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FEATURE: Provocative Ideas at ASTR Conference

Kellen Hoxworth of Stanford University presents his paper “Transoceanic Blackface; or, The Silver Belt Jig” at ASTR 2016.

The early morning session at an academic conference is usually considered the kiss of death for attendance, but more than 150 people showed up for the opening plenary on Day 2 of the American Society for Theatre Research’s 60th anniversary conference. The participants came to hear about and discuss the performative aspects of racial protests, the social politics of wearing kimonos, and the 19th-century crazy for blackface.

The theme of this year’s conference is TRANS-, an open-ended theme that presenters latched onto and launched from in many ways. Friday’s opening session, entitled Transcriptive Objects and Items, delved into the nuances of context and how ideas and their receptions evolve, become subjective, and are ultimately challenging to address. Along the way, the papers and following discussions explored elements as complex as the prison industrial complex’s profit-making efforts, the strange and international marketing of White blackface performers, and how to sensitively approach national costume in a museum exhibition.

Blackface and Its Variation

Many of the events anecdotes described in these papers serve as cautionary tales and a reminder of lingering social problems. In his paper “Transoceanic Blackface; or, The Silver Belt Jig,” Kellen Hoxworth described the rise of an international blackface craze in the 19th century with one dance even being advertised as model of wholesome exercise practices. A lack of exercise, as with blackface itself, continues to be a problem in some circles. After all, the titular Moor of Venice in Verdi’s opera Otello is still frequently performed as a blackface role; numerous Asian characters in works such as Madame Butterfly and The Mikado continue to be performed in yellowface. In accordance with the conference theme, this example illustrated the transracial popularity of appropriated (and, sometimes, trivialized and parodied) African American culture.

Incarceration, Protest, and Profiteering

A very different point of alignment was illustrated by Robin Bernstein in her paper “Black Freedom Visions, White Supremacist Nightmares: The Painting-Performances of William Wells Brown and George J. Mastin.” This exploration of theatricality and performance at the notorious Auburn State Prison (the model for maximum security and penal labor prisons) touched on both the performative aspects of protest and rebellion during incarceration, and the use of the prisoners themselves as a sort of performing ensemble showed to the public. For much of the 19th century, Auburn State Prison raised many of its funds by selling tickets to visitors, who were allowed to peek in via peepholes. If this sounds an arcane practice, consider this: If you’ve seen this video of Filipino prison inmates dancing to Thriller, you’ve participated in a similar voyeurism of the incarcerated:

The themes of transgression and protest appear in many papers throughout the conference, especially in terms of protest against abuses of authority. One of the more harmful innovations demoed at Auburn State Prison was imposing total silence on the inmates at all hours, a practice that can induce mental breakdowns. An unexpected counterpoint, Berstein observed, occurred when a ventriloquist was incarcerated at the prison. “He taught all the other prisoners ventriloquism,” Berstein noted, an event that caused the wardens great consternation. “I think this is an example of performance undermining imprisonment.”

The Social Politics of Kimonos and Costume Choices

Cultural appropriation, identity politics, and the complexity of costume in and outside theatre were a few of the topics on display in Michelle Liu Carriger’s paper “Trying on Transgression: Kimono Protests and (Trans)National Dress.” The linchpin of this paper was a 2015 exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts that became a massive controversy, eliciting international discussions about allowing visitors to try on a replica of a kimono in a painting by Monet. Theatre practitioners, Liu Carriger argued, have a key role in these discussions. “I think we’re on the front lines of having to figure out the problems of cultural identity because of casting,” she said “Theatre is fundamentally about one person standing in for another person.”

Camille Monet in a blonde wig and ornate kimono in Claude Monet's 1876 painting La Japonaise. Oil on canvas, 91-1/4" x 56".
Camille Monet in a blonde wig and ornate kimono in Claude Monet’s 1876 painting La Japonaise. Oil on canvas, 91-1/4″ x 56″.

In resonance with other aspects of discussion, Carriger emphasized that this was not an idle academic discussion, but one that touched directly on science. “Dressing up in costume can be empowering for people,” Carriger noted. “I think the clothing matters and it does have an impact…we need to take the fun, the superficial, and make people think that it matters.” Over the Halloween weekend, she noted, she saw a number of people wearing “sexy Indian” costumes in Hollywood, California – a persistent practice that is now broadly recognized as offensive. It’s not an easy problem to solve. “I don’t think the answer is telling people what they are and aren’t allowed to dress up as,” Carriger said. “But we need to talk to those people and say, ‘That is not the answer.'”

Even the desire to not offend, Carriger noted, can create its own problems. “There are people who refuse to talk to people who are different from them, who have a different identity,” she said. “Now we have cisgendered people who refuse to speak to transgendered people because they don’t want to offend them. To refuse to talk to the person who’s different from you is not the answer.”

In the case of the Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibition of Claude Monet’s La Japonaise – a painting of his wife wearing an ornately embroidered kimono while wearing a blonde wig – was not expected to arouse controversy. The MFA teamed up with a Japanese museum to commission a replica of the kimono in La Japonaise, which visitors could then don and take pictures of themselves while standing in front of the painting. The exhibit was a sterling success – in terms of social media, and in patron visits – at the Setagaya Museum in Tokyo, the Kyoto Municipal Museum, and the Nagoya Museum. In Boston, however, Asian American audiences reacted very differently to this, protesting this as an offensive act of cultural appropriation and reinforcing prejudices and stereotypes.

“I felt bad for the MFA,” Carriger said. “We need to realize from the different reception at different museums that every context is different.” However, she cautioned that being open to dialogue is now an important part of museum operations. The MFA’s lukewarm response to initial protests ended up fanning the fires – “a ham-fisted thing,” as Carriger put it. (This controversy has also become a case study in museum management programs and public relations in the Internet Age.) At the same time, however, best practices for protesting and making opinions known are still evolving. As Carriger stated, “Going into museums and saying, ‘Stop doing it, it’s hurting me’ isn’t working.”


Basil Considine