– Somak Mukherjee
It is almost unanimously acknowledged among scholars and critics that modern American Theater’s association with the Afro-American experience (especially after the Second World War) is intrinsically linked with the representation of the Black identity and its crises and inspirations in American public discourse. However, as we enter into the more contentious zone of investigating the nature of that representation, it becomes a zone riddled with conflicting ideas. Perhaps there are fewer disputes regarding its imprecise nature. Scholars like Michael Pickering have dealt with these imprecise representations in Stereotyping: The Politics of Representation, while noting how the process can create an illusion of order through social dissemination. Both the texts we chose for our performance at JUSAS Annual Spring Seminar in February 2013 acted as counterpoints to this illusion of order and precision.That does not mean that they thrive on disorder and chaos; far from it. Rather, they allow all alternative forms of order to emerge, based on a unique sense of rhythm. Our objects of investigation were Ntozake Shange’s highly successful choreo-poem turned stage play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (which successfully embodies this sense and flow of Rhythm within its narrative, a flow that is coterminous with the signal to rebellion and empowerment) and Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic 1959 work A Raisin in the Sun. By performing significant passages from both of these texts in our performance, we highlighted the themes of rhythm, abandonment, suffering and alienation in the formation of a whole new reconstruction of Afro-American identity. The modest aim of this presentation was, more specifically, to firmly put forward the motion that while Afro-American theater does proudly represent the “other” in relation to the establishment, it has never been “out of place” as the mainstream theater in America often tries to label it and push it to the corner.
About the Performance texts
A Raisin in the Sun
Loraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun (title taken from Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem or A Dream Deferred”) stormed into Broadway in 1959, becoming the first play written by a Black woman to do so. The story is of a poor black family living in the South side of Chicago in the late 1950s. Walter Younger, a poor chauffeur with high aspirations lives in an impoverished and claustrophobic environment with his loving wife Ruth (who works as a domestic help), mother Lena, spirited sister Beneatha (who is studying to be a doctor) and son Travis. Walter’s hope rises when he is informed that his mother will soon receive a large sum of insurance money. The money does come, but it only makes the situation worse. The family faces unforeseen challenges that affects all of its members. Highly successful, both critically and commercially, A Raisin in the Sun changed American theater forever. It still remains a highly relevant text about the universality of the triumph of human spirit and the particularity of Afro-American experience. Hansberry’s powerful exploration of suffering, alienation and abandonment transcends borders and redefines the Black aesthetic. We chose six relevant passages from the play, keeping both the theme of transnationalism in American culture and the narrative continuity of the text in mind. Our performance was conventional yet minimalistic. We tried to focus on the aspects as mentioned above in the portrayal of the characters but also on how the usage of non standard English creates a unique rhythmic flow in the narrative.
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf
Ntozake Shange’s series of poems (a choreopoem, as some call it) was turned into a play in 1976 and was nominated for a Tony award. Different colours used in the play display harmony between divergent notes. Thus the mournful yet spirited tone convey an idea of rhythmic uniformity carrying the universality of human suffering. We used three passages from the choreopoem, which were juxtaposed with the passages from A Raisin in the Sun, to make our performance integrated and symmetrical.
Performers in the presentation were: Rupsa Nath, Sinjita Basu, Arkaprabha Chakraborty, Shrutakirti Dutta and Somak Mukherjee, all students of Jadavpur University Department of English.
We chose nine sequences from the two plays, the opening sequence was a recital of Langston Hughes’ poem “ A Dream Deferred,” which inspired the title of Hansberry’s play. The lyrical and non-linear nature of the narrative of For Colored Girls ensured more flexibility for us in choosing the sequences but with regard to A Raisin in the Sun we decided to keep the narrative continuity and went along with the progress of the text as is. The sequences of the two plays were interspersed in the performance. We performed the sequence featuring the first domestic confrontation between Walter, a man of dreams and aspirations, and Ruth, his contented wife, oscillating between phases of pragmatism and plain indifference.
In the next sequence featuring Walter, Beneatha and Ruth. We introduced our audience to free-spirited Beneatha, Walter’s sister and a living embodiment of the turbulent early years of the Civil Rights Movement. The objective was to particularly underline how a clash of ideologies and values between Walter and Beneatha seems inevitable. The sequence that followed featured Mama and Ruth and was thematically much more subdued in tone. We deliberately Juxtaposed this scene with the rape sequence from Shange’s text, keeping the common thread of psychological violence that run through both the sequences in mind, ending the scene with Ruth’s collapse. Our next scene marked a pivotal moment in the play as the family was shown facing more previously unforeseen challenges in response to Ruth’s pregnancy and Walter’s complete obliviousness about the situation. At this critical stage, we incorporated the abortion scene from Shange’s text, utilizing it as an appropriate connecting thread.
The next longish sequence in the performance featured Beneatha and Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian exchange student. The scene corresponded well to the broader transnational theme of the seminar. Beneatha and Asagai talk about suffering, despair and renewal in this scene, about the peculiar ordeal of being in exile and being at home simultaneously at any given moment. The final sequence from A Raisin in the Sun was the arrival at moment of truth for the family, a moment of both reconciliation and reclamation. Our Performance here carefully tried to preserve the febrile intensity of the occasion, especially highlighted in Walter’s final speech. We had also previously included a sequence of the same intensity and heightened exuberance from For Colored Girls, in the form of the choreo sequence “I used to live in the world,” a recital of celebration and mourning.
Our performance concluded with the dramatic recital of another celebrated Langston Hughes poem “I too Sing America”, with the declaration: “ Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed /I, too, am America.”
The performance and the critical aspects we tried to focus on was warmly appreciated by the highly learned members of the audience, prompting encouraging response and further discussions. We are especially grateful to Professor Indrani Halder and Abhisek Sarkar, Assistant Professor, Jadavpur University, along with the Executive Committee members of JUSAS for generously supporting us in our endeavor.