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date: 28 November 2020

African American Performance

Abstract and Keywords

This article explores the formation, expansion, and future of the field of African American performance studies, considering the cultural, social, and political contexts that brought the field into being. This relatively young interdiscipline has emerged as a result of the growth of ethnic and gender studies in the 1970s and the advent of performance studies in the 1980s. Since its beginnings African American performance studies has considered how artists and activists reshape blackness in order to make it a category of liberation rather than confinement. Focusing on performing arts (such as theater, dance, and music), as well as oral expression and modes of self-fashioning, African American performance studies examines black expressive culture within the contexts of the United States.

Keywords: African American, blackness, race, dance, music, performance, theater, expressive culture, freedom, United States

African American performance studies analyzes black bodies in motion, for example, when the characters in William Wells Brown’s play The Escape (2007 [1858]), the first published African American play, enact the subtitle of the dramatic work and “Leap for Freedom.” The play’s depiction of three runaway slaves—Glen, Melinda, and Cato—establishes black performance as a consideration of not just any type of movement, but of those that leap toward freedom. To understand the working of the drive toward freedom, however, requires paying attention to contradictions. Eleanor Traylor (1980) argues in “Two Afro-American Contributions to Dramatic Form” that the minstrel show and the slave narrative constitute the source material for African American drama. I extend Traylor’s observation to the field of African American performance more broadly, which consists of all performing arts, oral expression, and modes of self-fashioning. Brown’s play samples from both forms—minstrelsy and the slave narrative—presenting a servile Cato given to malapropism and stereotype in a play to be performed as a one-man show on the abolitionist circuit.

The references to minstrelsy may seem counterintuitive in a dramatic work meant to advocate for the abolition of slavery. But Brown’s play turns assumptions about the politics of playing well-known roles (i.e., the self-serving Uncle Tom or the brave Runaway Slave) on their heads. The formal attributes of The Escape: Or, A Leap for Freedom, being a one-man show, require Brown to nimbly shift from Glen’s poetic uses of metaphor and imagery to Cato’s comedic conflations and strategic slips of the tongue. In his performance Brown would demonstrate that the same body enacts multiple roles, calling attention to the roles as performances. Also, Brown makes Cato both servile and insurgent; Cato’s ability to free himself depends on performing a strategic ruse. The Escape establishes African American performance as practices that shape not only African Americans but also the identity category itself, the social landscape in which it appears, and the semiotic chain that gives it meaning. To enact a leap for freedom not only enables “freeing oneself” but also shifting the understanding of being African American into a heterogeneous endeavor that may result in “claiming ownership of that freed self.”1

I open this examination of African American performance studies with analysis of The Escape to demonstrate the long history of African American performance that precedes the formal study of it in the academy in the late twentieth century. While the freedom movements and writing of that period, particularly the work of the civil rights, black power, and women of color feminist movements, opened up space within the academy to consider race as a construction that functioned through positionality, early embodied expression such as Brown’s establishes the deconstructive and innovative power of black performance broadly and African American performance more specifically. As Daphne Brooks explains in Bodies of Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910, African American performance has the ability to alienate the performer from the identity category of African American in order to reconstitute, reframe, and reimagine the category.

“African American” Studies

The term “African American” has a social and political history specific to the United States. As such, understanding is manifestations, manipulations, and expressions must occur in relationship to, although not exclusively, the nation-state. Nomenclature became a contested terrain in the late twentieth century when the political uprising of social movements (civil rights, black power, feminism) began to translate into ethnic and women’s studies departments in general and African American and black studies departments specifically. San Francisco State created the first department of African American studies in 1968. The term “African American” came to be a sign of a particular kind of citizen distinct from “European American,” while “black” referred to any person of African ancestry. Just as in other fields of study, naming created the framework for modes of inquiry.

