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Book Review, Current Issue, Vol. 32 No. 1

Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity

Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity. Dorinne Kondo. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018; Pp. 376.

Using dramaturgy, autoethnography, psychoanalysis, and critical race theory, Dorinne Kondo argues that performance shapes race in Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity. She stakes a claim to creativity as work that can imagine new ways of existing, but also reify the status quo and drain minoritarian life force. She builds on her previous book, About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater, by theorizing racialized reception; restructuring the normative form of academic manuscripts; and examining plays by Anna Deavere Smith, David Henry Hwang, and herself. Kondo critiques how liberal humanism evacuates the uneven power dynamics of theatre, yet she ultimately insists on possibilities for progressive change.

Worldmaking resembles a drama that demystifies theatrical and academic labor. In the Acknowledgements, Kondo considers the embodied, emotional conditions of writing this book. She shows the work. She organizes her theoretical interventions, dramaturgical analyses, and personal stories into an overture, chapters within three acts, and three entr’actes, culminating in her own original play, Seamless.

Early on, Kondo defines an array of key terms. Taking seriously Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s understanding of racism as group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death, Kondo theorizes “racial affect, which enlivens some and diminishes others, and affective violence, especially in sites assumed to be far from racial violence,” like the theatre (11, italics in original). The unequal distribution of emotions accords with racial hierarchies. For instance, white spectators might laugh uproariously at Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’s white reframing of A Raisin in the Sun, while spectators of color might shudder. Kondo cites psychoanalytical thinkers like Melanie Klein and Hanna Segal to theorize reparative mirroring, reparative criticism, and reparative creativity. In the first case, audience members of color can feel invigorated seeing representations of themselves on stage. Dramaturgs and other artists can enact reparative criticism and creativity by making plays more progressive and composing their own feminist, anti-racist artworks. Stressing collaboration, Kondo further offers the terms politics of affiliation and politics of agonistics to convey solidarity and struggle toward a more equitable world in and beyond the theatre.

As Kondo lays out the field of theatrical production, she does not presume that readers already know details like how little playwrights earn for playwriting as opposed to screenwriting. She provides statistics and interview excerpts to demonstrate how resources go disproportionately to white men. Kondo speaks to scholars from a wide range of fields—Theatre and Performance Studies, Anthropology, Ethnic Studies—as well as practicing artists and students.

In Act Two, Kondo applies her terms to her case studies, primarily Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1993) and Yellow Face (2007). She contextualizes Anna Deavere Smith’s and David Henry Hwang’s careers as well as her relationships with them; she served as dramaturg for three of Smith’s plays—Twilight, House Arrest (1997), and Let Me Down Easy (2008)—and she has dialogued with Hwang in person and in her scholarship.

Kondo devotes one chapter to Smith’s artistic process and political project. Smith interviews and performs as subjects involved with a particular event or theme, in this case, the Los Angeles uprisings after police assaulted Rodney King and were mostly exonerated for their anti-black violence. By embodying subjects across various identities, Smith grounds their experiences, demonstrates their relationality, and represents minoritized voices too often silenced in the theatre. Because Twilight presents different perspectives and no easy solutions to systemic oppression, the play models a nuanced history. At the same time, Kondo recognizes that some critics praised Twilight due to their interpretation of the play as celebrating power-free, individual-based common humanity.

A highpoint of Worldmaking is when Kondo details her experiences as one of four dramaturgs for Twilight. Her behind-the-scenes account distinguishes various versions of the text, from the premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, to the transfer to Broadway, to the adaptation for television; she also explains how dramaturgs gave feedback on Smith’s performances of the interviews. For example, she discusses how they switched the play’s last monologue to avoid letting audiences presume racial equity to be inevitable. Exemplifying a politics of affiliation and politics of agonistics, Kondo describes how she fought for the inclusion of Asian Americans to disrupt the black-white binary, represent Korean Americans, and challenge stereotypes. She even brought Smith to tears. But what she greatly admires about Smith is her willingness to be challenged.

Another distinct pleasure of Worldmaking is Kondo’s style of storytelling. She recalls unexpectedly seeing Smith perform as herself (Kondo) and voluntarily handing dramaturg-director-producer Oskar Eustis five single-spaced pages of notes on Yellow Face. And the book reproduces these notes! The book underscores the major contributions of dramaturgs. For Kondo, “Dramaturgical critique deploys research, theory, and scholarship for reparative ends” (197).

In her chapter on Yellow Face, Kondo articulates how David Henry Hwang makes and unmakes race, and she suggests that she might have influenced the final script for the Public Theater. Set against the 1990s Miss Saigon protests and U.S. yellow peril, the comedic docudrama follows playwright DHH dealing with his immigrant father, who longs for the American dream, and his own accidental casting of a white man to play an Asian American character. In the original East West Players staging, the play ended with a melding of the Chinese father and white actor, evoking an ethereal racial equality. After Kondo offered critiques of this power-evasive liberal fantasy, the revised Yellow Face underlined that fantasy as such and firmly connected anti-Chinese persecution with the father’s death.

Kondo concludes the book with reparative creativity: her play Seamless and a chapter covering her journey with the play, including the racialized challenges of trying to persuade a professional theatre to produce it. The play centers on Diane Kubota, a lawyer grappling with the extent to which she can know her parents and their experiences of Japanese American internment, and, too, how gendered generational traumas affect her. Combining realism, direct address, fantasy sequences, and flashbacks, Seamless draws from Kondo’s life and raises questions about Asian American epistemology and ontology.

Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity joins new, necessary scholarship reflecting on the work of minoritarian art such as After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life by Joshua Chambers-Letson and Unfinished Business: Michael Jackson, Detroit, and the Figural Economy of American Deindustrialization by Judith Hamera. In reading this book, I felt the reparative mirroring that Kondo theorizes, from her experiences of spectatorial affective violence to her centering of an Asian American woman in her play. Like DHH at the end of Yellow Face, Kondo reminds us, “And I go back to work, searching for my own face.”

Donatella Galella
University of California, Riverside

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 32, Number 1 (Fall 2019)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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