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Interview by Amiri Baraka with Sandra G. Shannon
SOURCE: "Amiri Baraka on Directing," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 425-33.
In the following interview, Baraka discusses his work as a director and his views on directing.
Amiri Baraks is an artist of the 1960s' political scene still hard at work in the 1980s. Playwright, poet, political activist, Marxist, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist have all been used to label him, yet a less controversial label is often ignored—director. Most noted for his plays Dutchman and The Stave, Baraka has done some of his own directing and collaborated with directors such as Gilbert Moses, Jerry Benjamin, Jim Malette, Kdward Parone, Ernie McClintock, Irving Vincent, and Leo Garen in staging his Revolutionary Theater of the 1960s' Black Arts and Civil Rights movements.
In a recent interview at his office at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he is Director of Africana Studies, Baraka discussed several of his 1960s' plays from a director's perspective. Undoubtedly, he has been both impressed and skeptical about how his works have fared in the hands of other directors. What follows is a revelation of Baraka's own vision as director.
[Shannon:] The questions that I'd like to ask you today are specifically oriented toward directing. My first question is this: I see that you have directed several of your own sixties' plays. What motivated you to want to direct your own works?
[Baraka:] Well, because directing was something that I hadn't done, but I always had a great appreciation for directing. Also, I thought that I could give the work an added kind of accuracy in terms of the interpretation. I like to direct actually. Directing is more work than people might think.
Does directing, for you, involve everything—such as teaching the actors how to convey a particular point in your works, incorporating music …?
Well, I think that first it has to do with helping the actors understand the play and to understand the characters because I think that if they don't understand what the play is about and what all of the characters are about … in particular, they've got to have some insight into their own characters. But they've got to know the whole play. They've got to know all the relationships, the history of the characters. Like a life situation, they have to know it like that and be in tune with it.
How is the fact that they know the play portrayed in the way they act? How can you tell they know the play?
Well, because their motivations ring true. What they do seems real or justifiable or legitimized in some kind of way. They have to understand the play, and I think too often you see people just sort of sleepwalking through a play or going through these kinds of formal blocking moves stage left and downstage right, and you don't see any acting going on. You see mostly people being placed on different parts of the stage.
So you're saying that a certain amount of what they portray comes from within?
Yeah. There has to be an understanding. To me, it's like a piece of music. You can't play it if you don't understand it. Or if you can't read the notes and it's a written piece of music, you're in trouble. I think you have to know the composer's intentions, what feelings the composer was trying to transmit. The same thing with the play—you have to know what the playwright was trying to say.
What directors have you worked with?
Well, I've liked quite a few people's directing, but the director that I've liked best has been Gil Moses, who did Slave Ship. To me, he's one of the most intelligent and innovative directors that I've known. But I've had some other good directors. At the Black Arts, we had a guy named Jim Campbell—very good director. He's now a principal of an elementary school.
What do you think makes a good director?
Understanding the play and being able to put that in dramatic terms—to transpose it from literary terms to dramatic terms, which sometimes calls for things that the playwright has not seen that are obvious from the interpretation.
Do directors consult you? Do you feel it necessary that they consult you, or do you just leave them alone?
I usually leave them alone, but I think good directors always want to know what the playwright thinks, even if they don't agree with him. There are a lot of good directors around now, for example, the guy who's directing this play of mine at NYU named George Ferrinks. He's a white director. He's a good director. He's Hungarian. He understands texts, and he can improvise. Glenda Dickerson, a black woman who is out here with us at Stony Brook, is an excellent director.
What makes your job as a director easier?
Well, what makes it easier is if you have all of the resources to translate a play from literature into drama and into theater without a hassle. And the principal of those resources is actors—people who are intelligent. You've got some who are intelligent; you've got some who are sort of mediocre; and you've got some whom you shouldn't get stuck with under any circumstances.
To what extent do you get involved in the music which becomes part of the play?
See, music has ideas in it. People think that it's only if they hear lyrics that ideas are being communicated. That's not true. There are ideas in the music—what the composer wants to say, what he feels, what kind of emotional parallel music conjures up. There are all kinds of ideas and thoughts and feelings, of course, in music. And so the music, to me, is an added dramatic dimension—as narrator, as actor. Music, to me, is as much alive as the actors. It has as much importance.
So the concept, then, that you tried to get from the use of Sun Ra or, say, Albert Ayler was a certain disorderliness, unpredictability, anti-establishment feeling?
With Sun Ra, I wanted the feeling of some kind of otherworldly wisdom or dimension, which changes sometimes to fear, terror, contemplation of the laboratory, contemplation of what wisdom and knowledge really are. With Ayler, it was the kind of power and force that he has which is so striking when you hear him live. I've used him when I've wanted improvisation added to the text; in other words, let the musician look at the play and improvise. I've done that a few times. But I think that's interesting because the play is as much a generator of emotions as any other kind of thing. And if you have a musician improvising off the emotions he gets from the play, then it creates a kind of improvised life of the play at the same time that you have a kind of stated life of the play.
How do you deal with such production limitations as space and budget?