The process of differentiation between national identities (African American versus European American) may be understood through performance, which as E. Patrick Johnson argues, “facilitates self- and cultural reflexivity—a knowing made manifest by a ‘doing.’”2 In “Black Performance Studies: Genealogies, Politics, Futures,” Johnson traces a genealogy of black performance through the oral tradition. His methodology is instructive for the work of defining and tracing the development of African American performance, which is the purpose of this article. His essay differs, however, because “black” functions as a more capacious category than “African American” does. To understand the interrelation of the terms “African American” and “performance” and then to suggest how they became a field of thought within a US academic context, one must consider the interracial basis of US expressive culture in general and the ways African American performance works to affirm and distance itself from the national project, often steeped in appropriation.

Developing Interdisciplines

Perhaps ironically, as Johnson’s analysis in “Black Performance Studies” suggests, at the same time that the race-based studies of multiculturalism began to proliferate in the 1980s and secure space within well-established academic disciplines (i.e., history, English, and religion), interdisciplinary studies began to emerge as a viable alternative to traditional academic units. Multiculturalism followed the development of ethnic studies in the 1970s. Alongside ethnic studies programs, performance studies became a field in which scholars could rethink some of the basic assumptions of more established disciplines, including (1) what bodies of knowledge and traditions merit scholarly consideration and (2) what methodological approaches attend to ways of knowing developed through repertories as well as archives. New York University created the first department of performance studies in 1980. In The Ends of Performance, Peggy Phelan depicts the emergence of the field of performance studies as

born out of the fecund collaborations between Richard Schechner and Victor Turner. In bringing theatre and anthropology together, both men saw the extraordinarily deep questions these perspectives on cultural expression raised. If the diversity of human culture continually showed a persistent theatricality, could performance be a universal expression of human signification, akin to language? Was “theatre” an adequate term for the wide range of “theatrical acts” that intercultural observation was everywhere revealing? Perhaps “performance” better captured and conveyed the activity that was provoking these questions. Since only a tiny portion of the world’s cultures equated theatre with written scripts, performance studies would begin with an intercultural understanding of its fundamental term, rather than enlisting intercultural case studies as additives, rhetorically or ideologically based postures of inclusion and relevance.3

Phelan’s recounting of the development of the field situates intercultural inquiry as fundamental to the interdiscipline, or as it has sometimes been called, antidiscipline, of performance studies. The orientation toward flows of information across permeable boundaries reinforces an understanding of performance as a mechanism to understand identity, culture, and knowledge as in process.

Offering a way to remember, historicize, imagine, and innovate, African American performance emerges within the holes (e.g., that which cannot be captured because of its ephemeral nature, such as a leap or that which has been purposefully forgotten, such as the stories of enslaved African Americans) of history, providing a material and methodological legacy that draws from black studies and performance studies. In the post–Jim Crow era when performance studies and black studies began to take hold in the US academy, the meaning of race in the United States began to assume its most ambiguous cast. The contestations of what race means in the post–civil rights era and questions about how the meaning of race informs bodies of knowledge began to emerge with the turn to multiculturalism and women of color feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. Race and black performance theorist Paul Gilroy asserted the limitations of blackness as an organizing rubric of knowledge production in Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (2000), but his assertion only gestured toward what was yet to come in destabilizing blackness as a biological category of identity that claimed subjects at birth. Following Gilroy, the work of visual art curator Thelma Golden’s introduction to the volume Freestyle (2001), in which she coins the term “Post-Black”; Charles Johnson’s essay “The End of the Black American Narrative” (2008); and literary scholar Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature (2011) all call into question the meaning of blackness in a historical moment in which race no longer functions primarily as a biological inheritance or a definitive marker of social exclusion. The writings of Gilroy, Warren, Johnson, and Golden point to an understanding of blackness as an unstable identity category with attenuated political and social purchase compared to the unifying nature of the racial category within the context of segregation. Gilroy’s text establishes knowledge production as positional and situational rather than primarily historically contingent.

Studies of African American experience in the twentieth century emerged in relationship to a call from leading race theorist, W. E. B. Du Bois, to demonstrate and constitute the history of the black world as a sign of black people’s humanity and value, understanding blackness as a historical and juridical category. In the post–Jim Crow era, the instability of blackness has ushered in new interdisciplinary approaches to knowledge production, including performance studies that emerged at the intersection of theater and anthropology but has taken as its influence literary, race, and gender studies as well. Taking as its point of departure the regulatory forces that install discipline and disciplines, performance studies seeks to reveal instead of install and stabilize disciplinarity.

