Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Thadious M. Davis
This dissertation examines the relationship between African American literature and performance during the modern Civil Rights Movement. It traces the ways in which the movement was acted out on the theatrical stage as creatively as it was at those sites of embodied activism that have survived in intellectual and popular memories: lunch counters and buses, schools and courtrooms, streets and prisons. Whereas television and photography have served as primary ways of knowing the movement, this project turns to African American literature, and the live performances it inspired, to provide a more complex framework for analyzing the movement's cultural arm.
Focusing in particular on African American drama and poetry, I argue that critically analyzing the intersections of literature and performance uncovers conceptual and epistemological frameworks that productively reorient traditional accounts of the modern Civil Rights Movement. In this vein, I examine the works of relatively well-known artists, such as Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Alice Childress, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Amiri Baraka, and Gil Scott-Heron, and lesser known artists and performance collectives, such as Paul Carter Harrison, Pearl Cleage, the Free Southern Theater, and the Broadside Press Poets.
Building upon this archival intervention, I argue that black writers and performers develop what I term acts of black performative revealing , in which they use their bodies, the stage, and literature to play with and challenge iconographies of race, gender, sexuality, nation, and modernity that circulated in U.S. public discourse and international media. Despite preoccupations with "making it new" in the realm of art, science, and technology, there was a troubling, diametrical desire to constrict people of African descent to antiquated modes of being in the domain of rights, equality, and justice. Yet, from the revered stages of Broadway to community theater performances that were produced in the cotton fields of Mississippi, blacks crafted innovative performance and aesthetic techniques that creatively challenged and repurposed the very lexicon of scientific and technological innovation. Utilizing these practices to reimagine race, gender, sexuality, nation, and U.S. modernity, the artists studied here invite more nuanced conceptions of the movement's "classical" phase, which has, of late, fallen out of critical vogue because of a "dominant" narrative that the intersection of literature and performance fruitfully unsettles.
Fleming Jr, Julius B., "Staging Civil Rights: African American Literature, Performance, and innovation" (2014). Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. 1276.