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"Black Cultural Traffic is nothing less than our generation's manifesto on black performance and popular culture. With a distinguished roster of contributors and topics ranging across academic disciplines and the arts (including commentary on film, music, literature, theater, television, and visual cultures), this volume is not only required reading for scholars serious about the various dimensions of black performance, it is also a timely and necessary teaching tool. It captures the excitement and intellectual innovation of a field that has come of age. Kudos!"
--Dwight A. McBride, author of Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch
"The explosion of interest in black popular culture studies in the past fifteen years has left a significant need for a reader that reflects this new scholarly energy. Black Cultural Traffic answers that need."
--Mark Anthony Neal, author of Songs in the Key of Black Life
"A revolutionary anthology that will be widely read and taught. It crisscrosses continents and cultures and examines confluences and influences of black popular culture -- music, dance, theatre, television, fashion and film. It also adds a new dimension to current discussions of racial, ethnic, and national identity."
--Horace Porter, author of The Making of a Black Scholar
When Is African Theater "Black"?
At the psychic center of black popular culture is Africa: at once the source, the motherland, the wellspring of humankind, the site of slavery's original trauma, and the locus of anticipated healing. The continent's silhouette emblazoned on clothing, its name soulfully invoked in song lyrics, Africa looms large. Yet Africa's current realities are more dimly seen. Kobena Mercer has argued that the image of Africa animating black popular culture may bear little resemblance to Africa as it is. The gulf between the imagined and lived realities of Africa is not so much my focus here as it is my point of departure. I enter this discussion as a scholar of African theater and performance, West African popular theater in particular. As I try to address the themes of this book, I find myself asking whether African theater belongs in a volume on black popular culture at all. Is it popular? And, perhaps more provocatively, is it black? Yes, most theater in sub-Saharan Africa is created by and for black Africans. Whether these artists identify and affiliate with a transnational notion of blackness is another matter entirely.
Theater in Africa takes manyforms: from Soyinka's poetic literary masterpieces written in English to improvised, nonscripted shows in indigenous languages; from traveling melodramas to community-based skits promoting literacy; from internationally successful South African productions like Woza Albert! to Ngugi wa Thiong'o's grassroots Kamiriithu theater in Kenya. Much African theater uses proscenium-style staging with a bicameral separation between audience and spectators. This spatial configuration has roots in colonial schools that used European theater and its realist trappings to inculcate students with the ways of "civilization." But African cultures had rich performance traditions long before the arrival of Europeans. Theater as it is known in the West represents just one segment of a large spectrum of performance modes. As much as one can generalize about such an enormous and diverse continent, one can say that indigenous African performance genres (meaning those with roots that predate colonialism) tend to use fluid spatial dynamics. For instance, masquerade performers at festivals or annual rites may move through a town with audiences constantly converging and dispersing as they go. Story-tellers may perform in an impromptu theater-in-the-round with spectators encroaching on the performance space as the dramatic tension builds.
Spatial dynamics have both a literal and figurative significance when one views African theater through the lens of black popular culture. African performance deploys a tremendous range of styles and genres. But it is primarily in theater as it is defined by the West-that is, scripted, literary dramas in European languages that utilize proscenium-style staging-that the transnational signifier of "black" takes on substance and weight. Blackness is a term of contrast that gains meaning through its antithesis, whiteness. South Africa is a country whose obsession with race and institutionalized racism during the apartheid regime ensured that the terms black, white, and coloured permeated every aspect of life, from the profound to the most mundane. Though apartheid officially ended in the mid-1990s, its heritage cannot be readily legislated away. Of South Africa's past and present, one can quite reasonably ask, "What is the relationship between the black performer and the black community?" Such questions have long been part of the critical analysis of township musicals as they moved into white-dominated urban venues and, eventually, overseas to Broadway houses. With the end of official apartheid, theater practitioners have had to engage in an even more thoroughgoing analysis of what black theater is about, what communities it will serve, and how these will be defined. Will the dismantling of a racist social structure in South Africa necessitate the suppression of an explicit discourse on race, a discourse in which terms like the black community are meaningful? Gross inequities in the distribution of wealth in new South Africa continue to be so clearly racialized that one can argue it is highly problematic not to speak of race.