Noting the ways that the objectives of black studies, a discipline that became institutionalized more than a decade before performance studies did, stand in tension with the goals of performance studies, E. Patrick Johnson argues in his survey of the field of “black performance studies”:

[B]lackness offers a way to rethink performance theory by forcing it to ground itself in praxis, especially within the context of a white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist, homophobic society. While useful in deconstructing essentialist notions of selfhood, performance must also provide a space for meaningful resistance of oppressive systems. Taken together, then, these two terms are both degenerative in that to a degree, they represent a double bluff—their face value always promising more than they can provide. They are also generative forces, pressed into service to create and demarcate cultural meaning. Therefore, black performance has the potential of simultaneously forestalling and enabling social change.4

Highlighting the cross-purposes that distinguish black performance, Johnson calls attention to the transformative possibility of black performance as he makes clear the equally aggressive force of foreclosure. To work within the field of black performance studies, which encompasses African American performance studies, requires constantly attending to, for example, the limitations of stereotype and possibility of refashioning. African American performance studies examines a set of practices within a national context, while black performance studies considers the wider field of embodied enactments by people of African descent within an international context.

Brown’s The Escape draws attention to the essential cross-purposes of African American performance. If we understand Brown’s play as an inaugural performance that outlines the possibilities and limitations of performance, then the late twentieth-century emergence of performance studies as a discipline that intersects with black studies provides the space to theorize black bodies in motion in order to capture a long tradition of black expression often omitted from the historical record, and also to challenge the primacy of the text within US institutions of higher learning. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to provide a critical review of all the work that qualifies as African American performance studies, this article examines key work in the development of the field, offers an overview of its current state, and identifies emerging trends.

Foundational Scholarship

In terms of African American performance, the work of twentieth-century race theorists to decipher and dismantle the color line enables twenty-first-century African American performance theorists to conceive of “performance studies as a project of historiography [that] illuminates the rich task of the historian who tries to restage a drama that is behind us for someone who necessarily encounters that past in the future of its unfolding. This is precisely the space in which the performance historian lives.”5 The ongoing work of African American studies reflects a key philosophical turn toward the animation of history, as examined in Sandra Richards’s “Writing the Absent Potential” (1996), Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance (1996), and Harry J. Elam Jr. and David Krasner’s African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader (2001). As Richards’s elucidates in her essay, African American performance traditions leave spaces for theorists and culture makers to fill gaps left in the archive. Imagining the production possibilities for Zora Neale Hurston’s Harlem Renaissance–era drama Color Struck, “Writing the Absent Potential” suggests how a play that was never staged offers a roadmap for understanding race as constituted through acts of looking, staging, and geographical positioning. Richards’s essay not only adds to Harlem Renaissance theater history, it also opens up the opportunity to understand the history as ongoing and constituted in the present.

Similarly, Brenda Dixon Gottschild categorizes the work of her volume Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance as to “reach underground and excavate the subtextual Africanist components, correspondences, influences—presences, if you will—that are essentials in defining and shaping Euro-American endeavor in the United States.”6 Gottschild’s volume works alongside a number of texts in the late twentieth century, most notably Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, that consider the intertextuality of African American and European American cultural traditions. Although Gottschild situates her work within the frame of “structuralist-poststructuralist principle of intertextuality,” her attention to the citational practices of embodied movement exceeds the parameters of intertextuality.7 An intercultural examination, the volume uses “performance studies methodologies as [its] research tools: namely observation, documentation, and analysis of live and taped performance; oral interviews and conversations; and critique of scholarly and popular texts on dance and culture.”8 In so doing, it reasserts the function of performance studies methodology to move across and within cultures to unearth hidden or buried histories in order to situate African American performance practices within a long history of North American meaning making.

