Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical by Todd Decker (review)

Posted in Articles, Arts, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, United States on 2013-10-17 02:06Z by Steven

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical by Todd Decker (review)

Theatre Journal
Volume 65, Number 3, October 2013
pages 447-448
DOI: 10.1353/tj.2013.0077

Bethany Wood

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical. By Todd Decker. Broadway Legacy series. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 238.

Todd Decker’s Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical examines representations of race in the creation and evolution of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s iconic musical by tracing the impact of particular performers on numerous stage, sound, and film productions. Using the “dynamic of the color line” as his “vantage point” (4), Decker places the original musical in conversation with subsequent interpretations in order to analyze the enduring influence of Show Boat on representations of race in American musical theatre. Through his systematic examination, Decker addresses the broader issue of “the performed distinction between black and white [that serves] as an essential and constructive element of the American musical in its totality” and argues for interracial histories of musical theatre, a field “largely written along divided racial lines” (5).

He presents his analysis in two parts: “Making,” which focuses on Show Boat’s 1927 debut; and “Remaking,” which examines the versions created from 1928 to 1998. Each section employs extensive archival research in its account of how race has been staged in key productions. Chapter 1 centers on the major themes established by the musical’s source material, Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel. This chapter, along with chapter 2, situates Show Boat’s central focus on race and music within 1920s popular culture. The analysis in this chapter follows the pattern in Show Boat theatre scholarship of faulting Ferber for failing to approach the narrative’s themes in the same manner that Hammerstein would later employ for the musical. Decker criticizes Ferber’s cursory attention to the issues of music and race, and, in the following chapters, demonstrates Hammerstein’s efforts to foreground these themes by making Show Boat “an object lesson in the power of black music and a celebration of a moment in popular culture history when black music and musicians were breaking into mainstream white culture with undeniable force” (52).

Chapters 2 and 3 address the influence of Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan on Hammerstein’s interpretive vision and provide detailed context concerning their careers. Chapter 2 details Kern and Hammerstein’s initial plan to cast Robeson as Joe in order to highlight the themes of race and music in the initial script, as well as the complications that resulted when Robeson decided not to join the original Broadway cast. Chapter 3 considers Morgan’s influence on the creation of Show Boat , as Hammer-stein adapted act 2 to showcase her talents as a torch singer and exploit her reputation for dissipation. Hammerstein’s efforts and Morgan’s performance worked to establish Julie as a tragic figure, expressing herself through Morgan’s “thoroughly white” (65) singing style.

In chapter 4, Decker argues that the musical choices for the characters of Ravenal and Magnolia “whitened” Show Boat’s central couple by making Ravenal an operatic tenor, a style associated with white singers, and aligning Magnolia’s voice with white culture through her performance of “After the Ball,” a Victorian parlor waltz. Show Boat was one of the first Broadway musicals to use both black and white performers in large numbers, and chapter 5 explores the musical’s use of both a black and a white chorus. Along with chapter 2, this section adds a much-needed look at contemporary responses to Show Boat in the black press.

Part 2 investigates the reworking of racial representations in productions of Show Boat that followed its premiere. Chapter 6 looks at several “remakings” between 1928 and 1940 that featured Robeson, who eventually accepted and became associated with the role of Joe in several landmark productions. Decker discusses how Robeson’s powerful performances and offstage persona enhanced Joe’s role, which Hammerstein expanded for the 1936 film in order to capitalize on Robeson’s talents and appeal. As in his examination of the 1927 production, Decker analyzes several deleted scenes in order to illustrate Hammerstein’s continued, yet unrealized plan to use Show Boat as a history lesson of black influence on popular music. Chapter 7 centers on several productions during and shortly after World War II, including the 1946 Broadway revival and the 1951 film starring Ava Gardner as Julie. Decker’s analysis of the impact that…

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Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Rebekkah Paulin (Green-Rogers review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2013-08-24 18:06Z by Steven

Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Rebekkah Paulin (Green-Rogers review)

Theatre Journal
Volume 65, Number 2, May 2013
pages 304-306
DOI: 10.1353/tj.2013.0048

Martine Kei Green-Rogers, Post Doctorate Fellow
University of Utah

Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Paulin is a multidisciplinary examination of how fictionalized versions of miscegenation both obfuscated and unmasked aspects of the complex black/white binary that shaped racial histories in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By combining literary and historical approaches from the fields of theatre, performance studies, race and ethnic studies, American studies, and trans-hemispheric studies to works that were disseminated through the popular press and performance, Paulin illustrates the epistemological influence that stories of miscegenation had on the term “race” and the white versus black paradigm that created a racial divide in the United States.

