By Timothy Aaron – Styles
All rights reserved by author.
There are individuals whose names must inevitably be uttered during discussions, lectures or debates about the theories, techniques and/or processes of Acting. These persons are considered to be the “divine pantheon” of the actor’s craft, art and science. Any dialogue about acting which excludes their names is not only a conversation devoid of authenticity and credibility, but a discourse to be questioned, challenged or even, justifiably, deemed sacrilegious.
Constantine Stanislavski, Vladimir Nemirovich, Maria Ouspenskaya, Eugene Meyerhold, Richard Boleslavsky, Michael Chekhov, Eugene Vakhtangov, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, Harold Clurman, Robert Lewis, Cheryl Crawford, Sonia Moore, Uta Hagen, Jerzy Grotowski and Viola Spolin are all names that have to be manditorily referenced in order to engage in a comprehensive conversation about actors and their craft.
Most legitimately trained actors in the United States have studied, and do study, with some teacher, instructor or coach who is a progenitor of one of these “acting demi-gods” – whether through direct lineage or through ideological descendancy. As a matter of fact, the pedigrees of such influential acting teachers and theorists as Boleslavsky, Meyerhold, Chekhov, Strasberg, Adler, Clurman, Lewis, Crawford, Meisner and Hagen are all either directly traceable to Stanislavski, his theories or to one of his disciples.
Both Stanislavski’s System and Strasberg’s Method are, undoubtedly, the two most influential schools of acting that have impacted or guided most formally and legitimately trained thespians in some shape, form or fashion. Surely these are the two standards by which all other “schools” are judged, measured and/or compared.
Since the early 1800s, African – American actors have successfully utilized these proven methodologies to create theatrical performances in the U.S and abroad. Through the early 20th century, African – American theatrical and acting pioneers such as Sam Lucas, Ira Aldridge, James Hewlett, Charles Gilpin, Bert Williams, George Walker, Rose McClendon, Paul Robeson and Canada Lee have all “borrowed” from their white acting/theatre forebears or role models.
In 1821, The African Grove Theatre (also known as The African Company) was established by William Alexander Brown in New York’s Greenwich Village. Considered to be the first African – American Classical/Shakespearian thespian, James Hewlett was instrumental in the establishment of the company and essential to its brief success. Hewlett’s acting was influenced by the theatrical productions featuring white performers he would view at New York’s renown Park Theatre. His occupation as a ship steward also afforded him trips to Europe and opportunities to witness theatrical productions in England – possibly, France.
Early in his U.S. career, Ira Aldridge worked with the African Grove Theatre and was considered to be, both the second African – American Classical/Shakespearian actor, as well as the first to perform in Europe where he was celebrated for his portrayals of Othello, Macbeth, Shylock and King Lear!
Like Hewlett and Brown, Aldridge was also influenced by the white, and oftimes English, actors who performed at the Park Theatre. Aldridge’s early theatrical education is thought to have come from his observations and analysis of the Park Theatre productions.
In 1858, during a European tour, Aldridge became an associate of the Russian actor and Stanislavski predecessor, Mikhail Schepkin. Aldridge would eventually choose to make Europe his home where he died after some forty-two years of comfortable residency.
Historically and contemporarily, Black actors have been practitioners of acting traditions rooted in the culture and aesthetics of European/white Ontology (“Being”); Epistemology (“Knowing”); Cosmology (“Relationship to the Universe”) and Axiology (“Values”). Most, if not all, African – American actors have received their formal training from teachers, instructors and professors whose knowledge and expertise in the “Actor’s Craft” are traceable back to the “white demi – godic” pantheon.
Over the decades, Black actors have continued to utilize acting methodologies derived from an ethno – cultural ethos neither organic nor authentic to their own collective cultural identity, sensibilities or experiences. Ironically, while many New York – trained Black actors, during the 50s-early 80s, are “Method actors,” it was Alexander Pushkin, the Afro -Russia’s original literary hero and the father of the Russian realist tradition, who was a major influence on Stanislavski’s artistic philosophy and creative approach.
During the socially, politically and culturally “turbulent” 1960s, two African – Americans emerged in New York advocating the need for Black actors to have a creative process that was their own – derived from, and based on, their own ethnicity, culture, history and aesthetics – their own collective humanness. Ernie McClintock and Barbara Ann Teer were two new “demi-gods of theatre” choosing to give birth to themselves in all their cosmological Blackness.
Undoubtedly inspired by the brilliant cultural theorist, writer and scholar, Larry Neal, who is considered to be one of the major, if not THE major, founders of the philosophy and spirit that shaped the Black Arts Movement, McClintock and Teer both set out to give birth to acting schools and traditions that would, in turn, give birth to the New Black Actor. New Black Stories. New Black Voices…
In 1966, Ernie McClintock formed the Afro-American Studio for Acting and Speech (AASAS) in Harlem. His vision was to establish an institution that would serve as both a pedagogical centre for aspiring actors and a home-base for an ensemble to perform works focusing on the ideological, cultural, socio-political and artistic diverse realities and experiences of Black folks.
