Surviving the after-shocks of Racism: Reading Adrienne Kennedy and Suzan-Lori Parks after Katrina
- Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism
- The University of Kansas, Department of Theatre and Dance
- Volume 23, Number 1, Fall 2008
- pp. 47-67
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Fall 2008 47 Jenny Spencer is associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she teaches political theatre, feminist theatre, performance studies, and modern drama. Her publications include Dramatic Strategies in the Plays of Edward Bond (Cambridge U P, 1992) and the anthology Staging Resistance: Essays on Political Theatre, which she co-edited with Jeanne Colleran (U Michigan, 1998). Her articles and reviews have appeared in Modern Drama and Theatre Journal, and she has served as editor for Theatre Topics. Surviving the After-shocks of Racism: Reading Adrienne Kennedy and Suzan-Lori Parks after Katrina Jenny Spencer In the fall of 2005, Hurricane Katrina, complicated by governmental dysfunction at all levels, produced an American refugee crisis within U.S. borders that resulted in weeks of compelling television drama especially aimed at audiences who did not experience the disaster ﬁrsthand. During initial coverage, the impact of the event was intensiﬁed by the theatrical presence of eyewitnesses who helped newscasters frame the event in melodramatic terms: after hurricane force winds, rising ﬂoodwaters, and devastating property loss came heroic rooftop rescues, angry mobs, tearful reunions, riveting survivor testimony, and images of villainous neglect. The melodramatic form of narration brought heroes and villains to the fore in a way that pre-empted a more nuanced conversation that would place the event in conversation with other refugee producing international disasters.1 The uniquely American dimensions of the crisis were further highlighted by Reverend Al Sharpton’s complaint that the term “refugee” was “un-American,”which pushed the media to shift its vocabulary to “survivors,” “evacuees,” and “the internally displaced.”2 Sharpton’s intervention regarding the politically correct designation of hurricane victims was double-edged: by implying that the victims were primarily black and poor (although the suffering was experienced by many who were neither), he also reminded the nation of a long history in which minority populations have routinely been excluded from the rights, privileges, and guarantees associated with U.S. citizenship. Unlike other racially divisive, and heavily televised, events such as the Rodney King riots, the Anita Hill hearings, and O.J. Simpson’s trial (and more like early coverage of the war in Iraq and the events of September 11), the Katrina broadcasts made self-consciously emotional and humanitarian appeals to their audiences based on shared American values and ideals. Yet America’s racial history became increasingly difﬁcult to avoid as the disaster played itself out: those stranded by the ﬂood and waving from rooftops, like those looting the local Kmart, may have felt themselves to be invisible, but the cameras delivered their predominantly black 48 Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism bodies to the nation. Repeated ﬁlm footage of looting, usually by black males, alongside interviews with unconvincing, inept, or overwhelmed public ofﬁcials, suggested a causal relationship between ineffectual government and the ensuing lawlessness. Once armed servicemen entered downtown New Orleans, observers could also witness how racial violence, as Rey Chow has put it, is not an exception to the rule of law, but rather a systemic function internal to the workings of the social body—the way things usually get “put in their place.”3 Despite demographic differences among the audience, expressions of shock and anger in the face of blatant racial inequality emerged as an emotional through-line of Katrina coverage, though the overwhelmingly racialized nature of poverty in New Orleans should have come as no surprise. The power of the televised spectacle to draw such emotionally charged responses seemed due, in part, to the way in which the visual images were ghosted by past and recent historical events—from the destruction and management of the war in Iraq, to the tsunami victims of 2004, to student protests of the 1950s and 1960s, to the looting of the Los Angeles race riots, the deliberate destruction of the levees in 1924, and even the separation of families on the slave auction block. As Marvin Carlson reminds us in The Haunted Stage: Theatre as Memory Machine, such ghosting is always a part of theatrical representation, but such ghosting is not limited to the stage.4 The psychic, cultural, and economic losses caused by Katrina, and highlighted...