Current Issue, Vol 28 no.1

Transgressive Engagements: The Here and Now of Queer Theatre Scholarship

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

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

I consider it a sign of the vibrancy of queer theatre scholarship that publications over the past few years contain a greater variety of subjects, methodologies, and theoretical perspectives than ever before. I would hope for no less from a field that celebrates transgression, categorical slippage, intersectionality, and the inability to follow a single “straight and narrow” path.

At the most recent ATHE Conference, I attended a panel where scholars—many of them involved in the creation of the LGBTQ Focus Group 20 years earlier—spoke about the field’s early years, when pursing queer theatre scholarship could endanger one’s career and reputation. Since the emergence of seminal works such as “We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians” (1987) by Kaier Curtin and The Feminist Spectator as Critic (1988) by Jill Dolan, much has changed for LGBTQ people in America. Even though such work now has a more esteemed position in the academy, new queer theatre scholarship at its best continues to be bold—and maybe even a little dangerous.

I still remember the thrill of being a college student and, on a trip to New York City, purchasing Curtin’s book on “the emergence of lesbians and gay men on the American stage” from a gay bookstore. Along with books like John Clum’s Acting Gay (1992), it allowed me to understand a history of the representation of my own cultural identity. Later, as a graduate student, I acquired theoretical frameworks for comprehending various relationships between gender, sexuality, performance, and society from books by scholars like Dolan, Sue-Ellen Case, Judith Butler, and Peggy Phelan.

I remain drawn to scholarship that creates insightful readings of plays and performances, grounded in historical context and activated by original theoretical perspectives. So my bookshelf has been happily full of late, with a number of excellent volumes published over the past five years that enrich the field of queer theatre and performance scholarship.

One key goal continues to be the preservation and illumination of what might be deemed the heyday of queer theatre from the 1960s through the 1980s. Kate Davy’s Lady Dicks and Lesbian Brothers (2011) is an excellent historical analysis of the seminal dyke theatre, the WOW Café, and it now has the perfect companion in the recently released Memories of the Revolution: The First Ten Years of the WOW Café Theater, edited by Holly Hughes, Carmelita Tropicana, and Jill Dolan. Robert Schanke, whose previous books include excellent anthologies  of queer theatre history co-edited with Kim Marra, also celebrates the life and work of a pioneer in  Queer Theatre and the Legacy of Cal Yeomans (2011).

The revolutionary fervor of that era can feel distant as LGBTQ cultural and political goals seem to move toward the mainstream and the “normal.” In opposition to that trend, Sara Warner’s Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure (2012) focuses on anti-normative plays and performances, celebrating the gleefully subversive.  The interrogation of homonormativity, which informs my my own study of “negative representations,” is a major strain in queer theatre scholarship, evident most recently in Jacob Juntunen’s Mainstream AIDS Theatre, the Media, and Gay Civil Rights: Making the Radical Palatable (2016).

While anti-normativity leads some queer scholars to look primarily at alternative systems of theatrical production, others dive into the mainstream, offering queer readings of popular culture. Broadway plays and musicals have been rich subjects for scholars like D.A. Miller, David Savran, and David Roman, and now Stacy Wolf has made a significant addition to the field with Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical (2011). Brian Eugenio Herrera, in  Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in Twentieth-Century U.S. Popular Performance (2015), brings a critically astute and refreshingly queer perspective to his examination of mainstream cultural representations.

José Esteban Muñoz, whose passing was a great loss to our community, helped bring greater interdisciplinarity and intersectionality to performance scholarship. It’s heartening that these goals are pursued by an increasing number of scholars, including Ramón Rivera-Servera, author of Performing Queer Latinidad: Dance, Sexuality, Politics (2012) and co-editor with E. Patrick Johnson of important contributions to black and Latino/a queer performance scholarship: solo/black/woman: scripts, interviews, and essays (2013) and the forthcoming Blacktino Queer Performance  (2016). I’m also a fan of James Wilson’s Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies (2011), an impressively researched look at queer performance in the Harlem Renaissance, as well as Marlon M. Bailey’s Butch Queens in Pumps  (2013), an ethnography based on Bailey’s own experiences with contemporary African-American ballroom culture in Detroit

If recent journal articles and conference presentations are any indication, then theatre and performance scholarship is trending toward a firmer commitment to exploring the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, class, and other identities. As we cultivate greater diversity in the systems that produce theatre and performance—and in the systems that produce theatre and performance scholars—I look forward to the publication of more books that represent a wide range of perspectives on a variety of different kinds of queer performance, particularly those focusing on trans* artists and representations.

With all these exciting books published over the past five years, perhaps the most notable trend is the changing position of books in our culture. The gay bookstore where I bought that copy of “We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians”? It closed years ago. The Internet has now become a dynamic site  for those writing about queer theatre and performance, potentially engaging with a broader and more diverse readership. I enjoy both new and old media and believe they can intersect in productive ways, which is why I’ve bookmarked Jill Dolan’s blog and have a copy of the published collection of her blog articles, The Feminist Spectator in Action (2013), on my shelf. Now that the Journal of American Drama and Theatre has “gone electric,” I’m looking forward to having another online source for articles and book reviews on queer theatre scholarship.

Jordan Schildcrout is an Associate Professor of Theatre & Performance at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Murder Most Queer: The Homicidal Homosexual in the American Theater (University of Michigan Press).

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