History Redux 2013: Umbra and FST

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Two symposia, “Talkin Revolution,” (New Orleans, October 17-20) and “Celebrating the Umbra Workshop,” (New York, November 1) will cast light on the matter of history redux, the ways people remember and reconfigure specific moments of cultural development.

The wording of David Henderson’s announcement about the Umbra symposium is instructive:

Join us for a half century celebration of the Umbra Workshop! Founded on New York’s Lower East Side in 1961 and dispersed in 1964, Umbra’s influence on American literature continues to this day. The Umbra Workshop was comprised of an aesthetically diverse group of young artists, many with “a strong commitment to ‘nonliterary’ black culture.” The Workshop was nurtured by people as disparate as Langston Hughes and Andy Young, actively engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, in questions of diversity in letters, and, later, in the Black Arts Movement. The first in a series of gatherings, this event bring together several of the founding members, including poets, novelists, and activists Steve Cannon, David Henderson, Rashidah Ismali, Joe Johnson and Ishmael Reed for readings and conversation and focusing on some of the complex aesthetic, political, social, and literary relationships that informed this legendary Workshop. 

It whets our appetite to know what impact the post-dispersal activities of the participants-those named in the announcement and those to be remembered in the discussions had and may continue to have on the growth of African American literature. Tom Dent, Calvin Hicks, Raymond Patterson, Askia Muhammad Toure, Lorenzo Thomas, Calvin Hernton, and Norman Pritchard and others are among those to be remembered.

In contrast, “Talkin’ Revolution” will make inquiries about the Free Southern Theater (FST) from 1963 to 1985 and about what FST may teach us about the present state and the future of African American theatre and writing. Why was FST founded by John O’Neal, Doris Derby, and Gilbert Moses at Tougaloo College? How did its early productions in Misssissippi shape discussions regarding culture and civil rights struggles? Why did FST move its homebase from Mississippi to New Orleans? Although dispersal is an important feature of FST history, it is more necessary to account for the impact the institution had ont he growth, rise,and decline of community theater in New Orleans and other parts of the South. And we have to think about Tom Dent as a key figure in both Umbra Workshop and FST.

History redux is invaluable for assessing our contemporary use and abuse of culture(s).