<Book Review>
Black Performance Theory
Thomas F. DeFrantz & Anita Gonzalez, Eds.
[Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 296 pp.; 22 photographs]

In Black Performance Theory Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez collect a captivating anthology of essays written for scholars working on black performance. Building upon the intellectual work of twentieth century scholars, the authors in this anthology do not undertake a revisionist history in which they address “errors of omission in a historical genealogy of performance studies,” but are instead concerned with a “project of realization, one in which the capacity of black performance is revealed” (1). This book addresses questions such as: What are the performative markers of blackness? How can scholars theorize black performances in ways that are inclusive of geography and historical eras? To answer these questions, the various authors present definitions, dialogues, and perfomative writing as well as embrace the notion of black sensibilities—“stylized ways of being in relation to each other and our environments” (8). BPT, as the editors of the anthology refer to it, seeks to present new understandings of blackness, performance, and theory.

The book is divided into four major parts with a total of fourteen chapters, covering traditional theatrical performances to celebrity performance and music and dance. It begins with an introduction by the editors, DeFrantz and Gonzalez, titled “Introduction: From ‘Negro Expression’ to ‘Black Performance’”. The editors trace the early works of black performance theory beginning in the early twentieth century, then move in to the Civil Rights era, and finally into the late twentieth century. They parse through the terms black, performance, and theory and provide intriguing discussions about black sensibilities and performative writing.

I argue that each of the essays in Black Performance Theory presents a global perspective of black performance and black performativity in which blackness is not seen as merely a response to race relations in America, but involves a host of personal and collective experiences of blacks both in Africa and the diaspora. As DeFrantz and Gonzalez contend: “black performance contains history and racism, but it is not about either of those things” (9). The first section of the book consists of four chapters and is titled “Transporting Black” where the writers discuss black identity in terms of various diasporic notions that travel beyond borders (11). In “Navigations: Diasporic Transports and Landings,” Anita Gonzalez examines two case studies in Liverpool and North American Afro-Mexican settlements. They are used to explore the circulation of minstrel tropes as an attempt by non-black “performers” to negotiate their own economic and social statuses in relation to whiteness. This process of negotiating with blackness is what Gonzalez theorizes as social navigation (20-21). Chapter Two, “Diasporic Spidering: Constructing Contemporary Black Identities,” is Nadine George-Graves’ discussion of the folkloric trickster figure, Anansi, to establish a foundational understanding of her theory of diasporic spidering, or the idea that black identity is as complex as a spider web. This theory is useful for understanding how people of African descent define their lives through a multidirectional process (33). In chapter three, “Twenty-First-Century Post-Humans: The Rise of the See-J,” Hershini Bhana Young tackles issues of embodiment and technology through and examination of the work of Afro-futurist graphic artist John Jennings. Young uses the sonic to formulate new meanings of the post-human in terms of human, race, and technology that challenge previous notions about the relationship between technology and black personhood. In “Hip Work: Undoing the Tragic Mulata,” Melissa Blanco Borelli challenges the notion of the mulata as a tragic figure by “corpo-realizing” the mulata through the use of her hips. In this sense, Borelli takes on the task of re-historicizing the mulatas significance in the circum-Atlantic, or as she refers to it, the hip-notic torrid zone (65).

The second part of the book is titled “Black-en-Scene” and consists of lynching dramas and modern dance texts which consider how performance texts have a multiplicity of meanings. In chapter five, “Black-Authored Lynching Drama’s Challenge to Theater History,” Koritha Mitchell reassesses the historical relationship between theater and lynching by offering a compelling argument about how African Americans, especially black authors of lynching plays, engaged theatricality by critically intervening on its discourses. Chapter six is titled “Reading ‘Spirit’ and the Dancing Body in the Choreography of Ronald K. Brown and Reggie Wilson.” In this chapter Carl Paris investigates how the spirit is manifest in two choreographies by the New York-based choreographers mentioned in the title. For Paris, the spiritual-artistic relationship has the power to make things happen and is essential to the spiritual agency of black people. In chapter seven, “Uncovered: A Pageant of Hip Hop Masters,” Rickerby Hinds “re-creates life-size versions of classic hip hop album covers” by re-performing them (115). Hinds brings a unique perspective to discourses about the relationship between performance and representation through the reclaiming and reimagining of one’s environment.

In the third part of the book, “Black Imaginary,” authors “discover spaces of possibility” (13). Chapter eight is titled “Black Movements: Flying Africans in Spaceships.” In this chapter Soyica Diggs Colbert develops a theory of Flying Africans inspired by the tale which circulated among enslaved black in the Americas (8). She uses the theory as a way to critically intervene on the discourse of black performance, arguing that flight is a paradigm of such performance. In chapter nine, “Post-Logical Notes on Self-Election,” Wendy S. Waters presents a performative text that maps geographical space and political events, leaving the reader to determine his or her own placement and impact and questioning what we remember about black performances (13). Chapter ten is titled “Cityscaped: Ethnospheres.” In this chapter Anna B. Scott also presents a performative text in which the reader is taken on a journey through the cityscape that is filled with sounds and rhythms of black movement. The reader becomes willingly forced to read the text aloud. Take for example the following excerpt: “1 2 3 and 4. Structure and stricture. Those allow space for adjudication. Improvisation? That’s just darky bullshit” (163).

In the last part of the book, titled “Hi-Fidelity Black,” the writers seek to “reconfigure notions of aurality” (14). In chapter eleven, “’Rip It Up’: Excess and Ecstasy in Little Richard’s Sound,” Tavia Nyong’o addresses the question: “What is produced in the scene of production other than the product?” (176). He attempts to answer this question through an examination of Little Richard’s sound. Chapter twelve is titled “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough: Presence, Spectacle, and Good Feeling in Michael Jackson’s This Is It.” Jason King questions the sensuality of a mediated black performances. In chapter thirteen, “Afro-Sonic Feminist Praxis: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity,” Daphne A. Brooks explores Simone’s and Kennedy’s sonic futurism within a discussion of celebrities. In the final chapter, “Hip Hop Habitus v.2.0,” DeFrantz asks questions centered around Africanist performance histories and global hip hop corporealities by challenging previous scholars’ reliance on the connection between the two.

Black Performance Theory is a great reminder of how theorizing black performance is a difficult, yet necessary task to accomplish in order to understand how black identity is performed and how it is constituted and understood in various social and political contexts. It challenges notions about the role of the sonic and aurality in black performance, as well as brings interesting, new perspectives about identity formation and origin in the construction of blackness, both personally and collectively. However, this book does not address notions of black performance as an internal dialogue between black people and how such internal negotiations affect the diversity of black performance across geographies. For example, Gonzalez discusses how non-black bodies use black bodies as cultural collateral for upward social navigation, but does not discuss how black bodies use other black bodies for similar and other purposes. Nevertheless, it is a wonderful confluence of various writing styles, metaphorically representative of the diversity and complexity of black performance. BPT is useful for black performance theorists, but also for scholars within the field of Diaspora studies and performance studies seeking to understand new perspectives about the ways in which discourses surrounding performance, and its relationships to race, geography, and technology, are changing in an increasingly globalized world... of performance.

     — Reviewed by Breigha M. Adeyemo, Texas A & M University

Breigha M. Adeyemo is a graduate student in the department of Performance Studies at Texas A&M University. Her research focuses broadly on relations between Africans and African Americans. More specifically, she examines the causes and implications of Nigerian constructs of African Americans, paying particular attention to how these constructs influence the ways Nigerians perform their identity in the United States.

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