Performance in America: Contemporary U. S. Culture and the Performing Arts

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Performance in America demonstrates the vital importance of the performing arts to contemporary U.S. culture. Looking at a series of specific performances mounted between 1994 and 2004, well-known performance studies scholar David Román challenges the belief that theatre, dance, and live music are marginal art forms in the United States. He describes the crucial role that the performing arts play in local, regional, and national communities, emphasizing the power of live performance, particularly its immediacy and capacity to create a dialogue between artists and audiences. Román draws attention to the ways that the performing arts provide unique perspectives on many of the most pressing concerns within American studies: questions about history and politics, citizenship and society, and culture and nation.

The performances that Román analyzes range from localized community-based arts events to full-scale Broadway productions and from the controversial works of established artists such as Tony Kushner to those of emerging artists. Román considers dances produced by the choreographers Bill T. Jones and Neil Greenberg in the mid-1990s as new aids treatments became available and the aids crisis was reconfigured; a production of the Asian American playwright Chay Yew’s A Beautiful Country in a high-school auditorium in Los Angeles’s Chinatown; and Latino performer John Leguizamo’s one-man Broadway show Freak. He examines the revival of theatrical legacies by female impersonators and the resurgence of cabaret in New York City. Román also looks at how the performing arts have responded to 9/11, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and the second war in Iraq. Including more than eighty illustrations, Performance in America highlights the dynamic relationships among performance, history, and contemporary culture through which the past is revisited and the future reimagined.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Coming together to lift a celebratory glass to their peculiarities, as if they have suddenly found themselves together again in Nick’s Pacific Street bar from Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life (1939), the carefully assembled guests of David Román’s Performance in America add up to an improbable but exhilarating ensemble. Anyone who can make Elaine Stritch feel right at home at a party with the ghost of Sarah Siddons will show you the time of your life, and Román is that kind of host, entertaining the divas of stage, screen, dance, and cabaret while cordially welcoming his readers. rsvp.”—Joseph Roach, author of Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance

“In a work of immediate political relevance and lasting theoretical importance, David Román forcefully establishes live performance at the center of America’s cultural life, showing how its unique capacity to mobilize ‘provisional collectivities’ in the here and now allows it to express and inform crucial national debates. Román’s brilliant readings of various undervalued genres of popular performance are themselves a tour de force of critical performance, teaching us how to engage the vast ‘embodied archive’ in which American publics and counter-publics understand themselves.”—Una Chaudhuri, Professor of English and Drama, New York University

Debora Paredez

“Román makes a persuasive case for the centrality of performance in contemporary U.S. culture. . . . In its analyses, tone, and scope, this book succeeds in achieving what its subjects accomplish: a critical reassessment of performance in America.”
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Product Details

Meet the Author

David Román is Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS and a coeditor of O Solo Homo: The New Queer Performance.

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Read an Excerpt


By David Román


Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3675-4

Chapter One

Not About AIDS

Soon after the 1996 international AIDS conference in Vancouver, which officially announced the success of protease inhibitors, there was a great deal of talk in the United States about the end of AIDS, and much of it implied that the need to talk about AIDS had ended as well. Reports both in the popular media and in lesbian and gay publications suggested that the AIDS epidemic had run its course. While acknowledging that most people across the world lacked access to the new drugs, these accounts put forward the idea that the AIDS crisis was now over. In the absence of a cure or vaccine, this discourse seemed striking. In his controversial article, "When AIDS Ends," published in the November 10, 1996, New York Times Magazine (figure 5), Andrew Sullivan wrote: "A difference between the end of AIDS and the end of many other plagues: for the first time in history, a large proportion of the survivors will not simply be those who escaped infection, or were immune to the virus, but those who contracted the illness, contemplated their own deaths, and still survived." Cover articles in other major publications of the period further demonstrated this shift in AIDSdiscourse and shared in its assumptions-from Newsweek's "The End of AIDS?" published in the December 2, 1996, issue (figure 6) to Time Magazine's selection of Dr. David Ho, a pioneer of the new AIDS treatment research, as "Man of the Year" (figure 7), which indicated that an understanding of AIDS as a manageable condition rather than a terminal one had taken shape. In late 1996, AIDS returned to the forefront of U.S. culture only to announce its departure. Not surprisingly, the end-of-AIDS discourse soon led to a general lack of media interest in the disease, as well as to calls from gay figures for "post-AIDS" identities and cultures.

