Transgressive (Re)presentations: Black Women, Vaudeville, and the Politics of Performance in Early Transatlantic Theater

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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.

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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.
The essay looks at the influence of minstrels, Africans, and black American dancers on white stars of the Parisian café- concert and music-hall between 1877 and 1908. The arrival of the first black performers coincided with the tremendous popular interest in Darwinism and in Charcot's hysterics. The effect of this simultaneity was to create an amalgam in the popular imagination. This amalgam of the hysteric and the savage enjoyed its most extravagant representations on music-hall stages in the person of the epileptic singer, a genre invented in 1875. Popular spectacle thus played a powerful role in forging images of the primitive and making those images a central part of the aesthetics of modernity taking shape in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
This interdisciplinary study incorporates a literary reading of Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928) with a cultural history of Baker's cinematic celebrity in order to reconsider celebratory narratives of the St. Louis native's success in Paris. Did she transcend stereotypes of black womanhood or was she enmeshed in their discursive net? Analyzing Baker's dancing and film roles through Larsen's conception of exoticism, migration, bodily representation and cultural hybridity reveals the complications assembled in this dancer's seemingly transparent stardom and recasts her as an informed Black modernist.
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