Using a comparative approach, Paulin typically pairs a work of fiction with a drama in each chapter, organizing her materials chronologically. Thus, for example, the first chapter, “Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire: Interracial Unions as Surrogates,” examines Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859) alongside Louisa May Alcott’s “M.L.” and “My Contraband” (1863). Paulin begins with Boucicault’s play, she explains, because it offers “a representative sample of the common tropes and themes used in narratives about interracial unions: forbidden love, the tragic death of the mulatta, and the simultaneous appeal and repulsion of black blood” (5). Both The Octoroon and Alcott’s stories served as historical and sociological precedents, voicing the idea that children of miscegenistic unions would always lead tragic lives that often ended in violence—either self-inflicted, due to the emotional burden of their mixed-race heritage in a society defined by a racial binary, or at the hands of others, given the threat they posed to the black versus white paradigm. Paulin argues that although these “multivalent figures” call into question the logic of the binary paradigm, ultimately their tragic fates reinforce the dominant values of the larger historical and social context in which these characters were created (9).

Chapter 2, “Clear Definitions for an Anxious World: Late Nineteenth-Century Surrogacy,” discusses Bartley Campbell’s play The White Slave (1882) and William Dean Howells’s novel Imperative Duty (1892). Here, Paulin analyzes these two works in relation to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, finding that both literature and culture “marginalized blackness and glorified the past greatness of white society” (57). While Boucicault’s and Alcott’s works insinuate “democratic ideas” into their treatment of the tragic mulatta, Campbell’s play and Howells’s novel portray “unclassifiable person[s]” as objects of fear (61). Paulin explains that, in their works, such figures exceed the clearly defined boundaries of racial division and thus tap a growing fear that freed slaves would likewise exceed the boundaries of social divisions. She adds that this fear was especially trained on “intimate social spaces previously reserved for bourgeois whites, such as their parlors and bedrooms” (59). Paulin’s argument is intriguing because Campbell’s “unclassifiable” character is of European heritage (which is racially defined as “Other”) and of illegitimate birth, and within the world of the novel she is passed off as the daughter of an “octoroon.” As such an example illustrates, the fluidity of racial categories could be used paradoxically to reinforce societal structures that depended on a definitive line between “white” and everything else.

Chapter 3, “Staging the Unspoken Terror,” juxtaposes Charles Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901) with Thomas Dixon’s play The Clansman (1905), which the author adapted from his novel of the same name and which became the basis of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Although these works espouse drastically different views—€”Dixon’s play seeks the “reestablishment of white domination,” while Chesnutt’s novel critiques the “corruption and hypocrisy of southern white-supremacist ‘tradition’ and government” (106)— Paulin notes that both rely upon the assumption that women are responsible for maintaining racial purity. Both also address racial violence: if, in Dixon, it can be stopped if the threat of miscegenation is eradicated, in Chesnutt it is an inevitable consequence of white power.

Chapter 4, “The Remix: Afro-Indian Intimacies,” addresses an often ignored topic in the discourse of miscegenation because it exists outside of the black/white binary: the legal…

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Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America by Ayanna Thompson (Klett review)

Posted in Articles, Arts, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive on 2013-06-03 18:27Z by Steven

Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America by Ayanna Thompson (Klett review)

Theatre Journal
Volume 65, Number 2, May 2013
pages 303-304
DOI: 10.1353/tj.2013.0043

Elizabeth Klett, Assistant Professor of Literature
University of Houston, Clear Lake

Ayanna Thompson’s exciting book analyzes a wide variety of sites for performing, interrogating, and dismantling Shakespeare and race in contemporary American popular culture. Arguing that “Shakespeare’s American cultural value and legacy cannot be weighed through performances in traditional venues only” (7), Thompson extends her purview beyond expected forms (such as professional theatre productions and literary and film adaptations) to include nontraditional modes of performance (such as YouTube videos and prison and youth-oriented productions). The book as a whole provides a fascinating and multilayered appraisal of the uses (and misuses) of race in American appropriations of Shakespeare and his plays.

