Encounters on Contested Lands and Provocative Eloquence

Encounters on Contested Lands: Indigenous Performances of Sovereignty and Nationhood in Québec. Julie Burelle. Performance Works, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2019; 232 pp.

Provocative Eloquence: Theater, Violence, and Antislavery Speech in the Antebellum United States. Laura L. Mielke. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2019; 296 pp.

Issues that surrounded Black and Indigenous sovereignty in the mid-nineteenth century are under scrutiny again as we enter the mid-twenty-first. The summer of 2020 makes this vividly apparent: A global health crisis has exposed disparities of income and access to health care across racial and ethnic lines. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is gaining momentum while an increasingly tyrannical government works to suppress the freedom of speech and right to assemble for those who would peacefully protest anti-Black racism and police brutality. The US Supreme Court has ruled that a 3-million-acre territory in Eastern Oklahoma is, after all, the rightful land of the Muskogee (Creek) people and is therefore exempt from Oklahoma state law. In this context, Julie Burelle’s Encounters on Contested Lands and Laura L. Mielke’s Provocative Eloquence, though different in critical approach and aesthetic content, invite reflection upon legacies of conquest and genocide in the United States and Canada that continue to impede the realization of social justice now.

Encounters on Contested Lands: Indigenous Performances of Sovereignty and Nationhood in Québec is an important contribution to scholarship about performance in and of the Americas. Burelle’s performance studies method allows multiple embodied storytelling genres to be read as integral to the narrative clash between the French Québécois de souche (“the white descendants of early settlers from France, who still speak French and understand themselves… as settlers no more, colonized by the British first and, later, by the Anglo-Canadians, and rightfully belonging to the territory of Québec”) and the Indigenous peoples who reside in what is now the province of Québec (6). Burelle articulates her own positionality as French Québécois de souche throughout her criticism of Euro-Canada’s claims to nationhood and territory. Relying on Slavoj Žižek’s concept of “objective violence,” she interprets French Québec’s history of settler colonialism as it pertains to performances surrounding Canada’s Indian Act (1876), and as its damaging social contract persists into the present.

Burelle claims, “[r]ace, with whiteness as its ultimate arbiter, is the unstable terrain on which settler-colonial anxieties are performed through a pas de deux between abjection and incorporation” (12). The performance examples she cites demonstrate that French Canadians’ minoritization claims rest upon acts of erasure, ignorance, or consumption of Indigenous presence, resistance, and ancestry. Burelle organizes the book’s intersectional histories around the “Oka Crisis” of 1990, in which the Mohawk people of Kanehsatà:ke defended the destruction of tribal lands by a predominantly white, francophone country club community. Burelle reads this conflict as key to understanding the fluidity of the Québécois de souche’s claims to cultural marginalization, conveniently invoked when contesting Anglo-Canada’s dominance over Québec but obscured when an alliance with Anglo-Canada would preserve French-Canadian claims over Indigenous lands.

Burelle begins with an analysis of Alexis Martin’s Invention du chauffage central en Nouvelle-France (The Invention of Central Heating in New France, 2012-2014), a play that poses paradoxical French Québécois de souche claims of abjection and what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang refer to as “settler moves to innocence” (169). Burelle historiographically frames Martin’s epic as part of the white settler-colonial legacy of Marc Lescarbot’s 1606 Théâtre de Neptune en la Nouvelle-France. She surmises, “Invention falls short of its reconciliatory endeavor and echoes in disturbing ways the willful offering of the land” once performed by white actors in redface for Lescarbot’s legendary conquest drama about ‘New France’ (27).

Burelle further probes protestations of French-Canadian innocence in Chapter 2, “Les Racines Imaginaires/Mythical Métissages.” Through close readings of films by Euro-Canadians that examine indigeneity, Burelle charts the violence embedded French Québécois de souche affect to what she dubs a “felt Nativeness,” “never problematizing how this desire to possess Nativeness, to absorb it, is… inherently settler-colonial” (58). In this chapter, Burelle explores the many iterations of “métis, métissé, and métissage,” terms that broadly refer to racial and ethnic mixing, but each possessing a nuanced interpretation when it comes to various Canadian and Indigenous identities, rendering Métis and métis studies distinct foci of Canadian identities and politics (59). With the films discussed in Chapter 3 – Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993, Alanis Obomsawin), Mesnak (2012, Yves Sioui Durand), and the Wapikoni Mobile project –  Burelle gives voice to Indigenous filmmakers, at once revealing the objective violence implicit to the history of Canada’s Indian Act and affirming authentic representations of Indigenous culture.

