Academic journal article New Formations

Performing Blackness

Academic journal article New Formations

Performing Blackness

Article excerpt

Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez (eds.), Black Performance Theory, Durham and London, Duke University Press 2014, pp279; paperback

It is refreshing to encounter a body of performance theorisation not defined by white academic progenitors, and their latter-day wrangles regarding original authority over the field of 'performance studies'.1 As the co-editors Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez note, this a field which is sparsely populated with black-specific aesthetic discourses, for 'black performance theory has only begun to uncover its resources' (p15). To uncover rather than discover, recognise rather than sanction, connect rather than fracture, are the dynamics certainly characterising the essays in this collection. Although originally applied in relation to gender, Rosalind C. Morris's problematisation of Performance Theory raises questions 'about the degree to which current versions of performance theory enact rather than critically engage the political economies of value and desire from which they arise', and Black Performance Theory confronts and answers those questions for black performance agencies.2

As the volume testifies, rewards are to be gained from probing for meanings and interpretative possibilities in sources outside dedicated or obvious performance contexts. The contributions traverse the viewpoints of performers/artists and academics, to reconfigure those habitual forms of embodiment, which have become concretised in dominant cultural histories. These collected essays move their critical medium to new formulations, and produce 'a varied literature in motion' (p14), with a substantial range of analyses centred on black heritages, and make unexpected links between the everyday, the consciously artistic and the critical analysis. Many of the volume's authors approach their text's typographical layout with a flair and flourish that encapsulates the vigour of their theoretical conjunctions. The variety of writing styles - polemical, reflective, poetic, illustrative, and experimental - disassembles expectations around the supposedly 'known' narratives of black experiences.

This volume can be understood as a response to Toni Morrison's clarion call for the reclamation of the significant and signifying Africanist presence (suppressed in the canon of American literature), as it considers performance across the live arts in music, spectacle, mythology, dance and physical theatre; and performance as film, dramatic literature and ethnography.3 For, as the co-editors observe, 'black sensibilities emerge, whether there are black bodies present or not' (p1). In relation to race as performed, and 'an ontology of blackness' that DeFrantz and Gonzales argue extends 'beyond race' (p8), the authors work both to dig out African diasporic origins as uniquely transfigured in American contexts, and embrace 'the notion of "black sensibilities" - the enlivened, vibrating components of a palpable black familiar' (p8). The rendering palpable of this 'black familiar' complements Morrison's restitution of the literary 'shadow that is companion to this whiteness' (p33).

The clarity of DeFrantz and Gonzalez's Introduction thankfully ameliorates the nebulousness and contradictory aspects of the Foreword by D. Soyini Madison (who also endorses the book on the back cover). Madison's piece might be better viewed as a manifesto for a generalising usage of 'black', without recognising that what might be a position of identification and affiliation for one generation (especially people with a modern migratory heritage), can become nominal in the next, even as repercussions of histories and consequences can be shared across the globe via diasporic connections.

With the exception of Gonzalez's own engaging chapter, 'Navigations', and its focus upon Liverpool's port as a significant cultural conduit in trans-Atlantic circulation routes (examples being the cross-pollination of minstrelsy with Irish and African diasporic manifestations), notions of diaspora in the rest of the book remain viewed from an American standpoint, and the impact this has for US-centric black performance heritages. …

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