- Signatures of the Past: Cultural Memory in Contemporary Anglophone North American Drama
Signatures of the Past consists of a series of case studies that examine the intersections of cultural identity and cultural memory in Canadian and American drama. In his introduction, co-editor Marc Maufort explains that the selected essays are rooted in defining cultural memory as a 'profound doubt of identity that plagues hybridized Western societies in an age of globalization.' The 'signatures' of the title refers to Maufort's articulation of Derrida's non-essentialist notion of 'signatures' as dynamic, problematic, and elusive traces of the past in the present. These fundamental ideas interweave through twenty insightful essays.
Following a concise introduction, the works are loosely and effectively grouped by cultural content - a strength that allows the reader to benefit from the context of preceding chapters. Yet no essay seems particularly reliant on strict sequential reading. The collection starts with Craig Walker's compelling comparison of US and Canadian drama through an exploration of particular, recurrent character types referred to as 'Hopeful Monsters' and 'Doomed Freaks,' respectively. From there, the essays explore a range of dramatic manifestations of contested and complex cultural memories. They include close readings and explications of performances of works by a culturally and dramaturgically broad list of playwrights including Lorraine Hansberry, Suzan-Lori Parks, Djanet Sears, Anita Majumdar, Catherine Hernandez, Ahmed Ghazali, Carl Hancock Rux, Sharon Pollock, Beatrice Pizano, Rosa Laborde, Carmen Aguirre, Luis Alfaro, Milcha Sanchez-Scott, Cherríe Moraga, Tomson Highway, Daniel David Moses, Damon Badger Heit, Marie Clements, Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, Ian Weir, Judy Weir, Brad Fraser, Eve Ensler, Michael Healey, Chay Yew, M.J. Kang, Julia Cho, and Young Jean Lee.
Among the essays of exceptional note are Michele Elam's detailed analysis of Carl Hancock Rux's complicated play Talk, which dramatizes the problematic ethics of remembering and forgetting in academia and [End Page 528] the arts - especially in terms of mixed racial identity. Elam's focused essay exemplifies issues of authenticity and authority implicitly central to the whole collection's undertaking. Similarly, Sheila Rabillard's essay on Marie Clements's The Unnatural and Accidental Women stands out as a clearly articulated examination of the significance of retelling stories. In this, Rabillard epitomizes another important central thread to many of the essays: dramatic work as resistance to a culturally dominant narrative.
Two essays near the middle of the collection diverge in form and tone: Cherríe Moraga offers, as Maufort puts it, an 'essay-like meditation on the political role of the Chicana playwright,' and artist Celia Herrera Rodríguez provides documentation of her performance work Cositas Quebradas. Their inclusion serves both the more conventional scholarly essays they follow and the effectiveness of the collection as a whole.
In the book's concluding essay, Karen Shmakawa ties the anthology together with a fascinating exploration of 'Asian American Signatures' in the context of American law, traditional drama, and commercial audio tours of New York City's Chinatown. Risking an overly ambitious scope, Shmakawa succeeds in evoking the broad implications of the collection's central ideas.
Though theoretically book-ended with Derrida's notion of 'signature,' the collection broadly interprets 'cultural memory,' to allow for a range of theoretical engagement. The theoretical basis for linkage between the essays is basic; the collection's greatest value comes from its intriguing case studies. (For example, Paul Connerton's seminal work How Societies Remember is routinely cited throughout the collection, but usually as a cursory starting point for case-based explorations.) This collection should be a valuable resource for scholars, students, and artists interested in particular seams between cultural memory and identity and between cultural identity and drama.
Ryan Howe, Department of Theatre Arts, University of Pittsburgh