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To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Theatre History Studies journal, editor Rhona Justice-Malloy and the Mid-America Theatre Conference have collected a special-themed volume covering the past and present of African and African American theatre. Topics included range from modern theatrical trends and challenges in Zimbabwe and Kenya, and examining the history and long-range impact of Paul Robeson’s groundbreaking and troubled life and career, to gender issues in the work of Ghanaian playwright Efo Kodjo ...
To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Theatre History Studies journal, editor Rhona Justice-Malloy and the Mid-America Theatre Conference have collected a special-themed volume covering the past and present of African and African American theatre. Topics included range from modern theatrical trends and challenges in Zimbabwe and Kenya, and examining the history and long-range impact of Paul Robeson’s groundbreaking and troubled life and career, to gender issues in the work of Ghanaian playwright Efo Kodjo Mawugbe, and the ways that 19th-century American blackness was defined through Othello and Desdemona. This collection fills a vacancy in academic writing. Readers will enjoy it; academics can incorporate it into their curriculum; and students will find it helpful and illuminating.
Mid-America Theatre Conference keynote Address, March 7, 2009 -E. PATRICK JOHNSON
When I thought about the theme of this year's conference, "Poor Theatre," I thought I might have been left out of a bad joke, for I didn't know there was any other kind. But then it struck me that there are indeed some theatres that have more resources than others, indeed, that some of our most important smaller theatre companies around the country are closing their doors-victims of the economic downturn and the Republican Party's failure to understand that the arts are integral to the economic, social, and cultural well-being of this country. I also considered "poor" not only in economic terms but also in semantic terms-as in, "deserving of pity or compassion." I know this signification of the term all too well, for in southern culture the term is often used to soften the blow of a devastating insult-as in when my grandmother said of someone, "She can't help that she's ugly-poor thing." Somehow, the "poor thing" made the insult perfectly acceptable, especially if it was followed by a "bless her heart."
The various ways in which "poor" signifies made me consider the history of black theatre and performance studies in the field and its practice outside academia. For as rich as this history is, the diminution of black theatre and performance studies as "subpar," "reactionary," or "anti-intellectual" positions it in that category worthy of my grandmother's condescending, "Poor black theatre. It can't help that it's ugly, bless its heart." Indeed, while black theatre and performance has been a sustaining and galvanizing force of black culture and a contributor to world culture at large, it hasn't always been recognized as a site of theorization in the academy. On the flip side, black theatre and performance has been cultivated on the concrete of urban sidewalks as well as on the front porches of shotgun houses. For many black folk, "making a way out of no way" meant creating theatre from life, which often meant speaking through a subjugated position in society. As Stuart Hall argues, black theatre and performance emphasizes that "it is only through the way in which we represent and imagine ourselves that we come to know how we are constituted and who we are." I want to focus on these two ways that "poor" signifies as they relate to black theatre and performance studies: "poor black theatre" in the sense of its designation as "other" in the field, and "poor black theatre" in the sense of making theatre out of the material resources of life. In the former, I will redress the designation as "other" by demonstrating how black theatre and performance has always already played an important role in the maintenance of theatre and performance studies in the academy; and in the latter, I will provide examples of how black theatre and performance functions as epistemology and a site of resistance.
Poor Black Theatre Take 1: The Erasure of Black Theatre and Performance Studies
There has always been a black performative "presence" within theatre and performance studies, whether it has been acknowledged as such or not. I am thinking here of Toni Morrison's intervention in the construction of the literary canon. Morrison deploys the term "Africanism" to suggest the process through which black folk are interpellated in the white imaginary and how that interpellation gets represented in literature. "As a trope," she writes, "little restraint has been attached to its uses. As a disabling virus within literary discourse, Africanism has become, in the Eurocentric tradition that American education favors, both a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class, sexual license, and repression, formations and exercises of power, and meditations on ethics and accountability." She continues: "Through the simple expedient of demonizing and reifying the range of color on a palette, American Africanism makes it possible to say and not say, to inscribe and erase, to escape and engage, to act out and act on, to historicize and render timeless. It provides a way of contemplating chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom."
