Book Review, Vol. 31 No.3

In Search of Our Warrior Mothers: Women Dramatists of the Black Arts Movement

In Search of Our Warrior Mothers: Women Dramatists of the Black Arts Movement. La Donna L. Forsgren. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018; Pp. 200.

A crucial contribution to the historiography of the Black Arts Movement, La Donna L. Forsgren’s In Search of Our Warrior Mothers: Women Dramatists of the Black Arts Movement makes the original argument that black women dramatists played an invaluable role in the movement (1965-76). Forsgren employs a black feminist historiography with a ferocity that is both innovative and rigorous in an effort to revive a history that has been overlooked, misconstrued, and at worst erased. Each of the four chapters focuses on a single dramatist: Barbara Ann Teer, Martie Evans-Charles, Sonia Sanchez, and J.e. Franklin. In Search of Our Warrior Mothers is primarily a recuperative undertaking. As such, Forsgren’s methodology “foregrounds the sociopolitical factors that have led to the marginalization of black women’s culture and literary tradition” (3). In an effort to shed light on how and why black women dramatists were systematically excluded from the archives of the movement, Forsgren conducted oral histories to supplement the scant archives of her subjects. Her argument is made as much in the absences and gaps in memory and material as it is in the presence of tangible artifacts.

In the first chapter, Forsgren claims Barbara Ann Teer as an unrecognized theorist of the Black Arts Movement. Forsgren focuses on Teer’s ritual performance theories, critical essays, ritualistic revival performance techniques, and the early work of the National Black Theatre (NBT), which Teer founded in 1968. In a departure from a typical literature review, Forsgren models a critique of historical and critical erasure that she continues in each subsequent chapter. In addition to highlighting existing literature on Barbara Ann Teer (there is one book-length biography on her life and work), Forsgren illuminates epistemological gaps. Forsgren suggests that Teer’s work is undervalued and as a result unpublished and in turn undervalued—a self-contained system of historical erasure. For the most part, the chapter is concerned with historicizing Teer as a theorist of the Black Arts Movement and concretizing her legacy as a pioneer in black theatre. Forsgren finds Teer’s theoretical origins in her theory of acting, “Five Cycles of Evolution.” Since Teer died in 2006, Forsgren conducted interviews with Barbara “Sade” Lythcott, Teer’s daughter and the current president of the NBT. Lythcott’s contextualization of her mother’s work serves to historicize Teer’s lasting impact on black performance beyond the Black Arts Movement.

In chapter two, “‘We Black Women’: Martie Evans-Charles and the Spirits of Black Womanhood,” Forsgren argues that Evans-Charles and her deep commitment to portraying black women as “emblems of black history and culture” (37) were crucial to the success of the historic New Layette Theatre. Unlike Teer, whose work was not widely circulated, Evans-Charles was popular with critics and audiences of her time but largely forgotten after the Black Arts Movement. Forsgren is particularly interested in the subjecthood of black women in Evans-Charles’s dramas including Where We At, Black Cycle, Job Security, Jamimma, Asante, and Friends. Forsgren, in a methodological move that is both an orientation toward historical events and an ethical imperative, relies on Evans-Charles’s own critical writings, unpublished program notes, archival interviews, and interviews with her daughter and peers to rewrite Evans-Charles back into her rightful place in the narrative of the Black Arts Movement.

If In Search of Our Warrior Mothers is a text about recovery, recuperation, and reclamation, then Sonia Sanchez, who is one of the few women often associated with the Black Arts Movement, is an unlikely candidate of study for the next chapter. Sanchez’s prolific work as a poet is typically connected to the movement, but as Forsgren expertly lays out, Sanchez’s plays also deserve to be revisited and explored. In this chapter, the author finds an easy stride. Perhaps because Forsgren was able to spend much time with Sanchez—and with her relatively complete archive of work—this chapter feels more like a traditional theatre history project. Though the extensive and exhaustive close readings of Sanchez’s plays are an impressive contribution to the field, there is less urgency in the underlying argument here. Forsgren is shoring up a place in history for an already iconic figure. In contrast, for Teer, Evans-Charles, and Franklin, I had the sense as a reader that she was fighting on their behalf against the forces of oblivion.

Forsgren concludes the body text with perhaps her most important and timely intervention: chapter four, “‘Bring Your Wounded Hearts’: J.e. Franklin and the Art of Liberation,” explores the life and continuing work of the most prolific and successful black woman dramatist of the Black Arts Movement and also its most overlooked and understudied. Franklin’s place in the history of American theatre is invaluable, and Forsgren’s contribution succeeds on two levels. First, as the author attempts with all four subjects, she claims Franklin as part of an intellectual tradition. Departing from the other three chapters, Forsgren draws a direct line from Franklin to the origins of black feminist drama by highlighting the feminist stance in much of Franklin’s Black Power-oriented work. In doing so, she begins to map a genealogy of thought and influence that moves beyond the Black Arts Movement. Second, Forsgren highlights the divergences from the politics of the Black Arts Movement that previously ensured Franklin’s erasure from “neat” histories of an apparently monolithic movement.  While black male playwrights of the movement often focused on ideas of “Revolution,” Forsgren argues that Franklin’s work centers “black women’s experiential knowledge and use[s] catharsis to foster liberation and community” (108).

In Search of Our Warrior Mothers is a vital addition to the field of American theatre history. The loss of Ntozake Shange last year reminds us that the toll of life for our warrior mothers is taxing and that we must honor their legacies by gleaning their indispensable knowledge while we can. With that in mind, Forsgren’s methodological commitment to oral history and archival accountability feels bigger than a historiographical impulse; it feels like a war cry.

Gabrielle Randle
Northwestern University

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 3 (Spring 2019)

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

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