Course Description

From Henry Box Brown’s cargo dramatics to Ellen Craft’s incredible performance as a feeble white male travelling with his black servant to Brer Rabbit’s feigned fear of the briar patch, artifice and performance repeatedly serve as the necessary means, if not the conditions of possibility for, fugitive departure and black life. This course asks how masks, masquerades, con-acts, and acting enable resistance and escape.  In particularly we will explore how the radical work of historical black performances continue in contemporary black performances. To that end we will blend our examination of historical black performances like that referenced in Zora Neale Hurston’s play “Color Struck” or Linda Brent’s fugitive play on her master’s ignorance and hubris with discussions about contemporary black performances of freedom, escape, and survival (like what we might see in Danny Glover’s Childish Gambino; Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce; Ru Paul’s Drag Race; and the increasingly popular interest in black speculative and Afrofuturisms manifest in the sonic-visual performances of Solange or in the HBO series Random Acts of Flyness.

The fall 2020 version of this course will pay particular attention to the various forms black performance can take. Put differently we will focus on how black things performance. Black things here refers both to items (material, social, cultural) thought to belong to and/or originate form black peoples as well as to black peoples themselves. For in a post-enlightenment world power by anti-black colonial rule and institutions of racialized slavery, black peoples were conceived of not as people but as things, as black things.

Course Organization

The course material has not been organized chronologically, but that does not mean that it has not been organized with an attention to historical context and material relations. Many of the texts we will examine play with notions of time and timing. They dream of tomorrows while remembering a yesterday. They understand the present as something that must be interrogated with an understanding of the permeability between past and present; futurity and history; promise and legacy; and the temporal movement of the present to some not yet here future.  

As such the class material has been organized to emphasize the continuities between past and present and the importance of temporal and historical play in black performances.

Using recent and popular texts of music videos by artists Beyonce and Childish Gambino, the course begins by defining the terms of what we mean by black, performance, and black performance followed by an examination of two contemporary black performance texts. We will frame our discussion of these hopefully more familiar texts with 1) a theoretical vocabulary derived from scholars/thinkers Harry Elam, Houston Baker, Peggy Phelan, and Daphne Brooks, and 2) a sketch of the history of black caricature and anti-black racial stereotypes and black exclusion against which much of the history of popular black arts and black performances takes shape.   As part of that discussion, we will examine the persistence of black caricatures, many of them popularized by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s now infamous novel Uncle Tom Cabin.  In doing so we will establish the unavoidable but not all encompassing back drop of anti-black white performances and performance traditions within, against, and under which black performance texts emerge. 

From here we go back almost a century to the Harlem Renaissance. We will center our discussion of this seminal period in Black cultural and intellectual production around artist Zora Neale Hurston’s play “Color Struck” and the Civil Rights movement (focusing on the sounds and aesthetics of black blues women).  Our discussion of these texts and time periods will focus not only on traditional dramatic texts (i.e. plays), but also on black music, black speech and voice, black dance, black fashion, black visual culture, and of course, the performance of black political and social movements. Our discussion of both of these time key 20th century eras will also include contemporary black performance texts. 

From the Harlem Renaissance we move some 50-60 years ahead to The Black Arts Movement. We will examine the Black Arts Movement from the vantage point of Ntozake Shange’s 1982 novel Cypress, Sassafras, and Indigo, that focuses on the coming of age of three black sisters during the politically and artistically tumultuous time of late Civil Rights Movement, Black Nationalism, and Black Arts periods.  Shange, most known for her choreopoem For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, is among the incredible cadre of black women artists who came of age in even as they were excluded from and long out lived the Black Arts Movements.

From the 1980s, we go back a century and a half to the life of the formerly enslaved black woman Harriet Jacobs. But our examination of Harriet Jacobs’ fugitive performance and the performance of her text will include a comparative analysis of both Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and the 2011 play by Lydia Diamond based on Jacobs’ life and narrative titled Harriet. We will discuss how each texts plays with the past and expectations about the relation between past and future as well as interrogate the ways 21st century popular black performance imagines and re-remembers slavery.