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Theatre Journal 52.1 (2000) 81-107
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(Re)Visions of Race:
Contemporary Race Theory and the Cultural Politics of Racial Crossover in Documentary Theatre * - [PDF]
In African American playwright Anna Deavere Smith's House Arrest, 1 we see a group of twelve actors of different genders and races play across lines of race, age, and gender to "become" Bill Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, celebrities, journalists, prison inmates, and academicians, among a vast array of historical and contemporary figures. An epic view of the presidency through the legacies of slavery and sexual misconduct, House Arrest is both multicultural symphony and a demystification of power. Similarly, in Culture Clash's Radio Mambo and Culture Clash in Bordertown, interview-based plays about Miami and San Diego respectively, the Chicano-Latino male trio "become," among other characters, elderly African American women, a Cuban drag queen, a middle-aged Haitian father, a Jewish art dealer, a Hmong car gang member, and Shamu the whale. At one level, this "rainbow coalition" can be read through a liberal humanist imaginary suggesting that, if we can perform "others," in [End Page 81] what literary critic Susan Gubar calls "racechange" 2 and critic Michael Awkward terms "transraciality," 3 the boundaries of race--and by implication, gender, sexuality, age--might be "transcended."
This essay explores the implications of these category crossings for contemporary theorizing of race and for a progressive cultural politics. Our epistemological and political dilemmas surrounding race are symptomatic of the complexities of this historical moment, one that includes a post-civil rights ethos, anti-affirmative action campaigns, increased racial mixing and cross-identification, post-1965 shifts in immigration, changing demographics, and continuing racial violence. I argue that Anna Deavere Smith and Culture Clash reveal the limits and contradictions of contemporary racial discourses. Both directly confront urgent social issues: in Smith, urban uprisings and racially motivated violence in Los Angeles (Twilight) and the Crown Heights conflicts between Blacks and Jews (Fires in the Mirror), and an epic revision of US history focusing on the role of race, gender, and sexuality in the construction of presidential power (House Arrest); in Culture Clash, the oppressive patrolling of racial and national borders (Culture Clash in Bordertown), and a city's race and class contradictions (Radio Mambo, Bordertown). Their pointed political choices and the artists' cross-racial, cross-gender performances offer a way to rethink enduring political inequities and the possibilities for political alliance and social justice for minoritarian subjects.
Their work in turn leads us to explore debates on urgent theoretical concerns--most significantly, that of contemporary racial formations in light of poststructuralist and performative theories of the subject. The artists instantiate in their work a poststructuralist emphasis on identities as emergent and constituted through matrices of power, in which social forces such as race, gender, and sexuality are seen as interpellations of an always already political subject. I argue that Smith and Culture Clash reveal the weaknesses in critiques of essentialism that simply destabilize the signifiers of race, gender, and sexuality. Their work problematizes currently circulating notions of "identity politics" in which race, gender, and sexuality are viewed as mere attributes of "identity," rather than historically shaped axes of power and inequality. Simultaneously, they expose the contradictions in putatively progressive works on race, including the power-evasive moves that pervade liberal humanist approaches to racial difference and the problematic privileging of Eurocentric "Theory" in certain poststructuralist writings. They are among the agents of a new critical vocabulary that might allow us to imagine race and power differently.
Theatre is a privileged site in which to examine these issues, especially in the cross-race, cross-gender performances highlighted here. There is something astonishing and thought-provoking in seeing a person of one race and gender "don" the characteristics of so many who are "others" along so many different axes. The spectacular display of acting virtuosity and quick-change artistry are sources of amazement and audience pleasure, and their implications are profound. Though cross-gender representation has a venerable theatrical...