Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History.  By Constance Valis Hill.

Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, January 2010. Cloth: ISBN 978-0195390827, $39.95. 464 pages.

Review by Douglas C. Macleod, State University of New York, Albany

On May 9th, 2010, actress and singer Lena Horne died at the age of ninety-two. In an ironic twist, it was on that same day that I was reading about Ms. Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in Constance Valis Hill’s comprehensive encyclopedia of tap dance entitled Tap Dancing America: a Cultural History. In her work, Hill talks about a then-twenty-six-year-old Horne performing in Stormy Weather, a 1943 musical that contains what some may consider one of the greatest tap sequences of all time: “Jumpin’ Jive.” Here is a segment of Hill’s description of that scene:
Dressed in tailcoats, they [the Nicholas Brothers] jump table to table, then over the railing and onto the stage floor. Stepping and sliding across the floor, they follow [Cab] Calloway to center stage and begin their tap dance (their A section). Spins, cramp rolls, turns, and crossover steps are woven into an intricate pattern of sound and movement, as the brothers spin out backsliding rhythms that slip them smoothly from place to place on the stage. In the second A section, they repeat and vary their step patterns in alternating solos and duets. Then, with a back-slide split that springs up into a jump-split, they land on the platform where a row of musicians are seated. (136)
As one can clearly ascertain from the passage above, Hill is not only an accomplished tap dance historian (and performer), but an extremely descriptive and passionate writer; she is able to paint a colorful and dynamic picture for her reader, which is an arduous task when writing about a visual and aural art-form.
In fact, that is what makes Tap Dancing America: a Cultural History such a compelling read. Obviously, her knowledge of the subject is substantial; but, with the material she is covering, she could have easily slipped into just providing her reader with a list of names, dates, movies, and scenes. Instead, Hill shows the reader the dance sequences she writes about using specificities and fine detail. This helps prove Hill’s claim that tap dance is a people-filled, tangible form of entertainment that is “intercultural and interracial” and is all “inclusive to men and women, soloists and choristers, sister acts and two-man teams, producers and choreographers” and to “proselytizers and preservationists” (xiii).
Hill also successfully proves her claim by taking the reader back in time, to the early days of tap. Starting with the mid-1600’s to 1900, she delves deeply into the roots of modern-day American tap dance, which stem from a fusion of Irish American jig and sean-no dancing and Afro-American jig and gioube dancing, as well as turn of the century buck-and-wing dancing, which in and of itself stemmed from Appalachian clog dancing (22). She takes her time to provide to her reader a rich and layered history of tap, a history filled with many different racial and cultural dance styles. She then takes her reader on a decade-by-decade journey, writing on filmed and un-filmed dance sequences, and memorable and less-than-famous tap dancers like: Jack Donohue, Bert and Baby Alice, and George Primrose (1910s); James Barton, Buddy Bradley, and Fredi Washington (1920s); Buck and Bubbles, Edith “Baby” Edwards, Louise Madison, Fred Astaire, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1930s); Betty Grable, Ann Miller, The Brothers Condos, Ray Bolger, and Gene Kelly (1940s); Little Teddy Hale, Leon Collins, Jimmy Slyde, Donald O’Connor, and Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates (1950s); Bunny Briggs and Charles “Cholly”Atkins (1960s);The Hines Brothers (Maurice and Gregory), Brenda Bufolino, and Honi Coles (1970s); Lynn Dally, Linda Sohl-Donnell, Diane Walker, and Savion Glover (1980s); Roxanne “Butterfly” Semadini, Baakari Wilder, and Ayodele Casel (1990s); and, Chole Arnold, Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards, Derrick K. Grant, and Sarah Petronio (present day). All of these tap dancers (amongst scores of others Hill writes about) have influence not only in the decade in which she spotlights them in, but also within the decades when the old timers intentionally or unintentionally stepped out of that spotlight to allow younger hoofers to continue on the path to tap dancing greatness.
