Monday, October 23, 2006

Black Performance Studies Conference

Another pinnacle of this past week was the Black Performance Studies Symposium, organized by two of my colleagues, E. Patrick Johnson and Dwight McBride, that took place at the university this past Saturday. I was trying to think of superlatives to describe it, but I'll suffice by noting that although I was getting over a cold contracted the prior weekend and felt exhausted from all that was going on during the week (teaching and administrative duties, etc.), I eagerly got up early on Saturday morning and spent almost the entire day listening in enthrallment to discussions with which I had only some familiarity (I am not a scholar of performance theories or studies, though I incorporate what I know of them into most of my courses and work), taking copious notes that I realized only afterwards filled nearly six pages. The conference confirmed for me that this is one of the most exciting areas of humanities-centered inquiry occurring these days. There was not a speaker from whom I did not gain some new insight. To give a sense of the panelists, I am reproducing a condensed version of the schedule below:

Black Performance Studies: A Symposium
9:00-9:30 Introductions: E. Patrick Johnson,
Northwestern University
Welcome: Barbara O'Keefe, Dean, School of Communication, Northwestern University
Opening Remarks: Harry Elam, Stanford University
Dwight McBride, Northwestern University

9:30-11:00 Panel 1
Moderator: Margaret Thompson Drewal, Northwestern University
Keynote: Awam Ampka, New York University
Archetypes, Stereotypes and Polytypes: Theatres of the Black Atlantic
Faculty Respondent: Hershini Young, SUNY-Buffalo
Student Respondent: Olateju Adesida, Northwestern University

11:15-12:45 Panel 2
Moderator: Tracy Vaughn, Northwestern University
Keynote: Brandi Wilkins Catanese, University of California-Berkeley
Are We There Yet?: Race, Redemption, and Black.White.
Faculty Respondent: Paul Bryant Jackson, Miami University of Ohio
Student Respondent: Javon Johnson, Northwestern University

2:00-3:30 Panel 3
Moderator: Jennifer DeVere Brody, Northwestern University
Keynote: Louis Chude-Sokei, University of California-Santa Cruz
"The Darky Act Makes Brothers of Us All": Pan-African Soundings of the African American Voice.
Faculty Respondent: Sandra Richards, Northwestern University
Student Respondent: Lori Baptista, Northwestern University

3:45-5:15 Panel 4
Moderator: Huey Copeland, Northwestern University
Keynote: Daphne Brooks, Princeton University
"Fucking A": Toward A Genealogy of Black Feminist Profanity
Faculty Respondent: Harvey Young, Northwestern University
Student Respondent: Tamara Roberts, Northwestern University

5:15 Closing Remarks:
Stephanie Batiste, Carnegie Mellon University

I was familiar with the work of my university colleagues (like Patrick, Dwight, and Jennifer), but not with some of the other scholars, or I'd only read essays by them or sections of their books (Daphne Brooks), so it was refreshing to hear about their new research and to hear them engaging in dialogues with other figures in the field and with the non-academic participants (this is one of the regular features of many of the university's scholarly events that I most enjoy, the presence and participation of non-scholars). Particularly revelatory for me were the theoretical frameworks involving archetypes, stereotypes and polytypes, and Afromodernities and countermodernities that Ampka laid out, which made me think about a brief email exchange that I'd had a while back with Mendi on the topic of archetypes (and my failure to pass on to her a not-very-interesting essay in a reader I've used in that past); Louis Chude-Sokei's tracing of a geneology (which Sandra Richards deftly praised and problematized) between cross-intra-racial minstrelsy (in the embodied performances of Bert Williams) and networks of pan-African performance and performative circulations, ranging from Carnival celebrations to hiphop, as well as his discussion of the now "un-marked" aspects of African-American popular culture, as a sound-sign-system for American imperialism, and the resultant backlash, in African Diasporic sociocultural systems; Brandi Cattanese's discussion of Ice Cube, the narrative of progressivity and the horribly failed experiment of the TV show "Black.White"; and Daphne Brooks's recuperation of minstrelsy's "dark humor" in the cultural production and work of Josephine Baker, Suzan-Lori Parks and Kara Walker. It would not be too much to say that Brooks helped me to rethink in some key ways my habitual (conflicted) responses to Walker's work, though I wish I could have had the chance to ask her about audience and expectations, which is to say, the sociopolitical space in which Walker's artifacts (are expected to) perform.

The audience's questions and responses were also excellent and provocative; more than once Hershini Young, Stephanie Batiste, Daphne Brooks, and others posed questions or formulated comments that reframed the talks and led to new insights on the discussions at hand. One concepts that were burbling both here and at the Cave Canem conference were "resistance" and "authenticity"; certainly performance studies and other theoretical interventions, like generations of African-American literary and cultural production--African-American lives and living, have called into question any simple notions of the Black authentic, as Elizabeth Alexander I believe labels it in her study, The Black Interior, and yet condensed, indexical and sometimes reductive notions of Black authenticity (or any other kinds of authenticity, relating to gender, class, sexualities and sexual orientations, etc.) inhere, not only outside the theoretically open space of conferences like this, but sometimes inside them. It was enlightening to hear how performance studies scholars and practioners interrogated--that's an academic word for you--often through discussions of a variety of performances, various kinds of authenticities. Another recurrent concept was that of minstrelsy, as a central site of inquiry; although I've read a range of books on the topic, I found myself opening my mind to other ways of thinking about minstrelsy's historical and current work in our society, in its numerous forms. As I've felt often after such mind-enriching experiences, I hope that some of this brilliance enters the broader public discourse, especially the Black public sphere(s).

