*Stephanie Leigh Batiste, Associate Professor of English and Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has written a thought provoking book and scholarly study on an under-theorized subject of black Americans’ complicity in imperialist discourse; Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation In Depression-Era African American Performance.
As a performance artist at UCSB, Batiste is in a position to deliver this provocative study of the performances of Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Paul Robeson, and lesser known performers, and their social implications. She traces the black experience in theater through a turbulent period in our history to a point in time now better appreciated and understood.
In Darkening Mirrors, Batiste examines how African Americans, a population treated as second-class citizens at home, imagined themselves as empowered, modern U.S. citizens and transnational actors in Depression-era plays, operas, ballets, and films. Many of these productions, such as the 1938 hits Haiti and The “Swing” Mikado, recruited unknown performers, involving the black community not only as participants but also as spectators. Performances of exoticism, orientalism, and primitivism are linked to issues of embodiment, including how bodies signify blackness as a cultural, racial, and global category. Whether enacting U.S. imperialism in westerns, dramas, dances, songs, or comedy sketches, African Americans maintained a national identity that registered a diasporic empowerment and resistance on the global stage. This message, this story that Batiste attempts to convey in her well researched and documented book, comes through vividly in the included photos and announcement of Lena Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the classic, Stormy Weather.
In further regard to Stormy Weather, the author states in Darkening Mirrors; “Walter White and the NAACP bemoaned Stormy Weather’s focus on entertainment and the Jim Crowing of representation in an all-black film. A black paper extolled the lack of ‘bandannas,’ since no one actually played a mammy, though Ada Brown dresses up as one for a show number, thereby allowing performance to address stereotype.”
In a phone interview with Batiste, and in her own words, she stated: “I wanted to say that in the book I challenge the way black people in the U.S. have come to use the word ‘we.’ As African Americans we talk a line between being inclusive and too all encompassing with this easy reference to black people in ways that ignore very real and very strong national and ethnic differences. This investigation at how people interact with performances of power explores imperialism, complicity, resistance, and solidarity. It shows that there are contradictions here and that black and diasporic identities are far from simple–especially when we look from the point of view of power and nation.” If I did not know better, I would think that I was listening to Angela Davis!
In her book, Batiste does a bit of social and political analysis of the updated and black version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, The Federal Theater Project’s ‘voodoo’ Macbeth. In 1606 William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, wrote a play which would go down in history as the cursed Scottish play, Macbeth, after numerous mishaps during production. The play itself tells the story of a man, urged by his wife and foretold by prophecy, who commits regicide (murder of a king) in order to gain power. Dance moves by an African choreographer and spells cast by a voodoo priest added intrigue to the theatrical production of ‘voodoo’ MacBeth staged in Harlem in 1936. Noted in this updated and black version of Macbeth, was the direction of it by the renowned Orsen Welles (War of The Worlds). Welle’s comment that the voodoo Macbeth imagined a mythical realm that could exist anywhere facilitated the possibility of allegorizing the action of the play to some other space, such as the United States.
Batiste states that black’s use of violence as social, economic, or political protest was particularly taboo. Thus the masking and displacement of the play’s violence from the United States proved vital to the actual imagination of aesthetic and literal violence as a means of protest. In Macbeth hyper-stylized and exoticized violence challenged the status quo. The author further states in this poignant identification with our history, especially in regard to Welle’s role as director in voodoo Macbeth: “Racially liberal Americans, including blacks, communists, and political radicals, linked Jim Crow and lynching to the global development of fascism. For Welles and other Popular Front artists antifascism and antiracism were part of the same project. There actually was something more going on beyond the performances of these artists. In Darkening Mirrors it is stated; “for Welles racists were fascists,” and Welles is quoted in one of his speeches as stating: “I think that long after the last governments that dare to call themselves Fascists have been swept off the face of civilization, the word ‘fascism’ will live in our language as a word for race hate.” Profound!
In a contrast between the author’s Darkening Mirrors and the DVD documentary Harlem Renaissance: The Music & Rhythms That Started a Cultural Revolution (KULTUR), which has video and musical performances in it by some of the same entertainers profiled in her book, such as Lena Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, I find myself filled with joy and racial pride for both the book and the DVD performances, despite the stereotypical and demeaning attempt to curry favor to whites by the performers. In Harlem Renaissance, one of the historians and commentators actually stated that in order for blacks to eat and/or to be well received by white audiences, they had to resort to this “Stepin Fetchit” personna, which is also alluded to in comedian Darryl Littleton’s book Black Comedians on Black Comedy. Admittedly, we as a people were a bit limited as to how we were allowed to express ourselves, especially in the depression-era African American performance period that Batiste speaks of.
This well written and documented book by Batiste is full of historical information and facts, such as the noted and former boxer Canada Lee, acting both in voodoo Macbeth and Haiti. The book is more than just about the performances of these black artists and entertainers, but more so the political and societal subtleties and implications behind their performances. It is a book that I highly recommend, by an author that we should expect to hear more from.
Dennis Moore is a writer and book reviewer for the East County Magazine in San Diego and the book review editor for SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego. He is also the author of a book about Chicago politics; “The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago. Mr. Moore can be contacted at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.