Not only does Hill provide her reader with a significant (almost too much, in some instances) amount of physical detail, but she intertwines that physical detail with her thoughts and observations on the cultural significance of the dance. Her section on Ada (Aida) Overton Walker, for example, is one of her strongest:
Mourned as the foremost African American female stage artist, Overton Walker’s interest in both African and African American indigenous material and her translation of these to the modern stage anticipated the choreographic work of modern dance pioneers Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus. Both in her solo work for women and in the unison and precision choreographies for the female chorus, she claimed a female presence on the American theatrical stage. She also gave presence to black rhythm dancing, thus opening the prime-time, public professional space for tap performance, which had been previously restricted to post-show-time, late-night buck-and-wing contests. By negotiating the narrow white definitions of appropriate black performance with her own version of black specialization and innovation, Overton Walker established a black cultural integrity onstage that established a model by which African American musical artists could gain acceptance on the professional concert stage. (41)
Very much like Lena Horne after her and in her own way, Aida Overton Walker was foundational and set the standard high for future dancers; and, Hill certainly gives Overton Walker recognition because of it. Overton Walker broke major misogynistic barriers, although it was (and in some ways still is) prominent some sixty or seventy years after she first set foot on stage. Hill’s strength is certainly in her ability to recognize the importance of women in a medium that never fully appreciated dancers like Overton Walker, Bufolino, and Dally.
I must admit that it was extremely difficult to get through Tap Dancing America not because of its sheer length, nor because of its abundance of information, but because, after reading sections of Hill’s book, I felt compelled to go to YouTube to see many of the acts she alludes to. Bunny Briggs, Brenda Bufolino, Honi Coles, Gregory Hines, Jimmy Slyde: simply amazing clips, all of which are readily available for everyone to see. Just type in each name, and watch how sweet it is.
And, yes, the Nicholas Brothers in “Jumpin’ Jive” is definitely one of the greatest tap dance sequences ever filmed; but the best: debatable.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Serious Play: Modern Clown Performance. By Louise Peacock.
Bristol: Intellect, June 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-1-84150-241-0, $30. 224 pages.
Review by Christophe Collard, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
In May 2009, almost simultaneously with the publication of Serious Play, Bill Hopkinson, another British expert on clowning, gave a talk in which he called the clown “a complex of embodied unlearning.” Louise Peacock’s landmark study opens on very much the same premise with a title containing an internal tension. Both serious and frivolous, clowning to her uniquely succeeds in bridging contemporary Western society’s alleged undervaluation of play with our own visceral drive towards make-believe. After all, the clown’s subversive spontaneity is characteristically performed within a formalized framework. By analogy, therefore, a monograph retracing contemporary clown practice in the US and Europe over the last 50 years and which ambitions to establish the clown’s cathartic social function should also “embody” such tension between the frivolity of its subject and the seriousness of its theoretical implications.

