<Book Review>
I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t and other Plays. By Sonia Sanchez, edited by Jacqueline Wood.
[Duke University Press, 2010. | 196pp. | $19.95 (p); $69.95 (c)]

I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t and other plays, reveals the graphic representation of the interaction and intersection between Sonia Sanchez and the experiences of militant African Americans males during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. In her introduction, Wood notes that Sanchez represents and presents a myriad of “faces” in her plays and that each visage affords Sanchez an entry into the world of male militant writers, poets and dramatists that created the core of the literary projects being published during those years. Furthermore, Wood claims, these “faces” sanction Sanchez’s acceptance by this particular group of writers. Through this acceptance, then, Sanchez is able to create a forum to discuss the societal values and morals she hallmarks in her writings.

Wood documents Sanchez’s ground breaking penetration into a thoroughly male oriented genre. However, if we look past the artistic stance and dramatist poetic acts, we find a woman in tune not only with the culture of Black Americans, but also with societal mores that are integral to “American” culture in general. As noted by Wood, this pioneering foray opened the gateway for other Black women writers. We now hear the voices of other Black women writers and poets within traditianally militant and male-oriented genres.

It is significant to note that Sanchez’s position as a living legend (xi) opens her writings to critical analysis, and would appear to colorize the perspectives of the poet Sanchez, the playwrite Sanchez, and the Black female militant writer Sanchez. This colorized perspective, then, relegates the language used and the portrayal of characters in the plays to the background; while at the same time highlighting (as is appropriate) Sanchez’ accomplishments and impact as a writer. Sanchez’ works are dotted with the vernacular of the time, and yet Wood seemingly glosses over the conversations (words) of the characters in the plays throughout her introduction of Sanchez’ works.

In “Poetry Run Loose: Breaking the Rules,” we begin to hear Sanchez’ voice; sounding like a conversation with friends or colleagues. It is here the characters are developed and reasoning behind the characters are presented. In her conversation with the reader, Sanchez reveals the complexity of her characters and the mindset she used when developing each character. She looked beneath the surface and flushed out the intricate details of the lives her characters were modeled after. Sanchez embodied those complexities in the staging and setting of her characters. She stated that she writes “in terms of what goes on, not only in my life and with the people around me, but I also write in terms of things that I’m doing and also the ever expanding ideas that I have about the world” (8).

Sanchez’s love of the language arts of playwriting and poetry are evident in her discussion of “why” she does what she does. I can almost hear the joy and excitement in Sanchez’ voice as she discusses how an idea for a character or play germinates from seemingly small things such as a question: “Sonia, What do you think?” (12). This revelation gives understanding to the reader that creating a play, writing a poem or lyrics for music is Sanchez’s gift to the viewer, reader or listener. Her conversation with the reader is punctuated with words that imbibe her love of her art—bringing an audience to tears, or laughter or stillness (13).

“Ruminations /Reflections” shifts gears for the reader. We read the “nod of the head” (as it were) to the poet in Sanchez. This essay’s revelation of her love of poetry is undeniable. She reflects and writes with a verve and vibe that allows the reader to understand the tone and passion of her works. She openly discusses how poetry and poets are a reflection of the culture they thrive in and under; the impact of the poem or poet on the lives of the society being written about or lived in; and, that poetry is a subconscious conversation (15), echoing the famous line from Yeats: "We make rhetoric out of arguments with others, and we make poetry out of our arguments with ourselves."

Sanchez is forthright when discussing “truth” and its importance in her work. She readily acknowledges that it is “truth” of the Black condition as she sees it (15). She communicates to the reader that in order to impart “truth” she must first confess to “being a student, growing and learning something new everyday” and that one of the first lessons was that one’s ego always compromised how something was viewed (17).

At the end of the essay, Sanchez leaves the reader with a full understanding that she finds joy in her work. She writes, “Then, late at night just before the routine begins again, I write. I write and I smile as the words come drifting back like some reverent lover” (18).

Part II of the book collects several of Sanchez's plays. Included are The Bronx is Next (1968), Sister Son/ji (1969), Dirty Hearts (1971), Malcolm/Man Don't Live Here No Mo (1972), Uh, Uh; But How Do It Free Us? (1974), I'm Black When I'm Singing, I'm Blue When I Ain't (1982), and 2 x 2 (2009). These works all attempt to reveal a world embodying a “truth” of being a Black woman during the 1960s and 1970s. The plays reveal the complexity of characters, the nuances of the messages and the emotional involvement not only by the characters of the plays but also that of the observed and unobserved audiences.

Sonia Sanchez: I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t and other plays documents an extraordinary literary journey of an extraordinary woman. The essays are an elegant framing device for priming readers for an emotional understanding of the context and environment in which these plays were first performed.

     — Kim Higgs, University of North Dakota

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