I have been reading some African American plays recently:
"Funnyhouse of a Negro" by Adrienne Kennedy
A girl called Sarah is alone in her room with her split personalities: she alternates between Queen Victoria Regina and the Duchess of Hapsburg, both white and aristocratic. Sarah is black and ordinary, she has conflicting thoughts about herself, her race, her father and her kinky hair. It is a spooky journey in Sarah's subconsious, thus it is the furthest thing from an uplifting and funny read one can think of.
It is an experimental play, without a clear plot, where one does not really understand what is going on. It is very disturbing and gloomy, not to mention enigmatic. Nonetheless, it needs to be mentioned that it dates from the 1960s, when African American literature had darker tones. The play is packed with symbolism and oppositions between black and white. The lights on the stage - spots of darkness and spots of light - are unnatural, as Kennedy states in the stage directions. This makes you think of the fact that blackness and whiteness are a construct.
“Topdog/Underdog” by Suzan-Lori Parks
The protagonists of this play, first staged in 2001, are two brothers, Lincoln (topdog) and Booth (underdog). They are called like the famous American President Abraham Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Booth is a 3-card monte hustler, thus he is making money by tricking people, whereas his brother is a president Lincoln impersonator (Lori-Parks got the idea from another of her plays where a black person impersonates Lincoln by wearing a frock and a top hat in the streets and letting people play at shooting him).Jokes are made about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, for example Booth always mentions shooting people if they don’t do as he pleases (‘Anybody not calling me 3-Card gets a bullet’, p.24). The significance of a black person impersonating Abraham Lincoln is made clear by Booth : ‘You aint going back but you going all the way back. Back to way back then when folks was slaves and shit’ (p.27). President Lincoln is in fact remembered for ending slavery via the Civil War and was assassinated by a Confederate supporter, thus you can understand the irony of a black person impersonating Lincoln and getting shot at. Booth also shoplifts, while Lincoln has stopped any illegal activity and has accepted a job where he is aware that he is being paid less than a white person would. Booth is the underdog, while Lincoln is the topdog, who has quitted the underlife. They are brothers who, like Cain and Abel, are destined to kill one another (their names are the result of their father’s idea of a joke), unless...
"For colored girls who considered suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf" by Ntozake Shange
This is a "choreopoem", meaning poetry dressed for the stage where the actors also dance. It is a brilliant idea and I'd love to see the movie it has been made out of it. The characters are seven women who are defined by the colour of their dress (Lady in Green, Lady in Red and so on). They recite poems, but the boundaries between them are not clear-cut. The seven women on stage relate their experiences and musings regarding abortion, domestic violence, AIDS, womanhood and, of course, race. This play, first performed in 1975, was very successful and it was adapted in many countries of the world. It is my favourite of the three plays I am telling you about: some of the poems make you shudder. They are powerful, they have rhythm and life.
Quoting a newspaer article I found on the web: "Shange’s poetry isn’t stylish. It isn’t elegant, and god forbid if it should be structured. That’s establishment, powder-room, sentimental stuff. The beauty of her poetry is in the slap-like, rapid-fire sound of a language liberated from convention in the same way that Shange’s women are liberating themselves from society’s strictures and assumptions in front of your eyes".