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Reviewed by:
  • Poverty and Charity in Early Modern Theater and Performance by Robert Henke, and: Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Black Male Performer by Michelle Ann Stephens, and: Queen for a Day: Transformistas, Beauty Queens, and the Performance of Femininity in Venezuela by Marcia Ochoa
  • Keary Watts (bio)

Poverty and Charity in Early Modern Theater and Performance. By Robert Henke. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2015; 198 pp.; $55.00 paper, e-book available.

In this interdisciplinary study of the performance of poverty and charity on the streets, stages, and piazzas of early modern Europe, Robert Henke reveals a social contiguity and analytic reciprocity between actors and beggars. Theatre and performance, like the act of begging, wield complex narrative strategies that transmit the conditions of poverty through “fictionalized forms of distortion, exaggeration, marginalization, displacement, and condensation” (12–13). Countering studies that privilege English Poor Laws and rogue literature, this book tracks regionally specific accounts of performances of poverty and charity through an expansive transnational frame. Juxtaposing theatrical and quotidian sources, Henke locates sites of dialogic and multivocal engagement that reveal variegated responses to poverty and poor relief. Henke’s breathtakingly vast knowledge of cultures, regions, languages, and theatrical conventions encourages his readers to critically engage with poverty as a complexly varied set of performative, transtemporal questions and problems that provide provocative points of comparison for poverty relief in the 21st century.

Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Black Male Performer. By Michelle Ann Stephens. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014; 282 pp.; illustrations. $89.95 cloth, $24.95 paper, e-book available.

In Skin Acts, Michelle Ann Stephens develops her concept of a “skin act,” a political mode of being onstage that encompassed “the act of objectifying and subjectifying one’s skin” to navigate the libidinal circuits of racial oppression in the 20th century (30). She reveals how four black male performers (Bert Williams, Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, and Bob Marley) navigated the intersubjective, often racist gaze of audiences at crucial historical junctures. In Skin Acts, Stephens argues that racial difference is marked by and experienced in the skin. Stephens historicizes the skin and offers psychoanalytic readings of performances that enabled haptic (rather than scopic) modes of negotiation between performers and audiences. Within this tension between touching and seeing, skin and flesh, Stephens offers a critical reading practice that accounts for the black male performer as both desiring subject and desired object. She wields a highly specialized language for identifying the libidinal routes of racial oppression beneficial to anyone invested in phenomenology, critical race theory, performance theory, and psychoanalysis. [End Page 173]

Queen for a Day: Transformistas, Beauty Queens, and the Performance of Femininity in Venezuela. By Marcia Ochoa. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014; 282 pp.; illustrations. $89.95 cloth. $24.95 paper, e-book available.

Marcia Ochoa’s Queen for a Day is a queer diasporic ethnography of Venezuelan modernity and nation formation that situates transformistas (transgender women) and misses (cisgender beauty queens) within the same analytic frame. Focusing on these two styles of feminine performance allows her to show how national politics and gender converge to produce the physical appearance of women’s bodies. Ochoa’s analysis is swiftly operative within national and (trans)national frames, moving from the sex workers on the streets of Caracas to the queens on the runways of the Miss Venezuela beauty contest. Because both groups use performance to mediate their work and identities, Ochoa insists that both groups are “producing femininities with similar symbolic resources” (5). Making an important contribution to performance studies, Ochoa critiques Judith Butler’s notion of performativity for its reduction of bodies to text, pointing instead to how performance can blur boundaries between “words and flesh” (219). Ochoa’s clear, conversational prose allows her to address multiple audiences while also participating in anthropological, Latin American, feminist, and queer discourses. [End Page 174]

Keary Watts

Keary Watts received his MA in Theatre and Performance Studies at Washington University in St. Louis and is currently a doctoral student in the Interdisciplinary PhD program in Theatre and Drama at Northwestern University.



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pp. 173-174
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