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American Literary History 17.4 (2005) 781-793
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Place, Performance, and Pedagogy
The idea that New York dominates American theater is something of an uncritical commonplace. Despite the original work produced in diverse venues from mainstream regional theaters to improvised performance spaces in cities with distinctive performance cultures such as Los Angeles, Chicago, or Minneapolis, the idea that this work can be legitimated only once it hits the Great White Way or points just off persists, reinforced not only by critics in the New York papers, especially the New York Times, but also by scholars based elsewhere in the US. Even those documenting theater that could not have emerged in New York often seem obliged to end there. A recent review in this journal of three books on theaters of color includes two that privilege the arrival in New York of Asian American and Latino writers and performers, despite the fact that theaters associated with both groups have closer relations with writers and audiences in California and other points in the Southwest. To be sure, one of these books, José, Can You See? (1999), by Alberto Sándoval-Sanchez, notes that the "visibility of Latino theatre began . . . with the establishment in 1965 of Teatro Campesino in California" (105), but his book focuses, as its subtitle indicates, on Latinos on and off Broadway instead of on the more varied Chicano performances that have emerged in California, Texas, New Mexico, and Chicago since Teatro Campesino. Furthermore, rather than engaging the critique of the mainstreaming of founding institutions such as the formerly activist Teatro Campesino, articulated by scholars such as Yvonne Broyles-González, José, Can You See? follows what reviewer Rena Fraden calls, with a certain irony, an "uplifting trajectory" from "negative stereotypes" to "agency and empowerment" (Fraden 203). While Sandoval-Sánchez allows that "nationalist and ethnic labels are no longer capable of completely representing . . . identities that are plural, hybrid, and in flux," he nonetheless asserts unequivocally that "through theater," US Latino/as "can articulate new forms of identity" that offer "models for agency and empowerment" (Sandoval-Sánchez 123) and implies at [End Page 781] least that the site for legitimating if not always enacting this empowerment would of necessity be the New York stage.
The sanguine narrative of empowerment offered by José, Can You See? may make it a convenient target for critical irony, but the book does provide the occasion for reconsidering the powers attributed to performance in America. As Peggy Phelan pointed out a decade ago, the equation of performance with empowerment and visibility with liberation is "a meeting of profound romance and deep violence" (Phelan 4), as problematic as it is ubiquitous, marking, for instance, the demonstrations of ACT UP in ways disturbingly similar to those of, say, Operation Rescue. Critical of the corruption and commodification of the visible, Phelan found in performance the "generative possibilities of disappearance," arguing that by "enacting the productive appeal of the non-reproductive" (27), performance might escape the tyranny of images, especially mass-mediated images in the "economy of reproduction" (146). Phelan's dedication to the power of performance in the nonreproductive act of fleeting presence and disappearance has been influential but also subject to critique, most cogently by Philip Auslander, who has argued that even the most fleeting performance is mediated, directly or indirectly, by the technologies and economies of reproduction (Auslander 39–43) under the conditions of "postmodern consumer capitalism" (47), in which liveness itself becomes a commodity sold to audiences eager to experience a package deal, a unique "event" (48). Auslander takes as his example the "franchising" of interactive plays like Tony 'n Tina's Wedding, in which a production company...