Coloring Whiteness: Acts of Critique in Black Performance

Coloring Whiteness: Acts of Critique in Black Performance

by Faedra Chatard Carpenter


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Coloring Whiteness pays homage to the ways that African American artists and performers have interrogated tropes and mythologies of whiteness to reveal racial inequalities, focusing on comedy sketches, street theater, visual art, video, TV journalism, and voice-over work since 1964. By investigating enactments of whiteness—from the use of white makeup and suggestive masks, to literary motifs and cultural narratives regarding “white” characteristics and qualities—Faedra Chatard Carpenter explores how artists have challenged commonly held notions of racial identity. Through its layered study of expressive culture, her book considers how artistic and performance strategies are used to “color” whiteness and complicate blackness in our contemporary moment.

Utilizing theories of performance and critical race studies, Coloring Whiteness is also propelled by Carpenter’s dramaturgical sensibilities. Her analysis of primary performance texts is informed not only by traditional print and visual materials, but also by her interviews with African American theater artists, visual artists, and cultural critics. The book is an invaluable contribution to the fields of theater and performance studies, African American studies, cultural studies, critical race studies, and American studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472072361
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 10/31/2014
Series: Theater: Theory/Text/Performance
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Faedra Chatard Carpenter is a freelance dramaturg and Assistant Professor in the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland.

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Coloring Whiteness

Acts Of Critique In Black Performance

By Faedra Chatard Carpenter

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2014 Faedra Chatard Carpenter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-12065-9


Douglas Turner Ward's Play on Whiteness

Day of Absence on America's Public Stages


On November 15, 1965, Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence, a "reverse minstrel show done in white-face," debuted at the St. Marks Playhouse. The commercial success of the stage play led to a remarkable event in November 1967: the play was filmed and presented as part of the premiere episode of the Ford Foundation's "television experiment" known as the Public Broadcast Laboratory (PBL) — predecessor to today's Public Broadcasting System (PBS). The debut episode of PBL hoped to address the need for racial dialogue, and to that end the program featured several segments that focused on the issue of race, including Douglas Turner Ward's stage-to-screen presentation of Day of Absence. While Day of Absence was, thematically, an appropriate fit for the evening's program, its inclusion proved to be disastrous for PBL: 29 out of 119 stations dropped the television program before it even aired, citing Day of Absence as their reason.

This chapter uses Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence to examine how tropes and theatrical strategies of whiteness are used to foster explorations of African American identity in contemporary performance. By examining the early history and critical reception of the play, it considers how Ward's dramatic presentation of whiteness was originally received on the stage and the small screen, thereby indicating how artistic interrogations of whiteness were interpreted by racially diverse audience members in the 1960s. This exploration highlights a key issue: the significance of "institutional dramaturgy." In this context, institutional dramaturgy refers to the way a producing institution strategically frames and brands its work — a dynamic that inevitably affects how the meaning of a performance text is transmitted and received by potential audiences.

In using Day of Absence as a case study, this chapter not only underscores the ways institutions of theatre and television contextualize their productions, and thereby influence audience perceptions, but it also reveals how the power of these venues can ultimately drive important social concerns into our nation's consciousness. Furthermore, by analyzing the racially charged sociopolitical thrust of Ward's play, this study pays particular attention to how Day of Absence inspired metatheatrical events in the form of sociopolitical protests and expressions of communal solidarity. Considering these metaperformances, my examination highlights the long-lasting cultural impact of Day of Absence while simultaneously considering the meaning and efficacy of the play's theatrical tactics and real-life enactments.


The 1960s was an explosive era in American theatre. Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun had set the future of African American theatre alight with its historic turn on the Broadway stage in 1959, opening the doors for a deluge of black playwrights. Two of the era's most important, canon-expanding plays, LeRoi Jones's Dutchman and Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro, won Obie Awards in 1964, helping to further propel public interest in African American drama. Plays like Dutchman and Funnyhouse of a Negro pushed theatrical boundaries farther than ever before by wrestling with the era's contentious racial issues in shocking and seemingly divergent — yet surprisingly complementary — ways.

It was in this fertile artistic environment that other African American artists began to garner greater attention from mainstream critics and audiences. Such was the case when Robert Hooks first produced Douglas Turner Ward's famous double bill, Day of Absence and Happy Ending, after work-shopping Day of Absence with students from the Group Theatre Workshop. The workshop, a Harlem-based training company, was founded by Hooks in 1964 to combat the dearth of opportunities available for the development of young urban talent. Assisted by the vision and leadership of seasoned actors and directors such as Barbara Ann Teer, Ron Mack, and Hal DeWindt, the Group Theatre Workshop was described in a 1965 New York Times article as a "unique improvisatory acting academy for teenagers without the money for formal dramatic school and, in most cases, without a penchant for classes in the usual sense of that word." Members of the group met once a week at Hooks's loft apartment, and while the majority of the young participants were black, there were also Puerto Rican, Chinese American, and white members. This diverse collection of young artists not only hailed from local New York neighborhoods, but some even made their weekly treks to Hooks's apartment from as far away as Long Island and New Jersey, where they spent three to four hours each session developing their acting craft.