These developments surfacing in the late 1990s have left me wondering what it means to continue prioritizing AIDS in discussions of contemporary gay culture and politics. How might we return our critical attention to AIDS in light of the shifts in the political, cultural, and sexual climates of the late 1990s and the early twenty-first century? I wish to explore two central questions: how might the so-called end of AIDS itself be understood as an AIDS discourse, one that tells us much about our relationship to AIDS; and how did artists living with HIV/AIDS respond to calls for post-AIDS identities and cultures? The performing arts, and dance in particular, offered an alternative entry point into the national focus on AIDS that helped shift the conversation away from this discourse of an ending. Moreover, the performing arts fully participated in the efforts to rethink AIDS in light of the medical breakthroughs of the period. This chapter examines the discourse of AIDS in a number of different contexts including queer and minority communities, and the political responses these new treatment options brought forth at the time. It focuses on the artistic response primarily, however, because it is here that some of the most productive critical reassessments of the contemporary moment first emerged.

In Dry Bones Breathe, perhaps the most telling book of 1998, Eric Rofes, a longtime progressive gay activist, argues that contemporary gay culture needs to disentangle itself from the dated AIDS-as-crisis model that characterized the gay community's response in the first decade of the epidemic. Rofes, unlike most commentators, carefully explains that he is speaking specifically about gay male culture in America and that post-AIDS does not necessarily mean the end of AIDS. "This admittedly controversial term," Rofes writes, "claims that the communal experience of AIDS-as-crisis has ended, [it] does not imply that the epidemic of AIDS is over." Despite drawing such distinctions and making an overall effort to remain sensitive to those living with HIV/AIDS, Rofes suggests that "it may be time for gay men to abandon the acronym 'AIDS' altogether."

While many commentators questioned the concept of post-AIDS, most of their critiques were cast as expressions of concern about a new wave of infection among the very subjects who imagined themselves living in a post-AIDS world: urban gay men. Michaelangelo Signorile's September 1998 Out article "641,086 and Counting" proves typical. Signorile argues that "we are headed toward an unqualified disaster." This disaster, "in which a new generation of gay men become as immersed in the horrors of AIDS, disease, and death as previous generations," was taking shape because of the message and belief that AIDS was over. Signorile's title, "641,086 and Counting," invoked Larry Kramer's 1983 New York Native essay, "1,112 and Counting," which helped inaugurate the AIDS activist movement. Kramer's title simultaneously registered the number of AIDS cases at the time of its publication and predicted more cases in the future. The article, as Kramer put it, was meant to "scare the shit out of you." In "641,086 and Counting," Signorile sounds the alarm for a new generation of gay men. "Will it take massive death and suffering for us to wake up once again?" he asks near the end of his critique of post-AIDS rhetoric. He models his effort to motivate gay men on Kramer's foundational rhetoric of early 1980s AIDS activism in the hope that this time around, such rhetoric will counter apathy and denial.

Surprisingly, Signorile neglected to account for the global shifts in AIDS demographics since 1983. Few critics of the end-of-AIDS rhetoric, in fact, seriously questioned the assumptions that condition the post-AIDS discourse either globally or in the context of the United States. This discourse, as Phillip Brian Harper argues in response to Sullivan's essay, invests in a specific category of "racial-national normativity," or, as Harper more bluntly puts it, in "U.S. whites," who are its implicit subjects. He recasts Sullivan's speculation that for many in the United States, HIV infection "no longer signifies death" but "merely ... illness" to mean that, for Sullivan, the deaths of "those not included in his racial-national normativity"-that is to say nonwhites and those living outside the United States-"effectively do not constitute AIDS-related deaths at all."

