Dreams” (1989), when discussing politics in Britain and America, before going on to say, “The first part of the political process is to recognize that there is a political problem and then to find people who agree with you. But the last part of the process which is to get rid of it is necessary and something too many of us forget. I am not interested in struggle. I am interested in victory. Let’s get rid of the problems, let’s not just sit around and talk about it and hold each other’s hands” in the conversation collected in We’re On: A June Jordan Reader, an invigorating book that pays tribute to her diverse, multivalent work, edited by Christoph Keller and Jan Heller Levi, published in 2017 by Alice James Books (page 256). The Reader contains some of Jordan’s poetry, essays, fiction, plays, memoir and more; and shows how June Jordan went from doubting the connection between the formal learning offered by universities and the daily needs of ordinary people, to seeing how such institutions might be transformed, responsive, vital to answering those needs. Jordan, passionate, principled, and among the wittiest of warriors, illustrates that before transforming the world, we must begin transforming ourselves. Her example is one of the foundation stones of a different world. The same might be said of the work of Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, Regina King, and other noted artists, writers, thinkers, and activists—and of Sharell Luckett and her colleagues.
Article submitted June 4, 2020 and posted as a stand alone on January 24, 2021.