A first look at the table of contents suggests just that: a lucid progression from factual presentation to more complex conceptualizations, followed by a straightforward reassessment of “the centrality of play in clowning.” Unfortunately, the remainder of Hopkinson’s formula equally applies to Peacock’s book. In a highly complex introduction stacked with rather unrelated and poorly integrated theoretical excursions, “unlearning” is rather the name of the game. What sets off as a promising and very intriguing intellectual journey very soon morphs into an almost “clownish” parody of academese, were it not for the author’s dogged, over-zealous discussion of performance theories by Huizinga (1944), Turner (1982), Schechner (1988 and 1993), Winnicott (1991), or Sutton-Smith (1997) from the particular perspective of clowning – a perspective which Louise Peacock paradoxically only clarifies further down the road. Granted, the actual definition she provides is a model of clarity. Nevertheless, the overall impression after reading the introduction is one of good intentions, an even better grasp of the material, but catastrophic presentation. Another illustration would be the repeated references to the advantages of a semiotic take on the subject which resurface in every chapter but, frustratingly, remain dead-letter. This similarly applies to the many a priori arguments, abrupt shifts, and/or ambiguous chapter endings.

That said, even if Serious Play is seriously flawed, it has everything to become a serious player in its field. For like the subject it so knowledgeably covers, the book trundles along, seemingly innocuously, before leaving the reader with a very precise understanding that, indeed, clowning is both serious and frivolous, and a deceptively important social force to boot. The clown, Peacock remarks, “deal[s] with what it means to be human” (26). And by “presenting an image of the physically malformed” he metaphorically places himself “beyond critical comment in our politically correct world” (32). Of course it would be stretching things to argue that Serious Play adopts a similar strategy to shield itself from criticism – and neither is this parallel significant enough to attach any more importance to it. Still, the effect remains, for better or worse. By providing her reader with a most unequal panorama Louise Peacock establishes a “clownesque” sense of complicit√©, which she defines along famous French mime and influential acting theorist Jacques Lecoq as “a silent communication, an unspoken understanding” (33).

The first chapter promises “a taxonomy of clown types” (19) while presenting a catalogue of famous and lesser-known clowns from past and present. Chapter 2 proposes a reconsideration of the frame-principle to tackle modern clowning’s progressive “re-framing” from the circus to the political arena, only to leave these amply documented switches without conceptual “frame” of what “framing” actually means. One could even argue that the distinction between chapters 2 to 4 is arbitrary, that no real sense of structural necessity exists to demarcate their various focal points, and that their comparable length hints at cosmetic interventions to accommodate the reader. To the point, even, that Serious Play emerges as an unorthodox reference guide, an encyclopedia of clowning that somehow ended up on the desk of the wrong copy editor. By end of the fifth chapter, though, none of these considerations subside except for a straightforward notion of the clown as a disruptive presence in a complex world. Extended case studies of the highly political Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA, Chapter 5) as of the so-called Clown Healers (Chapter 6), a psychosocial variant of clownish subversion, channel all the previous chapters’ factual overkill, theoretical skittishness, and structural ambiguity towards a seasoned understanding of the most concrete kind. Be it in the circus, in streets rife with political strife, or at the bedside of a suffering child, clowns “enable us to embrace failing as part of learning” (154). In the unlikeliest of ways Louise Peacock in the end proves her point. But credit where credit is due: “Clowns show us the way” (159).

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Shakespeare’s Opposites: The Admiral’s Company 1594-1625.
By Andrew Gurr.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, June 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-521-86903-4. $99. 328 pages.

Review by Suanna H. Davis, Houston Baptist University

The potential of this book fascinates. Who are these others who performed at the same time as Shakespeare’s company? What do we know about them? Why are they not as famous as Shakespeare?

Gurr offers interesting insights into various aspects of the Admiral’s Company, beginning with his hypothesis for why the two companies, and only those two, were operating in London from 1594 to 1600. The development of the hypothesis is not discussed in the book, because it has already been presented in an article. Despite the lack of details, it is an intriguing explanation. For the issue of fame, Gurr suggests that Shakespeare’s company had the better plays, which we can still read today, while the Admiral’s Company was better at theatrical entertainment, a visual and aural experience that is long gone. However, the Admiral’s Company left many more records than Shakespeare’s group and it is with these records that Gurr develops his discussion.

The book begins slowly. Within the first chapter, repetitions abound. References to chapter two seem to follow every major point. The idea of the familiar face of the players appears five times in the first fifty pages, as does the fact that there is a new play every week or two or three, depending on the page. The description “games of disguise” is also repeated. The repetitions are very distracting and the chapter is hard to read. However, the rest of the book is significantly better, with limited repetitions, good detail, and fascinating descriptions.

Gurr is at his best when he is explaining the plot of the plays and detailing the implications of the plays for his discussion. For example, the story of The Wise Men of West Chester provides rapid reading for more than ten pages; it is a quixotic tale told in an engaging style. His discussion of the printed version of The Tragedy of Hoffman is equally captivating. Few would be able to write an interesting rendition of various name change problems within a printed text, but Gurr pulls it off.

