Absurdism: African-American Style — Absurdism: African-American Style , Henry Miller — AAPEX

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Absurdism: African-American Style

Absurdism: African-American Style
It is always difficult, perhaps even culturally imperialist, to define black or African-American art, including theatre and drama, in essentially European terms. And the absurdist movement in the theatre, as the famed theatre critic Martin Esslin identified it almost a half century ago is, on the surface at least, European. In many historical ways this 1950s movement can be understood as a natural reaction to the centuries-old rigid and rule-ridden domination of European thinking by the Catholic Church since the middle-ages and by neoclassicism in the arts since the 16th century. After all, as we are nowadays pleased to forget, this age-old system of European hide-bound rules and regulations down to World Wars One and Two had, in fact, presided over almost a millennia of religious and political wars that make Osama Bin Laden and his so-called Islamic terroists look like school yard neophytes in the business of killing innocent people in absurdly large numbers. Given this history, it is quite natural then that a group of sensitive, mid 20th century European artists would feel it necessary to finally engage the fundamental aburdity of life as they and their ancestors had experienced it for centuries--a life that had long been hidden behind the pomp, ceremony, and the much-praised continued progress of European society.

However, African American absurdism--again, if such a term can be used and if it is not merely mimicking someone else's history and culture--comes from its own much older existential source of a cosmic duality, experienced in its most contemporary and concrete form as American racism. That the cosmos is a precarious place, apparently composed of inexplicably bound opposites or contradictions, life and death, good and evil, etc., appears to our merely mortal minds as the height of absurdity. Yet, this notion of duality is taken up in the world's oldest extant drama, ancient Egypt's Abydos Passion Play (1868BC), performed, or more accurately celebrated, at least 1300 years before the rise of classical Greek drama, and also taken up in Nigerian performances depicting the Orisha god Eshu whose face is half a frown and half a smile, an emblem of the seemingly absurd duality of human existence. The African American music forms, the Blues, Spirituals, and Jazz are also all emblematic of the kind of duality that has opposites so closely related that they lead us to the almost liminal space of the absurd. The Blues, performed properly, is both funny and sad, and a traditional New Orleans, black American funeral uses music to rejoice at death just as the ancient Egyptians rejoiced annually at the descent of the god Osiris down into the world of the dead.

Accepting, laughing at, and even celebrating the seemingly absurd contradictions of human existence is a staple of traditional African and African American culture and it is, at least up until now, one way, consciously or unconsciously, that black Americans have, for the most part, maintained their humanity and survived all the absurdities that arise from being both a descendant of Africa and an American at the same time, of being a human being and a piece of property at the same time, of living in a police state and a democracy at the same time, of fighting for your country in every war from the American Revolutionary war down to the Iraq war and still not quite becoming a full American cititzen at the same time.

In THAT WORD, as in the Blues, I encourage laughter at the absurd and sad truth that the black American theatre has always needed people outside of black culture to validate its value. It's sort of like the absurdity of a group of Japanese theatre-goers waiting patiently for me to arrive in Tokyo to give them the last word on Kabuki theatre. And, more importantly, I am encouraging the audience to laugh at what is the ultimate sad absurdity in this short play, which is that so many black Americans seem to accept only their historical oppressors' pejorative meaning for the word "nigger." The historically non-pejorative usages of the word within the framework of their own traditional cultural history has no import for them. "That's cool," "It's the death," "That's really bad, my man," "You, my nigga," "It's the bomb" are all emblematic of that traditional ancient African and Asian cosmos in which good and bad as we percieve them are inextricably bound and therefore sometimes interchangeable. An ancient Japanese proverb wisely reminds us of this relationship and its interchangeable nature: "For surely good must come from evil. For even the lily springs from the slime of the pond."

But the ancient origins and philosophical sublties of what is commonly (and often pejoratively) called "Black English" are apparently unknown to these contemporary black folks. All they know is that Massa Jeff said it was a bad word, used it as a bad word, so it must be a bad word, and this, of course, empowers not them but their oppressors yet again, and this time in the 21st century! This situation is so sad and fraught with so much politically correct ideology and with so little attention to human behavior and psychology that I think it is at present beyond rational argument. Only laughter has a chance of having us take a fresh look at this issue.

Henry Miller,

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