William W. Demastes and Iris Smith's
Interrogating America through Theatre and Performance

Demastes, William W. and Iris Smith Fischer, eds. Interrogating America through Theatre and Performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 312 pages. $69.95 hardcover.


As contemporary conversations about race in the United States rise to international attention within the scope of the 2008 presidential election and immigration across America’s borders, Interrogating America Through Theatre and Performance, edited by William W. Demastes and Iris Smith Fischer, makes its timely arrival. The anthology, published in 2007, serves as a continuation of the debate initiated by many of the book’s contributors in the 1999 volume Performing America: Cultural Nationalism in American Theater, edited by Jeffrey D. Mason and Ellen Gainor, and asks us to consider who, exactly, has been included in the ever-shifting American imaginary over the past 150 years. Race, along with gender, class, religion, and genre, is only one of myriad sub-thematic lenses the contributing authors utilize to engage this question as played out on American stages. The editors draw these disparate foci together with the ever-malleable idea of the American dream, whose flexibility they posit as both its greatest strength and weakness: it promises inclusion to all willing to work hard and play fair, while simultaneously masking structural challenges to enfranchisement, such as racism.

Just as the thematic considerations of this anthology are multiplex, so too is its historical and methodological scope. The editors include 17 essays from seasoned writers and younger scholars which examine subject matter from the mid-1800s through the early 2000s, with the vast majority investigating theatrical forms in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Similarly, the collection encompasses a wide variety of theoretical framings—from historiographic investigations of mega-events, to revisionist readings of the Euro-American dramatic canon, to analyses of the deconstructionist techniques employed by early 21st century artists.

Amidst this breadth, roughly one-third of the essays foreground questions of racial and ethnic identities. These pieces primarily investigate how theatrical form and content work in tandem to re-vision racial understandings. Throughout, the writers reveal various modes of resistance to hegemonic forms and dominant narratives. Jacqueline O’Connor, for instance, exposes the anxieties and rich complexities of identity created by a specific instance of hybrid documentary theater that, she argues, successfully blends fact and fiction to re-examine the history of the Zoot Suit riots in a Mexican American community in East Los Angeles in the 1940s. Mike Vanden Heuvel reads the African American character of Paul in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation through Information Theory, as a “burst of static or noise” (235) that disrupts white bourgeois comfortability and tests the limits of liberal tolerance of difference. Ladrica Menson-Furr proposes that the cycle drama form taken up by African American writers such as Ed Bullins and August Wilson provides an opportunity for their stories to be seen as both culturally specific and as broadly American. In his essay “An American Echo: Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play and James Scruggs’s Disposable Men,” Robert Vorlicky riffs on Parks’s strategy of repetition and revision as a means to pierce through the master narratives of American history and African Americans’ place within it. In addition to these nuanced considerations of race, other insightful ideas include Ilka Saal’s articulation of the definitively American “middlebrow” sensibility, and Steve Feffer’s re-thinking of nostalgia as a reflective medium of postmodern possibility.

Congruent with the editors’ framing of the American Dream, the breadth of their anthology is perhaps its greatest strength and weakness. The inherent problem in a project of this sort is the impossibility of including all potential perspectives, and when not framed by a more narrow scope, it becomes difficult to determine exactly why certain peoples (Asian Americans, for example) or topics are excluded. Especially because this is one of the primary problematics that the editors posit in their construction of the anthology, this reader hoped they might more critically interrogate their own practices of inclusion. Additionally, in this political moment when international perspectives on America are shifting in accordance with presidential politics and immigration policies, an opportunity was missed to include perspectives on the latest forms, artists, and companies that are blurring and contesting racial, aesthetic, and political boundaries. The work of artists like Laurie Carlos, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, D’Lo, Dan Kwong, Kristina Wong, Monique Mojica and others might serve as fruitful sites of inquiry in this regard.

That said, the text’s breadth will make it a valuable resource for survey classes in a variety of disciplines: theater history, American studies, cultural studies, and English, among others. Through its investigation of the ways American sociopolitical and economic systems shape theater and vice versa, it provides broad insight into the notion that performance is a potentially subversive medium. Furthermore, the editors and contributing authors productively reveal the ways in which each dramatic text and performance is intrinsically tied to its specific cultural, temporal, geographic, and political moment, and that it lives or dies according to the reception of its specifically acculturated audience. Through performance, the authors propose that dominant narratives of race, among other thematic frames, can be challenged, complexities revealed, hypocrisy exposed, critiques leveled at structures of power, and national identity re-thought and re-written. These tasks, I would argue, comprise some of the most critical in our disciplinary vocation.

Stephanie Lein Walseth is an MA/PhD student in Theatre Historiography at the University of Minnesota, with a focus on contemporary Asian American, Native American, and African American theatre. She has worked professionally as a theatre administrator, educator, actor, director, dramaturg, and stage manager throughout the Twin Cities with companies such as Mu Performing Arts, Penumbra Theatre, Mixed Blood Theatre, the Guthrie Theater, The Playwrights’ Center, Frank Theatre, Theatre in the Round, Starting Gate Productions, Theatre Unbound, Chaos Theories, and CLIMB Theatre; and in Maine at the Portland Stage Company. Her writing has appeared in the Baylor Journal of Theatre and Performance, and she is currently serving her second term as the August Wilson Fellow with Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.



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