Like our own, early modern beliefs about race depended on metaphorical, selective, and contradictory understandings of how membership in groups is determined. Although race took distinctive forms in the past, the fallacies that underlie early modern racial experience generally are precisely-and surprisingly-the same as those in contemporary culture.
Exploring the similar underpinnings of early modern and contemporary ideas of difference, Barbarous Play examines English Renaissance understandings of race as depicted in drama. Reading plays by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, and Middleton, Bovilsky offers case studies of how racial meanings are generated by narratives of boundary crossing-especially miscegenation, religious conversion, class transgression, and moral and physical degeneracy. In the process, she reveals deep parallels between the period’s conceptions of race and gender.
Barbarous Play contests the widely held view that race and racism depend on modern science for their existence and argues that understanding just what is false and figurative in past depictions of race, such as those found in Othello, The Merchant of Venice, The White Devil, and The Changeling, can clarify the illogic of present-day racism.
Lara Bovilsky is assistant professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis.
In the first half of the twentieth century, a number of American theatres and theatre artists fostered interracial collaboration and socialization on stage, behind the scenes, and among audiences. In an era marked by entrenched racial segregation and inequality, these artists used performance to bridge America’s persistent racial divide and to bring African American, Latino/Latina, Asian American, Native American, and Jewish American communities and traditions into the nation’s broader cultural conversation.
In Experiments in Democracy, edited by Cheryl Black and Jonathan Shandell, theatre historians examine a wide range of performances—from Broadway, folk plays and dance productions to scripted political rallies and radio dramas. Contributors look at such diverse groups as the Theatre Union, La Unión Martí-Maceo, and the American Negro Theatre, as well as individual playwrights and their works, including Theodore Browne’s folk opera Natural Man, Josefina Niggli’s Soldadera, and playwright Lynn Riggs’s Cherokee Night and Green Grow the Lilacs (the basis for the musical Oklahoma!). Exploring the ways progressive artists sought to connect isolated racial and cultural groups in pursuit of a more just and democratic society, contributors take into account the blind spots, compromised methods, and unacknowledged biases at play in their practices and strategies. Essays demonstrate how the gap between the ideal of American democracy and its practice—mired in entrenched systems of white privilege, economic inequality, and social prejudice—complicated the work of these artists.
Focusing on questions of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality on the stage in the decades preceding the Civil Rights era, Experiments in Democracy fills an important gap in our understanding of the history of the American stage—and sheds light on these still-relevant questions in contemporary American society.
2020 George Freedley Memorial Award Special Jury Prize from the Theatre Library Association 2021 PROSE Awards Finalist, Music & the Performing Arts
In 1936 Orson Welles directed a celebrated all-black production of Macbeth that was hailed as a breakthrough for African Americans in the theater. For over a century, black performers had fought for the right to perform on the American stage, going all the way back to an 1820s Shakespearean troupe that performed Richard III, Othello, and Macbeth, without relying on white patronage.
"Macbeth" in Harlem tells the story of these actors and their fellow black theatrical artists, from the early nineteenth century to the dawn of the civil rights era. For the first time we see how African American performers fought to carve out a space for authentic black voices onstage, at a time when blockbuster plays like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Octoroon trafficked in cheap stereotypes. Though the Harlem Renaissance brought an influx of talented black writers and directors to the forefront of the American stage, they still struggled to gain recognition from an indifferent critical press.
Above all, "Macbeth" in Harlem is a testament to black artistry thriving in the face of adversity. It chronicles how even as the endemic racism in American society and its theatrical establishment forced black performers to abase themselves for white audiences’ amusement, African Americans overcame those obstacles to enrich the nation’s theater in countless ways.
"No Safe Spaces opens up a conversation beyond narrow polemics . . . Although cross-racial casting has been the topic of heated discussion, little sustained scholarship addresses both the historical precedents and theoretical dimensions. Pao illustrates the tensions and contradictions inherent not only in stage representations, but also in the performance of race in everyday life. A wonderful book whose potential readership goes well beyond theater and performance scholars."
---Josephine Lee, University of Minnesota
"Non-traditional casting, increasingly practiced in American theater, is both deeply connected to our country's racial self-image(s) and woefully under-theorized. Pao takes on the practice in its entirety to disentangle the various strands of this vitally important issue."
---Karen Shimakawa, New York University
No Safe Spaces looks at one of the most radical and enduring changes introduced during the Civil Rights era---multiracial and cross-racial casting practices in American theater. The move to cast Latino/a, African American, and Asian American actors in classic stage works by and about white Europeans and Americans is viewed as both social and political gesture and artistic innovation. Nontraditionally cast productions are shown to have participated in the national dialogue about race relations and ethnic identity and served as a source of renewed creativity for the staging of the canonical repertory.
Multiracial casting is explored first through its history, then through its artistic, political, and pragmatic dimensions. Next, the book focuses on case studies from the dominant genres of contemporary American theater: classical tragedy and comedy, modern domestic drama, antirealist drama, and the Broadway musical, using a broad array of archival source materials to enhance and illuminate its arguments.
Angela C. Pao is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University.
A volume in the series Theater: Theory/Text/Performance
Many professional theater artists attempt to use live performances in formal theater spaces to disrupt racism and create a more equitable society. Privileged Spectatorship: Theatrical Interventions in White Supremacy examines the impact of such projects, looking at how and why they do and do not intervene in white supremacy. In this incisive study, Dani Snyder-Young examines audience responses to a range of theatrical events that focus on race-related conflict or racial identity in the contemporary United States. The audiences for these performances, produced at mainstream not-for-profit professional theaters in major American cities in 2013–18, reflect dominant patterns of theater attendance: the majority of spectators are older, affluent, white, and describe themselves as politically progressive. Snyder-Young studies the ways these audience members consume the stories of racialized others and analyzes how different artistic, organizational, and programmatic strategies can (or cannot) mitigate white privilege.
This book is essential reading for scholars and students of theater, performance studies, and critical ethnic studies and for theater practitioners interested in equity and inclusion.
In this ambitious project, historian Katrina Thompson examines the conceptualization and staging of race through the performance, sometimes coerced, of black dance from the slave ship to the minstrel stage. Drawing on a rich variety of sources, Thompson explicates how black musical performance was used by white Europeans and Americans to justify enslavement, perpetuate the existing racial hierarchy, and mask the brutality of the domestic slave trade. Whether on slave ships, at the auction block, or on plantations, whites often used coerced performances to oppress and demean the enslaved.
As Thompson shows, however, blacks' "backstage" use of musical performance often served quite a different purpose. Through creolization and other means, enslaved people preserved some native musical and dance traditions and invented or adopted new traditions that built community and even aided rebellion.
Thompson shows how these traditions evolved into nineteenth-century minstrelsy and, ultimately, raises the question of whether today's mass media performances and depictions of African Americans are so very far removed from their troublesome roots.