Jaz Dorsey on Aesthetic Tension: Who do we think we are? — Dr. Henry Miller , Jaz Dorsey , Johnnie Blue Gardner , Mike Oatman , Nathan Ross Freeman — AAPEX

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Jaz Dorsey on Aesthetic Tension: Who do we think we are?

I'm reading a pretty cool book - FROM STAGE TO SCREEN by A.Nicholas Vardac.

I was glad to find it because there once was a very strong connection between the stage and the screen and Professor Vardac is telling me all about it. But beyond the designated subject matter, I like the way this dude writes and what he has to say about the nature of art in it's greatest sense. Take, for instance, the opening line of the introduction:

"Art in any of it's many forms cannot be considered in terms of static manifestation."

Tell that to Mona Lisa - she may be the one exception to that truth: she's pretty static and has been for centuries. But it is true - art advances with the molecular frenzy of mitosis in a warm petri dish.

A couple of pages later, Professor Vardac throws out a phrase that really rocked my world and instantly opened my eyes to the underlying facts. That phrase is "aesthetic tension."

The aesthetic tension that Vardac identifies is that of the 19th century, which comes down to this formula:

Romanticism + Realism x Industrialism. Industrialism forced realism on artists and the romantics retaliated. The manifestation here, at least in the theatre, was a kind of necessary demand on set designers to create spectacles of reality that soon exceeded the stage, which in turn catapulted the whole shebang into the eye of the camera. Cinema was born - but it was born out of theatre and that theatre was reflecting an aesthetic tension which compelled the men who were inventing "film" to rush in as fast as they could invent celluloid.

So that was then - and now, suddenly just over 100 years later, we have all the technology we could ever possibly need (not that more isn't coming). We've gone from making films on celluloid to making films with cell phones - but what is our "aesthetic tension"? In particular, what is the aesthetic tension of America USA in the middle of the year 2012?

The question really fascinates me because I have spent the last 5 years on a pilgrimage of aesthetic tension which started when I - a very Caucasian Southern white boy - got a wild hair and started The African American Playwrights Exchange. Two days after the "founding email" went out, 30 writers had joined the network. I have spent the last 5 years reading plays by these American writers that go back to the 70s. I have dialogued with over 250 writers and read more scripts than any sane person would allow themselves to read - and believe me, I can tell you a few things about aesthetic tension in our country today.

It's still about suppressing valuable art because we can't free ourselves from the spell of racial profiling.

If I could pick one play from the many that I have read which exemplifies what I am getting at, it would be THE CHITTLIN THIEF by Mike Oatman, resident playwright at Karamu House in Cleveland, Ohio.

In his play, Oatman postulates a protagonist who is African American and American upper class. Dude works for a marketing firm and the firm has acquired a new client who happens to be a gangsta rapper. The firm's owner just assumes that our hero, being Negro, is the appropriate staff member to rep the rapper. The scene between the exec and the artist is one of the most hysterical observations on who we think we are ever written.

On the same page with THE CHITTLIN THIEF is Nathan Ross Freeman's award winning play HANNAH ELIAS, which was commissioned by Nathan's friend and colleague, Johnnie Blue Gardner - an amazing collaboration that has resulted in a masterpiece.

Why has Hannah's story not been told - by which I mean, why has Nathan's play not been produced. Is it because it's a "black" story? (It's not - Hannah was 1/2 American Indian - but we're still living in a "one drop" mentality.)

reviews for us the absurd struggle of the African American dramatist as it manifested - but definitely not statically - in the dialectic between propaganda and art. That's aesthetic tension.

Let's face it folks - America is still afraid of Negros.

And that's aesthetic tension.

Can we live with it?

Come to Nashville and Go to the Theatre!

Jaz Dorsey
The African American Playwritghts Exchange
Nashville, Tennessee

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