Jamaica on Broadway: The Popular Caribbean and Mock Transnational Performance

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The 1957 black-cast Broadway musical Jamaica achieved enormous commercial success, presenting a spectacle of a mid-century popular Caribbeana. Returning to this musical and its production history in the light of recent theorizations of the transnational, this essay identifies a tradition of "mock transnational performance" that has been significant within African American commercial theatre and that shapes Jamaica's staging of the Caribbean. Mock transnational is meant to describe a theatrical mode and performative stance that takes up the misuse of diasporic cultural indices to critique and refigure the politics of the nation-state and racialized national formations.The essay locates Jamaica's mock transnational strategies in the leftist poetry of lyricist Yip Harburg; in the auditory maneuvers and performance strategies of its star, Lena Home; and in the networks of professional support and social activism cultivated in the musical's backstage relations. These surplus moments made use of diasporic imaginative geographies, sounds, and gestures— often in tension with the musical's book—to explore and complicate the relationship between African American racial consciousness and theatrical form, on the one hand, and African diasporic histories and fantasies on the other.

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In celebration of the 15th anniversary of this journal's name change, I situate recent linguistic anthropological scholarship in the Caribbean in a broader, interdisciplinary context. Caribbean ways of speaking—and especially contact languages such as creoles—have often been exceptionalised and subject to stereotypes. Taking Derek Walcott's “sea of history” as a key trope, I discuss the historical crosscurrents that have produced the diversity of Caribbean voices and their impact on the politics of language today. Attending to issues of voice and poetics demonstrates the creative mobilization of linguistic resources to impact politics, media, children's socialization, identity claims, and reclamations of deep ancestry. Such efforts contest the scholarly fragmentation of a region framed as having too much history and too shallow roots, to show productive connections with a broader anthropology of the Americas. The goal of this review is to make a compelling case for the ethnographic study of language in the Caribbean. Para celebrar el decimoquinto aniversario del cambio de título de esta revista, ubico el estudio antropológico‐lingüístico en el Caribe dentro de un más amplio contexto interdisciplinario. Los modos de hablar caribeños se han tratado de excepción y estereotipo. Con “el mar de historia” tomado de Derek Walcott como tropo clave, demuestro cómo las contracorrientes históricas han producido la diversidad de voces caribeñas y su impacto en la política del lenguaje. Lo que demuestra la atención a las cuestiones de la voz y la poética es la movilización creativa de los recursos lingüísticos para impactar a muchas esferas de la vida. Estos esfuerzos resisten la fragmentación académica de una región que se ha planteado con demasiado historia y raíces poco profundas, para elaborar las conexiones fructíferas con una antropología de las Américas. El objetivo de esta reseña es plantear el caso del estudio etnográfico del lenguaje en el Caribe.
From the late 1940s to the mid 1990s, the use of magnetic tape recorders provoked aesthetic, social, and political debates about the decentralization of sonic production. At the very moment that postwar mass culture seemed most ascendant and critics began to identify it as a coherent object of study and scorn, reel-to-reel tape recorders allowed users to reproduce and manipulate mass-produced sounds emanating from radio and recording studios, as well as the sounds of their households, their communities, and the larger world outside their homes. Many non-professional tape users, non-commercial sonic researchers, and hobbyist audio networkers would come to believe that they could be more than passive recipients of culture industry products and the dominant ideologies that they transmitted; through an active engagement with tape, they hoped to teach listeners to become producers themselves. Listening to their works produced via tape, reading their voluminous writings, and combing their archival collections for evidence of wider connections to their practices, I argue that such tape enthusiasts developed a set of media theories through a self-reflexive recording practice I call active listening. This dissertation follows hobbyists and professional recordists ranging from New York City folklorist and advertiser Tony Schwartz, composer and educator R. Murray Schafer and his World Soundscape Project in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Iowa City-based audio collective the Tape-beatles, who all proposed multiple forms of engagement with, against, and about mass culture. They made structural critiques of commercial culture industries for separating producers from consumers in the name of profits, perceptual arguments about the capacity for sound to activate new political imaginaries, and aesthetic moves that aimed to reintegrate presumably alienated listening subjects. Not only did the ubiquity of mass culture throughout North America give listeners a shared vocabulary, but the act of appropriating and manipulating sounds on tape fostered a self-consciousness about how mass culture worked and how it might be made to work differently. Such forms of engagement both attempted to eliminate boundaries between the production and consumption of mass culture and bolstered an ideological investment in the idea of mass culture as a passive and alienating force.
