Volume IX, Number 1, Spring 2013

"“Moon Marked and Touched By Sun:” Re-inventing ‘Woman Words’ in Plays by African American Women" by Sukla Basu (Sen)

Sukla Basu (Sen) is a professor of English at the Department of English and Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati, India. She teaches British and American Literature and also drama by Indian English writers. Her published papers cover the English Renaissance, African American Literature, and Indian English Writing. She has supervised doctoral research on African American dramatists and at present is supervising research on African American short story and slave narratives. She also directs plays in the department and is actively translating poems in English to Bangla. email: sukla1951@gmail.com

The title of my paper goes back to the lines from Audre Lorde’s “A Woman Speaks:”

Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind…

from which Sydne Mahoné appropriates the first line for naming her anthology of contemporary women playwrights of African American origin. I will, in the following, reappropriate it to show how language, content and dramaturgy create a new critique of gender-race relations in women’s writing in America.

Historically speaking, African American women dramatists have been making a mark since the late nineteenth century. However, fin de siècle playwriting by Black women has just been able to hook it self to the margins of mainstream American theatre. But it is has identified itself as a site of resistance to “racial and gender oppression, silence, despair and invisibility” and effort is still on to weave the fractured narrative of black culture into the grand narrative of Anglo Saxon hegemonic referentials, effecting therefore at least one portion of the quilt-making function that signifies black artistic goals.

Enslavement, emancipation, Jim Crow laws, segregation, whole-sale migration, civil rights agitations, inner-city restrictive culture, unemployment, general economic frigidity and tentative assays at power-snatching have produced the better known faces of African American identity—The Negro Renaissance, the Harlem renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, the Feminist Movement and also the Colin Powells and Condoleeza Rices, Oprah Winfreys, Whoopee Goldbergs and Halle Berries. But a black woman, who traditionally occupies the lowest rungs of the race-gender power structure in American society has had to infiltrate the ranks of white males, white females, black males and males of other colours in order to siphon off attention in her favour, to face her black man, her peers, her white sisters and the white male supremo in order to create her own universe, her own space in socio-cultural activities.

Anna Julia Cooper speaking to us from the 1890s creates for me the ultimate parameters for women’s writing drama or other genres “only the BLACK WOMAN can say, “when and where I enter in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me” (635).

I will use as an introduction to the continuum of African American woman’s playwriting a longish excerpt from Thulani Davis’ interview to Mahone on her play The Life & Times of Malcolm X. This introduction emphasizes that

[T]raditionally, black male writers in the culture have developed a kind of public voice. Women developed a private voice…Some of the young black male writers, particularly some of the gay male writers, have learned a lot from women writers and have incorporated some of their colors and strands and voices into the work that’s being done now… I think after Lorraine Hansberry, black women took notes from Baraka and people like that who were changing structure and form…Because we’re habitually writing about people in crisis, women writers coming into the theatre struggle to create forms that can respond to that – whether its Barbara Ann Teer doing ritual or its Ntozake Shange abandoning traditional form and trying to just get to voicing the crisis.
(Mahone 90)

Ricardo Khan’s Crossroads Theatre Company in Brunswick, New Jersey and the New Federal Theatre, NY, headed by Woodie King Jr. have consistently premiered new plays by black women. A milestone production of for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (1975) by Ntozake Shange at the New Federal Theatre has signified important breakthroughs in the ethnically specific theatres.

Two African American women producers — Barbara Ann Teer, founder and chief executive of the National Black Theatre in Harlem and Abeena Joan Brown, president/producer of the Eta Creative Arts Foundation in Chicago— represent black women directors who do not have a publicly proclaimed programme for black women playwrights. However, their attainment of sufficiency celebrates the living legacy of African-American culture and hope for steady entrepreneurship is kept alive. Valiant efforts by black women to form their own companies, for example, “Chameleon” in Chicago,“Black Women in Theatre” in New York and the “Women’s Company at Crossroads” have however not yet succeeded in creating a viable, sustainable work space that is primarily devoted to black women theatre artists. Perhaps there is a relationship between women in power and women in the theatre which has yet to work out in favour of women playwrights bringing into focus contemporary concerns about homophobia, criminality, military services, abortion, paedophilia, and substance abuse.

