By Thomas F. DeFrantz, Anita Gonzalez
Contributors. Melissa Blanco Borelli, Daphne A. Brooks, Soyica Diggs Colbert, Thomas F. DeFrantz, Nadine George-Graves, Anita Gonzalez, Rickerby Hinds, Jason King, D. Soyini Madison, Koritha Mitchell, Tavia Nyong'o, Carl Paris, Anna B. Scott, Wendy S. Walters, Hershini Bhana Young
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Extra resources for Black Performance Theory
William Brown, who founded the African Grove Theater, the first African theater company in the United States, in 1821. Mr. Brown came to know about the art of theater through his service on ships that sailed between the Caribbean, New York, and Liverpool. James Hewlett, the actor he hired for performances in his summer African Grove, was also a steward along this line. Hewlett’s skills as a tailor, coupled with his firsthand knowledge of British Shakespeare performances, allowed him to introduce theatrical performances to the “free colored people” of New York (McAllister, 43–47).
With time, this stereotypical image of the compliant, servile black man became a cultural icon—an archetypal representation of black identity. Today, the remnants of this iconography are visible on commercial products like Uncle Ben’s rice. Minstrel shows cast African Americans as ignorant creatures content with the slow and lazy life of the American South. These portrayals complemented perceptions of the Irish that had long circulated in derogatory cartoons that depicted the Irish as animalistic creatures, “bog trotters,” ogres, or pigs.
Most African Americans have refused the tabula rasa theories of cultural identity that posit the loss of everything along the Middle Passage. Instead, personally constructed identities around ontologically slippery notions of blackness fill the void of census records. This spidering is performative in this construction. Some have reached to African name books to redefine themselves, shedding slave names for ones tied to a notion of Africa. Self-determined identity is an act of agency, albeit a limited one.