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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 522-523



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Book Review

Waltzing in the Dark:
African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era

No Surrender! No Retreat!:
African American Pioneer Performers of Twentieth-century American Theater


Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era. By Brenda Dixon Gottschild. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000; pp. viii + 270. $45.00.

No Surrender! No Retreat!: African American Pioneer Performers of Twentieth-century American Theater. By Glenda E. Gill. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000; pp. xxiii + 230. $49.95

Palgrave (formerly St. Martin's Press) strengthens its niche in African American theatre with two new books. Glenda E. Gill's No Surrender! No Retreat!: African American Pioneer Performers of Twentieth-Century American Theater and Brenda Dixon Gottschild's Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era take up the task of analyzing and historicizing the contributions of African American performers during the last century.

Focusing on the 1930s and 1940s, Gottschild claims that these performers donned cultural masks in order to perform in a white dominated industry. Because they had either to disguise their blackness or to wear their blackness as a disguise and because they were unable to take the spotlight with their own style, these performers were "dancing in the dark." By arguing that performance is reflective of social politics in general, Gottschild is able to use her examination of the details of racial practices toward vaudeville artists to make larger claims about society. As her reference point, she focuses on the career of Margot Webb, of the dance team Norton and Margot. Webb's experiences were typical of her contemporaries in some ways but unique in others. Gottschild weaves the stories of Webb, black vaudevillians in general, and the society of 1930s and 1940s into a convincing historical account that allows the reader to stay engaged in a personal tale while learning about the broader implications of racism.

Gottschild does a great job describing the lifestyle of swing-era black performers. She details their strategies for dealing with segregation, discrimination, and the politics of Harlem clubs (the Cotton Club, the Apollo, and the Savoy), though she could have spent more time on the Theater Owners Booking Association (the black vaudeville circuit). Gottschild also gives a detailed account of the politics of colorism in the white and black communities at home and abroad. Norton and Margot were both very light-skinned and sometimes passed for Spanish. Gottschild exposes the level of knowing self-deception that was apparently sanctioned when she tells of Webb's encounter with a theatre agent: "The agent [who hired us] told us they weren't going to hire blacks so we'd better be something else" (119).

Gottschild revisits her previous work with a discussion of the permeation of Africanist aesthetics in white hegemonic cultural production (polyrhythm, the aesthetic of the cool, etc.) and the love/hate relationship between white and black America (white society's appropriation of black culture and simultaneous racist attitudes towards black people). She is persistent and convincing against the tide of revisionist historians who seek to deny the Africanist roots in some of the most important modes of American cultural production. Gottschild's discussion of the degrees of cultural borrowing--from inspiration to theft--is unidirectional (whites' co-optation of black style), and not a two-way street. Yet Norton and Margot performed in a predominately white dance styles. Gottschild's discussion of the fact that they could not perform for white audiences is the only acknowledgment of the racial implications of their choice of dance styles. A more lengthy discussion of how they were "influenced" by white ballroom dance teams instead of "stealing" their culture would be in order. How are power negotiations at play here?

Even though it is satisfying in its own right, Waltzing in the Dark leaves us wondering about stories of all...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-332X
Print ISSN
0192-2882
Pages
pp. 522-523
Launched on MUSE
2001-10-01
Open Access
No
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