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  • The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance
  • Isaiah Matthew Wooden (bio)
Vogel, Shane . The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009.

In The Scene of Harlem Cabaret, Shane Vogel re-presents the "everynight life" of the Harlem Renaissance to offer an incisive examination of the ways various cultural workers activated the time and space of cabaret to critique, and even reject, normativizing discourses [End Page 820] and narratives deployed to restrict the performative possibilities of race and sexuality in the early decades of the twentieth century. A logic, an ideology of racial uplift and sexual respectability informed much of the theoretical underpinnings and cultural production of the Harlem Renaissance. Vogel turns to the work of the "Cabaret School"—described as "A subterranean literary tradition within the Harlem Renaissance that provided new ways of performing, witnessing, and writing the racial and sexual self"—to think through the ways its members reimagined cabaret to resist and make new meanings, new narratives against such ideological, discursive, and performative configurations (5). Indeed, at stake in this eloquent and engaging study is a consideration and recuperation of the "critique function" of Harlem's vibrant nightlife.

At the center of that nightlife were the many cabarets that promised patrons an opportunity to eat, drink, cavort, and experience performances within their intimate confines. Chapter 1, in part, traces a history of American cabaret. The Chat Noir in the Montmartre district of Paris (which opened in 1881), along with urban, working-class concert saloons, "black and tan" saloons, and rural jook joints, Vogel explains, prefigured the American cabaret of the 1910s and 1920s. What distinguished later iterations of cabaret from its predecessors, however, was a new interest in marketing such spaces and entertainments to a more "respectable" middle-class patron. This reworking of the terms defining nightlife meant that "What was previously denounced as the questionable morality of the lower class could now be acceptably consumed under the banner of European sophistication" (54). Still, Vogel notes, cabaret retained its relationship to nonwhite racialized and working-class cultures. As such, it proved a tremendous site of anxiety for both white and black Americans interested in surveiling and regulating the "doings" of these communities.

In addition to constructing a genealogy of cabaret, chapter 1 also charts how the form of cabaret evolved as an intimate performance event. Both the spatial and performance practices of cabaret produced intimate social formations that emerged from an "interplay of closeness and distance, acceptance and refusal, connection and disconnection, concentration and distraction" and that constituted identities and communities (70). The writers and performers of the Cabaret School, Vogel persuasively argues, exploited cabaret's production of intimacy to critique the illogics of white supremacy and Harlem Renaissance investments in a politics of respectability.

Vogel takes as the subject for his second chapter the scene of the Harlem cabaret during and after 1926. He surveys the putative divisions between "segregated cabarets" and "black cabarets," and, necessarily, exposes how several nightlife figures made a fiction of such a binary at the level of existence. Productively, the chapter offers an alternative way to interpret the "affective geography" of Harlem's nightlife: through a spectrum of "tightness" and "looseness." If "tight spaces" are those that reinforce existing social structures, then "loose spaces" afford greater opportunities for improvisation—to imagine new ways of knowing and being. Through close readings of Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928), Zora Neale Hurston's "How It Feels to Be Colored" (1928), and Wallace Thurman's The Blacker the Berry (1929), Vogel makes eloquent the ways in which members of the Cabaret School refigured the scene of cabaret to "loosen" the "tightness" of racial and sexual normativity and the problematics of the "Negro Vogue." It is his turn to Bessie Smith's 1933 recording of "Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)" at the chapter's end, however, that best illuminates the means by which performers often redeployed the spatiotemporal and [End Page 821] performance practices of cabaret to critique narratives of race, sexuality, and, in the case of Smith, class and gender. To be sure, this chapter evidences Vogel's deftness as a reader of both...


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