Amiri Baraka, “Slave Ship”

This Sunday at 2pm, we will read and discuss Amiri Baraka’s (aka LeRoi Jones) one-act play, “Slave Ship.” If you haven’t received a copy via email (or you want to join but aren’t on the list), just leave a comment below.

The play was first produced at the Spirit House theatre in Newark, New Jersey, in 1967, and first published in 1969, by Jihad, Baraka’s own publishing house. It is associated with the politics of Black Nationalism, the aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), and the principals of ”revolutionary theatre” put forth by Baraka through his founding of the Black Repertory Theatre in Harlem in 1965.

Baraka saw revolutionary theatre as a weapon for Black liberation, and intentionally wrote material that would disturb white audiences while encouraging black audiences to rise up. He drew some of his ideas from French surrealist Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty.” Artaud wanted to return theatre to its roots in “primitive” ritual, harnessing the visceral power of the body and voice to transcend mere performance and directly transform the audience. In Baraka’s own words:

“Our theatre will show victims so that their brothers in the audience will be better able to understand that they are the brothers of victims, and that they themselves are victims, if they are blood brothers. And what we show must cause the blood to rush, so that pre-revolutionary temperaments will be bathed in this blood, and it will cause their deepest souls to move, and they find themselves tensed and clenched, even ready to die, at what the soul has been taught. We will scream and cry, murder, run through the streets in agony, if it means some soul will be moved, moved to actual life understanding of what the world is, and what it ought to be. We are preaching virtue and feeling, and a natural sense of the self in the world. All men live in the world, and the world ought to be a place for them to live.”

“Slave Ship” is a play from Baraka’s “agitprop” phase. It is an aggressive, heavily symbolic depiction of life aboard an 18th century Atlantic slave vessel bound for America. It incorporates music, dance, and minimal dialogue to create an experience that’s closer to shamanic ritual than a “traditional” European-style play.

Here’s the first part of a performance recorded on YouTube (for the rest, just follow the link to the main site). I recommend watching it first before we read it on Sunday — reading it will help us think about how it works, but there’s no substitute for an actual performance.

Warning: it can be pretty tough going. Not for the unresolved!

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