One of the most notable aspects of Thompson’s book is her ability to work with conflicting statements and oppositional ideas, which she often presents, at least initially, as epigraphs to her chapters. For example, she tackles the debate over so-called color-blind casting by foregrounding the very different views of August Wilson and Robert Brustein. Similarly, the book revisits the eternal tensions between universalizing and historically particularist interpretations of Shakespeare, suggesting that Shakespeare is both freeing and something from which one must be freed. Thompson does not attempt to resolve these kinds of contradictions and instabilities; instead, she revels in them, exploring what they reveal about contemporary American culture and its preoccupations with Shakespeare and race. She does take sides, however; as her first chapter warns, the book is occasionally polemical, “because this is a project that requires action and not just passive reflection” (14). Her main goal is “to bring contemporary race studies and contemporary Shakespeare studies into an honest and sustained dialogue,” contending that many performances, citations, and analyses of Shakespeare ignore or elide racial issues (3).

The second and third chapters focus on two films and a young adult novel that engage with Shakespeare and race in varied ways. Thompson’s analysis of each is intriguing and made me want to watch the films and read the novel for myself. In Suture (1993), a film noir about two brothers, one white and one black, Thompson finds a vexed “desire for colorblindness in contemporary American life” (27); although the film strategically ignores the racial differences between them, it also exposes the seam of the racial divide in a culture that elevates stereotypically white standards of beauty. Her argument is fascinating, but the connection to Shakespeare (cited several times in the film) feels somewhat tenuous. Her analysis of Bringing Down the House (2003), a studio vehicle for Steve Martin and Queen Latifah, however, is brilliant. Unpacking the meanings implicit in the character of “William Shakespeare,” a dog owned by a rich conservative, played by Joan Plowright, Thompson concludes that in this satirical film, “Shakespeare represents the epitome of Western culture because he represents the exclusivity of white culture” (37). Targeting both bardolatry and the false universality of whiteness, this big-budget film thus reveals larger ideas circulating in American culture about the meanings of Shakespeare and race and justifies Thompson’s choice of popular materials for her analysis. She goes on to place a more obscure source, the 1992 novel Black Swan by Farrukh Dhondy, in the context of other writers (such as Maya Angelou) who have imagined a black Shakespeare. While she argues that the novel “asks the reader to interrogate if/how the identity and race of Shakespeare impact one’s understanding of the plays,” she also notes that reviewers of the novel tend to whitewash the main characters’ racial identities (55).

Thompson’s fourth chapter is one of the strongest, offering an intelligent discussion and analysis of cross-racial casting. In it, she analyzes the rhetoric employed by classical theatre companies, such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), to describe their approach to race and casting practices, revealing how these companies attempt to yoke Shakespearean universality and multiculturalism together to create “relevant” performances (73). Thompson does not find the results wholly satisfactory, even at well-intentioned companies like OSF. Her “holistic” approach to multicultural casting would incorporate “diversity initiatives” at every level of production to ensure…

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The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive on 2011-04-10 02:24Z by Steven

The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (review)

Theatre Journal
Volume 63, Number 1 (March 2011)
pages 136-138
E-ISSN: 1086-332X; Print ISSN: 0192-2882

Douglas A. Jones Jr.
Stanford University

Although the election of a mixed-race president signaled to many the beginning of the end of the problem of the color line, the discourse of postraciality is “not just the effect of recent pre- and post-millennial effusions”, Tavia Nyong’o notes, but rather “it was already visible, for instance, during the antebellum struggle to abolish slavery”. In his stunning new book The Amalgamation Waltz, Nyong’o compels us to confront the problematics of this particular dialectic—namely, the nascent talk of racial transcendence alongside the entrenchment of white supremacy and racialized slavery. For Nyong’o, this struggle was/is too often waged on the back of the “hybrid child.” The Amalgamation Waltz argues against the biopolitical notion that the keys to a national transcendence of race inhere within mixed-race subjects; instead, he insists, “racial mixing and hybridity are neither problems for, nor solutions to, the long history of ‘race’ and racism, but part of its genealogy”.

The author begins with the contention that hybridity can both sustain and disrupt the pedagogy of the “national Thing,” Slavoj Žižek’s term for an indefinable essence that appears to be present throughout the nation’s way of life, but only exists as long as members of the community continue to believe in it. For Nyong’o, the American national Thing is “a powerful force shaping the nation” that “often accommodates hybridity to an official teleology that is forever reducing the many to the one”…

Read or purchase the review here.

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