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Rahman, Aishah

The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature

Jennifer Margulis

Rahman, Aishah (b. 1936), 

professor and avant-garde surrealistic playwright whose works are performed mostly at small theaters and on college campuses. A native of New York City, Aishah Rahman (born Virginia Hughes) has traveled and worked in Africa and Latin America. She graduated from Howard University with a BS in political science in 1968 and received an MA in playwriting and dramatic literature from Goddard College in 1985. Rahman, who started writing plays professionally in the 1970s, is an associate professor of English at Brown University, where she is also founder and editor in chief of NuMuse, an annual journal of new plays. Before joining the faculty at Brown, she spent ten years teaching at Nassau Community College on Long Island and was director of the Henry Street Settlement's Playwrights Workshop at the New Federal Theater for five years.

Rahman's plays are often rooted in the lives of historically important African American figures. Rahman's first play, Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy, originally produced in 1972, takes place on the stage of New York City's famed Apollo Theater and is based on the life and career of Billie Holiday. Rahman's best-known work, Unfinished Women Cry in No Man's Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage, first produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival in June 1977, takes place on 12 March 1955 on the day of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker's death. While five teenage girls, confined to the Hide-A-Wee Home for unwed mothers, must decide whether to keep their babies or put them up for adoption, Charlie Parker, wasted by years of drug abuse and exploitation, dies in “Pasha's Boudoir,” the lavish apartment of a wealthy European baroness who was once his lover. The play juxtaposes the pain of these ordinary “unfinished women” with the suffering of a jazz musician of almost mythical status who has touched the girls' short lives.

Rahman's next play, The Tale of Madame Zora (1986), is a blues musical based on the life of author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Rahman then turned to another genre, opera, and wrote The Opera of Marie Laveau (1989) with composer Akua Dixon Turre, expanding on the traditional form and content of the European opera. A pastiche of folklore and history about the nineteenth-century French, Native American, and African New Orleans voodoo queen, Rahman renamed the libretto Anybody Seen Marie Laveau?

Rahman's most recent plays are The Mojo and the Sayso (1987) and Only in America (1993). The Mojo and the Sayso, which has received excellent reviews, revolves around the lives of a working-class family devastated by the murder of the ten-year-old son, Linus, who was shot in the back by police. The paralyzing guilt that has gripped the Benjamin family since the boy's death is explored in this short (the running time is seventy minutes) play through surreal and often intentionally nonresponsive dialogue. Only in America is a farcical allegory in which the Greek prophetess Cassandra reappears as a contemporary victim of sexual harassment.

Rahman's plays are heavily symbolic and suggestive. While fictionalizing the lives of important historical figures, Rahman creates a surreal atmosphere by emphasizing the unexpected and the nonrational, and by exposing the fetishes and subconscious desires of her characters. She has been compared to award-winning playwrights August Wilson and Eugene O'Neill, and she cites Adrienne Kennedy, Amiri Baraka, Sam Shephard, Federico García Lorca, and Bertolt Brecht as her literary influences. In 1996, Rahman was writing a novel, “Illegitimate Life,” and an anthology of her plays, Three Plays by Aishah Rahman, was scheduled to be published. Often described as underground classics, Rahman's work has yet to be accepted in commercial mainstream theater but has unquestionably enjoyed wide circulation, influence, and appeal.


Aishah Rahman, “To Be Black, Female and a Playwright,” Freedomways 19 (1979): 256–260.Find this resource:

    Bernard L. Peterson, Jr., ed., Contemporary Black American Playwrights and Their Plays, 1988.Find this resource:

      Alicia Kae Koger, “Jazz Form and Jazz Function:,” An Analysis of Unfinished Women Cry in No Man's Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage MELUS 16.3 (Fall 1989–1990): 99–111.Find this resource:

        Jennifer Margulis