Morrison's definition and deployment of "Africanism" rings true for the ways that black performance has remained for years on the periphery of theatre and performance studies. That is, although always already a viable contributor to the field, disciplinary practices of exclusion-such as the exclusion of black-authored texts in the field and the marginalization of black performance scholars in theatre and performance studies-have reified the field as a "colorless" enterprise.
Some might argue that this critique of the field is anachronistic-indeed, that within this historical context, racism was in vogue and should not be read back into the present as exemplary or typical of the field. Touché. But that doesn't explain the current excision of the role black performance has played in the development of theatre and performance in histories about the field. Nor does it explain the current minuscule number of black scholars located within theatre and performance studies programs and departments around the country. Or perhaps it does. The same racist practices of exclusion, omission, or derision in the past only provided a fertile ground for the perpetuation of those same practices today. Despite the lacuna in the recounting of the field's history and the marginalization of black scholarship on performance theory and theatre history, however, black performance is imbricated with the codified markers of "whiteness."
Dwight Conquergood's essay "Rethinking Elocution: The Trope of the Talking Book and Other Figures of Speech" (2000) revises this "whitened" history of performance studies by demonstrating how racial "others," whose designation as inarticulate and degenerate was reified by the very practice and discourse of elocution, redeployed bourgeois elocutionary practices by performing their own "black counterpublic readings." Similar to Morrison's critique of American literature and criticism, Conquergood argues that while the elocutionary movement highlighted the "performativity of whiteness naturalized," there was another counter-performance of race in dialectic tension with this movement that "brings into sharp focus the complex performative cultural politics of this speech tradition": the black oral tradition. Drawing on what Amadou Hampaté Bâ calls "the great school of life," enslaved and newly emancipated blacks signified on the elocutionary movement by redeploying its tenets toward their own liberation and humanity.
Conquergood's historical intervention withstanding, the refusal to acknowledge the coexistence of subaltern voices within the field's history coincides with the disavowal of black literature in theatre's closely allied field of English. Indeed, theatre studies' subjugation of black cultural production reeks of the same arrogant racism in the literary tradition that, according to Morrison, "holds that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uniformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African Americans in the United States. It assumes that this presence-which shaped the body politic, the Constitution, and the entire history of the culture- has no significant place or consequence in the origin and development of that culture's literature."
And yet, as in the "Africanist" presence in the literary tradition, so too has there been a "black" presence in theatre and performance studies. Quietly yet radically transforming departments, black artist-scholars insisted on foregrounding the drama, folklore, and performance traditions of black playwrights and scholars by cracking open the white canon that was reified as "Literature" (with a capital "L") over and above all "others." These black cultural workers not only demanded inclusion but also developed courses that were dedicated to the study and analysis of black drama, paving the way for scholars of color who would come after them-myself included. These trailblazers were enacting what Conquergood calls an "emancipatory pedagogy and performative cultural politics"-emancipatory in the sense that they no longer felt bound by the strictures of a curriculum that ignored or tokenized the literature, art, music, and artistic expression of their culture, and political in the sense that their intervention occurred during a time when the material consequences of their insubordination could have threatened their employment and even their lives.
Because of the interventions of these foremothers and forefathers, younger black theatre and performance scholars continue to press the field and the academy in general to recognize the material, intellectual, and aesthetic matrix that is black theatre and performance. But similar to the appropriation of "performance" in other disciplines and the ways in which some of those disciplines' current deployment of performance ignores a whole body of work in theatre and performance studies on performance that preceded its own fetishization and exoticization of it, theatre and performance scholars are also guilty of ignoring a whole body of black performance theory that preceded the current proliferation of black theatre and performance theory by younger scholars. Nonetheless, at this critical juncture there is no question that any genealogy of the field must consider the role of black performance and theory in the shaping and codification of theatre and performance studies as a site of intellectual inquiry.
