Though B. has written fiction, poetry, and essays, he is best known as a playwright. As a playwright, he has been described as prolific, influential, and talented. He was an important presence in the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the U.S.
B. grew up in a rough neighborhood in Philadelphia and admittedly lived the life of a street person. He served in the navy from 1952 to 1955 and in 1958 moved to California. In 1961, while a part-time student at Los Angeles City College, he started writing seriously. Several years later in San Francisco, he began writing plays because he believed that this form was the most effective for communicating with black people. Influenced by the early plays of LeRoi Jones (now Amiri BARAKA), B. nevertheless developed his own style and voice. In his plays, he writes about the black experience, but embraces what he calls a “theater of reality.”
In California, B. was one of the organizers of a militant cultural-political group called Black House, which included some future leaders of the Black Panther Party. For a brief time, B. was the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party. He split with Black House because of a conflict in ideology. The artists in the group believed that art should lead to cultural awakening, whereas the revolutionaries believed in coalition with white radicals and thought that art should inspire people to militant action.
In 1967, B. joined the New Lafayette Theater, a black theater located in the Harlem section of New York City. This move proved to be important, for it was in New York that his plays became known nationally and internationally. In 1968, the New Lafayette Theater produced three one-act plays by B.: A Son, Come Home; The Electronic Nigger; and Clara's Ole Man—published in 1969 with Goin’ a Buffalo and In the Wine Time. As a result, B. won the Vernon Rice Drama Desk Award for that year. In the same year, this theater premiered B.'s In the Wine Time, a full-length work. This play is a part of his “20th-c. cycle,” which concerns the lives of a group of African Americans. Because of B.'s interest in common or ordinary folk, in his cycle of plays, he focuses on some of these people—their lifestyles and strategies for survival and happiness as they see them. Some of the characters reappear, and the plays seem to be episodes in a single text. In addition to In the Wine Time, the completed plays in this planned twenty full-length play cycle are The Duplex (1970); In New England Winter (1971), which received an Obie Award; The Fabulous Miss Marie (1971), which also was awarded an Obie; and two unpublished works, Home Boy (perf. 1976) and Daddy! (perf. 1977).
In the Wine Time, the first play in the Cycle, begins with a lyrical prologue, really Ray's short story, symbolic in nature, which tells of his almost silent love affair one summer with a mysterious young woman whom he saw each day on the Avenue. On the last day of his wine time on Derby Street, she came to tell him of her love and her going away. When he is ready, she tells him, he can come to find her. “But where?” Ray asks. She responds—"Out in the world." When he is ready to leave this place, she will be waiting. All he needs to do is search.
The major characters in the play are black, and the principals are Cliff Dawson, a failed U.S. Navy sailor, who philosophizes as he drinks cheap wine; Lou, his wife; and Ray, their nearly sixteen-year-old nephew. The action takes place on a sultry August evening in the early 1950s on Derby Street, for the most part, a short side street of a large Northern American industrial city. The Avenue and other places on Derby Street are viewed from the Dawson's front stoop. A radio blares, simultaneous monologues take place, and verbal games such as the dozens are played, the language often crude.
In the Wine Time, a slice-of-life drama, one that uses a naturalistic motif, depicts the weariness of some of the lives of black ghetto dwellers, but also depicts their dreams and hopes for a better world. Lou's father had accepted his lowly place; Cliff will not, but the future—the changes that will be meaningful—rests in the hands of Ray and his contemporaries. Through a noble act, Cliff, Ray's mentor, makes it possible for his young nephew to live so that he can forge a better world. During a night of drinking and fun, violence erupts. A filthy trick played on Ray by a friend who has stolen Ray's girlfriend leads to a fight in which the friend is killed. The violence occurs offstage. Cliff accepts the responsibility for the murder so that Ray can continue his quest for manhood.
Along with his plays of the black experience, B. also wrote black revolutionary plays. As Leslie Sanders points out, B. usually differed from other black artists in the writing of these plays. Sanders relates that B.'s “plays depicting revolution were objects of concern in themselves, and typically his plays examine the implications of both revolutionary rhetoric and physical violence.” For example, in Dialect Determinism (1965), B. criticizes the black revolutionary movement, particularly the political opportunist and the empty rhetoric. In Death List (1970), Black-woman unsuccessfully tries to persuade Blackman not to kill the sixty blacks who signed a New York Times statement in support of Israel. Each person on the death list has been designated an “Enemy of the Black People.”
The author of numerous plays, B. has used many styles, including realism, naturalism, surrealism, satire, farce and absurdist and other avant-garde techniques. In addition to plays employing a more traditional form or variations on this form, he has written black rituals, street-theater plays, and agitprop dramas.
Overall, B. has been praised by theater critics, although some are not at ease with the structure of his plays. In 1982, Genevieve Fabre wrote that B. along with Amiri Baraka was perhaps the most important African American dramatist of the last twenty years. She adds that no other “playwright better demonstrates how drama can alternate between political commitment and ethnic expression free from the constraints of ideology.” As such, B. remains one of America's finest playwrights.
Bibliography Fabre, G., Drumbeats, Masks, and Metaphor: Contemporary Afro-American Theater (1983) Hay, S. A., African American Theater: A Historical and Critical Analysis (1994) Sanders, L. C., The Development of Black Theater in America: From Shadows to Selves (1983)
Jeanne-Marie A. Miller
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