Editor: Deirdre Osborne
Publisher: Oberon Books
ISBN: 978-1-84002-843-0 ; 978-1-84943-148-4
Vol. I 288pp & Vol II 428pp
£14.99 (per volume)
The title of Deirdre Osborne’s two-volume collection of plays and monodramas gives a strong indicator as to her editorial intent: a collection of work that challenges the pigeon-holing of Black British drama into a single genre within British theatre. Published in 2008 and 2012 respectively, the two volumes cover twelve pieces in a diverse range of styles, genres and settings. The stories often branch out from Britain to depict events in Jamaica, New Zealand, The Gambia and, at one point, even Antarctica. This is not a collection for those who want to engage with a uniform cultural ‘experience’; its strength lies in its ability to surprise the reader with a new idea; a voice that cuts through theatrical convention and makes its audience sit up and take note.
Osborne does however ask her reader to consider the plays from the wider perspective of Black representation in the arts. She claims in her introduction to the first volume that Black British playwrights can often struggle to communicate an unadulterated message through an institution that is still disproportionally assessed by a “closed shop” of white critics, and too often influenced by funding bodies with a narrow idea of what Black drama entails, leading to theatres importing African-American plays to represent an apparently universal Black experience. It is no accident that the first play in the collection is Courttia Newland’s B is for Black, which explores the pitfalls of hypocrisy and tokenism in arts funding bodies. Brown Girl in the Ring, Something Dark, and 35 Cents do not feature such self-aware commentary, but they do explore the tensions between established institutions (whether they are the British monarchy, the foster care system or a repressive, U.S.-backed government) and individual struggles for self-realisation. 35 Cents’ butterfly-like rapid scene changes aside, the variation in style gives the reader a chance to explore this central theme in a fuller way than if the plays were seen or read in isolation.
It seems slightly misleading to include well-known playwrights like Newland and Kwame Kwei-Armah in a collection that is supposed to shine a light on ‘hidden’ treasures. But reading through the second volume, it becomes apparent that Osborne is perhaps more interested in highlighting hidden themes rather than hidden authors. Whilst the first volume charts the struggle for recognition for these playwrights within mainstream theatre, the critical material in the 2012 volume identifies the danger of Black British writers being constrained to the very narrow established genre of “gritty” realist urban dramas. Osborne is particularly scathing of the “dead male centre stage” motif; she tells us that the second volume should be considered an alternative to “the media-driven, (over-determined) link between the young black male body and public violence and most specifically, gang affiliation, drug offences and knife crime”. (Vol. II: pp. 263, 14)
Kwei-Armah’s A Bitter Herb and Paul Anthony Morris’s Identity both portray a stable family life that is disrupted by, respectively, a Stephen Lawrence-like murder and revelations about the elder generation’s role in the suppressed Grenadian revolution. These influences result in bitter family conflicts, but also end with scenes of reconciliation, providing a broadly positive message and giving melodrama a wide berth. Newland provides the best play of the collection in The Far Side, which brilliantly subverts the ‘dead male’ theme by having the ghost of a murdered black teenager observe the Kafkaesque trial of his killer; a transposition of violence and chaos from the black male body to society’s reaction in the aftermath. Similarly, Urban Afro Saxons unites a diverse segment of society through circumstance in a derelict playground, where the sense of a forged community contrasts with the stereotypical faceless ‘hoodies’ who wander across the stage in between scenes.
Hidden Gems gives voice to theatrical forms outside the mainstream, particularly monodrama. This focus on the single actor is found in four of the twelve plays, ranging from Lemn Sissay’s conversational autobiography Something Dark to immigrant storytelling (Absolution) and much more experimental anti-realist pieces such as Moj of the Antarctic and Brown Girl in the Ring, which make use of extravagant costumes, gender-switching and sudden character changes to highlight the difficulty of determining identity. There is a sense while reading the latter two pieces that something is lost in the transition from theatre to print, a problem that is even more explicit in SuAndi’s The Libretto of Mary Seacole, which feels a bit like reading lyrics from an album sleeve when it is stripped of the intricacies of its reggae-influenced score. It is a reminder that experimental theatre is often difficult to reproduce as a reading experience, but had Osborne left these works out of her collection, she would perhaps be guilty of reinforcing the restrictive limits of Black British drama that she seeks to debunk.
Overall, the wide thematic and stylistic range of Hidden Gems works in its favour, as it contains high-quality works to suit any taste but it also retains the ability to provide the unexpected. To those who are not well versed in Black British theatrical writing this is an excellent introduction; to those who are, the questions its critical commentaries raise about the commercial and artistic future of this kind of writing make it well worth exploring.