One irony for me, which I voiced to my colleague Jennifer Brody, however, was that at a performance studies conference there wasn't more, well, innovation in performance of the material. I couldn't stop referring to the Cave Canem 10th Anniversary celebration, which included a number of moments that broke the usual performer-audience spell, including, as I've shown below in some of the photographs below, Ronaldo Wilson's concluding statement of 25 pushups; Tonya Foster's disembodied panel presence and uncanny moments of interjection during the New Media panel, and the playing of Mendi + Keith's "The Pink of Stealth" foxhunting game for the audience and Duriel Harris's audioclips; Toni Asante Lightfoot's and Meta Sama's (as well as the audience's) participatory intervention involving Tim Seibles's reading of his poem "Faculty Meeting," which was one of those indelible moments that could never have been scripted; Doug Kearney's electrifying performance of his poem-pieces-critiques at the Outer Workings Panel; Reggie Harris's recitational march down the center aisle, as people kept asking, "Where's Reggie?" to conclude the Schomburg reading; Cyrus Cassells's and others' valentines to Dante Micheaux and Jericho Brown, and other moments of performative interpersonalitextuality at that same reading; and so many more instances of embodiment, space-expanding and boundary-breaking, and so on. Perhaps one expects poets--artists--to be so daring (though so few so seldom are)--but I do hope at a future performance studies event, if I am invited to attend, that more and varied kinds of performances are on display, though the performance of Black scholarship itself, of luminous minds actively cogitating and engaging each other, was a delight and, I must add, never depicted in our mass media. (This is true even for Black-owned and focused media.)

The day (or evening, since things ran till 11 pm!) ended with a remarkable performance, E. Patrick Johnson's staged reading (at left, my cellphone photo) of selections from his upcoming book, Sweat Tea, a collection of some 50 or so oral histories of black Southern gay/sgl, bisexual and transgender men. Patrick introduced and then read about 7-8 excerpts, or rather performed them, literally, changing his voice, speech patterns, gestures, movements (though seated), to embody the characterizations the oral histories conveyed. Some of the accounts were hilarious, some very sad, but all seemed to me to capture the richness and nuances of men whose lives are rarely depicted in any media. (Being from the upper south/lower midwest, I felt many moments of direct recognition.) The speakers ranged from a 24-year-old who was battling heterosexism to a 90+ year old resident of New Orleans who, pre-Hurricane Katrina, lived in the French Quarter. In addition to the parallels and divergences of the narratives, what fascinated me was that although the words themselves conveyed what we might consider to be mimetic representation of the men's lives--they were the men's actual words, shaped certainly and mediated by Patrick--Patrick's skillful performance, which included moments of improvisation, served both to enhance the mimesis and yet also to foreground the artifice of the performance, engendering a space of dialogue, of call-and-response, between scholar-interviewer-actor-performer and interviewees, as well as between the absent interviewees and their performed selves. Patrick mentioned that he wasn't going to add critical commentary to the interviews (except in terms of the introductions), but as soon as he said this, I thought of how the performance itself, and the dialogue afterwards with the audience, represented a kind of critical engagement of the sort that isn't always credited by academe. Respondent D. Soyini Madison spoke about this eloquently in her remarks after the performance, and also spoke of Patrick's ethical approach to representing and revealing these lives (which ar ein some key ways , of course, so close to and yet distant from his own). It made me think that when the book is released, it would be great to have both selections of the live interviews and Patrick's or another actor-performer's performances of them--as related forms of textual production, on CD or DVD, to accompany the text itself. It was the best way to end what was an extraordinary event.

I have many more thoughts, but I'll stop here and welcome comments, thoughts, and anything else!


  1. John:

    You've had a couple of Amazing weekends back to back! Wow (and BTW I know what you mean about not feeling 100% I was kinda woozy on Monday).

    It IS very interesting how there are times when Cave Canem poets embody (or in Tonya's case 'disembodies) theories about performance, and breaking down the relationship between Reader and Audience. I still want to think of ways to 'queer' a reading (a notion we floated Saturday), to disrupt people's expectations of what a poetry reading is -- and point at other possible ways to 'perform' poetry readings.

  2. Thank you so much for writing about E. Patrick Johnson's performance, I wish I could see it. There's a black female scholar in Texas that has been trying to get together folks interested in "performative" presentations. I think it hasn't quite taken off yet, although I'd be interested in where she's at with that project now. I too am quite interested in that work, and want to find new ways to do disrupt those expectations of how intellectual /critical material is delivered by scholars(new distribution system for our research deliverables?) in various settings.

  3. Reggie, you're such a dervish that I'm amazed you're not always woozy--how do you get so much done???

    Audiologo, the various social and institutional codes remain strongly in place; I always think of job talks and how candidates are expected to perform in certain unspoken ways. If they break them or perform differently, no matter how innovative or enlivening it might be, they often (usually?) are penalized. The standard academic conference performance models and poetry reading models can grow wearying, so I always enjoy when someone breaks out of them. I do hope Patrick brings his performance on the road, though he's running Performance Studies this year, so it may be difficult for him to find the time to travel with it. When the book appears, though, he might have a bit more opportunities to take it on the road.