Well, you just have to do other things. You have to do things that don't require space, and you have to do things that are cheap. That's been my story all of my life—all of my theatrical life. There were a couple of times I thought I was going to have some money. We were supposed to do a jazz opera in the Paris opera and the Berlin opera, and the Americans got to the French to cancel it. They were going to spend a million and a half francs on it.
Oh really! What did the Americans say?
They said it was an anti-American play.
Your 1960s' plays leave much room for the creative director—for example, Black Mass. I listened to the album. I read the play. But I cannot understand how the beast is portrayed on stage. Do you settle for a facsimile of the hideous creature, or do you expect some other rigid interpretation?
How is it interpreted on the stage? I guess you could say that it is up to the imagination of the director. But what we did was take grease paint and paint all over the guy, and we had a red mask, which was turned into a tail like a dinosaur's tail. That was Ben Caldwell's design. I thought that it was something with room for improvisation.
In The Slave, what stage props did you suggest to depict the surrounding race wars and the ultimate bombing of Easley's home?
The sound was going on throughout the play.
Was that an album or a sound track?
It was taped. Largely war sounds—shots, bombs—and, near the end of the play, it gets closer and closer and closer, and then there is the very final scene where they're up close with near hits, near misses, and direct hits. Then we actually had to use the kind of explosion techniques that you use in theater: smudge pots, a soft ceiling with plaster up in it that you could release, a blackout, turning chairs and stuff over, pulling down false walls—simple stage techniques. It was gradually a kind of closing in of war sounds.
Did you ever use colors to capture a particular effect? To what extent were colors involved? For example, if you would like to portray fire, did you just splatter orange and red?
You mean real fire and burning?
Well, again, we used different kinds of pots and things for fire—things that can actually burn. And sometimes to get a fire effect, we used lights. But we usually used pots that were turned on, usually electrically. The stage manager or the lighting person would handle that. It was a simple process, although those kinds of things can be dangerous.
In Experimental Death Unit #1, your stage notes call for "a white man's head still dripping blood." Can you explain how this was translated to the stage?
There was a friend of mine, a white painter, who made an exact facsimile of the actor's head out of papier-mâché, and it was so life-like that it actually created a kind of sensation. A guy named Dominique Capobianco molded papier-mâché face masks. He's an artist at Rutgers. He made papier-mâché heads that were exactly like the actors'. We had a special kind of dramatic effect that we used wherein the actors who were supposed to be beheaded would twist their heads down in their chests and pull up some kind of jackets we had. And they would fall so they were upstage and you couldn't see their heads, and then the guy who was cutting them off would look like he'd cut one off and he had the head already inside his coat. When he'd cut like that, you couldn't see the head struck and then he'd go down and his body would cover the dead man's body and he'd take the head out from under his coat and then come up with the head.
Well, theater people think of these things. When you get theater people and you've got a project, you discuss it. That's why set designers, prop people, lighting people—these people are key to directors. No theater production is a one-person operation. That's absurd. Some of the technical aspects of these things I wouldn't begin to be able to put together. I could just say, "I think it should be like this," and that would be the way it was done. You've got people who know the theater. That's why, in really doing heavyweight theater, you've got to have some skilled people with you to really bring it off.
I can imagine Slave Ship called for a lot of ingenuity.
Yeah. That's why I say Gil Moses, to me,… I directed Slave Ship first in Newark at the Spirit House, and that was like … I mean we had on-and-off lights: "Click, click." It was nothing but the first floor of a house that I had torn the walls of down. We had almost nothing at all to work with. But when Gil took it on and when he used his imagination and the kind of technical resources that were available to us at the Brooklyn Academy, which were quite a bit, we were really able to do something good.
In 1967 you directed Great Goodness of Life: A Coon Show at the Spirit House in Newark. Can you recall how you portrayed Attorney Brack? "A bald-headed smiling house slave in a wrinkled dirty tuxedo crawls across the stage; he has a wire attached to his back leading off-stage. A huge key in the side of his head. We hear the motors 'animating,' his body groaning like tremendous weights. He grins, and slobbers, turning his head slowly from side to side. He grins. He makes little quivering noises."
Well, we were pretty faithful to that. Actually, we had … who played that? L. Earl Jay played that, I think, when we did it in New York. Are you talking about the wires and the big key in his head and stuff like that? Well, we made a hat like a hairpiece or something like that. Anyway, it sat up on his head and had a big key in it that whirled around—the key actually whirled around. It sort of fit over his head like a strap on top of his head. In other words, the key was the cap, and he put the cap on and then the key was attached to it on one side. It was like a rod coming down, off the cap and then the key stuck out of the rod. In the rod was the kind of mechanism that turned the key. And it was a key that you actually did wind up, and it was spring-loaded so that when you wound it up—when the attorney pushed the starter that he had on—it actually would turn: "Ch-ch-ch." It would look like the little toy soldiers or little robots that you see for kids.
Returning to your means of adapting to various limitations, at any time did your street plays Arm Yourself, Or Harm Yourself and Police encounter obstacles because of uncertain conditions due to temporary settings?
