Essay: “Swirling and Connecting Since the 1960s”

In honor of Duat, FEED has commissioned the writer, playwright and actor Robbie McCauley to write an essay about her experience in the 1960s downtown avante-garde black theatre – a genre which Daniel Alexander Jones and Duat are deeply embraceful. Having been friendly with Daniel for quite some time, McCauley puts his work into a particular context; one that is deeply personal and important for both artists. In the below essay entitled “Swirling and Connecting Since the 60’s”, McCauley meets Jones and Jones meets the spirits of his black avante-garde antecedents via Robbie.

We’ve hyper-linked the many references Robbie alludes to below so feel free to click away to learn more. Enjoy!



Swirling and Connecting Since the 60’s

By Robbie McCauley

Looking back I barely wonder about becoming known as a writer, teacher, performance artist and director. My sources, though, go way back. Adrienne Kennedy’s familiar images of African Americans fed me as an actor, but also forced me to start scribbling about my own family. The women – and some of the men (though they were primarily military) – were teachers and nurses. My working middle class black family expected me to be the same. Teaching and public service were expected. We were typical people – not stereotypical dysfunctional images of blacks that emerged as part of the systemic white backlash to civil rights progress.

Adrienne Kennedy
Adrienne Kennedy

I have often referred to my luck at choosing to come to New York City in 1965 with a talent for acting, ambition, a college education, and a yen to change myself in the midst of the bigger social, political and cultural changes going on in the world. Of course being an African American woman sharpened my awareness and my sense of these changes.  The Black Arts Movement, experimental theatre, and Off-Off Broadway were particularly accessible because my intent was to start anywhere I could.

Nowadays I observe how often I have met younger generations of theatre people who want the answer to “How did you become you?”  With all due respect, I wish the question was, “How do I become me?”

Daniel Alexander Jones I met as a young person at the National Black Theatre Festival the summer of 1993. He gave a glowing smile and called out the names of myself and Laurie Carlos, one of this country’s most innovative theatre creators, with whom I was gratefully working on our performance duet, Persimmon Peel.  I asked him who he was, and he told us who we were. He knew our work. Charmed, we eventually became good friends who often worked together and more often checked in with each other on the ways of the world.

Laurie Carlos, third from left, in White Chocolate for My Father
Laurie Carlos, third from left, in White Chocolate for My Father

What I learned from Laurie Carlos is how theatre is based in body time.

The first place I worked in New York was Judson Church in a piece that now would be called an installation. I remember standing inside a piece of art and making sounds with some text. The piece was called Mandala. The word referred to a symbol from Buddhism related to a person’s search for contact with the cosmos. I didn’t feel smart enough to know what the hell the director, the artist, and the people milling around were talking about, but sensed a connection to the work of acting. A director I’d known from my college days at Howard University, Michael Whittaker, saw the piece, and cast me in a play at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club (ETC). Ellen Stewart, an African American woman from Louisiana, an astounding theatre visionary, had established La Mama as a place for playwrights to put on their work with actors and directors. At that time it was located in a loft on 2nd Avenue, but had started in a one-room basement on 9th Street. Director Marshall Mason, while developing work there with playwright Lanford Wilson, invited me to take a role in a version of Wilson’s The Sandcastle, which was first presented at the legendary Caffé Cino on Cornelia Street, where I loved playing close to the audience. Meanwhile, I auditioned for the Negro Ensemble Company and was accepted to its Apprentice Company led by Lloyd Richards, director of the 1959 Broadway premiere of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.  There I met Laurie Carlos. There, too, I studied how to teach with the illustrious Voice Production expert and theatre educator, Kristin Linklater.

Ellen Stewart at La Mama
Ellen Stewart at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club

Starting to teach at New York University in 1969, I learned that to teach is to learn and to teach is to teach how to learn, and that acting itself is like teaching, that the voice is breath inside and outside and that articulation according to Linklater is “clear thinking.”

