- Privileged Spectatorship: Theatrical Interventions in White Supremacy by Dani Snyder-Young
In this era of #BlackLivesMatter and #WeSee YouWhiteAmericanTheater, Dani Snyder-Young’s welcome and insightful book Privileged Spectator-ship provides an incisive analysis of the workings of whiteness in the theatre world and beyond. Snyder-Young, a white scholar, director, playwright, and dramaturg, is self-consciously reflexive about her positionality. She notes her own resistances as she deconstructs white privilege, white defensiveness, white denial, and white fragility in the illuminating case studies presented in the book. Equally significant, Snyder-Young suggests productive interventions into white supremacy. Her participant observation research on audience reception gives readers a granular analysis of the reproduction of structural racism, as well as useful examples that could offer challenges to those power relations. Ideally, this book will find an audience among theatre scholar-artists, those who work in reception studies and critical race studies, and those who make arts policy.
To construct her account of whiteness and structural racism in theatre, Snyder-Young grounds her analysis in participant observation at theatre performances, as well as in interviews she and her research team conducted with artists and audiences. She also closely examines performance reviews and social media postings. The book is organized into three sections. Part 1, “Come Closer,” analyzes audience reception at two A.R.T. productions, in which whiteness was both reinscribed and contested. Chapter 1 in this section foregrounds the disappointing yet familiar racialized performances of whiteness during post-play discussions of Claudia Rankine’s The White Card and suggests ways forward. Chapter 2, “Critical Catharsis,” investigates post-performance events for Keith Wallace’s one-person show, The Bitter Game. These were designed to compel audiences to assume responsibility and to intervene against anti-Black violence—to varying degrees of success.
Part 2, “Rage Against the Machine,” examines the mobilization of discomfort, anger, and outrage as strategies for intervening in white supremacy. Chapter 3 focuses on contemporary blackface minstrelsy in Sleeping Weazel’s production of 3/ Fifths’ Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show by James Scruggs. Chapter 4, “The Boundaries of Community,” highlights the social media controversies over two white critics’ reviews of two Steppenwolf productions: This Is Modern Art by poets Kevin Coval (white) and Idris Goodwin (Black), and Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu. [End Page 602]
Part 3, “Decolonizing Gazes and Spaces,” suggests both the difficulty of and potential for intervening in white privilege and white supremacy. Within this final section, chapter 5, “Maintaining White Racial Comfort,” examines the seemingly intractable desire for middle-class white audiences to be “good white people.” Snyder-Young includes her own responses to problematic productions and audience reactions; she interrogates the tendency, her own included, to write in generous motives for white characters and audiences. Chapter 6, “Building Diverse Community,” demonstrates ways to chip away at seemingly intractable walls of white privilege, drawing from several inspirational productions and artistic/organizational strategies mounted at Chicago’s Halcyon Theatre.
Snyder-Young frames her inquiry with concepts that circulate in both theatre studies and critical race/ethnic studies. As a cultural anthropologist, critical race studies and performance studies scholar, dramaturg, and playwright, I found her “key terms” especially useful for engaging audiences who are unfamiliar with critical ethnic studies, and who want to understand the deeply ingrained, structural, unconscious nature of white supremacy as it informs both theatre and the broader world. Marvin Carlson’s “haunting” here becomes the “haunting whiteness” that defines theatrical space (xviii), and Bourdieu’s habitus, inflected through Bonilla-Silva, becomes “white habitus” (xx). The reader also engages, via the work of Shannon Sullivan (xxiii), with the pernicious assumption that undergirds vernacular understandings of race and racism— the binary between “good white people” and “bad white people,” and the resulting defensiveness, evasions, and blind spots with which BIPOC people are numbingly familiar. Snyder-Young pinpoints other conceptual nodes: white fragility, white supremacy, white privilege (for me, a more useful construction than “is racist”), the white gaze, whiteness as a social construction of dominance, and white racialized performativity. If readers are unfamiliar...