Harry J. Elam Jr. and David Krasner’s edited collection African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader deciphers the relationship among race, theater, and performance not only as the basis of a field of study but, as with the aforementioned works, a guide to a mode of scholarly practices. Establishing the centrality of African American performance to cultural expression within the United States, Elam argues: “From the arrival of the first African slaves on American soil, the discourse on race, the definitions and meanings of blackness, have been intricately linked to issues of theater and performance. Definitions of race, like the processes of theater, fundamentally depend on the relationship between the unseen and the seen, between the visibly marked and unmarked, between the ‘real’ and the illusionary.”9 Elam draws attention to the formative quality of African American performance as central to the production of race within the context of the United States. The project of racialization is coterminous with the process of performance.

African American Performance and Theatre History explores work from the nineteenth century to the late twentieth century, bringing together a diverse archive of texts, which demonstrate how “representing and performing blackness remain politically and culturally charged. Racism and its impact on African American life and culture have not disappeared. Race remains a device with very real meanings. As a consequence, the black figure on the American stage is always already fraught with political, cultural, and social significance.”10 Notably, the stage, as constituted in the volume, emerges in a number of places, including within the frame of the photograph, the public square, and the page, rendering staging as important a category of analysis as the stage itself. The volume establishes a group of scholars, questions, and texts that codify some central lines of inquiry that would inform African American performance scholarship in the coming decade, including “social protest and the politics of representation,” “cultural traditions, cultural memory, and performance,” “intersections of race and gender,” and “African American performativity and the performance of race.”

The founding scholarship in African American performance studies stems from scholars trained in a number of disciplines, including theater, literary studies, and dance studies, which informs the methodological hybridity of the work. Truly an interdiscipline, the scholarship develops approaches to answer questions that require working at the crossroads of theoretical traditions and inventing new ones. In addition to producing models for scholarship, the authors of early African American performance studies also trained students in the burgeoning field. Including the work of Richards, Gottschild, and Elam and Krasner, Jennifer Brody, Thomas DeFrantz, E. Patrick Johnson, D. Soyini Madison, and Sandra Shannon contributed to the early work of African American performance studies. They not only innovated through the use of literary, dance, queer, and ethnographic studies, but also grew the field through the mentoring and advisement of future generations of students.

The Development of the Field

If, as Du Bois suggested, the guiding metaphor for racial division in the twentieth century was the line, as black feminist critic Cheryl Wall describes with regard to black women writers, twenty-first-century African American performance scholars too worry the line, animating it and troubling the notion of any stable, static, or stationary formations of knowledge. Destabilizing written language, Brody’s Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play (2008) explores how punctuation renders the written word ambiguous as much as it structures language. Punctuation focuses on the interplay between the reader and the writer and the meaning that such interplay produces through signs. Unlike an exploration of language, Brody’s work asks the reader to consider how visual sign systems disrupt, call into question, mark absence, and facilitate hybridity. Brody’s work participates in demonstrating how well-known methodologies, such as close reading, translate to fields, such as black studies, that have archives constituted through gaps. Although Brody emerged firmly within the field of African American performance studies with the publication of Punctuation, her Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture (1998) participates in the emergence of the field of black performance studies. Impossible Purities demonstrates the hybridity at the basis of Victorian culture that reveals not only the socially constituted aspects of culture but also the ways behavior constitutes language. Although concerned with British culture, the work also helps to establish the protocols of African American performance studies, a discipline still in formation.

Rupturing what we know about the work of language, Brody’s approach complements the intervention of E. Patrick Johnson’s Appropriating Blackness (2003), which not only explores “intersections of race and gender” but also “African American performativity and the performance of race.” Johnson’s work brings queer studies to bear in an ethnographic and theater studies approach that emerges at the center of performance studies. Appropriating Blackness demonstrates the power relationships at the heart of “authentic” blackness and the ways blackness functions as a performative to regulate and incentivize heteronormative cultural and social reproduction. The work of both Brody and Johnson demonstrates how fashioning the self and producing culture emerges by way of understanding the black body as an archive. In the spring of 2014 Northwestern University’s Performance Studies Department, the second such department founded in the United States, hosted a conference organized by Jasmine Johnson called “The Black Body as Archive: Writing Black Dance.” Similarly, the work of D. Soyini Madison emerges at the intersection of theater and ethnography, focusing on the intersection of art and activism. Producing and participating in the thematic concern of “social protest and the politics of representation,” Madison’s work demonstrates how representation (cultural or social) contributes to, enlivens, and enables political practices.