By the fall of 1965, the Group Theatre Workshop had been running for over a year, propelled by the passion of its leadership, eagerness of its students, and the generosity of a few financial benefactors. In its efforts to train young actors, the group also created opportunities for writers to experiment with new work. This practice not only expanded the group's developmental programming, but it ultimately earned its members unexpected attention from local theatre critics and aficionados. In fact, it was after a local critic watched the group perform an excerpt from Happy Ending that Robert Hooks was inspired to produce Douglas Turner Ward's work with a professional cast. Taking on the daunting task of theatre producer (an uncommon role for African Americans at the time), Hooks armed himself with what he knew would be formative, cutting-edge work: a double bill featuring both Happy Ending and Day of Absence. Boasting an impressive cast, the two one-acts featured Douglas Turner Ward and Robert Hooks, in addition to a host of other legendary theatre artists: Esther Rolle, Frances Foster, Lonne Elder, Arthur French, Barbara Ann Teer, and Moses Gunn.

Curiously, there has been limited discussion among scholars regarding the presentation of Day of Absence and Happy Ending as companion pieces. Although the two plays were originally presented together in a twin bill at the St. Marks Playhouse, critical treatments on Ward's national debut have often focused on Day of Absence, with far less attention paid to Happy Ending. Both plays interrogate whiteness and white-black relations, thus their partnership in production is not only thematically appropriate, but it illustrates a conceptual symmetry that enriches and complicates an audience's understanding of America's racial dynamics during the 1960s. The complementary dynamic of the two plays is particularly befitting since Ward wrote Happy Ending in a concerted effort to create a companion piece for Day of Absence.

I didn't plan to write [Happy Ending] as a play until I realized that Day of Absence wasn't long enough for a night of theatre ... so I needed a companion piece to fill out the bill. I knew Day of Absence was so unique in so many ways that I couldn't see it being on the bill with some other play — some other writer's play. I knew it needed its own companion piece. It needed a brother-sister relationship with another play; they needed to be harmonious together. So I thought about what other idea I had that could go along with Day of Absence, and I immediately thought of this real-live experience that I had with my aunts.

And thus Happy Ending was born. Although the focus of this chapter precludes an in-depth examination of Happy Ending, I believe it is important — dramaturgically speaking — to briefly attend to it in order to demonstrate how the twin billing of these plays highlight their interrelated messages about whiteness and racial relations.

One of the major components of institutional dramaturgy is the need to frame a production in relation to its theatrical companions (i.e., the dynamics revealed through twin bills, works in a repertory, a production season, a play series, or festival). The manner in which plays are linked may reflect practical concerns such as financial resources, but such choices also allude to an institution's "branding" through preferences of style, genre, or subject matter. The pairing of Day of Absence and Happy Ending is no exception. Both pieces address the inflated cultural capital of whiteness and, when placed in tandem, also offer exacting intracultural critiques that may not be as apparent when the pieces are received separately. While unequivocal in their interrogation of white dominance, both plays also address the survival strategies blacks have utilized in order to navigate the facade of America's constructed racial hierarchies.

While Ward's Day of Absence takes place in various locales throughout a small southern town, the whole of Happy Ending takes place in the kitchen of a humble yet nicely equipped Harlem tenement. When the play opens the audience sees two African American sisters, Ellie and Vi, who appear to be wrestling with a devastating loss. It is soon revealed that the women's employers, the Harrisons, are divorcing due to Mrs. Harrison's repeated sexual indiscretions. The women are then joined by their nephew, Junie, a young man who expresses indignation and shame in response to his aunts' presumed blind loyalty and apparent subservience to their white employers. After initially tolerating Junie's scorn and ridicule, both Ellie and Vi retort with gentle verbal vengeance: they reveal, with unabashed pride, that they are not the trustworthy domestics that they appear to be but rather are cunning entrepreneurs who have taken full advantage of the Harrisons' incompetence and gullibility. They also remind their nephew that his acceptance of their financial support and many lavish gifts (such as hand-me-downs from Mr. Harrison) makes him a beneficiary of their supposed subservience. The play ends "happily" when it is discovered that the verbal machinations of Ellie and Vi have once again managed to keep the Harrisons' marriage intact, thereby saving their jobs and their standard of living.

Ward's Day of Absence also dutifully addresses the fallacies of racialized hierarchies, but it underscores its story line with the visual potency of theatrical whiteface. The premise of Day of Absence, on the surface, is relatively simple: a small southern township awakens to discover that all their "negro" citizens are missing. Shock and confusion soon lead to anxiety and chaos as the white townspeople recognize how essential black folks are to their day-to-day lives: white women prove to be ill-equipped to take care of their children and households; the absence of sweepers and sanitation workers leads to civic disarray; respected authority figures and treasured family members — folks who had been "passing" — suddenly disappear from their homes and official posts; and the entire infrastructure of this small, unnamed "Everytown" erodes. In hopes of affecting the blacks' return, the town's mayor delivers a desperate radio broadcast — a plaintive plea that eventually leads to angry and demanding outbursts directed toward the missing population. Following the mayor's broadcast, pandemonium ensues, and the small town is overcome with violence and riots. However, the next morning the play's sole black character, Rastus, mysteriously appears, signaling the return of the blacks — but not necessarily signaling a restoration of the town's social order. The play closes with a taunting sense of open-endedness: the playwright does not offer an explanation to the white townspeople or theatre audience as to why and how the black folks vanished, where they had been, and whether or not such an enigmatic exodus could happen again.

