Sistuhs In The Struggle – A Book About Black Women Critically Involved in the Black Arts Movement 1965 to Late ’70s

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This new easy-to-read book of interviews and narrative is already considered by some to be the first oral history reference to fully explore the contributions of Black Women Intellectuals involved in the Black Arts Movement of the 20th century.

Sistuhs In The Struggle: An Oral History of Black Arts Movement Theatre and Performance by La Donna L. Forsgren. La Donna Forsgren is an associate professor at Notre Dame University’s Department of Film, Television, and Theatre. Notre Dame University largely funded the publication released recently by Northwestern University Press. Professor La Donna Forsgren is also the author of a book called, In Search of Our Warrior Mother: Women of the Black Arts Movement, published by Northwestern University Press in 2018.

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Sistuhs in the Struggle is said to reclaim a vital yet under-researched chapter in African American, women’s, and theater history. This point is is worthy of “constructive discussion” today as we find ways to renew valuable gender talks of historical, and create new #Metoo kinds of sensitive contemporary discussions.

This groundbreaking study documents how black women theater artists and activists—many of whom worked behind the scenes as directors, designers, producers, stage managers, and artistic directors—disseminated the black aesthetic and emboldened their communities.

Drawing on nearly thirty original interviews with well-known artists such as Ntozake Shange and Sonia Sanchez as well as less-studied figures including children’s theatre playwright and producer Aduke Aremu, distinguished lighting designer Shirley Prendergast, dancer and choreographer Halifu Osumare, and three-time Tony-nominated writer and composer Micki Grant, La Donna L. Forsgren centers black women’s cultural work as a crucial component of civil rights and black power activism. Sistuhs in the Struggle is an essential collection for theater scholars, historians, and students interested in learning how black women’s art and activism both advanced and critiqued the ethos of the Black Arts and Black Power movements.

Sistahs in the Struggle is a meticulously organized and well cite referenced set of specialized interviews and compiled narratives by diverse individuals. Professor Forsgren says, “It was developed over many years to provide a national perspective of the work of black women intellectuals – playwrights, dancers, directors, designers, stage managers, theatre founders, actors, producers, poets, painters, photographers, journalists, and teachers.”

The book includes a line up of chapters that speak in her writing “loudly and clearly” about the:

Spiritual Sister: The Black Aesthetic, Feminism and Black Power,

Black Theatres Matter: The Art of Institution Building,

“Traveling with Ears to the Ground”: Black Arts Movement Drama, Ritual, Teleplays, and Musicals,

Performative Embodiment on Black Arts and

Alternative Stages

The book concludes with ideas about the cumulative legacy of Sistuhs in the Struggle.

The following people listed alphabetically are called “narrators” by the author: Dawn Alli, Aduke Aremu, Adrienne Charles, Nora Cole, Dr. Doris Derby, Cheryl Fabio, Nabii Faison, Shirley Faison, L.e. Franklin, P.J. Gibson, Micki Grant, Femi Sarah Heggie, Lee Humkins, Judy Juanita, Woodie King Jr., Barbara “Sade” Lythcott, Haki Madhubuti, George lee Miles, Dr. Barabara Molette, Dr. Carlton Molette, Halifu Osumare, Kathy A Perkins, Shirley Pendergast, Ismael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, and Jackie Taylor.   

It is impossible to review the full value of this masterful oral history collection in one sitting. It deserves much more of our attention, study, and appreciation as a guide and reference book to the 20th-century movement.

I feel very privileged that it is in my hands. As a Black man and a former child-poet published and promoted during this period by the late icons Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and Dr. Pearl Primus, I have some lens from the political and cultural art era book. I also met many of the book’s Sistahs through my mentors and again while serving as a development consultant and festival floor manager for the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem, NC.

Sistuhs In the Struggle is a beautiful treasury of the ethnography and personal accounts of most of the pivotal African American and diasporic Women who made history shaping the letters and spirit contributing to the ethos of art movements, power movements, and the aesthetic pillars and principles articulated in the ’60s and late ’70s. 

The task of “woke” artists then in the ’60s and ’70s in a confrontation with the remaining “pure” Jim Crow Era-institutional racism was one that included everything that we witness today except for the fact that Black people were also racially integrating high schools, colleges for the first time. This group also often represented the Black Power movement intellectually as a generation after the “socially and politically woke” Pan Africanist and intellectuals, Dr.  Alain Locke, the dean of the Harlem Renaissance, called the “The New Negro”. These cultural identity-seekers and phenomenal people, both men and women, created enslaved Africans’ national discourse and emancipated Black people.

I admire Professor La Donna because it is impossible to cover all of the contributions of Black women who were indeed intellectual warriors producing “art-imitating-the-life’s-breathe” of the arts movement in that critical period of American Theatre Arts entwined with politics while facing a difficult nation, and at times, difficult Black brothers in the movement’s leadership positions.

The easy to read and enormously impactful Sistuhs book tells their stories physically, spiritually, artistically, racially, emotionally. The book is a seminal academic work that is in some ways ( I think) academically kindred and companion to Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ global accounts in Signifying Monkey reaching to create a system of personally understanding black people and literary artists toward defining “literary criticism” and his, Oxford and Norton anthologies of the lexicon of great literary figures and their works.

When you travel with Professor La Donna you visit with Sistuhs that take you home inside their thought. You sometimes go home with them. You go to school with them. You are inside of the minds as they construct-unique-personal-lenses-and protective-physical-and-emotional-gear for seeing the world, including the make-up of their arts forms, the men and the movement around them, and then the obstacle course of making something relevant while living to evolve the status of a whole people in their art, writing, and various performances.

Poets, theatre producers, playwrights, dancers, writers, photographers, program developers, and academia with legitimate signatures relevant to the history of American theatre and the performing arts tell us themselves about historical racism, evolving cultural identity struggles, and gender clashes in and out of the Black Power and the Black Arts Movements as they were touched by it.

It’s a compilation of personal stories and movement-oriented oral histories of women who were not peddling sex appeal in front of their stalwart literary, intellectual, and performance leadership in a societal confrontation about “Black power.” This book feeds us a perspective of American Black women and people “romancing feminine gemstone lives life” in the turbulent political, economic, educational, arts and humanities rich ’60s and ’70s.  

The book clarifies that Black women have a significant oral, intellectual, and activist tradition (from a man’s perspective) to their political, economic, and societal-building legacies today. The book is a must-read that should be studied by all people of all gender and all ages, both nationally and internationally.

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