The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941-1945)
Suzanne Césaire; ed. by Daniel Maximin; trans. by Keith L. Walker
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
The Great Camouflage is a collection of seven essays written by Suzanne Césaire for Tropiques, the literary review journal that she co-founded in 1941 with her husband Aimé and other intellectuals from Martinique. Despite the dangers of writing politically under the Caribbean arm of the Vichy regime, Césaire publically explores the relationship between cultural and political self-determination and the flaws of the colonial system. For the first time these texts are available in a single-volume English translation, together with an impassioned introduction by the editor Daniel Maximin.
Césaire’s topics vary widely: from Leo Frobenius and André Breton to general essays on Martinican civilization. All of these topics are brought together by her hatred of oppression and (as the subtitle suggests) the necessity of dissent. The ‘malaise’ of imitation she identifies in Antillean society can be countered culturally with surrealism – a movement that represented intellectual liberation to Césaire; the ability to ‘know ourselves finally by ourselves’. Art and culture is never a distraction from the realities of colonial oppression; quite the opposite. She credits it with keeping alive the concepts of freedom and liberation in people’s minds and creating a rallying point for national dissent.
As well as the seven essays, the book includes texts by Césaire’s contemporaries in the Négritude movement: an insight into the culture that she both drew from and contributed to. We get a touching picture of the author’s personal effect on the lives of others with a short collection of love poems from her husband, and one from her daughter, Ina Césaire. Though relatively unimportant compared to the content from Tropiques, it is a reminder of the author’s living legacy that reaches into the politics and post-colonial arguments of the twenty-first century.
The translator describes Césaire as ‘an exceptional individual who neither spoke nor wrote like anything else’; the constructor of ‘a dissident lyricism’. Despite the obvious difficulty of translating such a voice into another language without destroying its unique character and inferences, he does an excellent job. The prose is a combination of lyrical suggestion and disarming clarity of meaning. Her cry of ‘Contradiction! Fundamental contradiction!’ in her scathing criticism of Émile Chartier displays a vibrancy and passion rarely found in academic writing. Most importantly, he (Walker) preserves her ability to sum up a whole argument into a beautiful yet pithy conclusion, such as ‘Surrealism, tightrope of our hope’, or ‘This land, ours, can only be what we want it to be’.
At only 67 pages The Great Camouflage is a slim volume, but its brevity is wholly justified by its depth: these are essays that deserve to be returned to again and again. New subtleties reveal themselves on each revisit. For anyone remotely interested in the interplay of art and political action, Césaire’s writing is nothing short of essential.
Review by: Nick Edgeworth
Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall and the Struggle to End Segregation
By Rawn James, Jr.
New York, Berlin, and London: Bloomsbury Press, 2010
ISBN: 978 1 59691 606 7
Reviewer: Kevin Etienne-Cummings
Anyone interested in teaching or reading about the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) in the U.S. should include this text in their reading list. For a legal history, this readable text by Rawn James, Jr., a lawyer of ten years, makes one of the most tedious aspects of the Civil Right’s struggle a manageable and inspirational read. The text highlights the legal battles behind much of the CRM and the friendship that formed between two of its important figures: Charles Hamilton Houston and his mentee, Thurgood Marshall. In that sense, their friendship provides a lens through which many academics can appreciate how far academia has changed. Houston’s and Marshall’s friendship was originally a student-mentor relationship.
It is perhaps an instance of reading history backwards that Marshall is remembered as the principal figure who ended U.S. segregation. As James recounts, even Marshall was aware that as long as he and Houston were working on a case, Houston was perhaps the brains and counsel behind Marshall. While Marshall was clearly an important figure – a tenacious character in James’ recounting – James helps us put him in context: He had a great mentor and teacher in Houston, who eventually became his friend.
James seems aware that some of the legal history may be tedious for the non-legal reader, and so has arranged the book into several short chapters. But with that said, the chapter on social engineering is too important to be so short. Additionally, readers could have benefited from an enlargement of the context by knowing the ideological battles that Houston and Marshall had to deal with. For Houston and Marshall were dealing with two battles: One of the body, by ending segregation, but also one of the mind, in how they conceptualised the law and how their conceptualisation of the law might have run counter to many judges and jurists. What was the popular understanding of the law, at the time, for Houston’s generation to be aware that racial victories must be made with intent to change the country? With that said, perhaps this text helps us understand the high numbers of black students going to law school today and complicates our understanding of what it means to belong to a generation. If the book is faulty in anyway, it is that James clearly admires his research subjects. Although he has reason to; Houston’s resolution and work ethic made Howard University the accredited university it is today, and thereby helped the education of thousands of black men and women. But such important historical work is unfortunately often lost in the ennui of paperwork. However, James’s style, combined with his own knowledge of the law, is priceless in his explication of the legal machinations behind much of Hamilton’s and Marshall’s work for the laymen.