In the history of African American woman’s drama, perhaps the most unrecognizably feminine voice is that of Lorraine Hansberry. Her wide acceptability to a color blind audience, awards from white patriarchy and gradual inclusion in the canon might be cited as proof of what Amiri Baraka had once accused her of— assimilationism. Her commitments to social commentary, but not to agitprop, led Hansberry to employ what she called “genuine” realism as distinguished from naturalism. A Raisin in the Sun, debuting at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1959, went on to win the New York Drama Critics Circle award ‘beating out’ Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth and O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet. This brought out differences within black academia, critics suggesting that her vision and expectations as a dramatist were shaped by whites and especially white males, which constitute the elite world of Broadway theatre critics, and the white theatre going public.

But along with Alice Childress, who was the first black woman to win the Obie award for best play with Trouble in Mind in 1956, Hansberry changed the course of theatrical history by introducing the black experience as subject matter worthy of dramatic treatment and mainstream attention. Her unfinished plays on Mary Wollstonecraft , Les Blancs and the Drinking Gourd published after her death by Jewell Gresham Nemiroff do not reveal the radical feminist vision found in early planning notes for her play and unpublished essays as “Simone de Beauvoir” … These and the fact that she was coming out as a lesbian and had, in several letters to The Ladder, an early lesbian publication, analyzed the political connections between homophobia and anti-feminism has renewed interest in her plays as being seminal to anti-sexist and revolutionary plays by later woman writers.

That a feminine sisterhood is not enough, that race is overpowering, that empowerment has to cut across class and gender— was brought into public focus even before Childress or Hansberry by Beah Richards, who was primarily an actor. In A Black Woman Speaks (1950) Beah creates drama out of the history of her race and her life as a woman performer without performing opportunities, deprived of suitable texts, forced to become solo performers creating theatre from non-dramatic sources. In the tradition of Sojourner Truth and Grimke Richards, she addresses white women, seeking to forge an alliance with white women against white patriarchy which wants to make black and white women sever their gender bonds and become enemies. She says:

What then is this superior thing
that in order to be sustained must needs feed upon my flesh?
How came this horror to be?
Let’s look to history.

They said, the white supremacist said
that you were better than me,
that your fair brow should never know the sweat of slavery.
They lied.
White womanhood too is enslaved,
the difference is degree.

They brought me here in chains.
They brought you here willing slaves to man.
You, shiploads of women each filled with hope
that she might win with ruby lip and saucy curl
and bright and flashing eye
him to wife who had the largest tender.
(Beah in Wilkerson 35)

If Childress had shown the difficulty of working in the man’s theatre, offering a feminist critique of the theatre as an institution, illustrating its rigidity, class consciousness, racism and sexism, then Adrienne Kennedy’s “characters represent the community of women, largely excluded from the political mechanisms of black protest, who are none the less expected to sacrifice gender issues for racial concerns,” Sally Burke claims (163). In The Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) Sarah, the tragic mulatto, kills herself because she is not white. However, as Burke notes, Sarah’s death, announced from the outset by the noose, “becomes a call for the creation of new spaces, for the accommodation of new identities beyond the prison of white patriarchy’s binaries” (194). In The Alexander Plays, Kennedy continued her “auto biography” by writing She Talks to Beethoven, The Film Club, The Dramatic Circle, and The Ohio State Murders. Kennedy’s plays have been called minefields. Moreover, she herself said that “my plays are meant to be states of mind.” And indeed, African and European iconography fills her plays while linear time gives way to psychological time. As Sidney Mahone says, “a multi-layered often fractured time/ space reality hosts the recurrent themes of a black woman struggling through the crisis of identity” (xxiv). It is a pity that her plays have not yet found a comfortable home in African American Theatre while academia has granted her canonical status by including her writing in university syllabi.

It is in plays such as the above-mentioned ones, as well as the poetic playlines of Ntozake Shange, that a special language evolves under the pressure of giving expression to the woman’s experience complicated by issues of race and class. This is the term of “womanword.” Only a metamorphosis of dramatic parlance, a unique coining of new and startling expressions, an often unfinished stark, ungrammatical use of the syntax can describe only what the “moon marked and touched by sun” women feel and think and when they speak they explode. Shange shook the theatre world in 1979 when her choreo poem for colored girls moved to Broadway and “[T]he power of her poetry voiced the silent rage and pain of black women unparalleled complexity, poignancy, dignity and beauty.” (Mahone xxv). This gave the African American woman new words to invoke for strength. for colored girls was a landmark event in black theater, polarizing black men and women. It reclaimed black theatre’s role as a catalyst for social change. Mainstream theatergoers have loved this play and it is still continuing to be performed all over the world. For example, the Jadavpur University’s English Department (situated in Kolkata, West Bengal, India) recently produced the play under the direction of Professor Ananda Lal, one of the latest and best productions in India. Professor Ananda Lal of produced this choreo poem in the round, redistributing the dialogue of the five girls among two male characters whom he inducted in the play structure (thereby opening up the play to a multi-gendered approach). The production fascinated not only an elite, urban audience but was popular with suburban, rural audiences, unfamiliar with the complexities of American multiculturalism.

