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Harry J. Elam, Jr.: “The New Absurdism of Slavery: Gender, Genre, and Contemporary Black Theatre”
Historically in the theatre, absurdism identifies a movement and form that through disjointed dialogue, plots, and action question the value and meaning of life and emphasize the absurdity of human existence. Notably, in the contemporary moment, a series of black playwrights have revised and reimagined this genre, as they explore the “peculiar institution” of slavery and its residue in today’s racialized social and political circumstances. In what we might call a new black absurdism, the black woman, her exploitation in bondage, and her sexuality and agency today, figure prominently, as these playwrights confront how the irrational horrors of slavery’s past impact on the present. This presentation will explore the new black absurdism and its practitioners generally. It will also focus, more specifically on the figure of Aunt Ester, a woman as old as the black existence in America, and a key character and metaphysical force in the 10-play history cycle of the late, great playwright August Wilson. In her appearance and usage in Wilson’s work, Aunt Ester represents a critical initiating trope for this new genre.
Harry J. Elam, Jr. is Senior Vice Provost for Education, Vice President for the Arts, Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities.