SEMINAR ABSTRACTS
ASTR/TLA ANNUAL CONFERENCE 2002

Seminar 4:

Performers' Bodies/Bodies Performing:
The Material Choices of Staging and Casting

ASTR Conference, 16 November 2002

3.15-5.15pm, Westin Hotel, Philadelphia

Co-chairs: Esther S. Kim, University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign; Jon D. Rossini, Texas Tech University; and John Rogers Harris, Ohio State University

Uncast(e)able: The Stage and Screen Career of Fredi Washington
Cheryl Black, University of Missouri, Columbia
William Wells Brown and the Abolitionist Platform
Sergio Costola, University of California, Los Angeles
Chaikin's 'Body Pieces': Prosthetic Subjects, Aphasic Direction
Telory W. Davies, Stanford University
Kabuki or Nihon Buyo in the Netherlands?
Nagoya Musume Kabuki's Material Choices
The Futurist Body on Stage and Screen
Nina Hein, Columbia University
Casting the Civil War: The "Slave Auctions" of Henry Ward Beecher
Heather S. Nathans, University of Maryland
False Accents: Embodied Dialects and the Characterization of Ethnicity
Angela Pao, Indiana University, Bloomington
Toward a Responsible Portrayal of Blindness:
Casting "Across Ability" in Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney

D. Ross, University of Michigan
When Gender Trumps Race: Twentieth Century Performances of Cleopatra
Maya E. Roth, Georgetown University
can we afford this: Freak Show or Performance of Difference?
Linda Sears, University of California, Davis
America's Joan of Arc: The Female Body in Political Performance and the Theatrical Career of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson
Stacey Stewart, University of Maryland


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Uncast(e)able: The Stage and Screen Career of Fredi Washington
Cheryl Black, University of Missouri, Columbia

   In 1926, the Pittsburgh Courier featured an article bearing this provocative title: "White Actresses Open With Robeson and Bledsoe On Broadway." Accompanying the brief article were photographs of actresses Lottice Howell (starring with Jules Bledsoe in Deep River) and Fredi Washington (starring with Paul Robeson in Black Boy). The article included two errors: the photographs were wrongly identified, and only Ms. Howell was "White." Ms. Washington was an actress of mixed ancestry who identified entirely as African-American ("Negro" in those days).

   "Color" - meaning the ethnic or racial identity implied by one's complexion - has always been a significant factor in casting performers in America. "Color-blind" casting still evokes controversy in the theatre and is almost unheard of in films. Minority actors continue to battle constraints imposed by the color of their skin: too "ethnic" for that role, not "ethnic" enough for another.

   This study examines the impact of sexist and racist casting practices on the stage and film career of Fredi Washington (fl.1926-50), an African-American actress who appeared on screen in Imitation of Life and The Emperor Jones, and on stage in Shuffle Along, Black Boy, Mamba's Daughters, and Lysistrata. Washington, who was extremely fair-skinned, was continually urged to "pass" as White or to "brown up" to an acceptably dark hue. Despite, or perhaps because of, the struggles she faced, she carved out a significant career as a performer and as an activist for racial equality in the theatre.

   Although many of Washington's contemporaries experienced the absurd prejudice against racially ambiguous complexions, the dark-haired, gray-eyed, ivory-skinned Washington perhaps most typically embodied the "uncast(e)able" actor in America. This study examines the impact of sexism and racism on Washington's career, illustrating the nexus of personal, aesthetic, political, and economic imperatives that must still be negotiated by performing artists, especially women and ethnic minorities.

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William Wells Brown and the Abolitionist Platform
Sergio Costola, University of California, Los Angeles

   My paper attempts to refute the notion held by so many scholars that William Wells Brown's The Escape is a melodrama in the mode of Uncle Tom's Cabin and, instead, makes the case that this work reflects a nascent Black aesthetic, incorporating the performative needs of a counter-culture in conflict and change.

   Brown used to perform his play on the abolitionist platform, impersonating all the characters. However, as Harry Elam (2001) notes, although Brown's audience "was generally an audience of the converted, faithful abolitionists, this audience was still susceptible to nineteenth-century attitudes and theories on black inferiority" (291). Since the slave, as Henry Gates (1988) observes, by definition, possessed at most a liminal status within the human community being represented as the lowest of the human races on the Great Chain Of Being, Brown's solution was to posit himself (and his body) at the crossroad, the liminal space where Esu resides, thus Signifyin(g) upon the figure of the chain itself.

   To Signif(y) upon the figure of the Great Chain of Being also translated, for Brown, into a critic of classical mimesis with its hierarchical structure which reinforced all identity claims. As I hope to suggest with my analysis of his panoramic views and his solo-performances of The Escape, Brown's attempt was to show the overlapping between identity and identification, as it also took place in his speeches: "I speak not as an Anglo-Saxon, as I have a right to speak, but as an African." By embodying the deconstructive spirit of Esu-a reinvention of an African cultural model-Brown could focus not simply on "the body," but also on "the bodies," exploring the reciprocal representations of Blacks and Whites alike. Brown himself was then the trickster who, by means of his impersonations, put his body up to loud-talking on his audience, schooling the participants in Signifyin(g).

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Chaikin's 'Body Pieces': Prosthetic Subjects, Aphasic Direction
Telory W. Davies, Stanford University

   Disability is performance's next frontier: it raises issues about the body and identity that race, class, gender, and sexuality have not addressed; it is a minority that encompasses other minority groups and adds a new perspective. In performance, disability is a metaphor for oppression, a lived experience, and a contemporary subjectivity.

   Joseph Chaikin began his theater career in 1963 as an avant-garde director and has only recently staged disability. Chaikin initiated his 2001 project, Body Pieces, in 1992 after a stroke in 1984 left him aphasic. His current workshops with a group of mixed-ability actors are an extension of his own fight to regain words. In collaboration with disabled playwright John Belluso, Chaikin directed an ensemble comprised of both disabled and non-disabled actors at The Public Theater in New York City in December 2001.

   My paper discusses Chaikin's recent work-in-progress and my interview with his lead actress, Anita Hollander, who claims that Disability Theater is unique due to the different abilities of its participants. Her own performance in this piece involved, among other things, a song sung while standing on one leg without the aid of crutches, canes, or other assistive technology.

  Hollander lost her leg years ago to cancer and has maintained an active performance career in spite of this loss. Rather than bemoaning the loss of limbs or mobility, the physically disabled members of Chaikin's cast demonstrated new ways of using their bodies that redefine standard concepts of physical ability.

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Kabuki or Nihon Buyo in the Netherlands?
Nagoya Musume Kabuki's Material Choices

   Loren Edelson, Graduate Center, City University of New York
Ever since its formation in 1983, Nagoya Musume Kabuki, Japan's only all-female kabuki troupe, has adeptly used the materiality of the kabuki stage in order to bolster its belief that women as well as men can perform kabuki. Despite its "amateur" status, the troupe performs the same repertoire, rents the same costumes, props, and scenery, and uses the same kata (stage business and blocking) as professional male kabuki actors, several of whom have spent time teaching the troupe their craft. Perhaps the troupe's most significant material possession is that three of the top performers have been "adopted" and given the name "Ichikawa" by the esteemed kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro XII.

   Yet, the ideology that kabuki can only be performed by men persists. Only men have been able to perform kabuki professionally and only men may attend the National Theatre's kabuki training program, which is subsidized by the government.

   My paper explores this tension between the ideology that kabuki is an exclusive male art form and Nagoya Musume Kabuki's performances that embody the entire materiality of the kabuki stage. The troupe's first international tour in April 2002-for which I gave pre-performance talks and served as the interpreter-brought this tension to the forefront, as the troupe was asked to perform only kabuki dances (shosagoto), a genre of kabuki that has become associated with women. In discussing the politics behind the decisions that were made for the tour, I argue that this programming was highly problematic; in order to be viewed as "kabuki actors" by the Japanese theatre establishment, it is vital that Nagoya Musume Kabuki perform kabuki plays, not just dances.

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The Futurist Body on Stage and Screen
Nina Hein, Columbia University

   A photograph: F. T. Marinetti, the founder of futurism, is dressed in fencing clothes and holds a rapier in his hand, ready to attack. He symbolizes the ideal image of the futurist man because dueling, more than any other sport, embodies speed, activity, and versatility of body and mind. Indeed, in their manifestos, the futurists developed a new aesthetic of speed and activity, which was represented in and through the human body; furthermore, the human body, together with the mechanical body and the machine, was the vehicle for transforming the world into a different, better future. The futurists contrasted their ideal body image of an active man to that of the passatista, their derogatory expression for an inactive, old-fashioned person.

   Whereas the futurist ideal body image could be easily portrayed in visual arts and poetry, on stage and screen, the futurists were bound to the actual human body, which was only to a certain extent transformable to fit futurist ideology. In my paper, therefore, I will compare the theoretical body images with the actual body in performance. First, I will explore how the futurist ideology affected casting, costumes, and movement. Then, I will compare the representation of the futurist man with that of the passatista, since both types of men were often represented concurrently, as, for example, in the film La Vita Futurista. In conclusion, I will also consider the ramifications of futurist poets performing their own texts.