The chapter on staging is interesting. It begins comparing the outdoor venues with significantly more space for the audience to the limited indoor arena of the Globe. Gurr presents the history of the various playhouses of both companies, comparing and contrasting them. The chapter gives background information on architects and archaeological excavations, discusses building materials and methods, and details the stages of the original and rebuilt first playhouse of the Admiral’s Company. The point and purposes of the changes to the playhouse, after its midnight burning, are presented. This chapter also has figures that help the reader visualize the descriptions. This chapter offers a well-developed introduction to staging, which could be helpful in both theater and English classes in discussions of plays of the era.

The chapter also presents, again, the surviving play-texts of the Admiral’s Company. This presentation, though, divides them into three categories based on whether they were written to be played at the original, the rebuilt, or the second playhouse of the company. Then Gurr discusses the staging of the plays at the various venues.

The chapter on the company’s repertory practices details their exclusion from the court and connects their famous revenge play with Hamlet. A scrap of paper written in the hand of the Master of the Revels offers Gurr an opportunity to develop the connection between the two plays, and then he segues into the disappearance of the Admiral’s Company from the court performances after 1615. The Admiral’s Company was not the only group that was spurned, and Gurr offers class distinctions between the playgoers as the reason. Though the patrons of these two companies were royal, the open-air venue meant that those in attendance were not aristocrats.

Gurr also presents the possibility that the plays of this company were viewed as old-fashioned, since they were locked into play styles. The explanation for the style seems to be the return of the company’s most famous actor who was known for “stalking and roaring” (170). Finally, Gurr discusses their political and cultural ramifications, since some of the plays repeated aristocratic experiences and scandals as they were happening, but without tying this into the expulsion from court.

Three appendices make up the last third of the book. The first lists the plays and all their known titles by the year either of their probable performance or their probable writing. The second is an alphabetical listing, with a paragraph-length biography, of the various players from the Admiral’s Company. The third is a reconstruction of the company’s traveling schedule.

The book, after the first chapter, is well written and interesting. It gives details of the time and the acting experience that even Shakespearean scholars might not know. Overall, it is accessible to someone outside the field, though there are some “explanations” which do not actually explain to an outsider unfamiliar with the arguments to which Gurr is responding. The book offers an opportunity to expand one’s understanding of Shakespeare’s plays, clearly an impetus from the title, but more importantly it presents a well-developed discussion of some of the plays, players, and playgoers of the era, adding political, historical, and cultural insights into a reading of the plays of the Admiral’s company.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cuttin’ Up: How Early Jazz Got America’s Ear.
By Court Carney.

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, November 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0700616756, $34.95. 219 pages.

Review by Reba Wissner, Brandeis University

While much ink has been spent on the role of jazz in America, its broad cultural and societal influences within cities other than New York, Chicago, and New Orleans has not received such extensive treatment. Court Carney’s new book, Cuttin’ Up: How Early Jazz Got America’s Ear, has ventured beyond existing work in the field of jazz studies. Carney’s study synthesizes and reconciles the basic information about the origins and cultural implications of jazz in a clear and convenient manner. The book spans the 1890s to 1930s, combining both musical and historical analysis in order for the reader to gain a greater understanding of the larger cultural and social issues that contributed to the birth of the genre. The primary objective of the study is to “establish an emphasis on the shifts in American culture as well as the process of diffusion” (7), and it does so by discussing the broader cultural aspects of the dissemination and acceptance of jazz in the United States during the latter part of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth. He does so by diving the book into three parts and further dissecting it into six chapters. The essential details in each chapter are supplemented by focusing on a particular jazz musician within that geographic area during that time. Part 1: Creation, consists of Chapters 1 and 2; Part 2: Dispersion, consists of Chapters 3, 4, and 5; and Part 3: Acceptance, consists of Chapter 6 and the Conclusion. The book also contains an index of all the songs written during the time span that the book covers. Part 1 discusses the origins of jazz from ragtime and the blues and its earliest versions within New Orleans. Part 2 is dedicated to the way in which jazz was disseminated in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Changes in society led to corresponding changes in taste, and these changes are an important key to establishing a greater understanding of the dissemination and acceptance of this new musical genre. Part 3 examines jazz as the new American music, concluding with the contributions of Benny Goodman.