Regarding the notion of the body as archive, theorist and leader in the field of black dance scholarship Thomas DeFrantz not only widens the field of black performance studies through his scholarship, including Dancing Many Drums (2001); Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture (2006); and his edited collection with Anita Gonzalez, Black Performance Theory, (2014), but he also helped develop the work of new generations of scholars through individual mentoring. Emerging within the theme of “cultural traditions, cultural memory, and performance,” DeFrantz chronicles histories of embodied movement and the social conditions of their becoming over time. His work demonstrates a process of not only reading but also narrating histories and memories, moving the ephemeral performance from the repertoire to the archive. His work, appearing in scholarly as well as trade publications, demonstrates an abiding concern in black studies to speak to multiple audiences, both scholarly and popular. Although his work falls under the umbrella of dance scholarship, DeFrantz trained in the first performance studies program at New York University and shows how such training served as the basis for his work as a writer, teacher, and community builder.

Intellectual Community

The first department in performance studies at New York University (NYU) and one of two with Northwestern University has not only trained scholars, but has also provided the basis for an evolving understanding of the structure of the university. While disciplines organize most universities, performance studies reflects a turn toward interdisciplinarity, a turn that implicitly calls into question the discrete methodologies and canons that shape disciplines and questions, if working at the intersection of fields may offer robust answers to complex questions. In terms of the development of African American performance scholarship, NYU and Northwestern have served as training grounds as well as models of intellectual organization that have not produced other departments but have informed the shape of many theater departments, resulting in the renaming of the departments of Brown University from the Theatre, Speech, and Dance Department to Theatre Arts and Performance Studies and of Stanford University from the Drama Department to the Theater and Performance Studies and the Division of Dance. The change in names connotes a new focus on the production of embodied knowledge instead of a primary textual basis for learning. While performance studies certainly considers how texts participate in filling historical gaps made operable through race and its configuration over time, the field also examines how bodily practices make legible ways of knowing, being, and doing.

Alongside the work of refashioning the university, departments have helped to cultivate working groups that augment the field by creating collaborations across institutions. Although the aims of performance studies often align with those of black studies, as E. Patrick Johnson notes, blackness “offers a way to rethink performance theory by forcing it to ground itself in praxis.”11 The rethinking of the field of performance studies happens at the biannual meetings of the Black Performance Theory Group (BPT), founded by Richard Green and Thomas DeFrantz in 1998. The group offers a space for collaboration and care within the context of a still small yet growing field. Similarly, the Black Theatre Association (BTA), a focus group of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) and working groups within the American Society for Theatere Research (ASTR), curates black theater and performance panels for ATHE’s annual conference, which provides a national audience for work in progress.

State of the Field and Future Directions

Twenty-first-century scholars enter into the space made available in the late twentieth century through the foundational scholarship and growth of intellectual communities, offering new ways to read now-classic texts and recovering texts that have heretofore not been provided the means for engagement. In the introduction to Fred Moten’s groundbreaking work In the Break, Moten provides a reading of a scene from Frederick Douglass’s now classic slave narrative, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (2003 [1845]). The narrative, perhaps the most often-taught piece of nineteenth-century African American writing, serves as the starting point for Saidiya Hartman’s groundbreaking literary study Scenes of Subjection (1997). Although Hartman’s text falls within the context of literary studies, the questions it seeks to answer about the quotidian practices that serve to dehumanize black people certainly function as a precursor to the modes of inquiry at the center of African American performance studies. In the Break not only begins with a meditation on the scene from Narrative of the Life, but in the same scene in which Hartman begins Scenes of Subjection. The scene depicts the brutal beating of Douglass’s Aunt Hester. Hartman stages her choice not to reproduce the scene as a negotiation of the repetition of trauma enacted on black women. Published during Moten’s time as a professor of performance studies at NYU, In the Break does not revisit the beating of Aunt Hester, by way of Scenes of Subjection, to call into question Hartman’s ethics of refusal, the refusal to reproduce the scene, but instead to question basic assumptions about evidence. Hartman turns to Scenes of Subjection to demonstrate a system of dehumanization. Moten, alternatively, returns to the text to locate the sound of humanity within practices of dehumanization, in order to produce evidence of black social life that predates enslavement. Moten’s use of evidence distinguishes the project of African American performance studies as a force that destabilizes the uniformity of the text.

