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Reviewed by:
  • Portrayals of Americans on the World Stage: Critical Essays
  • Ken Nielsen
Portrayals of Americans on the World Stage: Critical Essays. Edited by Kevin J. Wetmore Jr. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2009; pp. 242. $45.00 paper.

As Kevin Wetmore explains in his introduction, the (North) American Other is frequently constructed and disseminated globally in one of three forms: productions of US plays abroad; plays by foreign playwrights set in the United States; and plays by foreign playwrights set abroad that feature US citizens as characters (2). All three forms are represented in this volume; the essays, which discuss representations of Otherness, national identity, cultural appropriation, global forms in local contexts, and the meaning of the US onstage, often intersect and cross-fertilize each other.

Generated from an American Society for Theatre Reseach seminar (2007), the material spans continents and decades, which is the collection's strength as well as its weakness. The ambitious scope permits a wide variety of approaches, but also fragments the subject because each author theorizes Otherness, national identity, nation, and anti-Americanism differently. For the most part—with the notable exception of Jessica Locke's essay—the use of "America" and "American" is unexamined. That said, the collection contributes much to the discussion of constructing "the United States" through drama and performance on the global stage. [End Page 488]

Part 1 is historical, offering examples of North Americans as they appear in plays by German, British, Japanese, Mexican, and US playwrights. The United States, Sabine Macris Klein suggests, became a site for eighteenth-century German "colonialist desires" through the eroticization of the Native American, and she also notes how "the topic of America was often a site for Germans to negotiate issues of race or introduce domestic social criticism" (24), an idea central to the entire collection. Maura Jortner describes two productions by English comedian Charles Mathews, based on his travels to the United States, to suggest how shifting British views on the United States affected reception of Mathews's plays. Editor Wetmore considers the dramatization of historic events for national purposes in Japanese productions of Okamoto Kido's The American Envoy (1909) and Sondheim's Pacific Overtures (1976/1984), invoking the need to understand the "unique cultural context" for global performances of intercultural meetings (61). This theme is also clear in Locke's analysis of the "gringo" academic in Rodolfo Usigli's El gesticulador. She illustrates how the US academic abroad, a recurring character in much foreign drama, is frequently utilized to investigate a local national identity.

Many of the essays in part 2 concern contemporary representations of the United States in Ireland, Serbia, Africa, Japan, India, and Vietnam. Melissa Rynn Porterfield's insightful analysis of Biljana Srbljanovic's portrait of a hypocritical and primitive United States that led US-NATO bombings of Serbia teases out the way Srbljanovic constructs the United States as an oppressor that forcefully wields its power "while remaining conspicuously absent" (93). Thomas Costello turns to the Irish theatre and the plays of Brian Friel to explore the nature of the hyphenated identities that result from immigration. Costello intriguingly develops the idea of the "American American," an individual (in foreign plays about the United States) who embodies not only a particular character, but also an idea of the nation. Neilesh Bose's account of performances of Utpal Dutt's The Rights of Man in Calcutta (produced in the late 1960s) considers how North America, with its contradictory relationship with imperialism, human rights, and institutionalized racism, is defined as "the West" (131). Nobuko Anan critically engages the pervasiveness of North American popular culture in order to analyze a parodic performance of Singin' in the Rain by KATHY, a Japanese all-female performance collective. Her focus, which is on post-World War II Japanese identity in general and female identity in particular, makes clear how the liminal space between cultures allows an audience to "speculate on what it means to define national identity" (152). Wetmore's second essay considers two African plays from the 1960s (one Nigerian and the other Ghanaian) in which African males marry African American women. He offers an extended analysis of the plays' genesis, their relationship to...