The Time is Now
Executive Editor’s Notes
In Memoriam: Paul K. Bryant-Jackson (1951-2018)
It’s been five years since Continuum was launched under the direction of Freda Scott Giles as its founding managing editor. In the inaugural issue, which was published in June 2014, Paul K. Bryant-Jackson, the journal’s editor-in-chief expressed his hope that “Over time Continuum, as an electronic archive, will continue to evolve in both content and form from its inception.”
As part of a team of editors comprised of this country’s most prominent African American theatre scholars, Bryant-Jackson helped produce eight issues of Continuum. He remained committed to the journal even as his health began to deteriorate and provided invaluable advice to me and Denise Hart as we stepped into our respective roles as the new executive and managing editors. Continuing a tradition of scholarly excellence that was set by our predecessors, Continuum’s new editorial team, including Melda Beaty, performance review editor and Sharrell Luckett, book review editor, is pleased to announce the publication of Issue 5.1, which we dedicate with gratitude to the memory of Professor Paul K. Bryant-Jackson.
We also express our gratitude to Sandra Shannon, an internationally acclaimed expert on the playwright August Wilson and a founding editor of Continuum, for allowing us to publish the keynote address she presented at the Black Theatre Network’s 2018 national conference. Her title, ‘The Challenge is in the Moment; The Time is Always Now for Black Theatre!,’ echoes James Baldwin’s call to action in the last lines of his essay, “Faulkner and Desegregation,” in Nobody Knows My Name. Baldwin was speaking about William Faulkner and others like him who believed that the south needed time to adjust to the new social order that desegregation would bring when he wrote, “But the time Faulkner asks for does not exist—and he is not the only Southerner who knows it.
There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.” Baldwin’s is one of several “rallying cries” Sandra Shannon includes in her own appeal for a new revolutionary black theatre, one that will speak to the challenges we face in the twenty-first century and move average citizens away from indifference and passivity toward social engagement. Invoking the playwrights LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Alice Childress, Lynn Nottage and August Wilson, among others, Shannon argues that more than ever we need a Black Theatre that “will lead the charge in exemplifying what it means to be good citizens and what goes into their making.” As she shows through her discussion of some of August Wilson’s principle characters, good citizens are not always heroic; some of them are quite flawed. What they have in common is genuine good will and a desire to affect meaningful change in themselves and the fictive worlds they inhabit.
Shannon ends her essay with quotes from the Black Theatre Network’s founding president Ethel-Pitts Walker, who reminds us that the theatre lovers of the past struggled mightily so we as an organization could survive, and Amiri Baraka’s urgent call in his poem “SOS” for all black people to “come on in.”
LaDonna Forsgren directs her challenge to black theatre artists in “Performing Black Womanhood: A Dramaturg’s Guide to Voyeurs de Venus” to dramaturgs working on what arguably is Lydia Diamond’s most demanding play. Speaking directly to her readers, she writes, “My aim is to guide your thematic interpretation of the play, inspire you to challenge audiences to consider their own participation in the objectification of black women, and embolden you to address the broader need to produce more works by black women dramatists.” Forsgren brilliantly brings theory and practice together in this essay by leading us step by step into the work of the dramaturg. This essay will be particularly beneficial to students, playwrights, and actors who lack understanding and appreciation for the role dramaturges play on the production team.
However, Voyeurs de Venus is such a historically layered text that it’s hard to resist the tendency to start by researching the life of the play’s central historical figure Saartjie Baartman. Forsgren’s advice to dramaturges is that historical research needs to come later, as they begin working with the design team to “realize Diamond’s black feminist intervention.” Drawing on her own experiences as a dramaturg, Forsgren lays out best practices for dramaturges, for example, “composing careful notes about characters, themes,” etc., “cultivating the art of listening,” and “formulating open questions” that will be as useful for teaching Voyeurs de Venus, especially to undergraduates, as they are for directors, actors, and producers.
In the section titled “historiography,” Forsgren provides the historical background for the play before moving on to a close reading of the text. Throughout her analysis of the play, she encourages her readers to consider the ethical questions Diamond raises within the play through her character Sara, who has been hired by a prestigious publishing company to write a biography of Saartjie Baartman. Of crucial importance for Forsgren--and for Lydia Diamond—is the extent to which the exploitation of Saartjie Baartman continues long after her death. Diamond resolved this problem by the way she ends her play. For Forsgren, the onus is on dramaturgs and other theatre professionals to ensure that what Lydia Diamond and other black women create for the stage is not coopted for the sake of marketability but remains true to their dramatic intentions and interventions.>
An important step in that direction is by encouraging and nurturing a new generation of theatre scholars and practitioners. As the official publication of the Black Theatre Network, Continuum shares the organization’s commitment to mentoring young scholars. Each year BTN holds the S. Randolph Edmonds Young Scholars competition. Undergraduate and graduate students are invited to submit their work to the competition’s review panel. Award recipients are then invited to present their work at the annual conference. They also are invited to submit their revised essays for consideration for publication in Continuum. Although we did not receive a submission from the 2018 Young Scholars award recipient, we’re pleased to publish an essay by the 2017 awardee, Deanna-Lauryn Patrick.
Patrick’s essay, “Gender Differentiation in Black Theatre,” looks at the way gender roles are constructed in plays by Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, Pearl Cleage and Harrison David Rivers. Beginning with Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Wilson’s Fences, Patrick argues that these plays can be read as “case studies of traditional gender roles,” whereas the female protagonists in Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky and Rivers’ When Last We Flew “fall outside of gender norms.” Patrick supports her argument in this carefully researched essay by situating her readings of the plays within the critical discourses of intersectionality. She suggests that the issues they raise about familial relationships within the black community, black women’s agency and choices, and possibilities for black women and men to redefine their gender roles can best be understood through a reevaluation of the ways we understand intersectionality and gender differences. As she shows in her discussion of Delia in Blues for an Alabama Sky and Natalie in When Last We Flew, understanding and accepting those differences lead to personal growth and liberation, not only for black women but for black men as well.
I would be greatly amiss if I ended my editor’s notes without acknowledging the loss of two of Black Theatre’s great warrior “citizens,” Ntozake Shange (1948-2018), and John O’Neal (1940-2019). Shange’s play, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, helped open the way for the exciting work by black women playwrights we can now see on mainstages throughout this country.
As a co-founder of the Free Southern Theatre and later Junebug Productions in New Orleans, O’Neal exemplified what it means to be a socially engaged theatre artist. To these great Citizens, we say Thank You and bid them a heartfelt farewell.Sandra Adell, Executive Editor