Sally's Rape: Robbie McCauley's Survival Art

Article excerpt

In the climactic scene of Sally's Rape, African-American performance artist Robbie McCauley stands naked on an auction block, encouraging spectators to bid on her body, while she describes the sale and repeated sexual abuse of her great-great-grandmother, a slave. [1] As several feminist performance theorists have noted, this particularly vivid image of McCauley crystallizes key issues in our discourse, such as the display of the black female body, narratives of historical revision, and the centrality of identity, despite its various contingencies. [2] In this scene of bodily spectacle, as in her more subtly crafted dialogue, how does McCauley manage to reclaim her body from the inscriptions which have persistently haunted representations of women of color: the exotic other, white-man's pawn, tragic victim? Using black cultural studies and feminist performance theory, I will discuss how McCauley creates a space for self-representation, for emotional and intellectual reflection on a painful past, for talking back to the history of victimization, and dismantling the structures of stereotype. [3]

Sally's Rape is a social experiment in which Robbie McCauley, an African-American female performance artist, performs the black female subject out of victimization. Like any social or theatrical experiment, the results are rather inconceivable to gauge. However, according to my own reception, and that of other spectators, my evaluation is optimistic. McCauley's contribution to the emerging black female theatrical subject is her development of an anti-racist, heuristic performance mode(l). She inherits a tradition of black performance which is both politically and mimetically sophisticated, expanding it to express the often obscured experience of gender. McCauley's performance experiments demonstrate a black female subject bearing witness to the confluent demons of racism and sexism in representation as well as in everyday life. In this essay, I will explicate McCauley's key heuristic tools--revision, embodiment, and dialogue--in the performance text of Sally's Rape.

Sally's Rape shares the theme of survival with two other performance pieces, usually grouped under the series title "Confessions of a Working Class Black Woman." Since the mid-1980s, McCauley has performed this series as works-in-progress, all of which center on stories from her family history. The first, My Father and the Wars, concerns McCauley's relationship with her father, and his life in military service. Indian Blood, part two, focuses on her Native-American grandfather's participation in the genocide of his own people. In the third piece, Sally's Rape, McCauley shifts her focus to the experiences of women in her family. Each performance is about an ancestor's survival, but also about how McCauley tells their stories in painfully acute enactments which demonstrate the surviving impact of past events on present racial conflicts. [4]

Sally's Rape: Stories, Enactments, Conversation

Describing Sally's Rape is difficult, not only because of the intensity of the material but also because the performance text has varied greatly over the course of several years. It is now available in an anthology of plays by African-American women, but this published version was transcribed from a single event and cannot represent the many variations of this work-in-progress. Its inclusion in an anthology is important, however, because it will allow the play to reach a much wider audience, offering a powerful representation of the black female subject in an interrogation of American culture.

McCauley and her white co-performer Jeannie Hutchins draw on prior discussions and workshops for the dialogue in Sally's Rape. Working from pre-determined themes and scenarios, the text leaves room for the two women to improvise dialogue, shift the sequence of episodes, and interact with spectators. This flexibility gives the piece a sense of immediacy and experimentation, keeping it vital and fresh at each venue. …