- Black Performance Theory ed. by Thomas F. DeFrantz, Anita Gonzalez
This is theory that dances.
Black Performance Theory convenes 14 scholars and practitioners of Africana performance and bids them dance and groove across national, hemispheric, oceanic, planetary, disciplinary, epochal, formal, and methodological boundaries in pursuit of blackness in motion. Coedited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez — both dancer-scholars, fittingly enough — the volume takes up such varied objects and events as scripted theatre, popular music, minstrelsy, fiction, painting, ecstatic dance, tableau vivant, urban ambulation, and broader phenomena like identity, diaspora, and discourse. Posited as such a heterogeneous assemblage, it is no wonder that black performance is a site of generative tension and friction. As the editors remark, “performance may be resistant or affirmative, or several states in-between and simultaneously” and may “allow for subversive and normative simultaneity: cross-rhythms of rupture and coherence” (10). Guided by these “cross-rhythms,” the collection deftly spans manifold black hues in the “broad spectrum” (Schechner 1988:4) of performance. What results is a marvelously capacious contribution to critical black/performance studies. [End Page 175]
The book is a project of the Black Performance Theory Working Group — an interdisciplinary community of academics and artists who assemble for biennial colloquia. As the editors elaborate in their introduction, “Black performance theory came into being as a ‘think tank’ about black performance at a moment when blackness had been successfully deconstructed as a social and literary category without fixed contents. And yet black performance remained a palpable aspect of being in the world” (7). Blackness itself is a supple formation that shifts and stretches to contain countless modes of being — but does not collapse or burst in the process. As the anthology bears out, blackness and black performance defiantly persist.
On one register, the title Black Performance Theory straightforwardly signifies theory about performance. However, the volume also highlights theory as performance, and complementarily, performance as theory. Theory as performance manifests in the book’s plenitude of performative writing. In their introduction, for example, DeFrantz and Gonzalez do not merely report on divergent notions of “blackness” within black cultural studies circles; they actually stage a dialogue/debate that is transcribed in the manner of script lines. Meanwhile, performance as theory is a perennial feature of many Africana cultures, where practices like dance, drum work, gesticulation, beatboxing, vocal melisma, or lovemaking are understood to be sensual and critical, performative and theoretical. More broadly, as Gonzalez emphasizes in the introduction, “performance theory can be delivered through a hand gesture [...] embedded in a lecture, or disseminated within the pauses of a sound score” (7).
Preceded by D. Soyini Madison’s field-appraising foreword and the editors’ performative introduction, the collection’s 14 essays are grouped into four thematic sections. The first of these sections, “Transporting Black,” theorizes black diaspora via transnational, transatlantic, transhuman, transhistorical, and intergalactic performances. Anita Gonzalez’s opening essay examines blackface routines performed by 19th-century Irish and contemporary Mesoamerican minstrels. Gonzalez reveals how such performers degrade blacks in order to elevate themselves; indeed, they treat blackness as a fungible mass of abjection upon which they can prop and scaffold their own tenuous social standings. Nadine George-Graves’s essay forwards a theory of diasporic “spidering” (36) to describe the spreading, crisscrossing, tangled, unstable, sticky quality of identity and subjectivity across diaspora. Contemplating John Jennings’s Afrofuturist visual art, Hershini Bhana Young models a sort of critical synesthesia: she listens for the radical resonance in Jennings’s brushstrokes; hears critiques of the human and of consumerism issuing from his cyborg paintings; and generates an account of what post-human visions might sound like. In the final essay of “Transporting Black,” Melissa Blanco Borelli ponders the performance and performativity of the figure of the mulata across the Americas since the 19th century. She devotes special attention to “hip work” (63), a metonym for mulata women’s corporeal and erotic agency in the face of racial and sexual abjection.
The second section, “Black-En-Scene,” takes up formally staged performance...