Soon after, I auditioned at The Public Theater for Joseph Papp; it was an Adrienne Kennedy play. This started a long-term alliance with her work. Most favorable was the opportunity to work with playwrights on new plays, and to work with innovative directors. Notable for me was working with two distinguished African American theatre men – director Gilbert Moses on Ed Bullins’ The Taking of Miss Janie; and with director Joseph Chaikin on Adrienne Kennedy’s A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, which remains the highest light of my acting career. Chaikin was founder of The Open Theatre, an innovative company lauded as a major influence on experimental theatre, and Adrienne Kennedy is regarded as the first African American woman avant-garde playwright.

So many stories around these fortunate occasions as an actor are seminal to my choice to continue creating work with edge and purpose in theatre. They instigated work grounded in what Chaikin said to me were sources I had to work from. People who knew him can imagine how his speaking so directly moored the word into me. Laurie Carlos worked at theatre from a sense of black classical (aka jazz) music. There are many ways to talk about jazz and theatre. For me it is embedded in the word I took in from Chaikin.  I once heard him say, “Jazz is everything.”

Joseph Chakin's 1972 book, The Presence of the Actor
Joseph Chakin’s 1972 book, The Presence of the Actor

How did I become me?  How might you become you?

The cosmos, the life bigger than your own life is something to pay attention to.  It may be smaller than what is beyond the earth, but larger than your biography. I came to New York, which was way bigger than my neighborhood in Washington, D.C; but smaller than my family story which included my grandfather’s service in the military as a Buffalo Soldier. His story was smaller than the contradictions I felt adopting an anti-war point of view during the Vietnam War, as well as my understanding that as a member of the 10th Cavalry he was a black man whose job was to participate directly in genocidal acts against Native Americans. Inspired by Adrienne Kennedy I began to write about my family, not just biographically, but as a part of the bigger history we were born into. The personal parts of my story are a key to bigger ideas. Eventually as a teacher, I began to use the term personal/bigger to encourage acting students, theatre artists, and teachers to begin finding their own “sources”.  

A regiment of Buffalo Soldiers in the 19th century
A regiment of Buffalo Soldiers in the 19th century

By the 1980’s I had learned and participated more in the unfolding phenomenon, also unveiled in the 60’s, of performance art; an aesthetic generated significantly by women visual artists with feminists overtones. Laurie and I defined performance as theatre extended beyond mainstream processes. Visual artists were animating and personalizing the materials of their art forms. Our material was theatre. By then Ellen Stewart of La Mama had influenced a change in Actor’s Equity, which allowed union members to participate in workshops of new plays. We made work as self–producers, wherein we sculpted our ideas with a variety of artists including poets, choreographers and musicians.

The world around me in the 1960’s was swirling with change. Meeting Daniel Alexander Jones in 1993, I realized that the air is always charged with change. His work delights and surprises me all the time because he persists at widening and deepening explorations of his origins and imagination. I think of Daniel as I contemplate dialogue with young artists who hope for an answer to the imagined question I hear myself asking them: How you might become you is to tune into your talent and the world you were born into. Welcome, and wrangle with, the well-known and unknown material that shows up, and dare to do the work.

—Robbie McCauley

Robbie McCauley is the recent recipient of the IRNE (Independent Reviewers of New England) Award for Solo Performance for her play Sugar, and selected as a 2012 United States Artists Ford Foundation Fellow, has been an active presence in the American avant-garde theatre for several decades. Recently she directed a critically successful Roxbury Repertory Theater (Boston) production of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. She received an OBIE Award and a Bessie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Performance for her play, Sally’s Rape. She is widely anthologized including Extreme ExposureMoon MarkedTouched by Sun, and Performance and Cultural Politics. One of the early cast members of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf on Broadway, Robbie went on to write and perform regularly in cities across the country and abroad. Striving to facilitate dialogues on race between local whites and blacks, she created the Primary Sources series in Mississippi, Boston and Los Angeles produced by The Arts Company. In 1998 her Buffalo Project was highlighted as one of “The 51 (or So) Greatest Avant-Garde Moments” by The Village Voice. Robbie McCauley is Professor Emerita of Emerson College Department of Performing Arts and the 2014 Monan Professor in Theatre Arts at Boston College.

©Robbie McCauley, 2016


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