(b. 1937), dramatist of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s,
known particularly for the sardonic style he employed in examining the lives of African Americans. Born in Harlem, Ben Caldwell had an early engagement with the arts. Having come of age in the 1960s, he was one of many sensitive and creative young African Americans to have been influenced by the work of Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), who read Caldwell's plays and encouraged him.
During 1965 and 1966 Caldwell lived in Newark, New Jersey, with Baraka and several other artists; he refers to this time as his “Newark Period,” in which he wrote Hypnotism (1969) and his most critically acclaimed work, The Militant Preacher (1967), which later appeared in A Black Quartet: Four New Plays under the title Prayer Meeting, or The First Militant Minister (produced, 1969; published, 1970). The remaining plays are by other outstanding Black Arts playwrights: Baraka, Ron Milner, and Ed Bullins.
Caldwell's plays uniquely satirize not only the racism and the naïveté of whites, but also those African Americans who seek either to emulate whites, be unduly materialistic, or anchor themselves to stereotypes. Some of these works also employ revolutionary rhetoric common to the period, but as Stanley Crouch suggests, Caldwell's movement to agitprop from a deftly crafted concatenation of satirical moments renders the whole formulaic, clinical, and trite.
Many of his works are very short one-act plays; four of these, appearing in a special issue of Drama Review (vol. 12, 1967–1968), occupy only eleven pages. Caldwell's great power, however, is his ability to communicate racial issues with both mordancy and a superb economy of dramaturgy. The revolutionary spirit compromised through materialism is the theme of Riot Sale, or Dollar Psyche Fake Out, as a weapon that shoots currency makes rioting African Americans stop to gather the money and run to nearby stores; Top Secret, or A Few Million after B.C. focuses on a secret meeting between the President and select members of his cabinet to discover a method of imposing birth control on African Americans. The method: convincing African Americans, many of whom wish to emulate whites anyway, that having more than xsxsxtwo children is uncivilized.
One of his more mature efforts in this vein is The King of Soul, or The Devil and Otis Redding (1969), in which the theme of materialism is further complicated by both the history of the exploitation of talented entertainers such as Redding and by the inclusion of Redding and the Faustian bargain he makes—though never understands. This kind of pithy acidity helped earn Caldwell a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1970.
After 1970, Caldwell wrote essays and poetry in addition to drama. As late as 1982, the Henry Street Settlement's New Federal Theater had staged The World of Ben Caldwell, a series of sketches that attempted to reveal the absurdity of the American dream. In one of these comic sketches, actor Morgan Freeman portrayed risqué stand-up comedian Richard Pryor; actors Reginald Vel Johnson and Garrett Morris alternated portrayals of actor-comedian Bill Cosby. Mel Gussow, reporting in the New York Times, wrote that Caldwell showed such deftness and caustic cleverness in these sketches that he might well consider writing material for Pryor.