3

The Book That’s Going To Eat My Blog

It’s been a few days since I’ve posted anything – and more than a few since I’ve posted anything substantial, mostly owing to being lazy and depressed but more the former. I’m going to go back and flesh out my previous book review after this, but be warned: the book I am about to review is going to be eating my blog over the next few days. Indeed, the work of theory which I am about to share with you is one that is substantial, inspirational, in a bizarre coincidence, completely relevant to several of this past week’s biggest news stories.

I’m talking about Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910, the master work on all things African-American and representational, by one incredible writer and researcher, Daphne A. Brooks. I’m telling you, this book is a gold standard for understanding issues of race and gender, especially that of the African-American female, from an artistic yet practical angle. If anything that I’ve described piques your fancy, read on, because this book delivers.

 

As I was saying before, this book goes there, in terms of discussing race, gender, and everywhere in between. There is so much going on in this book that this review could turn into either something completely pointless and superficial, or long enough to occupy a trip to the DMV. I’m aiming for a happy medium.

Brooks starts her first chapter, “Our Bodies Our/Selves: Racial Phantasmagoria and Cultural Struggle” with mention of the oddities of spiritualism, as seen by Reverend Hiram Mattison in 1853. He describes a “collision of cultures” where men, women, “Negroes,” Indians, and ghosts intermingle in religious zeal. In terms of spiritualism, not uncommon, but as far as a mixing of races, quite a shocker. This leads to a discussion of the character in Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, a play I admit to not being as familiar with as I should, so look out for that in a future Flip the Script, maybe. The chapter concludes with a discussion of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the “blackening” of the evil Hyde character in performance, which is interesting, because the one performance of Jekyll and Hyde that I saw had a multi-racial cast, with Lucy being black, Emma being white, and Jekyll/Hyde himself being white.

Chapter 2 jumps into the juicy details of Henry Box Brown and how, as a black slave in the South, he put himself in a box and mailed himself to freedom – twice, in fact, and the second time across the Atlantic, to Leeds – and the levels of theory which go along with this “performance,” from in/visibility to traveling to a reversal of the slave trade corollary. Of particular interest later in the chapter, on page 79, is the coining of the word “peristrephic,” meant to described something rotary or revolving, in reference to the “moving panorama” form of entertainment that had arisen in England in the 1790s, wherein a canvas moved on rollers to give the sense of a changing of scenery and of evolution, and how this medium effectively portrayed the timeline of slavery in the United States, ergo, to a timeline of African-American identity. There was even a moving panorama depicting the Henry Box Brown story.

Chapter 3 turns the focus to women, and to the very interesting and enigmatic Adah Isaacs Menken. I’m not going to go too much into her at the moment, you’ll see why later. But suffice it to say, she had a pretty interesting story in her life and work. And there’s burlesque. That too.

Chapter 4 was actually the reason I became of aware of this book in the first place; it was my topic for presentation in my Theatre History class last year. Entitled “Alien/Nation,” it discusses In Dahomey, the first musical written by blacks for blacks, and played to success of two different kinds, both on Broadway and across the pond. The content of this musical proved to be meta, with a re-imagination of Africa from an African-American, once-removed perspective. And of course, there’s the proliferation of the cakewalk, an incredibly popular dance craze. Overall, it “enacted a struggle to dream intensely, and to employ what could only be read as fantasy sequences which served as responses to a naturalizing discourse which render Africa and African Americans as dreamless subjects. As cultural documentation alone, In Dahomey reveals ‘things Negroes were not supposed to think about, or were considered incapable of thinking about'” (Brooks 268).

Chapter 5 is called “Diva and Diasporic Consciousness,” and discusses the “New Negro Womanhood.” Subjects it includes are Pauline Hopkins’ varying characterizations of the Negro Women in Peculiar Sam, or the Underground Railroad, as well as Of One’s Blood. I especially enjoyed reading about the history of the dialect. Brooks returns to Aida Overton Walker, one of the stars of In Dahomey, in her discussion of Walker’s “Salome” dance, an embracing of black sexuality through a silent, veiled performance. An interesting bit of useful theory comes on page 338, regarding Walker’s portrayal of Salome as an act of resistance. Dance theorist Susan Leigh Foster sees the historical evolution of 18th/19th century Western dance as a performance in which bodies became “no-bodies,” by which she means that they achieved a “mastery over bodily display,” which “signaled an entirely new relationship between body and self, one that dismissed the body as an intersubjective discursive field,” making the dancing body into a figure filled in (and filled out) by the story being told by the dancer.

Overall, if you’re really, really interested in this type of theory or whatnot, or you have a lot of time to kill, get this book and look it over to fill in the gaps I left in this review. Despite the subject matter, the vocabulary is not exceedingly difficult, and I feel like just about anyone who is remotely interested in this topic could glean something from this book that could inform their further research, whether it be in academia or in merely observing media or the life occurring around them.