The greatest strength of this study is that it is based on a much more thorough discussion of the cultural implications of jazz in various cities than has previously appeared in print. Carney’s writing style is clear, succinct, and accessible and avoids the use of jargon, making the book easy to read for both the expert musician and the layman without seeming simplified. My one main criticism of the book is that at times, Carney seems to do what he says in the introduction he does not plan to do: to “retell the totality of the early jazz narrative” (4). In some instances, especially in the early chapters, it seems as if he is attempting to reinvent the wheel and writing a jazz history textbook rather than composing a cultural history.

This book is a fascinating study of jazz in its earliest forms and how the music, contemporary culture, and society were intertwined. The information presented in Carney’s book asks new questions and reinforces the need for a more holistic approach to the study of early jazz than has so far been the case. Such a vast amount of information is provided in this book that it is impossible to do it justice in such a brief review. For any scholar undertaking research in jazz and early American music, this book is an invaluable source of information. Carney’s study brings a new perspective to musicological and cultural studies and deserves a central place on the map of jazz studies and studies of early American music.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dancing From The Heart: Movement, Gender, And Cook Islands Globalization.

By Kalissa Alexeyeff.

Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, May 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8248-3244-5, $55.00. 206 pages.

Review by Matthew J. Forss, Goddard College, Vermont

Kalissa Alexeyeff's study of expressive culture in the Cook Islands of the South Pacific highlights the various interrelated roles of sexuality, gender, religion, politics, and economics. For the most part, Alexeyeff's fieldwork was aided by an Aitutaki woman named Mamia, for which the prologue was dedicated. Mamia died from breast cancer in 2002, but not before passing along Cook Island dance traditions to Alexeyeff, while also supplying her with arranged interviews with dancers, and a place to live throughout the fieldwork period. Most of the research was conducted at the administrative and economic capital of the islands in Rarotonga from 1996-1998. The introduction provides an overview of anthropology, dance, and expressive culture, while incorporating Alexeyeff's summarization of dance by exploring "song texts and the themes they raise…analysis of dance choreography and music compositions given by their creators and talk that surrounds dance--the evaluations of dance performances and of dancers, and the gossip, commentary, and other verbal narratives that dance produces" (13).

The notion behind the title of "dancing from the heart" expresses the Cook Island "spirit" of happiness coming from the soul. Alexeyeff's interviews with numerous Cook Islanders found that motivations for dancing were clearly for happiness or enjoyment. In simple terms, dancers that were happy were truly “dancing from the heart.” Furthermore, Alexeyeff goes beyond simple, direct dance observation and notes dance expression may be an “extralinguistic” medium for grief, sadness, and other forms of communication not normally served with verbal responses. These dance forms and expressions of culture are influenced by the global-local web of social mobility, modernity, femininity, and politics.