While I completely agree with Harper on this issue, I am less interested in similarly disassociating myself from Sullivan: Harper's opening sentence, "For quite a while now, I have strongly suspected that Andrew Sullivan and I inhabit entirely different worlds," rings false for me given that my world often does literally overlap with Sullivan's, regardless of my disagreement with many of his assertions. I have often seen Sullivan in the bars, vacation resorts, commercial spaces, and sexual publics that I visit throughout the United States. My point here is that we, as gay men, do sometimes share social and sexual worlds with those with whom we may politically disagree. I am thus more interested in thinking through what was meant by the end-of-AIDS discourse that began circulating in queer culture in the late 1990s. This discourse takes many forms. Claims for the end of AIDS and a post-AIDS discourse might be best understood not as markers of a definitive and identifiable moment of closure, but as the next development in the discursive history of AIDS. For Sullivan, it means putting forward his experience optimistically and naively as the normative experience of AIDS, without much concern for the effects of his rhetoric on others; it is a normalizing process that demonstrates a lack of self-consciousness, what we might call a discourse undetectable. For Rofes, who asks us to consider abandoning the term AIDS, it means "finding a new language that captures our experience." For Signorile, concerned with HIV prevention, it means returning to the language of early 1980s AIDS activism. For Harper, who advocates a more "conscious and responsible discursive engagement," it means interrogating the social normativity that these end-of-AIDS pronouncements enforce. Given these different meanings and competing claims, we might consider the language about the end of AIDS as yet another moment in what Paula Treichler terms "an epidemic of signification," the ongoing evolution of cultural meanings and values attached to AIDS that help shape how it is understood. Both the so-called end of AIDS and post-AIDS discourse participate in a larger social phenomenon that encourages us to believe that the immediate concerns facing contemporary American culture, including queer culture, are not about AIDS.

We see the tension arising from the end-of-AIDS claims played out in the United States especially around the topics of race, money, and the law. In 1998, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), blacks accounted for 57 percent of all new HIV cases in the country, even though they constituted only 12 percent of the population. In Los Angeles, where I live, Latinos accounted for nearly 50 percent of new cases in 1998. Nationally, half of all new infections occurred in people under twenty-five. These statistics are no doubt what led Mario Cooper-former chair of the national AIDS lobby group AIDS Action Council and founder of Leading for Life, an organization that advocates for African American AIDS awareness-to claim that "AIDS isn't over. For many in America, it's just beginning." In 1998, Leading for Life helped spur the Congressional Black Caucus to lobby the Clinton administration to declare AIDS in the black community a "public health emergency" so that the Department of Health and Human Services could allocate funds to counter AIDS where it is most prevalent. Federal funding for treatments, prevention strategies, and support services in black and Latino communities rose by $156 million. The AIDS-as-crisis model adopted by the national black leadership in the late 1990s often posits queer communities against minority communities to make its point, even though its origins are to be found in the gay community's efforts to organize around AIDS. This tactic departs from earlier understandings of AIDS in communities of color, which put forward the idea that AIDS constituted only one of a series of interrelated catastrophes affecting U.S. racial minorities and that it should therefore not be prioritized over other pressing issues.

If by 1998 the AIDS-as-crisis model was beginning to be viewed as dated and ineffective in the gay community, the new AIDS emergency or AIDS-as-crisis discourse among black and Latino leadership was proving successful in channeling political energy to fight AIDS in communities of color. In a peculiar reversal, the lesbian and gay leadership began to follow the discarded logic of the earlier AIDS discourse used by the black and Latino leadership by promoting the restructuring of AIDS service organizations (ASOS) to accommodate other non-AIDS-related health issues facing the community and by prioritizing other political issues over HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. While white gay men who argue for the end of AIDS regularly neglect to account for increasing infection rates among racial minorities, leaders in communities of color regularly discount queer people in the AIDS emergency discourse that calls attention to AIDS in their communities. Queers of color do not fare well in these scenarios; in fact, homosexuality and race are generally imagined as oppositional.