Yeah. Real police came into this loft where we were rehearsing. They had told us something about we weren't supposed to read poetry down in the cellar in Newark. There was some controversy around that, but, in those days, the Newark police were the worst on the planet. That was one of the reasons that we were so quick to get a black mayor. That was the only kind of respite that we got from the Negroes that had been running the city. They did cool out the police, and they couldn't have stayed in there if they hadn't because the people had demonstrated in 1967 what they would do. Police ran up in my rehearsal and actually took a script out of my hand. We were rehearsing and police came in there. That's the kind of harassment outside in the street. We had to do plays, and we were never quite sure how we would be greeted by the powers that be—the police, etc. One time we did Junkies Are Full of Shhh … and a woman started beating the junky—started beating the dope pusher like she thought it was really happening. She started whipping Yusef Iman's butt. We had to pull her off him. She was going to beat him up. I guess her child had gotten involved in drugs. It's always uncertain outside.
Several prominent actors showed up in your early plays. Can you talk about the contributions of, say, Barbara Teer or Al Freeman?
Well, Barbara did Experimental Death Unit #1, and as it turned out, the guy who was directing it first was a nut. I mean, he was absolutely a maniac and he and Barbara got to talking and he slapped her.
You're talking about Tom Hackensack?
Right. He slapped her face, and then I had to take over the direction. I thought she did a very very good job myself. That was one of the plays that I directed both downtown and up at the Black Arts. I think it came off all right. We did it at this benefit down at the Saint Mark's Theater, and we had the resources and stuff. I thought it was a good experience. There were a lot of things I learned directing then. Now, interestingly enough, Barbara—when we first started working—said there was no such thing as Black Theater. She said theater was theater. We used to stand out there and argue—she and this guy named McBeth, who later got to be head of the Lafayette. They were both opposed to the concept of Black Theater. They said it didn't exist. They said it was just theater. Later on, it is interesting that they came to understand the fact that there is such a thing as Black Theater and that they have gotten a great deal of success in Black Theater. Barbara is a good actress and a very capable director.
I don't know what she is doing now with the National Black Theater. But that was something that we called for in the 1968 Black Power Conference—a National Black Theater. The Negro Ensemble is the Negro Ensemble. But we need a theater that can encompass, coast to coast, the best actors, the best directors, the best playwrights, the best set designers, the best musicians who would tour the country and play to our people all over the country. That's what we need definitely.
I noticed that your wife was a member of the cast of Black Mass. To what extent has she helped in shaping and developing your 1960s' plays?
Well, my wife certainly has a great deal of influence on me—I guess just like everybody else's wife or husband has on them. We had just met some months before that. I was making a movie which never got seen by anybody except the FBI. They have records of this movie that we made and the images in it, and nobody has ever seen it. It's fantastic.
Did they confiscate it?
No. They were just watching when we made it. We didn't know it, but when I got the Freedom of Information Act papers, they had listed it in there. They saw us shooting out in the yard, and I had nooses hanging off the trees and people in KKK costumes marching. We had met not long before the time of Black Mass, and I think that it was subsequent to Black Mass that we began to see each other. But she has been a very strong influence upon me in terms of … you know, a lot of times you bounce concepts off people whether you know it or not. People do shape your concepts. In a lot of my earlier plays, the black woman is not dealt with well at all. And I think that she has been very very forceful in terms of trying to make me understand that, which I hope I have understood, and just generally in terms of helping me to give some weighty attention to black people's real problems rather than the problems of one sector of the black middle class, which, I think, is another one of my tendencies—to make my problems everybody's problems or my own kinds of concepts sort of automatically all black people's. So, I think she's helped clarify—to the extent that it can be called clarified—that thing. It's a continuing influence obviously. We work together. She was in the Spirit House Movers when it first began. Then the organization that we put together got in the way of that, and she wasn't in the Movers later on. Now we are working together with this group called Blue Ark that we have. We do poetry and we work usually with three musicians, and she's a part of that and hopefully we are going to do some more dramatic work together.
How were the changes in your ideology—that is, from nationalist to Marxist—reflected on stage?
I had a big falling out with the woman who played Lula when I directed Dutchman in Newark when I first came back to Newark in 1966. This white woman—I can't think of her name—she said something that I didn't like, and I said, "Well, you know. I don't even like white people. I don't even know why I'm standing here arguing with you." That kind of stupid stuff. Certainly, during my post-nationalist phase, I would not be involved in some kind of crazy stuff like that. I mean, when you just crack people over the head because you get angry with them, and then you take them out the worst way you can. I don't think I would do that. It was the nationalism certainly that fueled that kind of approach. I guess people can tell you stories about that. I used to do a lot of that.
I think the most important change has been in terms of the content of the plays—the line, the political line, the ideological line that comes out of the plays. I think that is the real critical change—from plays that pretty much focus on kicking white folks' asses and getting them off ours to trying to find a way to bring in the more complex reality that we live, which obviously is full of white supremacy, racism, and exploitation, with black people being on the bottom of the heap. But I think that what that is really is what I try to talk about: how it got to be the way that it is, and, I guess, what we can do about it—and that we can survive it.
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