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Mission accomplished?
Black Power! looks back and ahead
Black Power! Six Short Plays from the ’60s
By Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, Ben Caldwell, and Douglas Turner Ward. Directed by Vincent Ernest Siders. Set and costumes by Akiba Abaka. Lighting by Matt Breton. Sound by Andy Colbert. With Akiba Abaka, Born Bi-Kim, Paulo Bronco, Marisa Coleman, Sharon Leckie, Keith Mascoll, Luis Negron, Karimah Saida Moreland, and Vincent Ernest Siders. Presented by Up You Mighty Race Performing Arts Company with New African Company at the Boston Center for the Arts through May 8.

When Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, Ben Caldwell, and Douglas Turner Ward, playwrights featured in Black Power! Six Short Plays from the ’60s, were writing, the country was mired in an unjustified war, the murder of civil-rights leaders had triggered a more militant advocacy of armed self-defense, and revolutionaries were restless. These and other factors spawned the Black Arts Movement, which scholar Larry Neal defined as the "aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept." The artists who sculpted the ideologies of black æsthetics demanded separation from a racist establishment and asserted pride in the beauty of blackness.

You might think that plays written in reaction to the injustices of three and a half decades ago would be classified as period pieces, especially given that the movement used theater as a forum for civic engagement and social activism. But once again, the US is in a military morass, and once again — or maybe "still" is the right word — the government’s policies are jeopardizing personal freedoms. Up You Mighty Race Performing Arts Company, which is in its third year of existence, has chosen an opportune moment to collaborate with New African Company, which was founded in 1968, to cull six short works created as vehicles to move people to action in the 1960s. These shows might serve as an object lesson to contemporary black playwrights, who tend to sidestep meaty provocation when dealing with racial issues and instead dish out watered-down gruel.

Witness Caldwell’s Mission Accomplished, an examination of colonialism and Westerners’ attempts to discredit native institutions. Although it’s set in the 1800s, with a Bible-toting minister approaching a tribal king and guard and bellowing, "I bring the word of God to this savage wilderness!", it evokes the missionary zeal and the ulterior motives surrounding our current-day "delivery" of freedom and democracy to Iraq. With the help of a hapless translator (Luis Negron), the king (Marisa Coleman) and the priest (Paulo Bronco) engage in a clash of wills. Each holds fast to his own religious dogma until the final ironic swipe.

Top Secret or a Few Million After B.C., another provocative piece by Caldwell, finds the president’s cabinet deliberating over how to control the national threat caused by the population boom of blacks in the country, or as they put it, "the Nigger problem." Their solution: government-sponsored birth control, which they’ll present as just another way to be more like white people. As the cabinet members run through a catalogue of problems they have with black people, like uncivilized lasciviousness, Born Bi-Kim’s diabolical Army general advocates that the government "bomb them all!" and Keith Mascoll’s Air Force general is absorbed in juvenile fooling around with toy military figurines.

Although these pieces were not written or intended to be presented as a collective, the company weaves them together by using Vincent Ernest Siders as a storyteller character who glides into the audience to offer poetic prologues and historical context. His hypnotic intonations remind us that these writers were the harbingers of the hip-hop movement. Anything with a pulse is, of course, subject to irregular rhythms, and this show does sputter at points. The six actors display versatility as they flow from one intense role to the next, but the show’s finale, the sole work by Obie Award winner Baraka, is executed with overwrought intensity. Baptism examines the hypocrisy of a Baptist church when it comes to homosexuals who want to serve God. This play may be short, but given what’s currently going down in Christian churches, its implications reach a long way.

Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 2004
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