Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left. Malik Gaines. New York: NYU Press, 2017; Pp. 248.
It begins with a bold proposition. In Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left, scholar-practitioner Malik Gaines suggests that performance is a radical act and that black performances can amend “dominant discourses that manage representation and constrain the lives they organize” (1). Gaines analyzes this phenomenon “against the archives of three complicit registers, each of which engages a history of radicalism”: blackness; the sixties; and the transnational route between the United States, West Africa, and Europe (2-4). This configuration also permits Gaines to consider the “ties between visuality and power’s organization” (7). Thus, Gaines’s book uses interdisciplinary means to assess a range of stunning black cultural artifacts. Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left adds to the field of black performance studies by providing crucial context for some of the most significant acts of black performance in the mid-twentieth century and by firmly rooting black performance studies within the even broader field of black diasporic studies.
In the first chapter, Gaines considers the political nature of jazz singer Nina Simone’s onstage performances in the 1960s. In chapter two, he probes the plays of Efua Sutherland and Ama Ata Aidoo and illustrates the complexities involved in the production of dramatic work meant to express a singular African identity. Gaines then directs his attention towards Günther Kaufmann and finds that the black German actor “problematizes the representation of national identity” on screen (96). In the final chapter, he illustrates the ways black drag queen Sylvester bolstered the Cockettes’ transgressive performances. In each of these contexts, with their strong transnational connective tissue, Gaines finds that black performance troubles hegemonic discourses surrounding race, gender, sexuality, and nationhood. Transnational black performance signifies black diaspora even as it disrupts audience expectations and political rhetoric.
The geographic locations that comprise Gaines’s investigation include the United States, Ghana, and West Germany. Individually, these sites represent central nodes in studies of black diasporic cultural circulation, including those that take the current African migration crisis into consideration. Their triangulation here is significant. Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left unites these various strains of black studies and makes strong claims for why they should be brought to the forefront simultaneously. In doing so, Gaines maintains that the interplay between these three sites demonstrates the way the theorization and performance of blackness in the United States acted as a touchstone for black diasporic subjects and white audiences the world over.
In order to ground his project within the broader field of performance studies, Gaines responds to Afro-pessimist critiques of Marxian analyses à la Frank Wilderson. Gaines’s investigation of Nina Simone’s radical performance work can be considered alongside other recent contributions to the field of black studies, including Shana Redmond’s Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora. And yet, few critics besides Gaines have attempted to tease out the Brechtian implications of Nina Simone’s stagecraft. While the relationship between African Americans and Ghanaians during the 1960s might be well known, thanks to the work of scholars like Kevin Gaines, the work of Ghanaian playwrights like Efua Sutherland and Ama Ata Aidoo remain relatively unexamined. Furthermore, Gaines investigates the hypervisibility of blackness in West Germany during the late 1960s and early 1970s by way of Afro-German actor Günther Kaufmann’s work with famed director Werner Fassbinder. Gaines’s afterword also takes contemporary Venice into consideration through his critique of the 2015 Venice Biennale and reminder that even in rarefied spaces, performance is always political. The result of these transnational case studies is nothing less than a reframing of the terms by which we understand the 1960s, the Nixon era, and our current political reality.
Within this complex schema, the chapter entitled “The Cockettes, Sylvester, and Performance as Life” initially appears to be an outlier. A predominately white performance group who were active in the 1970s, the Cockettes push the boundaries of Gaines’s study regarding both time span and subject matter. But the chapter works precisely because it is excessive. The Cockettes’ inclusion allows Gaines to underscore the temporal excesses of the 1960s as well as the ubiquity of blackness on the American stage, even in its most marginalized outcroppings. The performative interventions of black drag queen Sylvester provide ample food for thought here. Gaines delineates the contrapuntal position of Sylvester against the political nuances of the San Francisco drag scene, with its origins in Brechtian forms of street theatre. Given the growing popularity of television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and increasing mainstream interest in drag performance, this chapter is perhaps a much-needed reminder of the black presence in politicized drag work.
Gaines brings liminal performances of blackness like Sylvester’s into the critical fold while paying particular attention to the work of black feminist critics. His methodology involves a consciously political citational practice. For instance, Gaines claims that his first chapter contributes to the “emerging field of Nina Simone Studies” (22) and references critics like Daphne Brooks. Saidiyah Hartman’s Lose Your Mother helps to frame the second chapter. Tina Campt’s Other Germans is a notable influence on chapter three. In this way, Gaines’s work provides an essential model for advanced students and scholars in the field.
Gaines is especially concerned with how radical black performance challenges the limits of visuality or turns the certainty that often attends visuality on its head. As such, music and the political potential of sound in the abstract to express blackness in radical ways become focal points. He argues that “music has served as a cultural and formal context that supports the kinds of multiplicitous expressions” (193) he sees in 1960s performance. So, for instance, Gaines insists on Nina Simone’s “quadruple consciousness, a dexterous deployment of authorship, presence, and voice that exceeded the prohibitions of race and gender while performing those terms” (23). Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left will appeal to scholars who recognize the impact of sound on performance, or Sound Studies writ large, as well as musicality at its baseline.
Malik Gaines’s position as both a practitioner and a scholar lend a unique depth to this study, applying black performance theories and techniques to twentieth-century cultural objects across a transnational framework. His text reveals a striking sensitivity to the subtle frequencies on which black performance operates and is an important addition to the expanding black performance studies canon.