Performing America: Gender, Race, and the Spectacle of Bodies

American Studies 198.10

Spring 1999

Tuesdays/Thursdays, 9:30-10:45

Instructor: Robin Bernstein

George Washington University

How do we invent our American identities? How do we invent others' identities as American or non-American? How does power affect our ability to invent ourselves and others? How are gender and race constructed and maintained through performance--both on-stage and off? Can racism and sexism be thought of as performances? Can performance create--or deconstruct--racism? sexism?

What meanings are produced when we invite others to look at our bodies? How do these meanings change when our bodies are live, on stage, as opposed to on film or in printed literature? How do we change when we look at others' live bodies?

To begin to answer these questions, we will examine the ways in which identities and power are created through live, deliberate performance. We will analyze texts, voice our opinions, and listen respectfully to each other. We will wrestle with questions that have no simple answers; we will produce difficult and startling questions of our own--questions that invite us to think in new ways about gender, race, and the construction of American identities.


The first paper constitutes 10% of your final grade. Class participation, the take-home midterm, and the final paper constitute 30% each.


Week #1: Introduction to Performance Theory

Tuesday, Jan. 12

  • Intro, go over syllabus

Thursday, Jan. 14

  • Richard Schechner, Performance Theory (selections in reader)

Week #2: Performing America

Tuesday, Jan. 19

  • Jay Fliegelman, Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance (all EXCEPT pp. 63-79, 150-189)

Thursday, Jan. 21

  • Dell Upton, "White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia," pp. 357-69 (in reader)
  • Joseph Roach, "Slave Spectacles and Tragic Octoroons: A Cultural Genealogy of Antebellum Performance," Theatre Survey 33 (November 1992): 167-187 (in reader)

Week #3: Performing Race and Gender

Tuesday, Jan. 26

  • Kobena Mercer, "Black Hair/Style Politics," from Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Cultural Studies, pp. 97-128 (in reader)
  • bell hooks, "Performance Practice as a Site of Opposition," from Let's Get it On: The Politics of Black Performance, pp. 210-221 (in reader)

Thursday, Jan. 28

  • Judith Butler, "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution," from Performing Feminisms, pp.270-282 (in reader)

Week #4: Theatre as a Site of Performance

Tuesday, Feb. 2

  • PBS production of Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror (view in class)

Thursday, Feb. 4

  • Smith's introduction to Fires in the Mirror, pp. xxiii-xlv (in reader)
  • Carol Martin, "Bearing Witness: Anna Deavere Smith from Community to Theatre to Mass Media," from A Sourcebook of Feminist Theatre and Performance, pp. 81-93 (in reader)
  • "Anna Deavere Smith: The Word Becomes You: An Interview by Carol Martin," from A Sourcebook of Feminist Theatre and Performance, pp. 185-204 (in reader)


Week #5: Minstrelsy: Performing the African-American "Other"

Tuesday, Feb. 9

  • Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Introduction, Chapters 1-4

Thursday, Feb. 11

  • Script of a minstrel show (in reader)

Week #6: Abolitionism? Performing the African-American "Other" in Uncle Tom's Cabin

Tuesday, Feb. 16

  • George Aiken, Uncle Tom's Cabin

Thursday, Feb. 18

  • Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Chapter 8

Week #7: Performing the Native American "Other"

Tuesday, Feb. 23

  • John Augustus Stone, Metamora

Thursday, Feb. 28

  • Jeffrey Mason, "The Politics of Metamora," from The Performance of Power, pp.92-110 (in reader)
  • B. Donald Grose, "Edwin Forrest, Metamora, and the Indian Removal Act of 1830," from Theatre Journal 37 (May 1985), pp. 181-191 (in reader)
  • White Supremacy in Metamora"

Week #8: Performing Contact, Performing Conflict: Whites, Native Americans, and African-Americans Together

Tuesday, Mar. 2

  • Dion Boucicault, The Octoroon
  • Re-read Roach, "Slave Spectacles and Tragic Octoroons" (in reader)
  • Take-home, open-book midterm exam distributed

Thursday, Mar. 4

  • Harley Erdman, "Caught in the 'Eye of the Eternal:' Justice, Race, and the Camera, from The Octoroon to Rodney King," Theatre Journal 45 (1993), pp. 333-348 (in reader)
  • Winona L. Fletcher, "Who Put the 'Tragic' in the Tragic Mulatto?" from Women in American Theatre, pp. 262-268 (in reader)


Week #9: Raced Bodies

Tuesday, Mar. 9

Thursday, Mar. 11

  • John Ernst, "The Reconstruction of Whiteness: William Wells Brown's The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, from PLMA 113 (1998), pp. 1108-1121 (in reader)

Mar. 15-19: SPRING BREAK!

