Academic journal article Ethnic Studies Review

"A Shplit Ticket, Half Irish, Half Chinay": Representations of Mixed-Race and Hybridity in Turn-of-the-Century Theater

Academic journal article Ethnic Studies Review

"A Shplit Ticket, Half Irish, Half Chinay": Representations of Mixed-Race and Hybridity in Turn-of-the-Century Theater

Article excerpt


Charles Townsend's 1889 adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin features white actors playing light- and dark-skinned African-American characters, changing degrees of make-up as the script, stage business, or number of available players demands. Thomas Denison's stage directions to his 1895 play, Patsy O'Wang, an Irish Farce with a Chinese Mix-Up, stipulates that the alternation of the half -Chinese, half-Irish cook between his two ethnic personas is "key to this capital farce," and that a comedie use of the Chinese dialect is central to this. The Geezer (c. 1896), Joseph Herbert's spoof of the popular musical, The Geisha, features white actors playing Chinese dignitaries, but also donning German and Irish accents. The white actors in these plays enact different paradigms of hybridity. The actors in Townsend's Uncle Tom's Cabin, a Melodrama in Five Acts embody conceptions of both mixed and unmixed African Americans, freely alternating between each. In Patsy O'Wang, the main character's background is central to the story, and the lead actor moves between the two ethnicities by his accent, mannerisms, and politics. Racial mixing is central to the plot of The Geezer through Anglo actors who make themselves hybrid by appearing Chinese and appropriating a third accent, rather than the creation of racially mixed offspring.

The goal of this paper is to connect these three, late nineteenth-century plays, uncovering how depictions of racial mixing worked to bolster the status of free, white males. In particular, this paper asserts that the use of humor defined racially mixed people (as well as their parent racial groups) as worthy of mockery went beyond mere jest and towards the ends of deprivation, whether of employment opportunities, voting rights, or freedom to intermarry. There was more to lose from these plays than mere self-esteem, just as there was more to gain from writing, acting, or watching these plays than mere entertainment. What makes the potency of this humor possible is the versatility of white actors, writers, and audiences. By versatility, I mean the ability to move between racial and ethnic identities, mainly through changes in make-up, costume, mannerism, and speech. This versatility was a result of the racial segregation of the time, since theater groups were all-white. But it also relied on the stereotypes of ethnic groups. Along with the playwrights, the performances pulled from a well of conceptions about different peoples. In regards to race mixing, they also pulled from essentialist beliefs about the transmission of character that the homogeneous audiences could appreciate. Building on Ross Chambers's exploration of how whiteness appears to be un-marked while other racial groups appear to be marked in opposition to whiteness, I pose that actors of this time marked themselves as mixed through their performances. His essay, "The Unexamined," presents a list of social categories that are "unmarked," or free of "deviation, secondariness, and examinability," and considers whiteness the primary of such unburdened categories. He continues,

Like other unmarked categories, it has a touchstone quality of the normal, against which the members of marked categories are measured and, of course, found deviant, that is, wanting... Whiteness is not itself compared with anything, but other things are compared unfavorably with it, and their own comparability with one another derives from their distance from the touchstone. (Chambers 1 89)

In a way, the white actors of in these three plays considered themselves blank tablets, on which they wrote the signs of racial identity. They mixed whiteness with blackness and Asian-ness, but they also contributed to formulating those racial groups - as well as immigrant white groups - in relation to American whiteness in general.2

What follows is an exploration of the history of stage representations of mixed-race, as well as analyses of Uncle Tom's Cabin. …

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