Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches

Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches. Edited by Sharrell D. Luckett with Tia M. Shaffer. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017; Pp. 233.

Sharrell D. Luckett and Tia M. Shaffer’s Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches is an exceptional addition to the field as it turns the spotlight on “Black/African ritual, processes, and methodologies to acting” (1). Rather than focusing on situating black performers in traditional acting methodologies, Luckett and Shaffer engage performance pedagogy that goes beyond the Euro-American canon through a series of ten essays, which provide a wide array of viewpoints on actor training grounded in Afrocentrism. They conclude with thoughtful commentary from notable practitioners who present insights on working with performers of color and/or performance texts/modes rooted in black culture.

In the introduction, Luckett and Shaffer grapple with the origins of theatre and performance practices. They acknowledge that most U.S. acting programs operate from the perspective that theatre started with the Greeks; however, they point to evidence suggesting that many humans on the continent of Africa participated in theatrically driven rituals earlier. They then emphasize the book’s overall purpose, which is to: “1) honor and rightfully identify Blacks as central co-creators of acting and directing theory by filling the perceived void of Black acting theorists, 2) uplift, honor, and provide culturally relevant frameworks for Black people who are pursuing careers in acting, 3) provide diverse methodologies for actors and teachers of all races and cultures to utilize, and 4) provide diverse methodologies for actors and practitioners’ labor in social justice issues and activism” (2). Luckett and Shaffer subsequently chart the book’s overall structure of “Offerings” instead of chapters, as they feel “this term is more appropriate to our alignment with Black/African customs and culture, as the notion of giving is innately in the ‘fiber of our being’” (5).

The first section of the book, “Methods of Social Activism,” concentrates on approaches that motivate societal change with and in largely black/African American communities with primary emphasis on women and at-risk/underserved youth. Luckett and Shaffer begin by sharing their experiences working with the Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble of Atlanta and the “Hendricks Method.” This approach manifests social activism and engages spirituality, devising, and hyper-ego, a concept that encourages fearlessness and “getting someone to believe they are ‘the shit’” (31). Offering two, authored by Cristal Chanelle Truscott, outlines “SoulWork,” which uses neo-spiritual or a cappella musicals as “an aesthetic tool for creating space and experience” (39). Individuals looking to establish ensembles or create communal performances would find Truscott’s approach highly useful, as it “shifts actors’ focus away from ‘me’ to ‘ours’ and rescues the audience relationship from ‘them’ to ‘all of us’” (39). Rhodessa Jones’s essay traces her work with the Medea Project, a teaching methodology that focuses on empowering incarcerated women of color. Through an arts-based approach to reducing recidivism, the Project “utilizes self-exploration techniques on an ensemble comprised of inmates, as well as community and professional actresses who stage material derived from the prisoners’ own stories” (51). Similarly, Lisa Biggs introduces readers to “Art Saves Lives,” an improvisational practice cemented in black feminism. Although she does not discuss processes or techniques, Biggs does highlight how the actress-playwright-teacher Rebecca Rice “practiced improvisation as sacred play to affirm Black women’s right to respect and to a future” (73).

While the work of social activism is necessary, the offerings included in the second section, “Methods of Intervention,” target the core issue of most acting programs by emphasizing the necessity to locate plays in a cultural context in the rehearsal room. Justin Emeka’s essay is a real standout in the volume because it considers casting actors of color in classic white plays, concentrating heavily on the works of William Shakespeare. He lays out examples of how many people ignore race and its relation to the classics, and he contends that acknowledging race can augment audiences’ understandings of productions. Of all the essays in the volume, Tawnya Pettiford-Wates’s is the most enlightening, suggesting that traditional acting classrooms have alienated actors of color in their development and training. In recapping her personal training experience in Stanislavski, Chekhov, and Grotowski, Pettiford-Wates explains how this Eurocentric pedagogy has prepared her physical body but disenfranchised her spirit and soul as a black actor. For example, traditional analysis failed to connect her to the culturally steeped characters in for colored girls…. Considering this, she presents a series of useful exercises she calls Ritual Performance Drama “as an alternative methodology that directly addresses the specific needs of the black performing artist in studying the dramatic form and developing into self-actualized and empowered creative artists” (108). The work of Chinesha D. Sibley concentrates on Afrocentric approaches to directing new theatrical works where the playwright’s voice remains dominant while also honoring the interconnections between the playwright, actor, and director. She explains interconnectivity through the process of recalling culturally specific experiences and “embracing the physical and psychological traits of a people” (132) within the text and performance.

“Methods of Cultural Plurality,” the final section of full essays, explores how individuals can be co-constructors of theatrical performances using techniques rooted in an Afrocentric perspective. Unlike most of the other offerings, Daniel Banks provides concrete exercises that readers can follow to develop stories and performances. Additionally, he examines Hip Hop as a globalized art form of social justice and provides a pedagogical framework through his work with the Hip Hop Theatre Initiative. Kadogo Mojo’s work is both an Afro-centric and trans-global directing methodology, linking the performance stylings of black Americans and the aboriginal people of Australia. The process formerly known as Kadogo Mojo combines “anthropology, dance, poetry, music, theatre, travel and cultural encounters” (169). Although Mojo’s essay is interesting, it simply chronicles her inspirational working modes. The section’s final offering authored by Kashi Johnson and Daphnie Sicre discusses the difficulties black students face on predominately white campuses and the ways in which they have cultivated the students’ “interest in creating an inclusive, productive pedagogical space” to develop performance techniques that “engage and empower Black students” (184). Like Banks, Johnson and Sicre bring together the traditions of Theatre of the Oppressed with the cultural aspects of Hip Hop theatre.

Luckett and Shaffer conclude the book with short writings from distinguished black directors, including Tommie “Tonea” Stewart, Paul Carter Harrison, Tim Bond, Walter Dallas, Judyie Al-Bilali, Sheldon Epps, and Talvin Wilks. This unique group of practitioners offers insights on working with Afrocentric plays; personal experiences navigating the American theatre; and rituals, processes, and methods rooted in an African sensibility.

An introduction to acting methodologies rooted in Afrocentrism, Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches samples multiple approaches and foregrounds a necessary pedagogical and theoretical framework for academics and practitioners. The inclusion of additional acting exercises would have made the book even more user-friendly within acting classrooms. Still, just like the prevalence of Eurocentric acting methods, the offerings in this book can—and should—be explored by individuals from all backgrounds and cultures, especially those marginalized groups such as Latinx people who have experienced similar structural oppressions in American theatre training. The text is ultimately an excellent resource to better enfranchise performers of color, particularly those who work at Predominantly White Institutions.

DeRon S. Williams
Eastern Connecticut State University

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 2 (Winter 2019)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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