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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) iv-vi

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Comment--The Details of Difference

The October 2000 issue features four essays that foreground questions of race and ethnicity in US theatre. Together these essays point to the vitality of critical race studies in our field. While this is not a special issue, the essays when read together provide a template for the new directions in scholarship on the topic. I see this issue in conversation with the March 2000 special issue on Latino performance for it extends its analysis of race and ethnicity to include representations of the Asian and African diasporas in US drama along with work by African American and Asian American playwrights. These essays demonstrate the centrality of theatre studies to what's been called the "New American Studies," where questions of race, empire, and transnationalism occupy a key position.

Andrea Most opens the issue with her study of South Pacific by examining the racial politics of Rodgers and Hammerstein's critically acclaimed 1949 musical. Most's reading situates the musical in the context of Cold War ideology and the anticommunist sentiment that characterized the post-World War II period. It then proceeds to read the musical's representations of racial difference in its book, score, and staging. Most performs a critical double move: first she addresses the way that Rodgers and Hammerstein's Jewishness might provoke a reading of South Pacific that tells a story of Jewish assimilationist desires in a cultural moment infused with antisemitism. Second, by paying close attention to the musical itself, Most challenges the conventional interpretation of the musical as a plea for racial tolerance. "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" forces us to reconsider what's been learned in South Pacific--by its characters and, more tellingly, its audience.

Shannon Steen's essay on The Emperor Jones sets out to reconsider Eugene O'Neill's 1920 play in light of the new directions in critical race studies and psychoanalytic theory. For Steen, O'Neill himself is cast as a central figure in a cultural drama of social marginalization and racial anxiety. Understanding the racial subjectivity of the play demands an investigation of O'Neill's Irishness. Steen's emphasis on the play's reception among African American actors and audiences along with her interest in historicizing O'Neill "whiteness" underscores the dialectics of racial difference that informs the spectators, performers, and playwright of The Emperor Jones.

These first two essays address early twentieth-century figures who are at the core of the history of American theatre and drama and provide new ways of understanding their seminal work. Both of these essays demonstrate how white authors such as Rodgers and Hammerstein and O'Neill are not simply racialized subjects. Rather, Most and Steen uncover how the artists' cultural backgrounds--as Jewish and Irish American respectively--are sources of both cultural anxiety and artistic creativity. The study of race and ethnicity then is not merely an interesting footnote to classical American theatre. As Most and Steen prove, race and ethnicity lie at the critical core of some of the most significant works of American theatre.

While the first two essays discuss plays set on islands off the US mainland and in the South Pacific and Caribbean seas, the second set of essays brings us to what is sometimes called the Heartland of America--the Midwest. Harry Elam's reading of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson and Karen Shimakawa's analysis of Sung Rno's Cleveland Raining demonstrate the dramaturgical diversity of contemporary playwrights of color. Both Elam and Shimakawa begin by situating these playwrights within their race-specific literary and cultural traditions--African American drama and Asian American drama. Each author then provides a carefully layered interpretation of the family dynamics of the plays' protagonists. Both playwrights share an interest in the family unit and thematize the ghostly resonance of past racial histories upon it. But, as we shall see, these plays, while focusing on the domestic dramas of midwestern minorities, radically differ on the question of race's centrality to American identity.

As Elam's essay points...


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