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  • The African American Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance, and the Stage by Soyica Diggs Colbert
  • Keith Byron Kirk
The African American Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance, and the Stage. By Soyica Diggs Colbert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xi + 329 pp. $99.00 cloth.

Soyica Diggs Colbert’s The African American Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance, and the Stage examines the topic of the black body by analyzing multiple types of performance narratives. Utilizing African American theatrical and literary traditions as prophetic sites of engagement, Colbert refutes historically accepted assumptions about black bodies in performance. She scrutinizes works by dramatists including Suzan-Lori Parks and Lorraine Hansberry as well as works by literary figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston. According to Colbert, these writers have engaged in the construction of dramatic narratives as “rites of repair.” While recent scholarship seeks to elaborate the African American experience through the exploration of social rather than performance models, Colbert’s central method of analysis recuperates theatrical texts. She demonstrates that such narratives provide an understanding not only of African American literary traditions but also of lived experience.

While psychoanalytical theory and critical race theory guide this work, at its core Colbert’s study thrives through the suggestion of repetition and reproduction as the “DNA of black expressive culture” (20). Colbert’s discussion [End Page 280] is reminiscent of the work of sociologists Ron Eyerman and Cathy Caruth, who have written on the tensions present in the aftermath of cultural trauma and how those tensions in turn resonate through collective responses to such trauma. Caruth’s account of a psychoanalytical theory of trauma suggests that not the experience of trauma but rather its remembrance produces traumatic effect, and both Caruth and Eyerman believe that trauma is mediated through various forms of representation. These concepts resonate with Colbert’s work on repetition, and it is the specificity of Colbert’s chapter-by-chapter discussion of the collective traumatic experience of multiple African American bodies resonating through fully rendered theatrical representations that solidifies much of her book.

The African American Theatrical Body is constructed of seven chapters, each vital in the author’s journey toward a reconstruction of how the African American body is read within both dramatic and literary narratives. The first three chapters address the presence of specific acts of reproduction, recuperation, and reenactment to reclaim African American identity and build black resistance structures on narrative terms. Colbert explores Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun as a site whereon both audiences and readers learn to deploy strategies of “perpetual deferment,” investigates Du Bois’s The Star of Ethiopia for a better understanding of gender specificity as recuperative, and demonstrates that Hurston’s Color Struck and its vernacular forms are a method of critique in bourgeois versus folk narratives. In subsequent chapters, Colbert further highlights the ability of various performances and actions to reorder identities by illuminating Hughes’s God’s Trombones as a sermon, Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie as a collective mining of “ghostly pasts” (192), and the plays of Amiri Baraka and August Wilson, through similarly prophetic hauntings, as pathways to the rituals of repair. In each instance, cohesively constructed dramatic narratives render forth countless pathways toward engagement.

Discussions of either the African American or black body and its ability to perform as both part of and apart from narrative attempts to elaborate, conceal, and at times negate its affect have long remained a subject of performance scholarship. Whether through the use of memory, text, or embodied practice, the black body resonates as a subject of interest and a tool for continued engagement. Performances by African American bodies have long attempted to avoid or engage the restrictions of spectators and audiences seeking to limit the movement of those same bodies. In Colbert’s exploration of Parks’s The America Play, Colbert identifies instances of “symbolic reordering” (5) functioning solely through narration as moments of engagement which “renders the black theatrical body flexible” and, further, engages how performance moves through [End Page 281] bodies as equally viable motivating narratives. Through her study of that flexibility, Colbert draws attention to what Parks identifies as a specific artifice...


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pp. 280-282
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