Chapter one follows the religious, social, and political developments of expressive culture practices beginning with the London Missionary Society's involvement from 1823-1888, and the first European missionary, Charles Pittman, to settle on Rarotonga in 1827. The Cook Islands were part of the New Zealand colony from 1901-1965, which impacted expressive culture as a gradual changeover to Europeanization took place. Alexeyeff provides an interview with Jane Tararo and her dealings with dance and the impact of colonization, mobility, and femininity. Additionally, issues of tourism, culture, and revivalism from the 1970's-1998 was closely linked with the establishment of the Ministry of Cultural Development that attempted to "preserve…enhance the Cook Islands Cultural Heritage in order to uphold tradition…enrich cultural art forms…[and] maintain the unique cultural identity of the people of the Cook Islands" (54). Alexeyeff focuses on historical records with personal interviews and ethnographic research to create a more than adequate volume that traces the early to modern steps of expressive culture in the Cook Islands. Chapter two primarily focuses on the tourism industry in contemporary settings. The problem with tourism and dance is dependent on the observer and the performer, as native Cook Islanders want to maintain cultural identity without invalidating traditions. The older population is more likely to view tourism as a negative change for contemporary dance culture, while the younger generation views it as re-innovation. Chapter three investigates the relationship between femininity through dance and the Miss Cook Islands beauty pageant. This study analyzes the behavior of women with regards to morality, social obligations, and public performances. Throughout the book, Alexeyeff inserts poignant observations and critiques of comparable research, including alternatives to, and current limitations within, the data. The boundaries of normative genders and dance performance are contested with the analysis of a 1998 Drag Queen competition. The interrelated roles of men and women cross-dressing seem to be secondary in importance over "familial status and community maintenance" (114). Chapter five discusses the nightclub culture and musical activities in village centers. The nightclub etiquette of barmanning involves one person that dispenses small amounts of alcohol in a single cup and passes it around to a group of people. The practice of “outing,” or “going out,” which is the more familiar term for Westerners, mixes the same elements of drinking, dancing, and music familiar to Western audiences. Dancing From The Heart is as much about dancing as it is about social customs, order, and identity. The final chapter provides directions for the future outlook of Cook Islands dance activities and other expressive forms of culture. Dance is a medium with a variety of historic, political, religious, cultural, and gendered influences that have, and continue to shape its existence. At times, Dancing From The Heart reads like a diary of an ethnographer, which allows readers to learn about an understudied topic of dance culture in a very localized geographic area. The text does include a few Cook Islands Maori (Rarotongan) words, but they are used sparingly and defined effectively. It should be noted that complicated dance notation, otherwise known as “Labanotation,” is not used. Rather, the ethnographic and anthropological components related to dance and other expressive displays of performance are the primary themes of Dancing From The Heart. Lastly, the epilogue is an ode to Mamia's guidance and involvement throughout the text.

An appendix provides additional information on drum dances, action songs, chants and commemorative songs. Chapter notes, a glossary, extensive bibliography, and an index are included to help aid the reader in finding additional resources on the topic of Cook Island expressive culture. Overall, the Cook Islands have received much less “global” attention than other areas in the South Pacific, unlike Tahiti, Fiji, and Samoa. A smattering of black-and-white photographs, drawings, and maps provide additional clarifications accompanied with the text. All in all, this is an invaluable reference for undergraduate and graduate students interested in South Pacific cultural studies. However, anyone interested in learning about expressive culture and its affiliated components (i.e. gender, politics, sexuality, religion, etc.) should find Dancing From The Heart to be an informative and pleasurable read.

Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States.

By Ari Kelman.

Berkeley: University of California Press, May 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-520-25573-9, $39.95. 304 pages.

Review by Elizabeth Whittenburg Ozment, University of Georgia

An important contribution to the study of radio and Jewish-American culture, Ari Kelman’s publication is the first detailed study of Yiddish Radio history in the United States. Kelman’s attention to the impact of media regulations on immigrant radio, and to the use of language as a powerful tool for cultural identification, is valuable. In particular, Kelman demonstrates how American Jews shared a common desire to connect with other Jews. Radio became their virtual community, using the Yiddish language as a boundary to separate insiders from outsiders.Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States not only traces the rise of Yiddish radio, but also follows patterns of Jewish immigration, stratification of power among radio stations, twentieth-century American nationalism’s effect on the use of Yiddish in the United States, and the transformation of media outlets during times of war. The book is organized chronologically spanning the period from 1920 to 1980, and each chapter concentrates on a particular theme. The first theme is Jewish culture in the margin of the larger American culture. Religious traditions made Jewish radio different from mainstream American radio from the onset. Jewish customs and holidays impacted the days and times Yiddish radio could be broadcast, and what advertisements were appropriate for Jewish audiences. English language programming remained important to these stations, and broadcasters were constantly challenged by the English-Yiddish balancing act. The radio created a space for Jewish immigrants to maintain their religious cultural identity, while assimilating into English-American culture.