The educational aspect of the AASAS was designed to introduce the aspiring, as well as the experienced actor to an approach and process centering on the observation of Black life and culture in order to create portrayals more realistic and authentic to the Black human experience in all its socio-political, historical, cultural, emotional, psychological and class diversity.
Additionally, elements and aspects of Jazz (Improvisational Music) were incorporated into McClintock’s approach as he endeavored to create a unique and legitimate method for Black actors that he would brand, “Jazz Acting” and/or “Jazz Theatre.”
Other components of AASAS’ curriculum were: Black History and Culture; African dance; Black music and folklore; the history of theatre and the Black Aesthetic.
Two years later, in 1968, East St. Louis – born Barbara Ann Teer founded the National Black Theatre also headquartered in Harlem – around the corner from the world renowned Apollo Theatre. While Teer and McClintock shared the vision of, and commitment to, the genesis of a “liberated Black theatre” based on a “revolutionary Black artistic ideology” Teer was more focused on creating a culturally and spiritually – inclusive methodology.
While both were indeed Afrocentric, and motivated by the same noble cause, Teer’s ideology and approach might be considered more authentically “African-centered” as she specifically sought to incorporate elements of the Black Pentecostal church worship tradition and rituals and ceremonies of the Yoruba people(s) and Yoruba culture of West Africa.* Spiritual and religious ritual and significance were integral elements of the vision and mission that Teer was embarking upon at, and through, the National Black Theatre.
Clearly there is a historical and cultural relationship between the “Pentecostalism” born of William Joseph’s Seymour’s “Azusa Street Revival” and the spiritual/religious rituals and traditions of the West African Yoruba.
Divine spirit(ual) interaction, communion, embodiment (or “possession”) is at the core of most, if not all, African religious and spiritual traditions. Throughout the African Diaspora, histo-traditional Africanisms are most evidentiarily preserved and perpetuated through oral tradition(s), religion/spirituality, music and the cuisine of Black peoples. In North America, all these elements converge in the traditional African – American church experience.
As the ancient Greeks would commence their rituals honoring Dionysus, their patron deity of theatre, Teer committed to establishing the NBT as a theatre dedicated to the honoring of The Creator and his first human creation – Black people. Their lives, struggles, triumphs and accomplishments. Their history and their culture from their POV. Their Creativity. Their collective creative and artistic soul.
As an historical aside, Greek historian, Herodotus, declared that the Greek patron god of theatre – Dionysus – was the Greek “makeover” of the Kemetic/Egyptian deity, Ausar, who is more popularly known by his Greco nom de plume, “Osiris.”
It is unknown to what extent either McClintock or Teer proved successful in actually establishing legitimately measurable methodologies comparable or equal to those of a Meyerhold, Stanislavski, Strasberg or Meisner. There are no schools, known to the author, teaching either McClintock’s “Jazz Technique” or the method that may have been devised by Barbara Ann Teer. No books have been written or published about either of their theories or processes – although McClintock, while briefly residing in Atlanta, did express several times to the author, that he was in the process of “working on the book” when the writer inquired of McClintock whether he was documenting his “Jazz Technique.”
While there might be the possibility for the “re-discovery and rescuing” of the works of McClintock and Teer by any of their respective senior students or disciples who would have thorough knowledge of their theories – or even access to their notes, writings, papers, etc – certainly now is the opportune time for the development, establishment and institutionalization of a legitimate Afrocentric Theory of Acting that could/would draw from the myriad continental and diasporic African aesthetics, modalities, metaphysics, philosophies, traditions, rituals and ideologies.
One could begin their research with Karenga’s Afrocentricity; Akan Cosmology; Yoruba cultural and spiritual traditions; the Negritude of Senghor, Cesaire and Damas; the Kemitic Metu Neter of Ra Un Nefer Amen or (the) Ubuntu – a continental Pan-African philosophy.
Or one could examine the historical roots of indigenous traditional African performance art and theatre on the African continent or throughout its diasporic manifestations in Central and South Americas; throughout the Caribbean – or in New Zealand or Australia, for that matter.
In this context, the scholarly and academic works of another “division” of the Black artistic “demi-godic” pantheon (i.e. Nana Katherine Dunham, Nana Pearl Primus and Dr. Scott Kennedy) are most significant and instructional. Their visionary cultural and anthropological ensembles d’oeuvres were, and are, answers to inquiries still in the process of being formulated and articulated. In other words, they gave us the answers before we knew the questions….
* “Yoruba” makes reference to a group of cultures connected by common language. The Yoruba occupied an area enclosed by the Niger River, including the country now known as the Benin Republic, southwestern Nigeria, and part of Togo. Yoruba peoples hold a religious belief system in common which is called, “Ifa.” Oftimes the term “Yoruba” is used when referring to the religion or spiritual tradition when “Ifa” would be the more proper and accurate term.
End of Part 1