- Coloring Whiteness: Acts of Critique in Black Performance by Faedra Chatard Carpenter
Faedra Chatard Carpenter’s Coloring Whiteness: Acts of Critique in Black Performance examines the manifold ways African American playwrights, performers, and visual artists have engaged signs and tropes of whiteness in their work to contemplate and interrogate the complexities of racial identities and conditions. Analyzing an impressive range of plays, comedy sketches, street theatre, visual art, film, and voice-over work from 1964 to 2008—a time period bookended by the passage of major civil rights legislation and the election of Barack Obama as the first African American President of the United States—Carpenter sharpens particular focus on the strategies African American cultural producers have deployed to “(1) ‘color’ whiteness; (2) deconstruct notions of white superiority, privilege, entitlement, and purity; and, (3) complicate perceptions of blackness” (29). In question throughout this rigorously researched and compellingly written study are the dominant narratives and ideologies that continue to sustain whiteness as an unmarked norm while obscuring the capaciousness of other racialized identities. For many African American artists, a practice of defamiliarizing whiteness in their work has proven vital to exposing the “fallacies associated with racial designations” (3).
To carry out her close readings of expressions and enactments of whiteness in black performance, Carpenter employs a fresh, multifaceted methodology informed by her training and experiences as a scholar-educator and professional dramaturg. Accordingly, in addition to offering cogent textual and performance analyses, she brings critical attention to the creation, development, and production of the dramatizations [End Page 145] of whiteness she explores in the book. She also incorporates excerpts from original interviews that she conducted with various playwrights, directors, performers, and other cultural workers—including most of the artists whose work she examines in the text—as a way to center matters of artistic vision and intention, as well as critical and audience reception in her analysis. The integration of critical and creative inquiry throughout Coloring Whiteness is among the book’s most exemplary and distinguishing features. In embracing what she cites as a “dramaturgical approach,” Carpenter opens crucial space to attend carefully to what each of her case studies is doing in both theory and practice.
Organized chronologically, the book’s five chapters and coda function somewhat independently. Across each, Carpenter interrogates the meanings and messages of whiteness reflected in the examples of expressive art she considers. She also elaborates on the critical concepts she develops—tinted whiteface, optic whiteface, nonconforming whiteface, naturalized whiteface, linguistic whiteface, and presumed aural whiteness—to help describe, identify, and index “some of the ways whiteness can be presented, interpreted, and applied in African American cultural production” (23). Chapter one, for example, turns attention to Douglas Turner Ward’s A Day of Absence (1965) to consider how, by calling for the use of “optic whiteface”—that is, whiteface that is “opaque, paintlike, and bright white” (24)—in the one-act play and its often forgotten 1967 television presentation, Ward brings into relief the constructed nature of whiteness, thereby destabilizing its hegemony.
Carpenter’s interrogations of tropes of whiteness in theatrical texts continue in chapter two. Reading playwright Lydia Diamond’s 2005 stage adaptation of Toni Morrison’s seminal novel The Bluest Eye (1970), the chapter specifically takes up the strategies Diamond employs to reinvigorate some of the novel’s meditations on the ramifications of privileging and prioritizing whiteness, including the playwright’s deliberateness in selecting plotlines and passages to dramatize. Carpenter mostly supplies rich dramaturgical insights about the process of theatrical adaptation in the chapter. She also offers distinctive interpretations of Diamond’s play and Morrison’s novel that will surely prove illuminating for admirers of The Bluest Eye.
Carpenter moves away from theatrical texts to explore enactments of whiteness in other performative mediums in chapters three, four, and five. Spotlighting the performance work of visual artist Danny Tisdale and the bodily transformations of pop artist Michael Jackson, chapter three considers the ways presentations of “naturalized whiteface”—that...