And of course, here come the lists of theory books I need to read now as a result:

Primary Sources:

  • George L. Barclay, The Life and Career of Adah Isaacs Menken
  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret
  • Carol Channing, Just Lucky I Guess (wtf? how’d this end up as a primary?)
  • Pauline Hopkins, Of One Blood
  • Pauline Hopkins, Peculiar Sam
  • Adah Isaacs Menken, Infelicia
  • Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave
  • T. A. Palmer, East Lynne

Secondary Sources:

  • Rachel Adams, Sideshow USA: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination
  • Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture
  • Russ Castronovo, Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth Century United States
  • James Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum
  • Jane C. Desmond, Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance
  • Gary D. Engle, This Grotesque Essence: Plays from the American Minstrel Stage
  • Earl Wesley Fornell, The Unhappy Medium: Spiritualism and the Life of Margaret Fox
  • Noel B. Gerson, Queen of the Plaza: A Biography of Adah Isaacs Menken
  • David Glassberg, American Historical Pageantry
  • David Krasner, A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927
  • Allen F. Lesser, Enchanting Rebel: The Secret of Adah Isaacs Menken
  • Allen F. Lesser, Weave a Wreath of Laurel: The Lives of Four Jewish Contributors to American Civilization
  • Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Nineteenth Century England
  • Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: the Politics of Performance
  • Renee M. Sentilles, Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity
  • Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas
  • Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body
  • Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism

Clearly, I have my work cut out for me. Good night, everybody!

6

Pacific Overtures

And here’s the long-awaited review! Without further ado:

Pacific Performances: Theatricality and Cross-Cultural Encounter in the South Seas is about the theory and practice of different types of theatre across the Pacific. I generally don’t read theory books for abject pleasure, but this one was thoroughly fascinating, in almost every chapter, plus I learned a lot about theory in general.

Take, for example, this information, gleaned from the introduction:

Performances provide an opportunity to examine power relations, “cultures in contact adopt each others’ performances for many different reasons” (Balme 6).

“Theatricality is a mode of perception that brackets moments of action or particular places in such a way that they are imbued with extreme concentration and focus” (Balme 6).

According to Stephen Greenblatt, “Mimetic capital = a set of images and image making devices that are accumulated, ‘banked’ as it were, in books, archives, collections, cultural storehouses, until such time as these representations are called upon to generate new representations. The images that matter, that merit the term capital, are those that achieve reproductive power, maintaining and multiplying themselves by transforming cultural contacts into novel and often unexpected forms” (Balme 7).

Woman dancing in “Mother Hubbard” dress (www.turtlemail.blogspot.com)

My favorite chapter, however, was Chapter 4, on hula and haka and their roles in the identity politics of Hawaii and New Zealand. I had no idea about the history and types of the hula. According to page 96, the performance of the modern-day hula is a metonym of Pacific culture, a non-European performance produced for European. In 1897, a German medical officer called Augustin Kramer observed a type of hula called hula kahiko, or ancient hula, and noted that it was performed by women in “Mother Hubbard” dresses, not the coconut bras and grass skirts of TV/movies, postcards, and dashboard toys (102). Hula can also be performed seated, and when it is, it is called “hula noha.” According to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimlett, aka BKG, cultural performances for tourists are more “presentation than markers of representation,” and furthermore, exude the impression of immediacy, the “illusion of cultural transparency in the face of undesired complexity” (97).

Another interesting piece of theory surrounds costume. For the hula, the costume is a gauge of cultural self-fashioning, and according to Roland Barthes, clothing is both a social and theatrical sign, a “kind of writing with the ambiguity of writing…an instrument in the service of a purpose which transcends it” (104).

Chapter 6 was the one that we’ve all been waiting for. It discussed American dramas about the Pacific, three in particular: The Bird of Paradise, Rain, and the ever-popular Rodgers & Hammerstein musical South Pacific.

The final chapter discussed modern-day representations of Pacific performance in Hawaii. It mostly revolved around the Polynesian Cultural Center, operated mainly as a theme park/living museum, one of the three kinds of modern-day performance techniques used in interpreting the South Pacific, the other two being hotel entertainment and the “fictionalized real encounter.”

And of course, no review of a theory book would be complete without the list of new words I learned and jumping-off points.

New words:

  • Propaedeutics: Pertaining to preliminary introduction, intro to science
  • Labile: Prone to change
  • Precis: Concise summary
  • Epigone: Undistinguished follower/successor
  • Propinquity: Similarity, close proximity
  • Atabrine: Brand of malaria medicine
  • Aporia: Confusion; being at a loss
  • Crepuscular: Relating to twilight; active at twilight

Books added to my list:

  • John Kneubuhl, Think of a Garden and Other Plays
  • Christopher C. Balme, Decolonizing the Stage
  • Jane C. Desmond, Staging Tourism
  • Rod Edmond, Representing the South Pacific

Works Cited

Balme, Christopher B. Pacific Performances: Theatricality and Cross-Cultural Encounter in the South Seas. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. Print.