The second theme is the relationship between American nationalism and radio regulation. Although Yiddish radio communicated to a relatively small portion of the American population, immigration restrictions in the 1920s led to a push for English homogenization, causing Yiddish radio to appear as a threat to the national agenda. Broadcasters reacted to these threats by creating shows that encouraged assimilation. This prepares the book’s third theme: Jewish-American representation. Who were the Yiddish radio personalities? How did they describe themselves, what techniques did they use to connect with listeners, and how did their audiences respond? How did these radio personalities represent a Jewish-American identity? Yiddish radio listeners desired to hear people on the radio whom they could relate to, and who exhibited qualities they found in themselves. Kelman argues that Yiddish radio provided a framework from which American Jews could reflect upon and make choices about their identities.

Perhaps the most engaging theme in the book is the effect of World War II on Yiddish radio and the Jewish-American population. The Yiddish language allowed Jewish radio broadcasters to comment on World War II with more freedom than their English radio counterparts. Yiddish was especially symbolic during this time, aurally connecting American Jews to European Jews. These radio stations vigorously encouraged the purchase of war-bonds, which were equally symbolic as expressions of American patriotism with the intention of supporting European Jews. Radio personalities transformed listeners from passive audiences into activists who supported American efforts for Jewish causes.

Station Identification is a well-written product of intense archival research, and a significant addition to the history of Yiddish culture; however, for the ethnomusicologist and indeed for the general reader, something is lacking. The reader only experiences this history through Kelman’s voice. There are no transcriptions, and quotes from broadcasters or audiences are few, making the voices of Yiddish radio seem suppressed. For a book concerned with the verbal communication of a specific community, and their important linguistic codes, the absence of these texts is troubling. To the author’s credit, he does include the web addresses of the American Jewish Congress and the Yiddish Radio Project in the bibliography. Yiddish radio sound files from these sites truly complement Kelman’s book. In the endnotes, the author does reference recordings of radio shows, and directs the reader to audio streaming sites when available. But as the book stands, the reader must have an outward interest in searching for these sources in order to experience Yiddish radio in sound or text. Regardless of these criticisms, the book is an important contribution to Yiddish studies. The main themes will easily translate to pop-culture studies involving other immigrant communities, and ought to interest readers from a variety of disciplines.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Performing Worlds into Being: Native American Women’s Theater.

Edited by Anne Elizabeth Armstrong, Kelli Lyon Johnson, and William A. Wortman.

Oxford, OH: Miami University Press, April 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-1-4243-3112-3, $29.99. 186 pages.

Review by Megan Burnett, Alice Lloyd College, Kentucky

Entering this text is entering a theatrical world of Indigenous voices speaking words of truth, and a retelling, or rather, a re-knowing of Native American history. While the material in the text represents Native American Women’s theatre, the contributors offer the Native and non-native theatre practitioner feminist perspectives on materials chosen for performance as well as styles of Indigenous theatrical performance. This offering of the NAWPA collection make it clear that there are many opportunities for further exploration in academic and performance settings. The Native American Women Playwrights Archive was founded in 1997 as a “living archive by sponsoring readings, performances, and conferences” (iii). This volume is the representation of their third conference at Miami University (Oxford, OH) where the archive is kept. Performing Worlds into Being: Native American Women’s Theater is a fitting example of the work that NAWPA is doing to keep Native American theatre present and alive within both the academic and performance communities. The scholars, artists, and theatre practitioners represented in this book include Indigenous peoples from Canada, Mexico, Central and Caribbean America, and Pacific Islands.

A recurring theme throughout this text is that “storytellers are the rememberers” (75). All of the contributors explore this Native American cultural norm. Theatre and feminist literature scholars can turn to Section I: Looking Back, Looking Forward for a critique of Native American myths and legends. These stories are “known” to our current culture as they were told to us from a seventeenth-century European male perspective. This section re-examines the story of Pocahontas bringing her back to the truth of her tribe and the customs she honored and challenged. The keen analysis offered by scholars such as Jill Carter in “Blind Faith Remembers” brings an understanding of Native American theatre that has been lacking in the traditional theatre classroom. Section II: Honoring Spiderwoman Theater is a most invaluable section for those artists interested in creating their own work. This section is accompanied by a DVD with selections from Spiderwoman Theater’s performances and a photo archive of their extensive body of work. Section III: Voices offers concrete examples of play texts written by Native American women for an audience accustomed to the Western style of theatre presentation. The large number of script excerpts provides a broad perspective on Native theatre, bringing to light a voice in the world that has been squelched for decades and is still frequently ignored in the overall theatre community. Section IV: Community and Collaboration brings the discussion of theatre back to the community, whether professional, community, or educational, and offers interviews with theatre artists who have focused their careers on creating and presenting Native American work for the Native American audience and the broader North and Central American audiences in general.

