- Aldridge in Action: Building a Visual Digital Interface
Several key volumes locate the digital humanities as a developing discipline, struggling to define itself as both a methodology for research and as an engagement with technology in the service of the humanities.1 Patrik Svensson, in particular, positions digital humanities as occupying an in-between position that enables dynamism within the humanities so that “it can accommodate many interests and perspectives.”2 This essay discusses how the development of a digital theatre-history tool became a process for animating multiple sectors of the university, and stimulating their interest in theatre history research. The project of visualizing the careers of underrepresented performers dynamically activated an interdisciplinary team of students, staff, and faculty members around construction of the digital tool. At the same time, the project, by emphasizing the visual in its interface, modeled how visual design can partner with technology to enhance user interaction on a digital screen. 19th Century Acts began, in prototype, as a tool to visualize the history and career of the African American actor Ira Aldridge. The tool has now expanded to include several nineteenth-century performers. I argue that the process of developing and assessing the digital theatre-history tool compelled the interdisciplinary team to grapple with three key questions about digital scholarship: how to accommodate visual expectations of millennial users? How to develop an infrastructure for digital projects? How to incorporate embodiment into archival documents? The following sections describe theoretical questions and practical challenges that arose during the process of constructing 19th Century Acts, a project that helps “locate” digital humanities more generally in the discipline. [End Page E-1]
I began 19th Century Acts with the hope of using digital resources to visualize African American historical performance with the richness of media resources available for contemporary performers. My intention was to create a dynamic and interactive way of learning about African American theatre history. This search for easily accessible visual information coincides with how Paul Conway explores instant gratification via the internet. He explains that “Google is a metaphor for the instant gratification expected in information search and retrieval today. For a new generation of users, Google represents anonymous access to information without human mediation.”3 Those of us engaged in classroom teaching face student researchers who adhere to Conway’s belief that “in the age of Google, nondigital content does not exist, and digital content with no impact is unlikely to survive.”4 Millennial users want to see and hear information in a mediated and digital way. Without a visual, digital stimulus, users may simply decide not to search for the information—a position my experience supports. When I search for a performer such as Beyoncé on the internet I am offered a plethora of visual images and interactive media that document this artist’s career (fig. 1). Online, I can see her movements, listen to her songs, and quickly locate the lyrics to her albums. Yet, digital media about pre-twentieth-century performance is not nearly as extensive. When I search for information about the nineteenth-century abolitionist and actor William Wells Brown, I find only dry documentaries and a performance monologue by an amateur actor (fig. 2). The 19th Century Acts tool seeks to provide dynamic audio and visual imagery to users interested in theatre history in general, and performances of underrepresented artists in particular.
19th Century Acts focuses on Aldridge, an unusual nineteenth-century performer because of his race, the range of his travels, and his repertory. He began his career as a performer in the African Grove Theatre, a small entertainment garden located in what is now the West Village of New York City.5 When the garden folded he rejected his father’s ministry and traveled to England, where he forged a long and lucrative career as a touring performer. For a performer like Aldridge, racist narratives surround descriptions of the performance act. Sources from the nineteenth century refer to African American performers as “black minstrels,” “Ethiopian Delineators,”6 and other terms that make it difficult to assess what the performances really were and how they were received by audiences. Scant records mean that...