In varying yet complementary ways, Day of Absence and Happy Ending expose the erroneous nature of racialized myths, particularly those associated with whiteness. Both plays dismantle iconic images of the servile black domestic, attack the presumed purity of white womanhood, and expose the ways in which whiteness can be a disabling rather than empowering characteristic. Furthermore, both plays suggest unsettling possibilities to white audience members. Among the most pertinent assertions are (1) that black folks are the ones that are really running things, and (2) that black folks have omniscient knowledge of white people and their ways. These suppositions, based on the unilateral intimacy forged by a long history of white domination and black subjugation, were potently addressed by W. E. B. DuBois in 1920 when he turned his ruminations from the souls of black folk to contemplate the "souls of white folk."

Of them I am singularly clairvoyant. I see in and through them. I view them from unusual points of vantage. Not as a foreigner do I come, for I am native, not foreign, bone of their thought and flesh of their language. Mine is not the knowledge of the traveler or the colonial composite of dear memories, words and wonder. Nor yet is my knowledge that which servants have of masters, or mass of class, or capitalist of artisan. Rather I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious! They deny my right to live and be and call me misbirth! My word is to them mere bitterness and my soul, pessimism. And yet as they preach and strut and shout and threaten, crouching as they clutch at rags of facts and fancies to hide their nakedness, they go twisting, flying by my tired eyes and I see them ever stripped, — ugly, human.

Seemingly activating DuBois's words through the antics of Vi, Ellie, and Rastus, Ward metaphorically strips his white characterizations of undue superiority and unearned privilege.

Through their dramatic exposés, Happy Ending and Day of Absence can be read as championing revolutionary ideologies, yet they also feature elements that complicate easy assumptions regarding black empowerment. In fact, a day before the play's New York debut, Robert Hooks commented, "I rather think that 'Happy Ending' is not going to be the image of the Negro in the theater that many of the Negro middle-class want to see, and it may also disturb some whites who'll feel impelled to run home and check their maids." Perhaps Hooks recognized what later scholars would identify as Ward's wielding of a "double-edged sword": "[Happy Ending] is considerably more than an extended vaudeville sketch as some critics regarded it. The whites are vicious and parasitically dependent upon the blacks for their existence. The blacks must counter parasitism with parasitism in order to survive."

Affirming the intended complexity of his characters as well as the layered critique they invite, Douglas Turner Ward shared how Happy Ending was actually inspired by his real-life experiences.

Junie is based on me. It's a critique about him — his revolutionary 1950s, 1960s ideals, thinking that he is so advanced — but he is not "getting it." Junie is really me taking a stab at myself. My instinct was out of my own superficial perspective. I am taking a jab at my own conceit — that my consciousness, my value system, and all of that were so superior [to those of my aunts]. I was the new Negro, the new black, the revolutionary black, and I immediately interpreted their behavior as if they were backwards. Yet at the same time I was ignoring the fact that I hadn't bought a suit for so long because my aunts provided me with so much. I had been broke, and hungry, and they had fed me. And therefore it was their complex survival practice that kept us alive and intact. So they weren't living of off scrapes, they were far superior....

[Blacks of my generation] were sort of one dimensional in appointing a dichotomy between the older generation and the younger generation. And as far as I'm concerned [now], there [was] never that separation. They were never as one dimensional as we thought they were, and we were never as complex as we thought we were. Junie was my satirical critique of myself. His final coming to consciousness is him accepting the complicated truth about all of us. It is his consciousness that is raised. The aunts are not lacking consciousness; it is his superficiality that is questioned.

The critical reflections on intracultural disparity in Happy Ending also have their counterpart in Day of Absence. In Day of Absence, however, Ward's commentary on intra-communal discord is expressed through the character that seems the most tenuous — the seemingly acquiescent character of Rastus.


Excerpted from Coloring Whiteness by Faedra Chatard Carpenter. Copyright © 2014 Faedra Chatard Carpenter. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION: Dramaturgies of Whiteness in Contemporary African American Performance,
CHAPTER ONE Douglas Turner Ward's Play on Whiteness: Day of Absence on America's Public Stages,
CHAPTER TWO Staging Hegemonic Whiteness: The Bluest Eye and the Performative Paradoxes of (In)visibility,
CHAPTER THREE Whiteness as "Becoming": The Corporeal Crossovers of Daniel Tisdale and Michael Jackson,
CHAPTER FOUR "Mixing It Up": Enacting Whiteness in the Comedic World of Dave Chappelle,
CHAPTER FIVE "Sounding Off on Sounding White": Aural Whiteness, Linguistic Whiteface, and the Economics of Opportunity,
CODA: Whiteface to Postrace? The Artful Interrogations of Jefferson Pinder,

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