American Ghetto Parties and Ghanaian Concert Parties: A Transnational Perspective on Blackface
By Catherine M. Cole
From the Introduction: Catherine Cole’s “American Ghetto Parties and Ghanaian Concert Parties: A Transnational Perspective on Blackface,” like Maurice’s chapter, takes two distinct events that, on the face of it, have little in common, and connects them through the minstrel tradition. She first of all revisits her earlier research on the “concert party” theatrical tradition in Ghana, discussed in her important work Ghana’s Concert Party Theatre. In that popular form, a colonized society co-opted the entertainment traditions of the colonizer, using variations on blackface minstrel characters to speak back to the desires and disappointments of their lives. Drawing parallels to the early years of minstrelsy, in particular the parodic, political figure of Jim Crow (him again!), Cole provides a much-needed (and, she points out, not sufficiently explored) reference to the dissemination of blackface minstrelsy internationally, and its translations and permutations when confronted by other cultures. In some ways the Ghanaian concert party might provide us with a window onto the uses (and abuses) of those earlier traditions; and in some ways it is something quite different. In this essay most particularly, Cole reminds us just how aggressively a local culture can rewrite the “lore” of a performance idiom, and how easily it can forget that idiom’s origins and disparate readings. Cole notes, for example, the difficulty Ghanaian performers have had understanding why their blackface would be treated with such antagonism by Americans.
The second part of Cole’s discussion brings the investigations in this volume full circle. In the first essay, as we have seen, W. T. Lhamon explores the persistence of T. D. Rice’s integrationist Jim Crow in as recent and as seemingly disconnected an event as the election of Barack Obama. In fine Cole, invoking Lhamon’s ideas about the “lore” of blackface, explores the persistence of a very different strain of the idiom in American “ghetto parties”—troubling semiprivate events in which (mostly middle-class) white college students attend a theme party dressed (and sometimes blacked up) as American ghetto stereotypes. Her discussion of this recent phenomenon—illustrated particularly in the “Compton Cookout”—resonates back through all of the essays in this volume.
Excerpt from Stage-Shakers! Ghana’s Concert Party Theatres, produced by Kwame Braun, narrated by Catherine Cole (copyright 2001 Kwame Braun):
For DVDs of “Stageshakers!” contact the filmmaker at: email@example.com.
Catherine M. Cole is Professor of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she currently runs the Graduate Program in Performance Studies. She is the author of Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission: Stages of Transition (2010) and Ghana’s Concert Party Theatre (2001), which received a 2002 Honorable Mention for The Barnard Hewitt Award for outstanding research in theatre history from the American Society for Theatre Research and was a finalist for the Herskovits Prize in African Studies. She co-edited the book Africa After Gender? (2007) as well as a special issue of Theatre Survey on African and Afro-Caribbean Performance, and she recently served as Editor for Theatre Survey. Her dance theater piece Five Foot Feat, created in collaboration with Christopher Pilafian, toured North America in 2002-2005. Cole has published articles in Africa, Critical Inquiry, Disability Studies Quarterly, Research in African Literatures, Theatre, Theatre Journal, and TDR, as well as numerous chapters in edited volumes. Cole’s research has received funding from the National Humanities Center, National Endowment for the Humanities, Fund for U.S. Artists, American Association of University Women, ELA Foundation, and University of California Institute for Research in the Arts.