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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 353-354

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Book Review

Decolonizing the Stage:
Theatrical Syncretism and Post-Colonial Drama

Decolonizing the Stage: Theatrical Syncretism and Post-Colonial Drama. By Christopher B. Balme. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; pp. 304. $85.00.

As publishing starts to catch up with the growing interest in post-colonial theatre studies, a spate of texts on post-colonial drama and theatre have appeared. Most authors circumscribe their project to the study either of a notable, oft-produced, post-colonial playwright (e.g., James Gibb's Wole Soyinka, 1986, or Bruce King's Derek Walcott, 1995) or of a region's theatrical and para-theatrical production (e.g., Loren Kruger's The Drama ofSouth Africa, 1999, and Karin Barber, John Collins and Alain Ricard's West African Popular Theatre, 1997). Edited volumes like J. Ellen Gainor's Imperialism and Theatre (1995) and Helen Gilbert's recent collection of essays, (Post)Colonial Stages (1999), provide opportunities for detailed, historicized close-readings of an array of performance texts from throughout the post-colonial world.

Few have attempted the wide-ranging, comparative monograph undertaken by Christopher B. Balme in Decolonizing the Stage: Theatrical Syncretism and Post-Colonial Drama. Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins's introduction to global post-colonial dramatic practices, Post-Colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics (1996), outlined the organizing principles of post-colonial theatre studies in an encyclopedic volume that achieves extraordinary geographical and formal/generic coverage. Balme's Decolonizing the Stage positions itself as a more advanced reader in comparative Anglophone post-colonial dramatic practices. Sacrificing some of Gilbert and Tompkins's range for a more focused semiotic reading of syncretic theatrical practices, Balme emphasizes text-based, English-language productions in former British colonies.

The book's guiding principle is that "the 'decolonization' of the stage can be examined through a number of formal strategies which involve the combination and amalgamation of indigenous performance forms within the framework of the Western notion of theatre" (1). Balme calls this recombinative process "theatrical syncretism." Employing semiotics as his methodology, he differentiates syncretic theatre from intercultural theatre in terms of its producers, its deployment of indigenous cultural texts, and its activation of multiple cultural and aesthetic semiotic codes.

The introduction develops a working definition of and theatrical application for the term "syncretism" through an interdisciplinary survey of literature about syncretism. Balme stresses theatrical [End Page 353] syncretism as an always-already mixed aesthetic that upsets dominant (colonial) aesthetic categories premised on notions of purity through the integration of indigenous and colonial codes. In other words, theatrical syncretism is not simply a matter of "writing back," although this common response model is also examined by Balme, but of reconstituting the aesthetic-political grounds from which post-colonial subjects might write.

Balme locates the origins of this ground-shifting choice in the programmatic statements of India's Rabindranath Tagore and South Africa's H.I.E. Dhlomo; his first chapter focuses on their "indigenous theories of syncretic theatre" as precursors to contemporary post-colonial work on hybridity, métissage, syncretism, and their cognates. From there, the book's organization is reminiscent of Gilbert and Tompkins's structure, divided into chapters on theatrical syncretism's formal attributes such as: "Ritual Frames and Liminal Dramaturgy," "Language and the Post-Colonial Stage," "Orality as Performance," "Visualizing the Body," "Dance and Body Language," and "Spaces and Spectators." Isolating formal elements, Balme contends, allows for a more ready comparison of diverse cultural forms in different geopolitical contexts. The formal emphasis also foregrounds the relationship that primarily constitutes syncretism in theatrical production: that between text (playtext, performance text, or cultural text) and mise-en-scène.

The range of cultural texts referenced astonish in their number and eclecticism, extending the conceptual applicability of his central argument. Commentary on trance ritual in Haiti sits alongside discussion of marae-theatre based on the protocol of Maori ceremonial gatherings. Having opened up these potentially rich comparative avenues, Balme returns to a few core playtexts to detail and elaborate his argument. These include two plays familiar to North American theatre scholars...


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