Volume 73, Issue 2, June 2021

Resisting Theatre

By E.J. Westlake

At the end of every year, I ask my Introduction to Theatre students to consider the resistant value of appropriation and hybridity. We had just read Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain, and my students were particularly struck by the figure of Lestrade, the mulatto corporal who declares that “Roman law is English law.” They engaged intensely with the final scene of apotheosis. My question to them is always whether it is possible to “dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools” as we consider both Audre Lorde’s famous statement in Sister Outsider and the Caribbean postcolonial reappropriation of Caliban, how he learned the colonizer’s language in order to curse.

We spent the semester examining many forms of resistant art, from Brecht and Boal, the NEA 4, and the difficult work of people such as Ashley Lucas persevering to work with prisoners despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The need to understand the nature of something as elusive as “resistance” became all the more urgent after the election of 2016 as many of my students became the targets of hate. Everywhere, we considered the ways in which theatre artists create work that calls for critical distance, to answer Brecht’s call: “what is ‘natural’ must have the force of what is startling.” And we considered also our affective responses during a time when many of these students had moved back in with family or were in precarious situations after the liberation of adulthood had allowed many of them to “come out”—in all the ways one may identify that is at odds with one’s family of origin.

The essays in this volume examine strategies to disrupt reading (Gunn and Thompson), strategies to engage with racist cultural practice, whether through reappropriation (Jones) or translation (Walls), or the use of Indigenous paradigms to negotiate with colonial, imperial, and neoliberal forces (Yeboah). Each essay examines the ways that artists grapple with multiple subject positions and complex economies, seeking a foothold from which to engage the spectator’s gaze.

We begin with Doug Jones’s exploration of “The Black Below,” a term he has coined to mean the “conceptual and physical spaces of a ludic, boisterous sociality where Black people refuse to center white supremacist oppression, but celebrate themselves through laughter, tears, and sexuality with little to no qualms about how others will register their delights.” In his essay “‘The Black Below’: Minstrelsy, Satire, and the Threat of Vernacularity,” Jones explores Black satire of the early twentieth century through the use of blackface performed by Black actors for a Black audience, and through the writing of satirists such as George Schuyler. Jones looks to the tension between the Black bourgeoisie (Locke, Du Bois, et al.) and younger writers such as Zora Neale Hurston as a flashpoint for the emergence of satire born from Black vernacularity.

Next, Nikki Yeboah’s essay, “All the Nation’s a Stage: The Ghana National Theatre as Sankofa Praxis,” examines the history of the construction and the architecture of the National Theatre building. According to Yeboah, the design for the building went through three different phases: 1) an independence-era design for a space that was never built, based on performance traditions of the seven different regions of Ghana, to be funded by the British; 2) a post-independence national theatre school, also rooted in Indigenous architecture, funded by the United States and razed in 1990; and 3) the present building, designed by Cheng Taining and funded by the Chinese government.

Building on Fanon and Bhabha, Yeboah frames her analysis with the Ghanian concept of SankofaSankofa, she notes, comes from the Akan proverb “se wo were fin, Sankofa a yenky,” and can be translated as “it is not taboo to go back and fetch your past when you forget.” While the first two versions of the theatre (the unrealized project and the theatre school) employed Ghana’s Indigenous traditions to create something wholly new, the final project reflects the architect’s fantasy of Ghanian culture. This does not mean that the current building does not fit within the paradigm of Sankofa, however. Yeboah states: “While today’s National Theatre does not capture the cultural revivalist fantasy of what Ghana was and could be, its design represents what Ghana actually is: a country vulnerable to the whims of foreign capital and shifting political ideologies.”

Jennifer Joan Thompson analyzes the work of a Chilean theatre-maker in her essay, “Horizons of Impossibility: The Political Imperative and the Dramaturgy of Guillermo Calderón.” In the essay, she describes the “political imperative—a personal and structural pressure on Calderón and other artists to produce particular kinds of political artworks.” Calderón, Thompson contends, must negotiate with expectations for him to produce plays that address structures of power. His work is also subject to an international economy that determines marketability. She examines the ways in which Calderón attempts to resist expectation while remaining viable in the global marketplace, making each work part of a larger discourse that is often metatheatrical and intertextual.

In “Leaving the Theatre of Suffering: Two Endings—and a Color-Conscious Future?—for Hedda Gabler,” Olivia Gunn writes about two recent productions of Ibsen’s play. She discusses a production directed by Yury Urnov at the Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco in 2017, and a production directed by Ivo van Hove at the National Theatre, London, that same year. Gunn interrogates the use of color-blind (as opposed to color-conscious) casting, and how race operates as part of the mise en scène of both productions. Using Muñoz’s concept of “crypto-universalism” as her starting point, Gunn articulates the challenge of thinking “against a persistent mode of interpreting Ibsen, . . . which confuses universal with majoritarian, implicitly white, as if ahistorical subjectivity.”

Finally, the issue returns again to the practice of minstrelsy, this time in one of its exported manifestations in the form of Josephine Gassman’s “pickaninny chorus” in Alison Walls’s essay, “Josephine Gassman and Her ‘New Zealand Pickaninnies’: Performing the Colonial Family.” Gassman, Walls explains, managed a troupe of child performers which she marketed as “all New Zealanders.” Walls supposes that Gassman cast Māori children in blackface performance, and theorizes about the levels of signification such a performance produced. With Gassman in blackface playing the children’s mother, Walls notes the layers of national and imperial messages generated over the course of the company’s existence. I am pleased to have been able to work with these fine contributions to theatre scholarship.

With this issue we say farewell to Margherita Laera as our online editor. Margherita joined us with the March 2019 issue. In a short time, she has transformed the online content of Theatre Journal and Theatre Topics, making the digital collection stand on its own. To understand the enormous accomplishment this has been, one only needs to know that we have had to split the online duties between the two journals. Margherita will be handing off the Theatre Journal portion of her work to Carla Neuss, who previously served as one of our editorial assistants. We wish Margherita well and welcome Carla to our editorial team.