My research focuses on how the historical practices of imperialism, colonialism, and racism have been entangled with theatre and performance — that is, how theatre and performance have been used as key devices of imperial legitimation and racial derogation and oppression. My current book project, “Transoceanic Blackface: Empire, Race, Performance” maps the transnational popularization of blackface minstrelsy across the United States, Britain, and the colonies of the British Empire. An excerpt from this book has been published in Theatre Journal, and I discuss a portion of that essay here.
The Jim Crow Global South
A central argument of this project is that blackface minstrelsy is not a distinctively U.S. American phenomenon and that we might better understand its racial politics by analyzing it not as a reflection of U.S. American racial discourses but rather as part of a broader, transnational imperial political project founded on race. I theorize what I term the “Anglophone empire” as a transnational arena of popular performance culture that circulated promiscuously across national and imperial boundaries. In brief, I argue that blackface minstrelsy has been integral to global conceptualizations of race and that contemporary racial politics across disparate national sites remain bound up with minstrelsy’s racial discourses.
This work demands careful and sensitive consideration of the intricacies of local racial discourses as well as an awareness of the global magnitude of historical and contemporary racial formations. In support of this book project, I have conducted archival research at the National Library of South Africa (Cape Town), the National Library, Kolkata (India), the British Library, the American Antiquarian Society (Massachusetts), and the Harry Ransom Center (Texas).
In my recent essay in Theatre Journal, “The Jim Crow Global South,” I trace the transnational popularization of T.D. Rice’s “Jump Jim Crow” and its many variations across the United States, Britain, and the colonies of the British Empire. Rice has long been considered the figurative “father” of blackface minstrelsy, and his “Jump Jim Crow” provided a name for the U.S. American system of racial discrimination and segregation known as “Jim Crow.” My argument is that “Jump Jim Crow” not only offered U.S. Americans discriminatory racial logics but also furnished British imperial subjects with representations through which they interpreted race across imperial and colonial contexts.
In a “coda” to this essay, I analyze the striking visual similarities between Frederick Timpson I’Ons’s The Freed Slave (1840) and Edward Harper’s blackface figure, “Jim Along Josey” (1838). I argue that the resonances between I’Ons’s celebratory image of Black emancipation and Harper’s derogatory figuration of Black freedom signal the common visual language undergirding antislavery and proslavery representations of blackness. I further argue that Anglophone racial discourses remain bound up with these ambivalences regarding the freedom of non-white subjects.