One might ask how such a rich and vital site of knowledge could have been excluded or gone unnoticed within a field that narrates its own history as fraught with political debates with the academy about its own status as a "legitimate" discipline. Institutionalized racism is one culprit, but so is the inability of academic institutions and individuals to read and value the discreet and nuanced performances and theorizing of African Americans. Outside the purview of what many scholars would hardly recognize as a legitimate object of inquiry, black expressive culture has, until recently, been illegible and unintelligible to the undiscerning eyes and ears, and perhaps minds, of some scholars. The subjugated knowledge embedded within black expressive culture, therefore, is not always ameliorated by those who lack the cultural capital to read it or who are altogether disinterested in these forms. It is the research of the self-reflexive, self- conscious, and humble who do more than just read the writing of black people as if it is disconnected from a cultural context and history, and provide a space, according to D. Soyini Madison, for subjugated knowledge to "enter to articulate-to translate and to unveil-extant philosophical systems to those who (without this knowledge) are unable to find, much less hear them." In this regard, black theatre's response to the academy's designation of "poor black theatre" might be similar to that of the character Celie from the Broadway musical The Color Purple: "I may be poor. I may be black. I may be ugly. But I'm here."
Poor Black Theatre Take 2: Black Theatre and Performance as a Site of Resistance
In her essay "Performance Practice As a Site of Opposition," cultural critic and feminist scholar bell hooks suggests that there are two modes of black performance-one ritualistic, as a part of culture building, and one manipulative, out of necessity for survival in a oppressive world. Hooks suggests that these two modes are not mutually exclusive but bound together in dialogic tension, given the way the skills endemic to black expressive culture are required and deployed both for ritual play and for resistive action. For my purposes here, I focus on the latter to buttress my argument that black theatre and performance has always been and will always be a part of any liberationist struggle.
From the minute nonverbal expressions of the slave to the pensive sway of the weary domestic to the collective marches on Washington and throughout the South, black performance has been the galvanizing element of black folks' resistance to oppression. Indeed, in the early years of the antebellum South, black performance was a crucial component of the formation of a black public sphere, which Mark Anthony Neal argues was "invaluable to the transmission of communal values, traditions of resistance, and aesthetic sensibilities." According to bell hooks:
Performance was important because it created a cultural context where black people could transgress the boundaries of accepted speech, both in relationship to the dominant white culture, and to the decorum of African-American cultural mores....
Performance practice was one of the places where the boundaries created by the emphasis on proving that the black race was not uncivilized could be disrupted. Radical ideas could be expressed in this arena. Indeed, the roots of black performative arts emerge from an early nineteenth century emphasis on oration and the recitation of poetry. In a number of narratives relating slave experience, African-Americans cite learning to read and recite as crucial to their development of a liberatory consciousness.
Following this logic, we might concede that black performance is at the interstices of black political life and art, providing the linchpin that sustains and galvanizes arts and acts of resistance.
Hooks offers her personal narrative about the importance the "live arts" played in her child rearing. Like hooks, I, too, recall how members of my small black community in rural western North Carolina staged black plays and encouraged us children to memorize and recite the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes as a way to instill race pride and to counter the lack of exposure to black writers and artists in the public schools. This grassroots organizing speaks to the employment of the only resource available to the community-orality. Without the political clout to demand a change in the public school curriculum, these community leaders drew upon their indigenous expressive forms to transgress the white, bourgeois, culturally sanctioned protocols of reading by making us memorize-and thereby corporeally experience-the literature privileged by black culture.
Some of the best examples of this use of performance are found in the African American oral tradition and literature-established components of the field of theatre and performance studies. Within the black oral tradition, animal trickster tales in which the weaker animal (rabbit or monkey) outwits the stronger animal (fox or lion) serve as tropes for the master and slave. Given the physical and psychological constraints of slave culture, the slaves' modes of resistance manifested in the form of tales of these anthropomorphic animals whose relationships parallel that of the slave and master. Creating and performing these tales provided temporary psychological relief from slave existence, but some forms of verbal double entendre afforded material results in the way of freedom. The coding of geographic locations such as "Heaven," "the river," and "home" in spirituals sung on plantations, for example, served as directions for where to meet to plan a revolt or to escape to the North. This is not to say that slaves relied only on indirect discursive means of resistance; they also employed embodied performances of resistance. These performances of resistance were sometimes met with punishment of the lash, dismemberment, starvation, and even death-and many of these consequences are chronicled in animal trickster tales in which Brer Rabbit is caught by Brer Fox or the monkey in the Signifying Monkey tales slips from his tree and is trounced by the lion. Surely, the threat of such retaliation limited the number of subversive performances, but more times than not, the will to be treated as a human outweighed the potential threat.
Excerpted from Theatre History Studies 2010 VOLUME 30 Copyright © 2010 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
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