- Approaching the “Structure of Feeling” in Grassroots Theatre
Racial Representation and the Problem of Ideology
Most current discussions of “grassroots” or “community-based” theatre slight spectator’s general emotional response to these kinds of performances to concentrate on the purported ideological meanings read by the audience. The “central assumption” of Baz Kershaw’s The Politics of Performance is that “performance can be most usefully described as an ideological transaction between a company of performers and the community of their audience” (original emphasis, 16). Richard Owen Geer follows Kershaw’s lead in his article about his work with a small town in southern Georgia. So, too, does Sonja Kuftinec’s insightful analysis of Cornerstone Theatre productions in several locales since 1986.
Certainly “ideological transaction” is a part of every performance, but the mutual making of meaning is not all that occurs in theatre and, arguably, it is not the part that matters most to its primary participants in community-based shows—local performers and spectators. I am aware, of course, that audience interest in theatrical images has been no deterrent to theatre scholars (myself included) interested in understanding the ideological implications of audience response. But for community-based theatre especially, when close attention to spectator desires and anxieties is a necessary part of the ongoing process, the emphasis on meaning apart from judgment and pleasure can lead astray those of us particularly concerned with furthering the goals and practice of grassroots theatre. To be sure, all images have political implications, but these are often much more ambivalent and even ambiguous for audiences (and performers) than most analyses focused solely on ideology tend to comprehend. And when the stakes center on racial representation and/or appropriation, ideological meanings can be slippery indeed.
The public response to a community-based production that I recently facilitated in Williamsburg, Virginia bears this out. During the 1995–1996 academic year, with the assistance of Dudley Cocke, Theresa Holden, and Robbie McCauley from the Roadside Theatre Company, I helped to train William and Mary College students in the techniques of story gathering and presentation [End Page 33] and to educate them about the dynamics of local history and racism. Our work culminated in Walk Together Children, a two-hour production focused on race relations in Williamsburg from the late 1950s through the 1960s. I, a “white” male academic, had cast Walk Together cross-racially to challenge the local community’s racial categories and to help them rethink their racial past. Of the fifteen cast members, eight were conventionally “white,” six were “black” or African American, and one was Asian American. In the show each actor played three to eight characters, with “characterization” ranging from storyteller to dancing figure to fully dramatic persona. When race was a significant marker in a scene, the audience could see that about half the time the conventional “race” of the actor did not fit the designated “race” of the character portrayed. (The Asian American actor’s “race” never matched that of the character she was playing.) Because our grassroots play was based on the oral history of the community during the gradual shift from legal segregation to desegregation in a small southern town, most of the characters in the show were “black.” Yet, because I had to cast the production with students from a predominately “white” college, the cross-racial casting mostly matched up “white” actors with “black” characters rather than the other way.
During rehearsals, Robbie McCauley, several cast members, and I had been concerned that spectators would either be confused by our deliberate racial mixing or, if they were black, feel dismayed or enraged that white actors were appropriating black personas and voices. As it turned out, we were caught up in an ideological controversy that seems to have been beside the point for most of the community audience, black as well as white spectators. The William and Mary Theatre production of Walk Together Children opened on campus April 11, 1996 and ran for four performances. We played to over a thousand spectators, including a significant number of African American citizens who do not usually attend college productions. Because we had drawn so heavily on local history...