Yet in parts of Africa where whites have never represented a statistically large proportion of the population, either in the colonial or postcolonial eras, notions of black and white may not be of sufficient significance to be the subject, subtext, or organizing feature of theatrical production. For instance, the practitioners of the concert party theater in Ghana are indeed black, yet they do not describe their art as "black." Kobena Mercer speaks of the "burden of representation" for black artists, the expectation that one must speak on behalf of the black community. The Ghanaian concert party is multilingual and multiethnic, interweaving different aspects of Akan culture-such as Asante and Fante-while at the same time incorporating allusions to neighboring languages and ethnicities such as Ewe, Ga, and Hausa. Yet rarely does this theater assume the transnational identity of blackness, nor does it speak for, to, or on behalf of subjects explicitly identified as black. Who is the black community from the point of view of concert party spectators and performers?
A time-based art form dependent upon embodied enactment, theater in the form of touring performances travels beyond Africa only rarely. Published play scripts, theater reviews, or production videos may circulate in the global marketplace along with other elements of black popular culture such as CDs or Afropop music tours, yet African theater outside the continent is, by any measure, obscure. In America, for instance, far more people would recognize the name of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African choral group featured on Paul Simon's Graceland album, than that of Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright from Nigeria. Few indeed have heard of the Kumapim Royals, one of Ghana's most popular touring theater and music groups. The closest African theater has come to global popularity was the film adaptation of the South African musical Sarafina starring Whoopi Goldberg, a film so embarrassingly and ineptly executed that few African theater practitioners or scholars would wish to be associated with it.
While African theater is largely unknown in the United States, quite the opposite is true in Africa. In the absence of widespread local video or cinema production prior to the 1990s, theater long served as a primary medium for telling stories that expressed themes of local relevance. African theater has engaged in the boisterous process that has preoccupied much of African culture in the twentieth century: combining "tradition" with more recent imports and innovations while retaining cultural integrity. A vibrant and adaptive form, African popular theater continues to attract intensely engaged audiences, from farmers to lawyers, taxi drivers to teachers, entrepreneurial business owners to wage-laborers. This theater is popular both because it draws large audiences and because it is perceived to be an expression by and for the people.
Because popular theater is so widespread throughout Africa and also because of its complex negotiation of colonial and postcolonial social conditions, it has been the subject of a growing body of scholarly literature. David Kerr's encyclopedic African Popular Theatre (1995) is an excellent, if cursory, introduction to the subject. The number of monographs on West African popular theater alone attest to the richness of this cultural form. Among the most notable studies are Come to Laugh (1981) by Kwabena Bame, L'Invention du Théâtre by Alain Ricard (1986), The Yoruba Popular Travelling Theatre of Nigeria (1984) by Biodun Jeyifo, Yorùbá Popular Theatre edited by Karin Barber and Báyo Ògúndíjo (1994), and West African Popular Theatre by Karin Barber, John Collins, and Alain Ricard (1997). The most recent additions to this field are Karin Barber's The Generation of Plays (2000) and my own Ghana's Concert Party Theatre (2001), with an accompanying videotape, Stage-Shakers! Ghana's Concert Party Theatre by Kwame Braun (2001). The annual African Theatre, published by Indiana University Press, attests to the continued vibrancy and diversity of African theater.
What emerges from these studies is a clearer picture of transnational patterns of African theater. For instance, popular theater in Nigeria, Togo, and Ghana often dramatizes the conflict between ill-gotten riches and those earned honestly, the plight of orphans, and the power of supernatural forces. One also sees the common themes of class divisions, inheritance disputes, and modern reinventions of tradition. West African popular theater rarely portrays or alludes to blackness as a concept of racial or cultural affiliation, whereas ethnicity, seniority, and gender relations are dominant concerns across national boundaries.
One apparent exception to this is the Ghanaian concert party, a popular theater form that was partly inspired by American blackface minstrelsy. I first encountered the Ghanaian concert party in the Northwestern University library in 1992. It was there I found Efua Sutherland's small booklet The Original Bob, a biography of the famous concert party actor Bob Johnson (1970). On the cover was a picture of Johnson in top hat and tails, wearing a plaid tie, his beaming smile broadly painted in white, his hands extended outward at his sides: a perfect evocation of Al Jolson singing "Mammy." This picture of Johnson, so suggestive of the controversial and racially charged American minstrel genre, raised questions about how blackface traveled all the way to West Africa. Why did Africans wear blackface? Did this makeup, clearly influenced by American and British minstrelsy, signify ideas about race circulating during British colonial rule?