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Casting the Civil War: The "Slave Auctions" of Henry Ward Beecher
Heather S. Nathans, University of Maryland

   Though his sister was often credited with being the "little woman who started the Civil War," Henry Ward Beecher, minister, abolitionist, and orator, staged his own highly dramatic and controversial protests against slavery in the form of "slave auctions" held in the pulpit of his Brooklyn church, before an alternately horrified and enthralled congregation. Beecher's auctions present a fascinating intersection of performance and the politics of protest, as well as a nexus of sexual desire, racial stereotyping, and Victorian morality.

   In this paper, I suggest that Beecher's "staging" of slavery and slave auctions invited his audience to participate in a curiously dual experience: shocked sympathy (and perhaps even empathy) for the hapless slaves "on the block," and the secret and vicarious thrill of mastery enjoyed by their Southern counterparts. Moreover, Beecher staged his most successful auctions using attractive mulatto women or female children (such as the Edmonson sisters, or the beautiful little girl, Pinky, who, according to Beecher, "No one would know from a white child"), making a material choice in "casting" his political protest that was calculated to arouse the audience's interest. As he displayed the women's bodies on the stage, Beecher exhorted his audience to imagine the fate that awaited these young women, or "marketable commodities," as he termed them, in the fancy girl auctions of New Orleans. His casting choices could only work with beautiful, fair-skinned women. As Stephen Talty notes, "If Beecher ever auctioned off a chattel slave who was 'very homely and very black,' it was never recorded."

   In her intriguing exploration of both the white and black response to the violence of slavery, Saidiya Hartman has suggested that performances like Beecher's, which were designed to win the sympathy of spectators, often had the unintended effect of displacing the material body at the center of the performance, as the observers unconsciously substituted themselves in place of the slave. Beecher's own accounts of the audience response to the auctions certainly bear this out: "There was hardly a dry eye in the church; and amidst tears and lookings at the poor woman who sat with downcast eyes [the slave being auctioned], the plates went round." Beecher's account suggests that the central "actor" in the performance -the slave - has been rendered inert, and that her material body has become the site for the audiences to witness and perform their own protests against slavery. Beecher claimed that his goal was to: "Bring before you living men and women and let them look you in the face, that you might see what sort of creatures slaves were made of." Deprived of voice, gestures, and speech, the slave's body became the performance, and Beecher's master-stroke of casting at once foregrounded his anti-slavery sentiments, while subtly undermining his efforts to demonstrate the humanity of his subjects.

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False Accents: Embodied Dialects and the Characterization of Ethnicity
Angela Pao, Indiana University, Bloomington

   Although culturally aware casting practices in American theatre have focused on race rather than ethnicity, ethnicity has always been an important element in American theatre. It is, however, the ethnicity of characters rather than actors that has been significant. In this paper I consider the central role of speech in establishing ethnic identity through the reproduction of accents and dialects, and look at how a 1940s "scientific" approach to speech training actually created an integrated approach to the perpetuation of stereotypes through characterization, phonetic transpositions, grammar analyses, and exercises. The socio-linguistic theories of Saussure, V.N. Voloshinov, and William Labov that relate the material basis of sound production in the speech organs to processes of ethnic identity formation and cultural stereotyping are used to shed light on the performance of ethnicity on stage.

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Toward a Responsible Portrayal of Blindness:
Casting "Across Ability" in Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney
D. Ross, University of Michigan

   Actors learn to embody character traits to realize characters in performance. Yet some dimensions of character identity, including race, gender, age, and disability, are inscribed on the human body and present a challenge for performers whose own bodies are not marked with that identity. Deborah Kent, a blind writer and critic, has charged that sighted fiction authors use blind characters for their metaphorical value and portray them according to inaccurate stereotypes. Similarly, a sighted actor playing the role of a blind character in contemporary drama risks relying too heavily on stereotypes and symbolic interpretations to shape her physical portrayal of that character.

   This paper will explore three possible production concepts for Brian Friel's 1994 play Molly Sweeney, each of which strives to achieve a responsible portrayal of impairment. The first of these attempts to create a visually impaired experience for the audience. The second emphasizes an accurate and positive portrayal of disability in the on-stage world. The third production concept focuses on accessibility services for disabled audience members and equal-opportunity casting for disabled actors. Each of these potential productions I will discuss has different implications for the decision to cast a sighted actress in the title role of the blind woman. I will use these three production concepts to explore the complex demands and considerations of "cross-ability casting," and I will relate these concerns to my own decisions as the director of a 2002 University of Michigan production of Molly Sweeney, produced in cooperation with the Council for Disability Concerns.

