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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 297-298
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The Performance of Citizenship
Nomadic Identities: The Performance of Citizenship. By May Joseph. Public Worlds, No. 5. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1999; pp. ix + 177. $47.95.
In an evocative opening for a compelling book, May Joseph recalls her "visual shock" (2) induced by the beginning of Mira Nair's 1991 film Mississippi Masala, which depicts Idi Amin's mass eviction of the South Asian population of Uganda in 1972. This scene triggers memories of her own family's abrupt departure from the neighboring country of Tanzania in 1975 and ultimately leads to an attempt to make sense of the "trauma of failed citizenship" (18) endured by the South Asian diaspora. This attempt has culminated in Nomadic Identities: The Performance of Citizenship, a rewarding journey that traverses East Africa, Great Britain, and the United States. The geographic shifts of the book enact the multiple connections and dislocations that characterize an increasingly transnational world.
The opening chapter grapples with issues of nationalism, participatory democracy, and performance to set forth a theoretical framework of nomadic citizenship. She extends Arjun Appadurai's topography of "-scapes" (ethnoscape, technoscape, etc.) to include that of "citizenscape" as a means of theorizing national identities for migrant populations deemed "inauthentic" by the state. As she explains: "By juxtaposing African socialism, Tanzanian Asian, Black British, and Asian American expressions of citizenship, the following essays lay out an alternative discourse of citizenship in formation, highlighting the competing citizenscapes that shape the political imaginary of urban nomads" (11). Joseph's use of citizenscape enables the analysis of overlapping and multi-faceted narratives of national identity as a lived and invented practice. This chapter is highly recommended reading for scholars working on diaspora and/or nationalism since it lays the foundation for a wealth of methodological and theoretical concerns.
The next eight chapters fall into three categories: Tanzania at the height of socialism (1967 to the mid-1970s), Great Britain in the 1980s, and the United States in the 1990s. Chapters two through five, which are devoted to the first category, usefully challenge monolithic concepts of socialism as an authoritarian stranglehold on cultural production. Her reading of the charismatic leadership of Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, in chapter two is especially welcome in the wake of his recent death, which sparked a wave of press commentary that often dismissed his daring experiments in African socialism as naïve and destructive. Chapters three and four, which tackle the issue of nomadic citizenship more directly, focus on the Tanzanian Asian youth consumption of African-American culture and Bruce Lee's kung-fu films, both of which provided these "inauthentic" citizens with footholds in Tanzanian nationalist formations. In the case of Black Power and soul music, Nyerere's ideology of pan-Africanism cast legitimacy on their consumption of capitalist U.S. culture, whereas the disciplined body of Bruce Lee, who scorned guns and bombs in his fight on the behalf of disenfranchised masses, suited Nyerere's calls for self-reliance and frugality. A restructuring of these four chapters would have clarified these thoughtful interpretations of East African popular culture in the wake of independence. The fifth chapter, for example, lays out a clear and straightforward explanation of political events unfolding in Tanzania following independence and the reactions of the Indian community, which provides much-needed contextualization for her assertions in the three previous chapters.
The next two chapters shift to London in the 1980s and the early 1990s, in which Black British theatre worked to challenge both mainstream and leftist theatre. Chapter six focuses on the Black British playwright Mustapha Matura's works, which Joseph describes as "an oral map of the subaltern's personal memories in the postcolonial moment" (97). Despite the multivocality of Matura's plays, however, his Black female characters remain largely silent--an exclusionary gesture countered in the following chapter on Black British female playwrights and filmmakers. Joseph provides sensitive readings of Rukhsana Ahmad's 1993 play Song for a Sanctuary, Meera Syal's 1993 screenplay My Sister-Wife, Jacqueline...