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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 517-518
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African American Performance and Theater History:
A Critical Reader
African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader. Edited by Harry Elam, Jr. and David Krasner. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; pp. 384. $45.00 cloth, $19.95 paper.
To be or not to be part of the system has consistently been at issue for African Americans both in and out of the arts. Harry J. Elam, Jr. points to this ambivalent status when he writes in the introduction to African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader that the matter of race in America "is inherently theatrical" (4). African Americans are seen as eminently capable of performing. Much of what they performed as strategic means of cultural survival was difference—in dress, in speech, and even in gait. During the nineteenth century, African Americans were thought of as natural mimics, and according to the proverbial canard, their bodies are synonymous with rhythm—they can all sing and dance. Yet, African Americans in the arts rarely have leading positions in mainstream organizations and, more often than not, fail to develop theatrical institutions of long tenure. Standing outside the embrace of the official, they are institutionally challenged. Since its birth as a performance genre during slavery, African American cultural statements have had to contend with their outsiderness in multiple contexts.
They have done so in a variety of ways including protest, cultural retentions, gender negotiations, and defiance—not always overt—to racial expectations. These four cultural choices describe the four thematic segments of the anthology, each comprising four essays, some of which highlight a dramatic [End Page 517] text or playwright, a theatrical group, or a historical moment. A fifth section is devoted to the proceedings from a panel of veteran scholars, Jim Hatch, Sandra Richardson, and Margaret Wilkerson, discussing African American theatre during the 1997 ATHE Conference in Chicago. The book ends with wrap-up commentary by David Krasner, who predicts a robust future for African American theatre scholarship, thanks largely to new emphasis on performance, gender, and alternative analysis particularly since the 1990s.
Joseph Roach, who contributed an essay on Congo Square and how late eighteenth- and nineteenth- century African-infused performance affects, and is reinterpreted in, contemporary New Orleans, asserts that a focus on African American performance is moving in from the periphery. As significant as African American performance forms are, however, Roach argues that appreciating them fully is complicated by skin, the token of pigmented difference that remains an American blind spot, a flaw in the institution of the country that is embedded and cancerous. When Roach sees skin as the sign of the ostracized, Annemarie Bean focuses on the theatrical application of color as an index of racial difference in her essay on blackface, the most prevalent American performance practice in the nineteenth century, whose influence, due to television and film, continued into the twentieth. Even in the twenty-first century blackface is still appealing, as students at Auburn University and the University of Wisconsin made clear during Halloween 2001. At the end of the nineteenth century, minstrelsy was preserved and institutionalized in pamphlets and how-to books. With guides in hand, men and women across the country indulged in blackface performance on stage, in schools, at churches, and in fraternal orders.
In the realm of traditional theatre, Diana Paulin writes about The White Slave, a Reconstruction era melodrama that includes minstrel elements. To avoid family scandal, Lisa, the main character, is racially misidentified as an octoroon. Later, she is able to escape the suspicion of blackness and recoup wealth and standing. For European Americans of ambition, color was disposable, a performance option that spelled release from past ethnicities. The white actress who played Lisa was engaged in an early example of color-blind casting, something William Sonnega looks at in his essay on the limits of the liberal audience. A Guthrie Theatre production of Death of a Salesman in the 1990s, cross-racially cast, shed light on entrenched bias. So did a presentation of...