In Shange’s Spell#7 , the contradictory limitations and potential of black life are emphasized in the three wishes the magician offers “scarlet ribbons for yr hair/ a farm in mississipi/ someone to love you madly/ all things are possible bt ain’t no colored magician in his right mind gonna make you white” (Wilkerson 45). The tone of this play is not all bitter, some of it is sweet. The magician in this play claims he is “fixing you up good colored and you gonna be colored all your life & you gonna love it/ being colored/ all yr. life/ colored 7 love it love it/ been colored.” This is to counter point ‘the universally unloved black woman’ who is the theme of a very powerful scene, which parodies the intention of men throughout the world to take advantage of the black woman’s low standing. As the play ends, the minstrel mask looming large over the characters, through out, descends, an effective reminder of the African American’s continuing invisibility in white America.

Away from naturalism, dramatists like Aishah Rahman weave their highly imaginative flight into new dimensions of style. Her aesthetics is a self-confessed “Jazz” one, which creates a dynamic synthesis of a number of genres, including allegory, force, satire, and myth and which may be said to be reinvention of the miracle play. This is most so in the Mojo and the Sayso where blood mysteries resonate throughout the subtext while the text is interwoven with the harmonic/ dissonant poetics of Christian doctrine , as Mahone writes, “in collision with African-derived vodoun, the wisdom of jazz and the passion of political militancy ” (xxvi). Rahman’s Unfinished Women cry in No. Man’s Land is regarded as an underground classic. “It reaches beyond statistics and sociological theories to find the un-articulated, half understood longings of teenage mothers.” (Wilkerson 197). The play focuses on the unfinished nature of the girls’ lives who are un-wed mothers, who while giving birth, connect only to music, here the music of Charlie Parker, the Bird who dies in the boudoir of a prostitute.

Kennedy, Shange, and Rahman have been partially accepted in the mainstream and their presence in the academy has influenced the birth of a new generation of playwrights who undoubtedly gained inspiration from the existence of African American female models. Of these, Suzan Lori-Parks uses words in such magical combinations in The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1990) to unravel the essential tension of the human experience that bewilderment and appreciation is the twinned response of the spectators. As Mahone writes, “her search for the key to identity takes us on a vicarious journey through an acrobatic use of language. The rhythm of syntax is used to upset the systems of thought that mangle and murder the human spirit. Rummaging among the ruins of words and history, she sparks race memory and prods the imagination to transcend the boundaries of language that define us solely in terms of race history” (xxvii).

Western codes of dramaturgy posit action over words in the theatre with an encoded belief that characters are known by what they do rather than what they say. In black women’s plays the word takes centre stage. The act of speaking and the precise words spoken are the keys that unlock the mystery of the characters and break down narrow, restricting limits of behavioral expectations clamped upon artistic expressions by people who think they can order art to be functional. Here, language is the liberator. In the America of today there are various crises facing all women of all races. About five women lose their lives in domestic violence, murdered by men they are intimate with. More women end up in hospitals because they have been raped and battered by men than women needing treatment for cancer and heart attacks. American blacks are victims of drugs, violence and AIDS-related illness. One in four black children are born to black teenaged mothers. One quarter of all black families live below the poverty line. Forty-three percent of the women in federal prisons are African-American. The black woman’s median income is still below that of black men and of white women and men.

African American women playwrights are in the thick of it all. Their plays are turning the tide and it may be hoped that as they continue to uncode the heretofore “conspiracy of silence,” the theatre and the arts will recognize in them the leaders of an engaging, committed, resuscitating, reinventing, reimagining sisterhood, who re-evolve the art form for the transformation of human consciousness.


Works cited

  • Burke, Sally (1997) American Feminist Playwrights: A Critical History. New York: University of Rhode Island Twayne Publishers.
  • Elam, Harry J, and Robert Alexander, eds. Colored Contradictions: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Plays. New York: Plume, 1996.
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Nellie Y. McKay, eds.  (1997) The Norton Anthology of African American Literature.  New York: W.W. Norton. 
  • Mahone, Sydne, ed. (1994) Moon Marked and touched By Sun: Plays by African-American women. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
  • Wilkerson, Margaret B, ed. (1986) 9 plays by Black Women. New York: New American Sibrary.