Week #10: Gendered Bodies

Tuesday, Mar. 23

  • Olive Logan, Before the Footlights and Behind the Scenes (selections in reader)
  • Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (selections in reader)

Thursday, Mar. 25

  • James A. Herne, Margaret Fleming
  • Timothy Budke, "Assessing the 'Offense to Public Decency': The Advent of Censoring Particular Dramas on the New York Stage, 1890-1905" (selections in reader)

Week #11: Freaked Bodies

[DATE] Video viewing: Tod Browning's "Freaks"

Tuesday, Mar. 30

  • Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, chapters 2, 3, 4, 12, 18

Thursday, Apr. 1

  • Freakery, chapters 14, 15, 16, 17

Week #12: Realism: Performing "Normalcy"

Tuesday, Apr. 6

  • August Wilson, Fences
  • Freakery, chapters 22, 24
  • One-page abstract for final paper due

Thursday, Apr. 8

  • Marsha Norman, 'night, Mother
  • Jill Dolan, "Feminism and the Canon: The Question of Universality," from The Feminist Spectator as Critic, pp. 19-40 (in reader)


Week #13: Drag

Tuesday, Apr. 13

  • Susanna Rowson, Slaves in Algiers (in reader)

Thursday, Apr. 15

  • Holly Hughes, The Well of Horniness
  • Rebecca Schneider, "Holly Hughes: Polymorphous Perversity and the Lesbian Scientist," from A Sourcebook of Feminist Theatre and Performance, pp. 239-253 (in reader)

Week #14: Do Bodies Matter? Casting Across Gender, Across Race

Tuesday, Apr. 20

  • Richard Schechner, "Race-Free, Gender-Free, Body-Type Free, Age-Free Casting," TDR (Spring 1979), pp. 4-12 (in reader)
  • August Wilson, "The Ground on which I Stand," from American Theatre, September 1996, pp. 14-16, 71-74 (in reader)
  • Robert Brustein, "Subsidized Separatism," from American Theatre, October 1996, pp. 26-27, 100-107 (in reader)
  • "Beyond the Wilson-Brustein Debate," various authors, from Theater 27 (1997), pp. 9-41 (in reader)

Thursday, Apr. 22

  • Jill Dolan, "Breaking the Code: Musings on Lesbian Sexuality and the Performer," from Presence and Desire: Essays on Gender, Sexuality, Performance, pp.135-150 (in reader)

Week #15: Performing the Construction of Race and Gender

Tuesday, Apr. 27

  • David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly


CLASS PARTICIPATION (30% of total grade)

The reading load for this course is decidedly moderate. In no week does the reading exceed 200 pages; some weeks, you will read fewer than 100 pages. You are required to arrive in class having completed and thought about all the reading. In other words, merely gulping down the reading is inadequate; you should come to class having chewed and digested the material thoroughly. You are expected to prepare your own thoughts, opinions, and questions before every class.

Your productive, informed participation constitutes 30% of your total grade for this course. That means that a student who receives an A on every assignment, but who never speaks in class, will receive a grade of C- for the course. You need not be equally vocal every week, but consistent silence will have an adverse effect on your grade. Similarly, practices that are disrespectful of your colleagues (for example, interrupting, hogging the floor, or launching personal attacks) will result in a lowered grade. Lateness and absence will also lower your grade.

I prefer not to give pop quizzes; however, if I find that students are consistently unprepared to engage with the material, I will surprise you with quizzes that will count toward your participation grade.

FIRST PAPER (10% of total grade)

Choose one event you know well (preferably one you can witness and take notes on) and analyze the ways in which the event produces ideologies of race, gender, or nation through performance (do NOT attempt to analyze all three types of ideologies in this 3-5 page paper!). The performance need not be conscious; you may choose a performance from everyday life.

MIDTERM EXAM (30% of total grade)

The midterm is a take-home, open-book, untimed essay exam. The questions are designed to test your ability to think and write about large issues we have addressed throughout the course.

FINAL PAPER (30% of total grade)

Each student will write an 8-10 page paper on a subject of his or her choice.

Papers may be historically-oriented and research-based, theoretically-oriented and thought-based, or any combination thereof. Whatever subject you choose, your paper should contain a clear argument of relevance to the issues and texts we have discussed in class. I am happy to accept and comment on drafts submitted at least one week before the due date of [DATE]. Late papers will be penalized one third of a letter grade for each day overdue.

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