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Reviewed by:
  • Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left: A History of the Impossible by Malik Gaines
  • James F. Wilson (bio)
BOOK REVIEWED: Malik Gaines, Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left: A History of the Impossible. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2017.

Malik Gaines's Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left poses a tantalizing cultural puzzle: What are the artistic and political connections linking African-American singer and pianist Nina Simone, Ghanaian playwrights Efua Sutherland and Ama Ata Aidoo, German film actor Günther Kaufmann, and San Francisco-based gay disco-diva Sylvester? It turns out these individuals have more in common than one would think. The virtuosity of the book emerges as one ponders how the collective bond among this group of artists has not been examined before.

In the introduction, Gaines deftly outlines the three registers his work reads across, through, and against. These include blackness, which serves as both an intersectional platform for performative reenactment and political revolution; the 1960s, a period characterized by liberation, "excesses," and radicalism; and transnational geographies, including West Africa, Western Europe, and the United States, which provided the political terrain for resistance and insurrection. The chapters that follow examine the ways in which performances, drawn from concert stages, film, Ghana's National Theatre Movement, and an avant-garde theatre troupe, opened a space for social and aesthetic critique and transformation.

W.E.B. Du Bois famously described black subjectivity in relation to the consequences of double consciousness. Gaines squares the equation in analyzing Nina Simone's musical performances as the effects of quadruple consciousness. Simone, like the other artists covered in the book, found ways to negotiate the fraught positionality of blackness "in order to create a theatrical position from which to act." Simone's uncanny ability to musically transgress genres, genders, and national histories offered transformative possibilities of blackness unfettered by white supremacy, patriarchy, and economic exploitation. Simone's "transvocality" reaches its apex in the performances of Sylvester, who appeared with the Cockettes, the outlandish communal theatre troupe, before embarking on a solo musical career. Sylvester may be best known for his disco hit "You Make Me Feel [End Page 138] (Mighty Real)," but he made quite a splash embracing the legacies of black divas Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday in his drag performances with the Cockettes.

The book concludes with an "Afterward" that fast forwards from the excessive 1960s to a no-less racially ambivalent 2015. Focusing on performances from the Venice Biennale, Gaines shows the ways in which history and radical theatricality imbue resistant performances of blackness in the twenty-first century. Whereas in the previous chapters, the author engages the archival material as a theorist and performance studies scholar, here Gaines considers the work of Emeka Ogboh, a Nigerian sound and installation artist, along with African-American musicians Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran's Work Songs as both a participant and a performer. Rhetorically and structurally, this provides a fascinating coda. Histories and theatrical legacies of black expressivity, this valuable book reminds us, do not exist solely on the page or in the brick-and-mortar archive but are embodied and reexamined through live performance.

James F. Wilson

JAMES F. WILSON is professor of English and theatre at LaGuardia Community College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the author of Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance.



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pp. 138-139
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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