Daphne Brooks’s Bodies in Dissent similarly begins with the body instead of the text in order to demonstrate how attention to the bodies may destabilize “subjectivity through performance.”12 Brooks’s black feminist methodology produces a theory of alienation that works in the space between language and embodiment to focus attention on the modes of producing recognizable bodies. Bodies in Dissent examines how performers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries distanced themselves from their bodies through the roles they played, costumes they wore, and contexts in which they acted. Not only does the text offer a way of analyzing embodied practices, it also theorizes a set of practices for engaging the absence of the repertoire in the archive. Brooks explains:

I piece together periodical reviews, epistolary exchanges, actor’s articles, playbills, and personal documents with fiction and biographies aiming to present a more vibrantly textured cultural landscape of black performance. This approach highlights an electrifying dialectic between, for instance, the scabrous review of an unconventional play and the dissonant gestures of performers embedded in that same review which sometimes tell a different story of the event in question.13

In order to locate the “event in question,” Brooks theorizes the silences, gestures, bodily positioning of actors, and language within and against its context to decipher and produce an interactive project of rememory and history. I use the noun “rememory,” which Toni Morrison coined to call attention to the scholarly practice at the heart of Bodies in Dissent as one that remembers to draw forth ephemeral practices as a mode of producing being and beings.14 Memory is the sign of an event making an impression. The event stands out because it affects the witness and exceeds the experience of the quotidian in some way. Rememory actively produces a memory to, in the case of Bodies in Dissent, tell the story of actors rather than the bearers of the memory. To distill the action from the witnessing of it requires attention to the process of production itself, or to borrow from D. Soyini Madison, “for subjugated knowledge to ‘enter to articulate—to translate and to unveil—extant philosophical systems to those who (without this knowledge) are unable to find, much less hear them.’”15 It also demands an understanding of the value of process rather than strictly results and the ability to ascertain the multiplicity of forces that may contribute to memories of an event.

The act of remembering has historical as well as political implications that inform the constitution of African American as an identity category and a mode of affiliation. Due to the limited presence of the African American perspective in the historical record, much of African American studies, including W. E. B. Du Bois’s lifelong project, has been to write African American history. The purposeful forgetting of black people’s contribution to the United States facilitates what Salamishah Tillet calls “civic estrangement.” To understand civic estrangement as a total evacuation of power, however, would misunderstand how power flows through interactions, institutions, and situations. Stephanie Batiste’s Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance examines how African American performers leveraged their relative power in the mid-twentieth century to help abate civic estrangement. Darkening Mirrors boldly humanizes black culture workers, refusing to depict them as either victims or villains. The orientation toward a more complicated and multifaceted understanding of the African American experience informs African American performance studies in the twenty-first century because it requires not only an intersectional approach heralded by many black feminist in the late twentieth century but also a nuanced examination of power, as Batiste demonstrates in Darkening Mirrors. The current trends in African American performance account for the shifting ways African American signifies power, gender, sexual, and historical relationships and therefore impacts performed modes of cultural expression, including music, dance, activism, and visual and digital forms of popular culture.

Similar to Batiste’s work, which calls attention to national and class-based affiliations that complicate how we interpret and historicize African American performances, E. Patrick Johnson’s Appropriating Blackness models an intersectional reading of race, gender, class, and sexuality that reveals the dangers and falsity of understanding African American cultural production as a singular enterprise. Working in the nineteenth century, early twentieth century, and twenty-first century, Monica Miller (2009), Shane Vogel (2009), C. Riley Snorton (2014), and Jeffrey McCune (2014) respectively emerge at the intersection of black performance studies and gender and sexuality studies to complicate how we may understand the self-fashioning practices of the dandy (Miller’s Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity), Harlem Renaissance artists (Vogel’s Scenes of the Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance), and African American men who have sex with men as they maintain a heterosexual lifestyle (Snorton’s Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low and McCune’s Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing). Ranging from the cultivation of style and styling in Miller’s Slaves to Fashion, to the formation of after-hours and underground communities in Vogel’s Scenes of the Harlem Cabaret, Snorton’s Nobody Is Supposed to Know, and McCune’s Sexual Discretion, the scholars demonstrate the suppression of histories of multiplicity and the political pressures to maintain such silences. The scholarship also serves as a sign that the political force of heteronormative black collectivity has given way to a heterogeneous form of racial affiliation. The scholarship builds on performance studies’ ongoing examination of the formation of community as a discursive and embodied practice that exists in the space between performance and performatives.

