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TDR: The Drama Review 44.3 (2000) 183-188

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Book Review

Demons of Disorder:
Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World

Inside the Minstrel Mask:
Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy

Resistance, Parody, and Double Consciousness in African American Theatre, 1895-1910

Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World by Dale Cockrell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997; 256 pp.; $59.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy edited by Annemarie Bean, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, UPNE, 1996; 310 pp.; 25 illustrations, $22.95 paper.

Resistance, Parody, and Double Consciousness in African American Theatre, 1895-1910 by David Krasner. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997; 252 pp.; $55.00 cloth, $16.95 paper.

The project to map African diaspora performance practice onto a history of American popular culture production continues. Blackface minstrelsy and early theatre made by African Americans have risen in importance to scholars engaged in this project, as they offer obvious densely packed nodules of intercultural collaboration, with ever-widening critical implications. But the study of these performance forms knows no disciplinary boundaries, and scholars approach them from every conceivable angle: musicology, labor history, leisure studies, dance studies, theatre studies, and on and on. While historians of performance and American culture overlap primary source materials with musicologists and literary critics, no consensus arrives on how to ascribe meaning to the historical relationship between African performance practice and American popular culture.

Read in the chronological order suggested by their titles, these three volumes illustrate the contested state of scholarship concerned with black subjects and subjectivity on and off American stages. The various authors here agree on some basic points--blackface minstrelsy's significance derives from its immense popularity; blackface minstrelsy fixed certain stereotypes in the American popular imagination; black people in America are still recovering from the adverse affects of blackface minstrelsy as a powerful agent of symbolic racism--but they seldom concur in other areas, including terminology, or the very rationale for their own inquiry. [End Page 183]

Dale Cockrell's project, which he describes as an attempt to comprehend the role of music in cultural history, proposes an unlikely recuperation of early blackface minstrelsy as both a source of intracultural continuity and a site of intercultural encounter rife with possibilities for vital relations between African Americans and working-class whites. Focusing only on performances and cultural contexts before the 1843 appearance of the Virginia Minstrels, Cockrell articulates the European feudal roots of blackface as an inheritance from folk theatricals of ritual inversion, such as the Lord of Misrule festival. Through detailed descriptions of performance traditions including callithumpian bands, mardi gras, charivari, and mumming plays, he argues that blackface allowed whites to incorporate the Other in the service of class-based populist activism. Calling his source material antislavery, if not downright abolitionist in intent, he hopes to persuade readers that early blackface minstrelsy offered its audiences "engagement at the edges, not simple perversity, and that it was, in promise, one of the most powerful means developed in the century for working out the problems that follow from the magnetic attraction of marginal opposites" (161).

To claim a meeting of marginalized opposites in minstrelsy, Cockrell has to place middle-class manners at the center of 18th- and early 19th-century American stage traditions. In a long opening chapter, he offers a detailed history of blackface performance predating minstrelsy; the carefully researched data allows him to argue that although the performative structures of minstrelsy as popular theatre developed from "folk" traditions, its racist ideologies were set in motion first by the legitimate theatres of the privileged. Trying to prove that early blackface minstrelsy might have "been about race without being necessarily racist" forces Cockrell into some tight corners. In drawing out European folk traditions of violent young male "rights of passage" which contributed to blackface performance, he goes...


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