Jeffrey M. Leichman & Karine Bénac-Giroux (eds.), Colonialism and Slavery in Performance: Theatre and the Eighteenth-Century French Caribbean . Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press, 2021. xii + 391 pp. (Cloth US$ 99.99)
With Colonialism and Slavery in Performance, Jeffrey Leichman and Karine Bénac-Giroux reveal eighteenth-century theater culture and practices in colonies such as Saint-Domingue as a mise-en-abyme of societal issues, including constructions of race, slavery, human rights, citizenship, and Frenchness, in a transatlantic context. Their compelling introduction makes clear that contributors highlight how “theatre was at the heart of the social life of the plantation” (p. 6) and pinpoints the salience of “eighteenth-century theatre history, both in the past and within the stage culture of modern day French Atlantic territories” (p. 9). Furthermore, they present an international conversation that privileges several sites of creation to further equitable and fruitful dissemination of knowledge; scholars from France (including the French Caribbean), the United States, Scotland, and Sweden allow English-speaking readers to learn from overlooked scholarly voices.
The book’s structure undermines myopic views of race, racism, and citizenship, using a transgeographic and transhistorical framework. Three diachronic sections make evident that race, nationality, and Frenchness were negotiated outside of the metropole, in the French colonies.
The first part, “Performance Cultures of St. Domingue,” delves into the eighteenth-century colony. First, Logan J. Connors teases out how military garrisons influenced theatrical productions in wealthy Cap-Français. Julia Prest then offers an astute close reading of blackface performances in Paris and Saint-Domingue to examine the power dynamics of White actors’ (re)construction of racial identity. Béatrice Ferrier focuses on the 1787–88 tour in the colony of star actor César Ribié and his small troupe to analyze the sociopolitical implications of productions created in Paris and their adaptation to colonial audiences. While examining a local adaptation of Rousseau’s Le devin du village, Bernard Camier emphasizes musicality and linguistics in theatrical productions in Saint-Domingue, thereby spotlighting distinct Creole ideas of identity and (national) belonging. Sean Anderson also explores problematic identity constructions and their political ramifications by investigating colonial restrictions on performances of the creolized calenda dance. Finally, Laurence Marie looks at theatrical reviews to focus on their dissemination of information about theater in Saint-Domingue and their intriguing literary critiques.
“Antillean Slaves on European Stages” brings us back to the other side of the ocean. It opens with Catherine Ramond’s discussion of the colonial imaginary’s exoticism of slavery and its emerging critique on the French stage. Jeffrey Leichman offers linguistic analysis of theatrical productions to probe the trope of the grateful slave as a manifestation of anxiety around the French idea of the nation. Pierre Saint-Amand analyzes political farce to expose comic tropes mocking colonists’ lofty aspirations and questioning the plantation world’s legitimacy. Fredrick Thomasson investigates the Stockholm stage, which showcased several French plays discussing colonialism and slavery, to emphasize the malaise of the Swedish nation as a new slave-holder following its purchase of St. Barthélemy from France. Pascale Pellerin’s insightful essay assesses how the loss of Saint-Domingue (and colonial power) due to the Haitian Revolution surfaces in French theatrical productions.
Part Three, “Reperforming Caribbean Histories,” returns us to the contemporary scene. Laurent Dubois and Kaiama Glover discuss how in the 1950s, Haitian historian Jean Fouchard and writer Marie Vieux Chauvet masterfully wove a historiography of eighteenth-century theatrical culture. Dubois and Glover particularly highlight in these authors’ texts the importance of one of the most important mixed-race actresses in Saint-Domingue: Minette. Emily Sahakian examines performance practices of artists such as the Guadeloupean LenaBlou (dancer and choreographer) and Gilbert Laumord (actor and director) and their strategies in offering an embodied experience of the past and enslaved people’s history to their audiences. Karine Bénac-Giroux expands on the importance of embodied experience, grappling with whether or not one can fully grasp history through its theatrical (re)presentation if one is only a spectator and not a participant. Lastly, Nadia Chonville’s chapter shows how in her 2017 play Ladjablès, Martinican Daniely Francisque explores sexual violence and gender/race performance to question the persistence of crippling colonial and postcolonial mythologies.
None of the sections of this well-organized and thought-provoking collaborative work disappoint. They contain well-articulated and well-researched contributions at the intersections of history and culture, with the French essays translated for English-speaking readers. The book enriches the field of Colonial Studies with contributions that explore fascinating dialogues between colonies and the metropole and adds to discussions generated by Marlene Daut’s Tropics of Haiti (2014) on the power of novels and printed texts in (re)constructing race, nationalism, and humanism in transatlantic contexts. Colonialism and Slavery in Performance beautifully fills historiographic lacunae with vibrant and thorough discussions of theatrical culture and practices.