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Woodie King, Jr. The Impact of Race: Theatre and Culture.

Woodie King, Jr. The Impact of Race: Theatre and Culture. Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2003. 273 pp. $26.95.

Woodie King Jr. is one of those often under-appreciated figures who make culture possible. Like Al Bell of Stax Records, or like Leeds' own Arthur France--a Nevisian who played a pivotal role in the inauguration of Europe's first Caribbean carnival--King has dedicated his life to the often hard, sometimes thankless, and rarely lucrative work of cultural coordination. Tirelessly forging interconnections, securing investment, fostering creativity, directing actors and nursing their egos, King has now long been a backstage director without whom the stage itself would not exist--without whom for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, What the Wineseuers Buy, When the Chickens Come Home to Roost, and other key theatrical productions would, conceivably, never have premiered.

This lifelong diligence makes it feel churlish, not to mention disrespectful, to criticize The Impact of Race. But let us be frank. The Impact of Race could have been one of two books. It could have been a narrow yet fascinating autobiographical account of Woodie King's involvement in the seminal productions of black theatre since the 1960s. Or it could have offered a sustained critique of the racism that continues to plague American theatre. The Impact of Race, unfortunately, fails to become either of these books. Too reticent about personal relationships and too fragmentary in its political analysis, it is, instead, an unclassifiable work: frustrating, tantalizing, elusive. These shortcomings may have something to do with King's apparent modesty, and they may have something to do with a lack of rigor on the part of his editor.

The theatre world has never been overburdened with modesty, and the picture that The Impact of Race paints of its author seems unusually selfless, generous, and keen to give credit to others. Although the book's fascinating photographs offer a veritable Who's Who in black theatre, capturing King alongside such luminaries as August Wilson and Wole Soyinka, it is nevertheless clear that The Impact of Race does not drop so much as champion such names. The tone throughout is of a man committed to progress rather than stardom--of a man who did not move towards the media spotlight so much as it moved towards him. And certainly it says a great deal about Woodie King that so much of The Impact of Race is reserved for tributes to those with whom he has worked: the actors Barbara Ann Teer, Marsha Jackson, and Denzel Washington; the producer Abena Joan Brown; the director Vinnette Carroll; the teacher Margaret Wilkerson; and the writers Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Toni Cade Bambara, Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, and Wole Soyinka. As these tributes unfold, however, the reader increasingly feels that the achievements of these remarkable figures--and particularly of the writers among them--have already been well documented, and are here occupying space that might have been better used in telling the less familiar story of King's own life. Modesty, in other words, starts to impede The Impact of Race, discouraging King from offering anything more than tantalizing glimpses into such fascinating experiences as his time with James Brown in Africa. This holding back is such a shame, because, in this case, surely, the book must describe the life; yet King, avoiding vanity, remains largely silent about why his role was so pivotal, how exactly he pulled certain productions back from the brink, what deals he brokered, and why he directed the way he did. Discretion and modesty, though admirable qualities, seem somehow to prevent the realization of The Impact of Race.

I also felt that the book's stretches of political analysis, though often very challenging, suffer from an occasional inconsistency and lack of rigor. If only because of typos and other flaws in The Impact of Race--King's description of Gameboys and Nintendo consoles as "American and European created toys" is particularly startling--it is tempting to view this inconsistency as another symptom of poor editorial stewardship--of an apparent failure to manage the overall book project properly from beginning to end. An unclear structure dogs the entire work: a heavily didactic chapter entitled "Jazz," which without warning launches into King's personal response to the black music tradition, fails to offer any explanation of how this vernacular tradition links up with the history of the black theatre.

Of course, it is customary, not to say cliched, for academics to criticize non-academics for their lack of rigor and coherence. And indeed, the fact that Woodie King's major contributions lie outside the academy is in other ways his asset. This location is, after all, what enables him to identify at firsthand the full and continuing impact of racism in American society and thus in its theatre. It is also what enables him to expose the recent successes of cultural integration, and to force home the fact that they have done so little to bring about any genuine improvement in the quality of life for the black American poor. In other words, the incorporation of Africana studies into the mainstream of American university life does not deceive King: he clearly sees that this "achievement" and similar phenomena, such as the globalization of rap, offer the image of equality rather than equality itself.

Yet the fact remains that these insights are not followed through in a sustained fashion. King seems not to ask himself difficult questions. Amid his calls for increased funding, for example, he does not consider why the black theatre would succeed where rap has so conspicuously failed, why it would translate its commercial and critical accomplishments into socioeconomic progress. Nor does he get to grips with the tensions apparent between his Afrocentric worldview and his seemingly ambivalent responses to Africa itself. Whereas Ntozake Shange and other writers with whom King has been associated famously arrived at new and experimental structures after a long and often arduous process of artistic introspection, and sought in these new structures to bring black theatre closer to its historic African inheritance or to signal some form of artistic dissent, King seems to use loose structure somewhat more opportunistically, as a way of avoiding rather than negotiating potential contradictions.

Often fascinating and always readable, The Impact of Race ultimately fails to achieve its ambitious objectives. Woodie King is indeed--as I suggested at the outset of this review--one of the great figures in black American theatre; he has done as much as anyone to establish this tradition and ensure its survival. That much is undeniable. What is open to question, however, is how much The Impact of Race adds to this rich and formidable legacy.

Andrew Warnes

University of Leeds, UK
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Author:Warnes, Andrew
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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