1

Le pouvoir se mange entier

My computer’s being extremely finicky today, so I hope that this post goes through, but if it does not, I can assure you that it was epic.

I mentioned the other day that I finished two books. I reviewed one, so now here’s a review of the other. It’s slightly older (1990), but still a good read: Johannes Fabian’s Power and Performance: Ethnographic Explorations through Proverbial Wisdom and Theater in Shaba, Zaire.

Flag of Zaire

lubumbashi-drc-map-final1

The cover of the book is actually quite boring, so instead, I put these flags and this map of the country, where someone conveniently circled Lubumbashi in red. Thanks, Internet!

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.svg

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While doing research for my master’s thesis, I came across a book that cited something that I liked that came from this book, and the title itself hooked me in. Ethnography, performance, power structure – what’s not to like?

To briefly summarize, Fabian went to Elisabethville, Shaba, Zaire (now Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1986 to do some delicious fieldwork with locals, creating a performance piece that ended up involving an entire town and even some higher-ups. It is pretty evenly split between theory and practical information; the first part details the events leading up to and surrounding the rehearsals and performances, and the nuances and situations that came up, and the second part is more or less a rudimentary script of the piece. Fabian writes the Swahili versions of the scene first, following it up with one or more English translations. I didn’t even bother reading the Swahili or the notes on the Swahili parts and just flipped to the English. Part of me is thankful that I got several respites, but a part of me might have put the Swahili script together, and the English script after, or vice versa, as new characters kept getting introduced, and by the time I picked the book back up again after a break from reading and wading through the footnotes, I had to go back and refresh myself on what was going on.

The play is actually not the focus of the work; it’s the theory that provides the most insightful information. In a rather unusual move, Fabian starts out with a criticism of himself and of “the field,” writing that “[a]lthough we do our field research on the premise of coevalness, of sharing time with our interlocutors on equal terms, we then go on to produce an allochronic discourse based on temporal distacing; we construct an Other whom we relegate to times other than our own” (4-5). I couldn’t have said it better myself; what Fabian is telling us here is that we put too much emphasis on comparison and judgment in ethnographic fieldwork that it can blur what’s going on in front of our faces.

Interesting thought.

Fabian also dips into the history of theatre in Lubumbashi, back when it was called Elisabethville in the mid-20th century. He talks about Bwana Cheko, giving a very detailed description of their performance practices and dramaturgy on pages 72-73. One of the main focuses of his discourse, though is a phrase he keeps returning to: le pouvoir se mange entier, which is a French phrase meaning “power is eaten whole.” Interestingly, this proverb is well-known in Shaba, where is has different associations with different stories in varying languages. As Zaire/DRC used to be Belgian Congo, it’s not surprising that a French phrase would be in the national consciousness, but to have it appear among a multilingual discourse and have it mean different things in each is something unique indeed. On page 73, however, Fabian points it out on a conducteur (mission statement) from Bwana Cheko that reads “MORAL: LE POUVOIR SE MANGE ENTIER, i.e., the chief is there for everyone and cannot take sides, he must serve his people as an equal but with authority” (73). This gives a new meaning to power, as does the play text that succeeds it, about a chief who exercises power, but in a different way than one would normally expect.

I could go on and on about the concepts and context, but it’s an incredibly dense text and I think either by this point you’ve clicked away or your eyes are closing, so I’ll wrap up with a takeaway thought from the author’s section entitled “Reflections and Afterthoughts”

Inasmuch as proverbs and plays are statements (which perhaps should be questioned), they need authors and audiences, positions to be made from and situations to be addressed to. As performances they need occasions and “repetitions.” As artistic creations they require material – shared experiences, habits, images – from which they can be construed and canons according to which they may be judged and appreciated. Propositional content, event, and rhetorical form are inextricably related; temporarily to focus on one of them does not constitute it as a distinct object of investigation. Literary deconstructivism may be an approach congenial to this view but does not have to be applied as doctrine. In my view, moving in several directions at once is the only realistic way to deal with the complex context from which le pouvoir se mange entier emerged (even though to invoke realism is certain to rub deconstructivists the wrong way) (Fabian 263).

Basically, parts of this text really got my rocks off, theory-wise. I can see myself reading more Fabian in the future and maybe even citing his work should I end up doing fieldwork in Africa – probably highly unlikely, but you never know.

On a different subject, thanks for another six-continent day, and oddly enough, Europe was the last continent to show up on my blog. So, hello to those from North America (Canada, USA, and Antigua & Barbuda), South America (Colombia and Chile), Europe (Ireland, Ukraine and Sweden), Africa (Ethiopia [welcome!] and South Africa), Asia (India, Pakistan, Philippines, Taiwan and Japan) and Oceania (Australia).


Works Cited

Fabian, Johannes. Power and Performance: Ethnographic Explorations through Proverbial Wisdom and Theater in Shaba, Zaire. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.