African-American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader

African-American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader

African-American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader

African-American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader

Synopsis

African-American Performance and Theatre History is an anthology of critical writings that explores the intersections of race, theater, and performance in America. Assembled by two respected scholars in black theater and composed of essays from acknowledged authorities in the field (Joseph Roach and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. among other), this volume is organized into four sections representative of the ways black theater, drama, and performance past and present interact and enact continuous social, cultural, and political dialogues. The premise behind the book is that analyzing African-American theater and performance traditions offers insight into how race has operated and continues to operate in American society. The only one-volume collection of its kind, this volume is likely to become the central reference for those studying black theater.

Excerpt

In an anthology dedicated to African American theater history, perhaps it seems odd to consider dramatizations of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the abolitionist novel written in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Neither the original text nor the multiple stage adaptations that followed were authored by African Americans, and within the theater conventions of the era, African Americans seldom appeared on the stage except in the form of “jubilee singers, ” a nineteenth-century hypertext that interpolated spirituals and slave songs into the performances. It was not until 1878 that a black Uncle Tom, Sam Lucas, appeared on the stage. Lucas was a well-known minstrel performer, who was as attractive for his large resources (rumors of his diamonds abound in clippings of the period) as for the novelty of a black man on the stage in a serious role. Black female performers appeared, later, in the role of Topsy but without the fanfare of Lucas; they were little more than a footnote in the long history of the “Tom Show”—a fact reflected in this chapter itself. The question remains: what does Uncle Tom have to do with African American theater history?

In teaching the university-level course African American Theater, I begin with Uncle Tom's Cabin because of the permanence of the images that it inspired. Although Stowe's novel is no longer as widely read as it once was, many individuals who have not read Uncle Tom's Cabin have a clear picture of Uncle Tom. Similarly, the stage productions had a tenacious staying power. The “Tom Show, ” as the eventual cavalcade of adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin were called, was the most widely produced play in the history of the United States, and despite the longevity of contemporary musicals, has yet to be surpassed. Its first adaptation appeared while the novel was still in serialization in the New Era, and performances continued all around theglobe through World War II, although some articles erroneously note the death of this venerable form in 1930. These blackface performances schematized the stereotype of the black character and repeated it for almost a century. All African American traditions were forced to combat the incredible archetypal . . .

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