Changes, Constants, Constraints: African American Theatre History Scholarship

by Kevin Byrne
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 28, Number 1 (Winter 2016)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

African American theatre history scholarship has always wanted to commit untold stories to print and it values performance on a rubric which balances artistic impulses with cultural considerations. The work is sometimes overtly political, but always politically leaning. This scholarship gives close consideration to the un- or under-represented: the missing, forgotten, overlooked, removed, ignored, or erased. In the past, the discipline focused on individual playwrights, a collection of thematically linked dramatic texts, or a specific era such as the Harlem Renaissance or Black Arts Movement. In recent years, though, black performance scholarship has moved beyond clean, assumed definitions of racial and theatrical categorizations. This development has allowed the field to expand its reach while continuing to honor the original political impetus which drove it at its founding.

The methodological lenses and historical scope of black theatre scholarship have changed considerably because the underlying definitions of race, racism, and racial categorization have shifted too. It emphasizes race as a cultural product, a mutable definition that shifts and contorts over different eras due to outside social pressures. As Harvey Young cogently summarizes these ideas in his recent Theatre & Race (2013):

Although race is an invention, a convenience that encapsulates perceived (or imagined) difference, it should not be dismissed as either a mere fiction or an anachronism. Its broad acceptance, seeming materiality, and staying power are anchored in its ability to provide a narrative that unifies a collective social history with the variances in individuated social perspectives. (6)

Two fraught concepts—the performativity of identity in everyday life and the fluidity of racial difference—create radical alternatives to how black theatre is analyzed. These feelings of malleability and performativity allow new considerations of contemporary theatre and the reevaluation of past events. This has also helped in the reassessment of theatre events or theatre theory based in erroneous notions of racial fixity, particularly the binary of black and white.

Unmooring African American racial definitions and fully committing to the cultural underpinnings of race classification is thrilling but also unnerving. Unsuccessful scholarship in this vein reduces black identity to mere artifice, or style; such works are reductive, subjective, and random. More convincing African American theatre scholarship acknowledges a dialectically opposable concept which stabilizes black performance historicizations. This opposite pole is the materiality of the African American body: its physical presence, place onstage, or reproduction in print. This equation balances the physical markers of blackness with the cultural, experiential, and historical aspects of personality.

A shift from theatre to performance is a central means of historicization which expands the variety of evidence that scholars use. Uncategorizable examples are central and cross-disciplinarity is common to many investigations, upending text-focused, time-and-location-based histories. With the fluidity of race categorizations complimented by the materiality of bodies, each work is structured along thematic concerns and racial considerations. They trace trajectories amongst the evidence, even when there is no explicit (to the participants) connections between them. I am thinking, for example, of Nicole Fleetwood’s 2011 Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, “a study of how blackness becomes visually knowable,” and the 2012 anthology The Methuen Drama Book of Post-Black Plays, which highlights racialized work from the Age of Obama by both black and non-black playwrights. All of this changes the who or what that is studied, and how it is studied. The why remains the same, though: a leftist political bent with the desire to correct the historical record and celebrate the formerly forgotten.

Tavia Nyong’o’s 2009 Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory and Harvey Young’s 2010 Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body have a variety of examples and conclusions but similar racial theorizations and historical trajectories. Strikingly, both have chapters in which the authors themselves are visiting, traversing, and commenting upon museums and museum exhibits. Nearing the close of each volume, a tension and reckoning occurs in these sections that also clearly articulates the concerns felt by scholars in black theatre history today. The past and present, of course, are in these museums. So is the display and erasure of stories and narratives. Fact and supposition blend. And, inevitably, each scholar has to account for his own physical presence and personal response while navigating these spaces. In both literal and metaphorical ways, this is how African American theatre scholars nowadays approach their roles as recorders of history and interpreters of artistic legacies.

A pair of recent additions to the discipline further highlight these concerns and trends: Marvin McAllister’s 2011 Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance and Faedra Carpenter’s 2014 Coloring Whiteness: Acts of Critique in Black Performance. They share some basic connections of investigations and methodology, and the fact of their near-simultaneous arrival signals a new direction within the field. What makes these books such clear indices of recent trends is that, in them, black artists interrogate white positionality/privilege (a political goal) to undermine the very idea of racial binaries or categorizations (a social/cultural goal). The books skip forward in time and between genres: McAllister discuses the late–nineteenth century musical A Trip to Coontown and Richard Pryor routines while Carpenter moves from plays to Dave Chappelle’s TV show to African American performance artists. At the core, each is an analysis of black identity. Better yet, they discuss black identities: the multiplicity of perspectives that self-identify as black. From the titles the works may seem to be about binaries of black/white but, in reality, they are about the variety of viewpoints that open up a dizzying array of possibilities for mapping connections. Whiting Up and Coloring Whiteness are interesting, innovative, scholarly rigorous examples of that potential.

The most exciting and empowering aspect of contemporary African American theatre scholarship is the opportunity for new “black and…” voices to be heard—female, gay, lesbian, and others—and put in conversation with each other on the common ground of race. Importantly, this can help the discipline respond quickly to new social developments which can be incorporated into larger narratives of identity, community, and performance. May the Black Lives Matter movement allow for deeper investigations into the meanings of blackness, the black community, and black political action! From the depths of the Rachel Dolezal case, let a thousand dissertation chapters spring forth! Here’s hoping George Wolfe’s adaptation of Shuffle Along provides the right punctuation mark to the final year of the Obama presidency! Current social, cultural, and theatrical developments cause scholars to constantly reevaluate of the past, still searching for those plays, events, and people who whisper their meanings to us.


Dr. Kevin Byrne is an Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. His recent investigations concern the materiality of blackface performance and the circulation of racist ideology.

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