This opposition between race and sexuality places groups in competition for funding and other resource allocations. As Cathy J. Cohen explains in The Boundaries of Blackness, "Often this struggle for money has been framed as a battle between resource-rich and overly indulged white gay communities and poor and largely ignored black and Latino communities. Of course, a case can be made that white gay men have received and controlled the lion's share of available AIDS funding; this simple dichotomy, however, does little to advance the interests of any group working for more AIDS funding." Consider, for example, how Patsy Fleming, former White House director of national AIDS policy, in an attempt to point out the economic discrepancies between queer communities and communities of color around the issue of AIDS, inadvertently reinforces this binary when she recounts her visit to two ASOS in the same city. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, "One predominantly served white homosexual men and the other served low-income blacks and Latinos, and both were conducting fund-raisers at the same time. While the first group expected to raise $1 million, the second dreamed of bringing in $100, 000." Fleming's attempt to call attention to the need for more and better resources in communities of color comes across as an either-or. That is, the plight of low-income blacks and Latinos affected by HIV is played against the seeming financial security of white homosexual men, even though, clearly, not all white homosexual men, or ASOS that provide services to them, enjoy this security.

The end-of-AIDS claims have contributed significantly to the decline in monetary donations, both individual and corporate, to ASOS. Despite the booming economy at the end of the twentieth century, which saw private donations to nonprofits increase by 7 percent annually during 1997 and 1998, ASOS reported disturbing decreases in AIDS funding. The main reasons for the drop in AIDS philanthropy in this period were AIDS burnout, the growth in non-AIDS-related organizations catering to lesbian and gay communities, and the sense that AIDS was over.

The supposed end of AIDS, however, does not explain the legal backlash against people with HIV. Legislation has shifted the emphasis from protecting the civil liberties of people with HIV to protecting the public from people with HIV. Calls for mandatory testing, especially among prisoners and pregnant women, for name reporting and partner notification, and for the criminalization of HIV transmission are increasing. Despite the Supreme Court's 1998 ruling that people with HIV are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the legislative trend shows that "we've moved from a period where civil rights and civil liberties for a person with HIV prevailed to a compulsory and punitive approach." Prisoners, immigrants, pregnant women, and the poor are the most vulnerable to prosecution. This legislative trend is directly linked to cultural anxieties about the fact that new, advanced drug therapies help people with HIV live longer than previously expected. As Sean Strub, publisher of POZ, puts it: "Combination therapy, in our enemies' eyes, enables us 'AIDS carriers,' not only to 'live longer' but, more important, to 'infect more.'" If this is so, how are we to understand what is meant by the end-of-AIDS pronouncements? That discourse seems to have rendered invisible the social, cultural, and medical problems that structured this moment in the late 1990s in AIDS history. This invisibility is supported by the lesbian and gay media, which in the late 1990s positioned marriage and the military as the two main political sites on which the main resources would be spent, a choice that clearly came at the expense of AIDS.

Mainstream lesbian and gay political organizations and media shifted their priorities as AIDS moved more and more into the developing world and into previously underrepresented groups throughout the United States including communities of color, poor women, and the incarcerated. The rise of marriage and the military as key issues for mainstream lesbian and gay culture underscores the symbolic centrality of marital coupling and military service to the health and defense of the nation. The move to make these concerns central to a new gay politics can also be seen as an attempt to normalize gay and lesbian culture by associating it with the most traditionally recognized forms of national duty and social and civic responsibility. The discourse about the end of AIDS both helps make this possible and displaces AIDS onto the lesser-developed world. But if mainstream American lesbian and gay politics and media reassign AIDS to the shadow of gay marriage and the military, where might we find a discourse about AIDS that both marks the significant changes surfacing in the wake of the 1996 international AIDS conference in Vancouver and that also acknowledges the political necessity of foregrounding AIDS?


Excerpted from PERFORMANCE IN AMERICA by David Román Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction: Here and Now 1

1. Not About AIDS 49

2. Visa Denied: Chay Yew's Theatre of Immigration and the Performance of Asian American History 78

3. Latino Genealogies: Broadway and Beyond — the Case of John Leguizamo 109

4. Archival Drags; or, the Afterlife of Performance 137

5. Cabaret as Cultural History: Popular Song and Public Performance in America 179

6. Tragedy and the Performing Arts in the Wake of September 11, 2001 226

Afterword: The Time of Your Life 281

Notes 311

Bibliography 333

Index 345

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