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When Gender Trumps Race: Twentieth Century Performances of Cleopatra
Maya E. Roth, Georgetown University

   I examine the twentieth century staging pattern of casting white female performers to play Cleopatra, the co-protagonist of Antony and Cleopatra, although Shakespeare's script casts her as a dark Egyptian,"tawny" and "black." While systematic racial segregation made this white casting almost perfunctory for early twentieth century mainstream productions in Britain and America, this paper questions how and why that choice has persisted: and with what implications for contemporary audiences.

  Shakespeare's play hails Cleopatra as all body-characterized by sensual and emotional excess as well as performance improvisation-that the script links to her double foreign-ness, as female and Egyptian. Intriguingly, her cultural/ethnic differences have been increasingly de-emphasized. At the turn of the last century white actresses often performed her as "Eastern," for example, and by mid-century, several major stagings in Britain cast cultural others-notably Americans and/or "black" whites (Europeans of Mediterranean, Slavic and/or Semitic descent)-in the role. By 1960, however, Cleopatra and her performance became assimilated, like the above groups, into a dominant category of whiteness. In the late twentieth century, Cleopatra stood in for female/body far more than Egyptian/body in most Shakespearean stagings. Gender differences, then, trumped ethnic, national and racial ones.

   Although in recent decades, Cleopatra's court has incorporated some multicultural dimensions fairly often, almost no productions have cast Cleopatra herself as visibly Egyptian, African, or "of color," excepting all-black productions. One can credit this choice in part to the Ptolomeic version of her ancestry (contested by many in the African diaspora), however my research suggests this move highlights other ideological investments persuasive to mainstream audiences.

   My research draws on extensive performance archives as well as politico-cultural history.

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can we afford this: Freak Show or Performance of Difference?
Linda Sears, University of California, Davis

   The dance stage, even more than the theater stage, contributes to societal tendencies to privilege the refined, disciplined body because its presentation of ideal bodies acts to obscure and invalidate different ones. When they do appear, non-traditional bodies usually play minor roles and are often portrayed in a stereotypical manner. With his company DV8 Physical Theater, Lloyd Newson stages in can we afford this (2000) bodies that do not fit into the customized mold of the ideal dancer. In several of his works, Newson chronicles the damaging effects that rigidly defined disciplines have on the body, particularly focusing on the stage as a mirror and even generator of hegemonic values. can we afford this engages in a politics of representation by featuring seventeen performers from a variety of backgrounds, each with an unique physicality that informs the movement vocabulary. The array of body types that Newson presents underscores that the ideal body for dance is not a neutral body that can stand in for everyone. In its depiction of non-normalized bodies, the piece sometimes evokes the freak show, risking reaffirming normative viewing practices rather than critiquing them. By having performers with different body types play central roles, however, can we afford this challenges the traditional casting of bodies that are elderly, disabled, or obese as sideline 'characters' or grotesques while it also marks its participation in a medium that others different bodies, creating standards that can go unquestioned in the viewer's mind.

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America's Joan of Arc: The Female Body in Political Performance and the Theatrical Career of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson
Stacey Stewart, University of Maryland

   At the height of the Civil War, Anna Elizabeth Dickinson (1842-1932) spoke before Congress and earned the title "America's Joan of Arc" for her impassioned support of the Union cause. She then became one of the country's most famous orators and a noted champion of abolition and women's rights. But after the war, Dickinson-flying in the face of her Quaker upbringing-entered a world where few "ladies" frequented and where none participated; she wrote a play, Anne Boleyn, or, A Crown of Thorns, and attempted its title role. She provoked another wave of national publicity when she made her debut as Hamlet. While many critics applauded her writing, others viciously derided her acting ability, attacking her voice, carriage, and gesture.

   Having risen to fame protected by her Quaker heritage and her youth, Dickinson became a troubling figure once she appeared on a theatrical stage. Known for her personal magnetism and force of intellect on the platform, where she manipulated her audience with passionate and articulate arguments, she was unable to captivate her theatre audiences, who expected something entirely different of a female performer. I argue that Dickinson's ultimate failure as an actress stemmed from her inability-or unwillingness-to translate the magnetism of the mind to the desirability of the body, then so highly prized by audiences flocking to see sensation melodrama and leg shows.

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