Academic journal article African American Review

She Wears the Masks: Bluefacing in Nilaja Sun's "Black and Blue" and "La Nubia Latina"

Academic journal article African American Review

She Wears the Masks: Bluefacing in Nilaja Sun's "Black and Blue" and "La Nubia Latina"

Article excerpt


In Black and Blue (2001), Nilaja Sun chronicles her 1982 world premiere as Smurfette in the musical The Smuts Saved Their Village against the Evil Gargamel. (2) Her experience as a thirteen-year-old summer camper playing the role of Smurfette in blueface remains so vivid that she reenacts the moments before, during, and after her performance. (3) In the final scene of Black and Blue, young Sun looks at the audienceas-mirror, anxiously puts on her bright blonde wig, and smears her face with blue paint. She nods with satisfaction and then attentively stands by for her entrance music to begin. The instant she hears the Smurf anthem, she merrily dances and lip-syncs:

    La, la, la, la, la, la, sing a happy song
   La, la, la, la, la, la, Smurf the whole day long
   (whistle)--Smurf along with me
   (whistle)--simple as can be
   Next time you're feeling blue just let a smile begin
   Happy things will come to you so Smurf yourself a grin
   (spoken by Gargamel) "Oooo, I hate Smurfs! I'll get you,
   I'll get all of you, if it's the last
   thing I ever do!"
   La, la, la, la, la, la, now you "know the tune
   La, la, la, la, la, la, you'll be Smurfing soon.
   ("Smurfs [Main Title]," Joseph Barbera, William Hanna, and
Hoyt Curtin
   [c] 1982 Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. [BMI] All rights

At the end of her Smurfette performance, Sun is both surprised and honored at the recorded cheers and applauses. She proudly yet humbly bows and returns to her dressing area. This lighthearted moment gradually becomes ironic, as Louis Armstrong melancholically sings "(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?" in the background, and Sun rubs off the blue paint. She stares at the audience-as-mirror not in triumph, but in dismay. Her face, now "black and blue" as in the play and song title, brings to the surface a painful, lingering question about hybridity and racial consciousness--What did I do to get so black and blue?

This article examines how Nilaja Sun explicitly employs the minstrelsy traditions of blackface to push the conceptual limits of racial identity, and expand the nodes of intersection within diasporic identities. The act of bluing up, as opposed to blacking up, is Sun's way of provoking her audience to think more expansively about the performance of racialized identity outside of black and Latino paradigms, and toward a more complicated and not-clearly discernible Afro-Latino hybrid subjectivity. Sun uses what I call bluefacing, a performance tactic that magnifies the constrictive and monolithic perceptions of blackness and Latinidad as a means of generating alternative ways of living inside and outside racial and ethnic social masks. In her earlier works, Black and Blue and La Nubia Latina (1999), Sun demonstrates how the act of putting on and taking off various social masks both affirms and troubles her engagement with Afro-Latina diasporic lineages. I explore the ways Sun's masking techniques are not simply about the mask itself, nor about what the mask conceals or reveals, but rather about bluefacing as a way to embody the lived experience of oppression across multiple and intersecting racial histories. What are the social and political implications rendered when Sun wears a blueface mask? What racial politics does Sun's strategy of blueface perform in concert with traditions of blackface by African Americans? How does Sun's creation of blueface masking embody and intervene in racial politics?

My goal is to open avenues for discussing the performative elements of blackness and Latinidad that Sun simultaneously produces and circulates. Turning our attention to the moments of bluefacing offers an alternative point of entry from which to understand diasporic identities. This article amplifies the intersecting social narratives and embodied practices of diasporic identity by engaging in three theoretical disciplines, namely, diaspora studies, theatre studies, and performance studies. …

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