Slaves to Fashion and The Scene of the Harlem Cabaret also participate in the archival project set forth in Bodies of Dissent, as do Tavia Nyong’o’s The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory and Koritha Mitchell’s Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship (1890–1930). Set in the nineteenth century, The Amalgamation Waltz examines the “problematic that appears between the potential and the performance of emancipation.”16 Nyong’o’s work also engages with the question of freedom explored in In the Break, considering the ways performance participates in emancipatory projects. Mitchell’s Living with Lynching explores the domestic space as a site of activism for black communities terrorized by lynch mobs in the early twentieth century. Living with Lynching engages with an understudied period of black cultural expression and an often-unexplored body of work to decipher self-sustaining practices of communal formation in the face of state-authorized vigilantism. With a similar practice of digging up the past, The Amalgamation Waltz not only recovers the voices of often overlooked figures, the text also provides space to theorize performances of emancipation, which illustrate US hypocrisy while highlighting how individuals classified as unfree participate in practices of citizenship, such as black abolitionism in the 1830s and Frederick Douglass’s responses to popular culture, including minstrelsy. To understand the working of freedom within bondage or the practice of citizenship for the refugee is to understand the central idiom of African American performance: past, present, and future.

Because social regulation of race, even when understood as a construct, most often occurs in relationship to the body, African American performers and performances call attention to the long history of meaning making in embodied forms, including music. An expert on nineteenth-century Euro-American and African American literature as well as black performance and a popular music scholar, Daphne Brooks’s writing on Beyoncé Knowles17 and Nina Simone demonstrates an understanding of the rifts black music makes in American culture as well as the ongoing riff of black music within the culture. Brooks’s essay “Afro-Sonic Feminist Praxis: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity” traces the “theoretical and methodological ‘loop’” of musicologist Olly Wilson, feminist critic Mae Henderson, and black performance theorist Fred Moten “to consider how black women’s sonic performances and phonic expression are dialectically and dialogically engaged with black women’s discursive and dramaturgical acts.”18 Brooks locates a distinctive yet multifaceted sound that she describes as a modality of being, which enables black women’s expression. Drawing together theories of voice and music the, essay demonstrates how understanding African American women’s self-fashioning through voice demands a consideration of the way speech intersects with sound. Brooks mines Simone’s song “Four Women” to offer an interpretation of Adrienne Kennedy’s play Funnyhouse of a Negro. Looking to the artist as theorist extends the project Brooks undertakes in Bodies in Dissent. To think about influence does not diminish the innovative quality of African American performance. As Brooks shows, influence and citation act as enabling postures for black performers to situate themselves within an ongoing set of original and historical practices. African American performance scholarship works to call attention to the relationship between the historical and the original in order to affirm the value of black life and living through, in part, the coherence of a tradition.

As such, the work often requires a rethinking of well-known genealogies with a turn to understudied subject areas. Building on the transatlantic turn set forth in Paul Gilroy’s important study of black cultural exchange, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Jayna Brown’s Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern presents groundbreaking research on transatlantic black dance and dancers in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. Although scholarly prose often inaccurately assesses work as “groundbreaking,” Babylon Girls does actually break new ground in modernist studies, considering the movements of women in variety shows as constitutive of the modern. The book considers how dancers shape the raced body through mimicry, citation, and geographical and spatial references (i.e., “the plantation, the stage, the street, the cabaret”).19 Through an analysis of how dancers defined their bodies in space and the space of their dancing bodies, Babylon Girls reveals a set of formative practices overlooked in studies of modernism. Such an exploration provides opportunities to rethink the modern as it draws into question histories of African American women’s self-authoring. The performance of African American women in the modern period often focuses on the production of the Club Woman and her disciplined and ladylike comportment as an essential aspect of uplift politics. Equally as disciplined but unruly as well, Babylon Girls examines how dancers challenged gender and racial norms to expand the limits of African American and black performance. Brown’s work should be read within the context of the growing field of black dance scholarship, including the writing of DeFrantz, Nadine George Graves, Hershini Bhana Young, Melissa Blanco Borelli, and Omi Joni Jones and Carl Paris, which calls attention to how dance may reshape time, person, and place.