Chapter 4, “Endurance/Enduring Performance,” engages Indigenous women’s performances that articulate gender-based violence as an irrefutable component of Canada’s genocidal legacy. La Marche Amun (2010), conceived and organized by Michèle Taïna and Viviane Michel, was “led by a group of Innu women to demand an end to the gendered discrimination contained in the Indian Act” (21). This processional performance, situated along a “rural highway” in 2010, eerily reflected the concurrent murders of Indigenous women along Canada’s Highway 16, most of which remain under-investigated and unsolved (125). Burelle’s analysis of the endurance-beading performance, Indian Act (1999-2002), organized by Nadia Myre (Anishinaabe) for which she and 250 participants of European and Indigenous descent covered an annotated copy of the Indian Act with intricate beadwork. The final piece, many pages of which are unfinished, suggests that much work remains to be done in the ongoing processes of reconciliation and repatriation among the peoples who enact Canada’s “colonial present tense and tense colonial present” (4).

North American genocidal legacies come into equally sharp focus in Laura Mielke’s Provocative Eloquence: Theater, Violence, and Antislavery Speech in the Antebellum United States, a timely book that reframes US oratory traditions as enmeshed with abolitionism and infused with violence. Mielke considers speech acts of all kinds as she interrogates the connection between embodied action and intentional utterance. She draws from a rich array of theatrical, dramatic, oratory, legislative, and print narratives to craft a meticulous case for the power of words to incite change. Theatre, theatricality and drama inform each portion of her argument that “the antislavery speech readily drew upon theatrical forms and provocations of antislavery speech made their way back to the stage” (24).

Mielke’s method is “interperformative and intertextual” (21). She considers dramatic texts and performatic contexts for each oratorical figure as she disrupts popular understandings of familiar figures from the political, melodramatic, and Shakespearean stages of the mid-nineteenth century (21). This is perhaps most evident in Chapter 1, “Edwin Forrest and Heroic Oratory.” In her analysis of Forrest’s 1838 Independence Day Oration, Mielke illustrates Forrest’s political speech as having been understood not just for its political content and delivery style, but also for its Roachian “afterglow” caused by Forrest’s embodiment of his own ideas. For audiences, memories of the actor’s famous “heroic” stage roles such as the slave rebellion leader Spartacus (1831) may have blended with the words of the speech, perhaps lending Forrest a more abolitionist tone than words alone would have conveyed (53).

Mielke’s notion of “dramatic suasion” is most clearly defined in a chapter dedicated to the dramatic readings of William Wells Brown and Mary Webb. She argues that “[d]ramatic suasion, as developed by Webb and Wells Brown…, transferred the rhetoric at the heart of Garrisonian abolitionism into a genre… associated with rebellious and retributive violence and into a performative mode” (82). As enacted by the free Black bodies of Webb and Wells Brown, abolitionist narratives shifted the national conversation in the mid-nineteenth century from the implicitly anti-abolitionist question of what the US would do with a population of free Black people, to “the real question… ‘what to do with the masters’” (82).

While political histories pin Mielke’s argument in chronological sequence, the event that anchors her thesis most evocatively is the caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the US Congress floor by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks in 1856. In Chapter 3, Mielke compares the event with the tableau, “Southern Chivalry – Argument versus Club’s” by John L. Magee (1856) and then considers three theatrical adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred; A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp in light of increasingly brutal resistance to the abolitionist movement. As she teases out the violent undercurrents of melodramatic forms such as the sensation scene and blackface minstrelsy, attuned to the physical violence threatened and represented onstage in all three productions, Mielke infers, “[i]t was the fear of antislavery speech’s incitement of forcible resistance that led to a very different manifestation of provocative eloquence: the vicious suppression of eloquence by resistant auditors” (84).

Mielke artfully unpacks Portia’s famous “Quality of Mercy” monologue for its rhetorical threat of violence, used to alternately suppress or incite violence that in turn either perpetuated the practice of slavery or resisted it. Mielke’s analysis of Portia’s speech, and its numerous deployments in the antebellum era, helps the reader to understand the US as it is currently embroiled in an unfinished history of racial violence that simmers in words and inevitably manifests as physical brutality. Re-reading this book amidst the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement during the summer of 2020, I was brought to consider the ways that Mielke’s oratorical subjects have themselves become cultural and rhetorical touchpoints in our ongoing struggles towards social justice. By examining antislavery texts, Mielke reveals the violence that haunts even the most pacifist of entreaties. Her choice to conclude with abolitionist John Brown’s execution and the sway it held for actor John Wilkes Booth towards violently anti-abolitionist ends suggests that the question of whether or not violent action is necessary to dismantle systems of racism and oppression in the US is yet to be settled.

Read together, these books deepen our grasp of the violence in which hegemonic North American concepts of citizenship, sovereignty, and suffrage are entrenched. Objective violence embedded in settler-colonial legislation compounded with the implied and enacted violence surrounding abolitionist speech echo across the continent while the struggle for social justice endures.

Vivian Appler
College of Charleston

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 33, Number 1 (Fall 2020)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2020 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center