Reacting to American racist policies and post-World War I access to international travel, a flourish of African Americans migrated to Paris and London in the early 1920s.1 African American women entertainers found particular success in the genre of vaudeville. Josephine Baker, Mabel Mercer, Aida “Bricktop” Smith, and Adelaide Hall are just a few of the popular African American women entertainers who became successful performing in transatlantic vaudeville. As a form of popular entertainment, vaudeville had a long history in the United States and Europe. Originating in the nineteenth century, vaudeville gained popularity in the mid-1800s and featured white women in both the male and female roles. Robert Allen’s study on burlesque and American culture provides an excellent discussion of how vaudeville evolved as a form of popular entertainment in the United States. Allen asserts that because vaudeville borrowed from several different theatrical genres it was both nothing and everything (Allen 1991: 185). Early American vaudeville played with constructions of femininity and masculinity in the presentation of the grotesque and the absurd—this incoherence is a part of what made the genre a commercial success. However, early incarnations of vaudeville in the United States did not feature African American performers and did not offer any radical challenges to constructions of race.
Known as "Broadway's social conscience," E. Y. Harburg (1896-1981) wrote the lyrics to the standards, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," "April in Paris," and "It's Only a Paper Moon," as well as all of the songs in The Wizard of Oz, including "Over the Rainbow." Harburg always included a strong social and political component to his work, fighting racism, poverty, and war. Interweaving close to fifty interviews (most of them previously unpublished), over forty lyrics, and a number of Harburg's poems, Harriet Hyman Alonso enables Harburg to talk about his life and work. He tells of his early childhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, his public school education, how the Great Depression opened the way to writing lyrics, and his work on Broadway and Hollywood, including his blacklisting during the McCarthy era. Finally, but most importantly, Harburg shares his commitment to human rights and the ways it affected his writing and his career path. Includes an appendix with Harburg's key musicals, songs, and films.
Paula Marie Seniors’s Beyond Lift Every Voice and Sing is an engaging and well-researched book that explores the realities of African American life and history as refracted through the musical theater productions of one of the most prolific black song-writing teams of the early twentieth century. James Weldon Johnson, J. Rosamond Johnson, and Bob Cole combined conservative and progressive ideas in a complex and historically specific strategy for overcoming racism and its effects. In Shoo Fly Regiment (1906-1908) and The Red Moon (1908-1910), theater, uplift, and politics collided as the team tried to communicate a politics of uplift, racial pride, gender equality, and interethnic coalitions. The overarching question of this study is how roles and representations in black musical theater both reflected and challenged the dominant social order. While some scholars dismiss the team as conformists, Seniors’s contention is that they used the very tools of hegemony to make progressive political statements and to create a distinctly black theater informed by black politics, history, and culture. These men were writers, musicians, actors, and vaudevillians who strove to change the perception of African Americans on stage from one of minstrelsy buffoonery to one of dignity and professionalism.
From late 1956 to the middle of 1957, the United States was awash in a "new" music phenomenon, the Calypso Craze. Following a two-decade presence in nightclubs and on record, suddenly calypso was all the rage. Fueled by the unprecedented success of Harry Belafonte's Calypso long-playing album on RCA Victor, the first million-selling record album in the history of the industry, the music market was temporarily transformed by a brief calypso mania. An incredible number of calypso records were rushed to the market, nightclubs around the country switched to an all-calypso policy, and many in the industry came to believe that rock'n'roll was dead and that calypso was taking over. This chapter traces the trajectory of this chimerical Calypso Craze and its subsequent crash only a few months after it began.
In the early 1960s, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was a small, multi-racial company of dancers that performed the works of its founding choreographer and other emerging artists. By the late 1960s, the company had become a well-known African American artistic group closely tied to the civil rights struggle. This book chronicles the troupe's journey from a small modern dance company to one of the premier institutions of African American culture. The book not only charts this rise to national and international renown, but also contextualizes this progress within the civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights struggles of the late 20th century. It examines the most celebrated Ailey dances, drawing on video recordings of Ailey's dances, published interviews, oral histories, and interviews with former Ailey company dancers. The book reveals the relationship between Ailey's works and African American culture as a whole. It illuminates the dual achievement of Ailey as an artist and as an arts activist committed to developing an African American presence in dance. It also addresses concerns about how dance performance is documented, including issues around spectatorship and the display of sexuality, the relationship of Ailey's dances to civil rights activism, and the establishment and maintenance of a successful, large-scale Black Arts institution. Throughout, the book illustrates how Ailey combined elements of African dance with motifs adapted from blues, jazz, and Broadway to choreograph his dances, arguing that Ailey played a significant role in defining the African American cultural canon.