L Tyler Fauntleroy and Kim Sullivan
photos by Gerry Goodstein
Looking For Leroy
play by Larry Muhammed is a tribute to the late Imamu Amiri Baraka, icon of the
Black theatre and Black arts movements, whose contributions still inform our
consciousness. A word commonly used these days, though almost never defined, is
“authenticity.” Looking for Leroy uses the life of the late Amiri
Baraka to question and to try to answer what makes a man, his life, and his
In the course
of his life, Amiri Baraka changed in many ways, both professionally and
personally. He left the integrated artistic world of Greenwich Village to
become a leading member of the emerging consciousness of the Black political,
theatrical, and arts worlds. He embraced Afro-centrism and, for a time,
excoriated all things white. He changed his name from Leroy Jones to Amiri
Baraka. (Imamu is "spiritual leader" in Swahili, ultimately
from the Arabic Imam). He shocked and terrified many white people and,
as any great artist does, he expressed feelings that many, especially in the
African American community, did not even know they had inside themselves.
Later, he came to include Marxism as part of his world view. He certainly made
everyone think, believing, along with W.E.B. DuBois, that the problem of America
in the 20th century was the problem of the color line.
for Leroy is a
tribute to this man and his work. A young man, Taj, an aspiring playwright,
comes to Baraka, full of awe for the master, and applies for a job as an
intern. In the course of the play’s 90 minutes, as Baraka talks and talks,
using Taj as a sounding board, and as Taj dares more and more to answer and
even to challenge him, we are told many things, so many things that we really
cannot keep track of them: There are lists of most of the important works of
the Black Theatre movement; there are discussions of the Black artist and the
appropriateness or even the relevance of the western canon to his art (women
are barely mentioned); there are discussions of what it means to make Black
theatre and who counts as, or what is, Black enough; there are discussions of
the ways in which an artist, in this case Baraka, changes throughout his life
and whether these changes mean he is inconsistent or that he is simply
developing; there is, finally, the topic of the relationship of the old guard
to the new and upcoming, who must then find their own way. In fact, Taj may be
a projection of Baraka himself as, in the course of working on his play about
W.E.B. DuBois, The Most Dangerous Man in America, his final work, he
confronts who he was, has been, and is.
master, is full of himself and of pronouncements. There is little
characterization or interaction of the characters as people, which has often
been a criticism of Baraka’s work and is mentioned in the play. The amount of
words is breathtaking and one is in awe of the performers’ memories.
Fauntleroy as Taj, the young man striving to be a Black artist, tries to find
his relationship to his god as he asserts himself more and more over the course
of the play. The masterful Kim Sullivan as Baraka manages to find moments of
humanity, soulfulness, and even humor in between his many tirades. In fact,
the most memorable moment of the play comes at the end of once scene when
Baraka, exiting his study, plays air harmonica as he dances out of the room to
the blues playing on the stereo.
If the play
can be criticized as non-theatrical in its talkiness, the costumes, set,
lighting, and sound score are all that one could wish for and more. Each of
the supporting elements is a work of art. Kathy Roberson’s costuming guides us
through the time frame of the play and the attitudes of the characters. When
Taj comes to apply for his internship he is, sensibly, dressed in his best
business attire, only to meet a dashiki-wearing Baraka who puts him down for
his clothing. The next time we see Taj, he, too, is in a dashiki. After that,
the passage of time is marked by a different dashiki for each scene, until the
time when Baraka is wearing a shirt over his, indicating a change in his world
view to encompass the importance of Marx; finally, Taj enters wearing the
all-black shirt, pants, and beret that indicate that he is finding his own
by Antoinette Tynes never intrudes, but we see the passage of the days, the
nights, and the seasons as they appear through the windows of Baraka's study,
without our actually being aware of it.
Cumberbatch’s set tells the audience everything they need to know, if only they
can see it. We enter the theater and immediately are part of a comfortable and
welcoming study with books on shelves arranged apparently for use but, upon
closer examination, seen to be arranged like the composition of a painting.
Other books are strewn around, obviously in the process of being consulted.
African sculptures are placed at points on the walls where they do not demand
our attention, but can be so easily seen that while we watch the arguments
about theatre and life unfold, we come to understand that, as they frame the
set, they frame Baraka’s life and work.
What is a
life? What is the life of an artist? What is the life of any of us and what
does it mean to be true to oneself? What is the meaning of true, and what is
the self? In the case of Imamu Amiri Baraka, a large part of the answers to
these questions was found in his dedication to discovering the meaning of
blackness and how to cherish it and express it while living in the oppressive
culture of a racist United States. Whoever he was, no one can deny that he
had, and still has, a profound influence on the cultural life of this country.
Now the youngsters must go and do likewise, which is his final advice to the
young man who came to sit at his feet and must now go out and walk on his own.
Even if Taj is Baraka himself, every time an artist creates a new work, all his
past is with him and must either be discarded or must in some way come along
for Leroy asks us to
think about the relationship between where one starts out, how one develops
over time, and what it means to be true to oneself and one’s vision of the
world. These are important questions for anyone, but perhaps they are more
important for artists who are bridges between the world they live in and their
inner vision. As Baraka’s work still resonates with us, so do these questions.
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