Perhaps colonial Ghanaian performers were offering what Homi K. Bhabha calls a "revaluation of the assumption of colonial identity through the repetition of discriminatory identity effects." Blackface performance practices might have been subversive strategies through which Africans disrupted racist colonial domination by turning "the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of power." Yet as someone who strongly believes that postcolonial theory needs to be rooted in historical specificity, I question just how such an interpretation of the concert party's subversiveness could be supported with historical evidence. Would it require intentionality on the part of the performers? Or would audience reception be more important? Subversiveness may not be consciously articulated at all, for concert parties are comedies, and humor, as Freud has shown us, registers in regions of the human psyche often beyond the reach of rationality, inaccessible to the historian searching for evidence firm enough to move an argument beyond speculation and surmise.
Empirical methods demanding transparent sources must be suspended when considering performance practices forged, as blackface was, under conditions of exploitation and domination. However, despite what Paul Gilroy sees as the ultimate failure of empirical models in this context, I believe that a thorough immersion in evidentiary sources is especially crucial where conditions of domination prevail. Postcolonial theory asserts that colonial mimicry and stereotypes were ambivalent. But to speak of mimicry and colonial ambivalence ultimately does not tell us very much. What is much more revealing is to analyze in detail how specific valences were created, reproduced, and transformed through particular representations over time. What did blackface come to "mean" as it moved geographically from Boston to Hollywood, from London to Africa, and temporally from the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries? Looking at the particular valences of ambivalent signs takes us much further into understanding the cultural maelstrom where colonialism and performance converge, the busy intersections of black cultural traffic.
During the course of my field research in Ghana from 1993 to 1995, I asked many people where blackface, or "tranting" as they call it, came from and what it meant. I never met anyone, either among performers or spectators, who explicitly said blackface carried any notable ideological weight in terms of race. When I asked the leaders of the veteran company Jaguar Jokers why they painted their faces with black, they said, "Because it is attractive. In fact, it creates laughter too. When you wear the trant, it creates laughter." Kwame Mbia Hammond said actors do it "just to crack jokes to the audience. If you don't make up your face and disguise yourself to the audience, you don't get laughs." Blackface is part of a whole aesthetic of artifice in which actors use self-consciously presentational techniques to foreground the artifice of performance. Conventions such as female impersonation, nonnaturalistic staging, cartoonish characterizations, and a broad acting style create comic distance between the actors and their characters.
When I visited Ghana in 1993, the Concert Parties Union was preparing a proposal to perform at Ghana's 1994 Pan-African Historical Theatre Festival (Panafest). This semiannual event attracts participants from throughout the African diaspora, for it commemorates the devastation of the African slave trade and reunites African peoples whom slavery dispersed throughout the world. The Ghana Concert Parties Union members discussed their participation in Panafest not as an occasion to reflect upon diasporic issues, but as an opportunity to advance the Union's reputation. Knowing that many Americans would come to Panafest, they decided to feature the American-derived aspects of their art form by doing an old-style show in which blackface featured prominently. The show was to be performed on a stage constructed within the Cape Coast Castle, the symbolic center of Panafest and site of the historic "Gate of No Return" through which Africans embarked on the Middle Passage. Union members seemed entirely innocent about how offensive blackface comedy performed in a former slave castle was likely to be for African Americans, especially those motivated to make a pilgrimage all the way to the motherland. Fortunately, this particular Panafest show never materialized, perhaps due to sluggish bureaucracy or a diplomatically astute festival organizer's intervention.
When I returned to Ghana in 1994, I asked performers more questions about blackface, but my inquiries led to blind alleys. Everyone said blacking up was done just to make people laugh-it meant nothing. Tranting was but one of the many techniques concert party actors use to transform themselves "for show." So I decided to give actors more information about why I was interested in this particular feature of their theater. On one occasion I gathered together six older actors for a reunion during which I showed them pictures of nineteenth-century American minstrelsy and early vaudeville. These performers, ranging in age from sixty-three to seventy-seven, were among the first and second generations of concert party practitioners. These actors began their careers in an era when blackface was used in concert parties much more frequently than it is today. They also began acting at a time when African contact with British culture and the ideologies of colonialism was most intense. If blackface carried racial meanings in Ghana, I suspected this generation was most likely to be aware of it.
Excerpted from BLACK CULTURAL TRAFFIC Copyright © 2005 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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