Section 1: Looking Back, Looking Forward offers an attack on the past and the need to learn from the wounds of that past. These stories, including the story of Pocahontas and general awareness of Indians to most non-native peoples, was shaped by the perspective of seventeenth-century British working-class soldiers. Monique Mojica, Ric Knowles, and Jill Carter make their point clear that it is important to re-learn Native American history through the knowledge and history of the Nation tribes themselves, not the “white man’s” narrative anymore. Monique Mojica’s re-interpretation of Pocahontas’s story does not stop at fixing the romantic version told through storybooks and cartoons. She delves into the wounds of Native peoples and forces her audience to face them with her. “When we make a decision to create from a base of ancestral knowledge, we confront the rupture, the original wound” (3). While Mojica’s play Sky Woman Falling is offered in this text, her critically important play Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots is not included. The critical analysis of the latter play, the real story of Pocahontas and of Mojica’s performance technique, would have been well served by offering this play either in the book or as a performance on the accompanying DVD. Many artists and scholars refer to Mojica’s play, Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots, throughout this book, so its inclusion would have been an added asset.

The Honoring Spiderwoman Theater section is valuable for its practical application for devising new work, the sharing of the history of the women involved in creating and sustaining this unique theater company, and samples of their work both in print and on the accompanying DVD. The information and techniques are useful for practitioners and for the theatre classroom. According to Murielle Borst in her essay “Spiderwoman Theater’s Legacy,” “the technique through which they combine storytelling, acting, and writing to create their kind of theater” is the main legacy of Spiderwoman Theater from which we can all benefit. Borst goes on to state, “Storytelling is a key aspect of Spiderwoman’s technique, whether traditional or non-traditional” (75). The artists in Spiderwoman Theater ignore the traditional Western style of theatre. Their performances are based on text written in response to events in their lives and expressed through traditional Indian storytelling techniques such as drumming circles, dance, and the aspect of spirituality in their text and stories. One concept explored by Marcie Rendon is the confusion of being white or Indian in her poem “What’s an Indian Woman to Do?” (58-59).

Section III: Voices includes several examples of Native American plays by women. Many reflect the Western Aristotelian model of theatre (plot, character, theme, spectacle, diction, music). These scripts open readers to the depth and breadth of NAWPA’s archival material. This section offers material that any Native American or non-native theatre company interested in telling the stories of Indigenous peoples could produce. This “normal” model of publishing houses selling the scripts and rights to perform plays is in contrast to material explored elsewhere in the text. Several of the artists, including Spiderwoman Theater and Monique Mojica, develop their own work with voices that are not necessarily meant to be spoken by other women. They create their own story for themselves to perform, not others.

Section IV: Collaboration and Community offers enlightening and useful interviews with working Native artists. “Theatre in the House/Raving Native Productions,” an essay by Marci Rendon, offers identifiable and reproducible techniques in playwrighting, rehearsing, character creation, and story creation in an educational as well as community center setting. This section beautifully reflects the overall premise of this collection, including the need to tell Indigenous stories, the desire to find universality, and the need to honor specificity of why these stories need to be told, shared, and saved. Many of the theatre practitioners in this section suggest a desire to wait to be invited by communities they wish to serve. They help those communities tell stories they are ready to share rather than forcing their story upon the community. Contrast this aesthetic to the authors and artists represented in earlier sections of this text, who take an activist feminist perspective. They explore the wounds they and their people have suffered for hundreds of years, and with guerilla theatre precision, force their audiences to face the truth with them.