Music and dance scholars have much in common with African American performance scholarship that focuses on theater and drama. My own work in The African American Theatrical Body: Performance Reception and the Stage (2011), as well as that of Brandi Wilkins Catanese in The Problem of the Color[blind]: Racial Transgression and the Politics of Black Performance (2011), examines the staging of the African Americas as a US tradition that theater artists engage with to produce liberatory practices. The hyper-awareness of the stage and staging within the context of theater creates a critical context for rethinking the hyper-visibility of black people within a US and global context.

The movements that compose the archive of African American performance serve to reshape the body itself as well as the contexts of its presentation. African American performance scholarship has focused as much on the event as on the context of its capture in the archive. In particular the work of Nicole Fleetwood and Harvey Young in visual culture demonstrates the mechanisms that frame reception of the black body and how black bodies within the frame of the photograph or the movie screen negotiate the boundaries of enclosure, or what Young theorizes as stillness. In Embodying Black Experiences: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body, Young considers the overlooked archive of the inanimate black body. Young demonstrates how rather than in motion, one may read stillness as carefully choreographed moments of appearance. Similarly, Fleetwood’s stunning examination of visual culture, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, analyzes still images as well as moving ones. In the chapter on photography, Fleetwood draws attention to quotidian expressions of black life as a way to trouble the iconic and therefore generic and often singular representation of blackness. To understand the multiplicity, heterogeneity, and multitude of images of black life and living enables rethinking of individuality and collectivity.

Fleetwood’s new work emerges at the intersection of black visual cultural studies, black performance studies, and prison studies. Her research focuses on the artwork of prisoners. Young’s ongoing scholarship examines digital representations of blackness. Both projects demonstrate the changing landscape of African American artistic production (although not all the artists Fleetwood examines are African American), as well as the contexts in which one may locate the evolving identity category.

African American performance studies continues to reflect the shifting category of African American identity and social life, which can be located in the minuscule cellular and in modes of global exchange. The manifestations of African Americanness in the twenty-first century widened possible modes of exploration, including considerations of how performance functions in digital media and how the digital troubles the ephemerality of performance. Attention to the influence of digital media has implications for all branches of African American performance studies, because it not only draws into question the meaning of performance, but it also asks scholars to rethink fundamental questions about time and space, categories at the heart of African American performance studies from its beginnings.


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(1) Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage, 2004), 112.

(2) E. Patrick Johnson, “Black Performance Studies: Genealogies, Politics, Futures,” in The SAGE Handbook of Performance Studies, ed. D. Soyini Madison and Judith Hamera (Washington, DC: Sage Publications, 2005), 446.

(3) Peggy Phelan, Introduction to The Ends of Performance, ed. Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 3.

(6) Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1996), xiii.

(9) Harry J. Elam Jr., “The Device of Race: An Introduction,” in African American Performance and Theater History, ed. Harry J. Elam Jr. and David Krasner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 4.

(12) Daphne A. Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 2.

(15) Madison quoted in in Johnson, “Black Performance Studies,” 449.

(16) Tavia Nyong’o, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 18.

(17) Daphne A. Brooks, “‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’: Black Female Soul Singing and the Politics of Surrogation in the Age of Catastrophe,” Meridians: Feminism, Race Transnationalism 8, no. 1 (2007): 180–204.

(18) Daphne Brooks, “Afro-Sonic Feminist Praxis: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity,” in Black Performance Theory, ed. Thomas Defrantz and Anita Gonzalez (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 209.

(19) Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 2.