Secret Messages in African American Theater

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This book is the first anthropological study on the political economy of African American theater and its use in contesting power and oppression through various ‘hidden’ scripts embedded in rituals, rhetorical strategies, and theatrical conventions, including dialogue, stagecraft, lighting, color, design, and spectacle. This ethnography focuses on the pre-production, production, and post-production of plays during the 2000-2001 theater season, with special emphasis on Ntozoke Shange’s world premiere of Sparkle: The Musical (an adaptation of Joel Schumacher’s 1976 hit screenplay of the same title). Productions of African American theater point to the real and concrete ways that classism, sexism and oppression affect and influence contemporary constructions of black identity, life, and culture, and what can be done to countermand them.


“ ... Professor Williams-Witherspoon’s book is the best work written to date on the intricate ways in which the African American experience has contributed to dramatic aesthetics ... She has a unique gift for taking difficult concepts and making them understandable to the masses. This is a wonderful book whose strength is its depth and reach, its writing, and its scholarship. I came away from my reading believing that Professor Williams-Witherspoon has written a brilliant and definitive work on African American dramatic culture. More than any of her contemporaries, she has understood the source, the energy, and the execution of dramatic genius meant to bring social consciousness ...” – (from the Foreword) Professor Molefi Kete Asante, Temple University

“By focusing on a single production of Sparkle: The Musical at Philadelphia’s Freedom Theatre, Dr. Williams-Witherspoon gives us a study of amazing breadth, making this book a major new work in African American theatre. This work is valuable because the author does not just define the challenges of producing African American theatre in the Eurocentric male-dominated field of cultural production in the United States, she explains how these challenges exist due to the unique cultural memory of African Americans ...” – Professor Anthony Hostetter, Temple University

“ ... This book is a profoundly valuable tool for understanding the historical sources and the present realities of African American theatre. It is also an illuminating insight into the broader society and an analysis of the inequities of political and cultural power in the United States ...” – Dr. Michael Woolf, Foundation for International Education

“One of the ways to understand Dr. Williams-Witherspoon’s book is to compare her idea of a double level of meaning in African American works to the subterfuges used by writers working under repressive regimes, notably those living in countries behind the Iron Curtain in past decades ... This book deserves a wide readership because it collects and synthesizes history and methodology in pursuit of understanding the vigor and intellect behind what is often a broadly neglected art form ...” – Professor Robert Hedley, Temple University

Table of Contents

List of Tables
Foreword by Molefi Kete Asante
1. Introduction: The Universality of Theater
2. A History of African American Theater
3. Power Dynamics in African American Theater
4. Puttin’ on a Show
5. Seeing is Believing: An Ethnography
6. Components, Ritual and Theatricality
7. African American Language: Don’t Dis the Dialogue
8. The Church Ritual
9. Making Light of the Dark Side
10. African American Theater and Gender
11. Denouement

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