- Coloring Whiteness: Acts of Critique in Black Performance by Faedra Chatard Carpenter
Faedra Chatard Carpenter’s Coloring Whiteness: Acts of Critique in Black Performance brings a wide-ranging lens—crossing theatre, visual art, and popular culture (television comedy, advertisements, pop icons)—to the whiteface performance strategies of African American performers. Whiteface is a subject of study that receives less attention than blackface performance and has been approached largely in opposition to blackface, through analyses of minstrelsy and its residues in theatre. Mary F. Brewer’s Staging Whiteness (2005) and Marvin McAllister’s Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance (2011), [End Page 159] relatively recent tomes on whiteness and whiteface from minstrelsy through 20th-century theatre and popular performance, are foundational texts for Carpenter’s project. Like McAllister’s book, Susan Gruber’s Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (1997), which focuses largely on white imaginations of blackness, provides precedence for Carpenter’s research with its breadth of case studies surpassing the theatrical stage. But Carpenter brings her strongly dramaturgical perspective to bear on both live and mediated sites such as Jefferson Pinder’s short film Afro-Cosmonaut/Alien (White Noise) #7 (2008); Michael Jackson’s corporeal transformations in both real life and the Black or White music video (1991); Dave Chappelle’s “Clayton Bigsby” (2003) and “Racial Draft” (2004) comedy skits; Daniel Tisdale’s Post Plantation Pop series (1988) and Transitions, Inc. project (1992); and the experiences of African American voiceover actors.
This broader set of sites, along with the dramaturgical analyses of Adrienne Kennedy’s play Funnyhouse of a Negro (1969) and a dedicated chapter each on Douglas Turner Ward’s The Day of Absence (1964) and Lydia Diamond’s stage adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (2007), allows Carpenter to characterize whiteface as a strategy linked not solely to the history of the minstrel stage, but rather to the necessity for black cultural producers to reveal and recalibrate simple readings of race on either side of the black/white binary. In doing so, she is able to delineate several varieties of whiteface performance, providing useful terminological tools for future research and analysis in her much-needed archive across genres.
If blackface traffics in appropriative dispersions and distortions of blackness (or perceptions of it), whiteface is likewise an appropriative performance tactic, but one that interrogates whiteness’s usual normalization and impermeability. Carpenter veers away from solely theatrical works just as she avoids a reading of whiteface as a simple reversal of or reaction against blackface’s usual “deploy[ment] to comment on the quality and value of differing bodies” (11). In her examples, whiteface is used to comment upon the differing experiences of bodies under racialization. Viewing whiteface performances as making “strategic use” of symbolic, abstracted whiteness—making whiteness “strange” where it usually functions as neutral, unracialized, normalized, and privileged—Carpenter is clear about her desire to explicate not whiteness itself but rather the ways in which black performers have made use of its ability to function as a “fluctuating abstraction” with material and discursive impact on the lived experiences of black Americans (225, 3, 8–9).
While the diverse scope of the project is largely a boon, Carpenter’s deeper analyses of certain sites — discussions that are warranted and often the most invigorated writing — occasionally feel like divergences from the text’s overarching agenda. Her elaborations on well-rehearsed notions of black (and white) “absence-presence” and “(in)visibility” in translating The Bluest Eye from text to embodied performance, for example, raise complicated questions beyond the frame of whiteface (81–83). In that chapter and the one on The Day of Absence especially, Carpenter’s dramaturgical eye, a strength throughout, allows her to examine her objects in detail alongside the sociopolitical circumstances of their production. That same eye occasionally glosses over points that might deserve more complex readings: the use of tableaus in Walter Dallas’s 2010 iteration of The Bluest Eye...