General Issue: Vol. 74, Issue 1 (March 2022)
By Sean Metzger
Discourse concerning the Atlanta Spa Shootings, which happened around the time that this issue first started to come together in March of 2021, has renewed the urgency of thinking about performance and feminism together.1 Given that this issue's publication roughly coincides with the first anniversary of those murders, the violent events in Atlanta have loomed in the background of the editorial process. Moreover, although the essays in this issue address quite distinct forms of performance and paratheatrical phenomena from state surveillance to fan groups to online participatory audiences, all of the essays use feminist methodologies either explicitly or implicitly. Therefore this editorial highlights some of their convergences to think through how the interventions of each author might speak to a feminist knowledge project that is critical in this historical moment.
As an interlocutory text, Laura Hyun Yi Kang's Traffic in Asian Women (2020) contextualizes the recent case of feminicide in Atlanta, given that most of the victims of the shootings were women of Asian descent. Kang's book articulates concerns that resonate in sometimes surprising ways with the essays hereafter and the larger role that feminist inquiry has played in Theatre Journal. As the title suggests, Kang expands on several sources, including Emma Goldman's 1910 essay, "The Traffic in Women"; the League of Nations reports from 1927 and 1932 on traffic in women and children, as well as later UN documents dealing with overlapping issues; and Gayle Rubin's 1975 essay, "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex." This last essay has long invigorated studies of feminism, theatre, and performance.2 Thus Traffic in Asian Women and Rubin's work that Kang's title inevitably recalls (and which Kang engages at length) offer analytical paradigms that help readers to understand the feminist import of the essays that follow, as well as their relevance now.
Briefly, Rubin argued that Karl Marx's account of class oppression remained insufficient in describing the oppression of women and the larger sex/gender system as an ideological apparatus. As an anthropologist, Rubin turned to Claude Lévi-Strauss to reveal how kinship structures rely upon the exchange of women in societies to facilitate and normalize heteronormative patriarchal power. In turn, Lévi-Strauss's own invocation of the incest taboo led Rubin to Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan as thinkers who further illuminated sexuality's incorporation into what Rubin called "sex" oppression. She ultimately called for the reorganizing or rewriting of such social scripts, and offered the provocation that scholarship—on the order of what Friedrich Engels had attempted in his The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State—might generate an understanding of how women's oppression manifests at all levels of social organization and might provide tools for their reengineering.
Kang "argue[s] for historicizing both the sweeping reach and the blind spots of Rubin's 1975 essay," among other texts.3 She sees Rubin's work "as indicative of how U.S.-Anglophone feminist research and theory in the 1970s seized upon new possibilities and expansive horizons of feminist knowledge production in ways that were propelled by a broader but culturally particular epistemological disposition . . . this feminist will to global authority was enacted amid a changing political economy of globalization and the new international division of labor, which revealed and magnified stark gaps and inequalities between women."4 Kang's book continues to reveal how Asian women as a category has particularly animated discourses of and related to trafficking within wide-ranging contexts. Books like Kang's offer a productive hesitation in invoking the first person plural. She illuminates the instrumentalization and interrogation of this pronoun, which both promises and threatens to bind people together.
Dani Snyder-Young also explores this understanding of "we" as a potentially performative utterance because of its frequent invocation in theatre, particularly during the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her lead article in this issue looks at digital performances during the beginning of the pandemic precisely to investigate the constructions of community proffered in two recent works: Mike Sears and Lisa Berger's Ancient, produced by La Jolla Playhouse, and Emily Mast and Yehuda Duenyas's How Are We, commissioned by the Onassis Foundation. Snyder-Young probes the discourses of exclusion and inclusion that such performances either highlighted or elided.
In terms of a feminist methodology, Snyder-Young works through concerns highlighted by second-wave feminism, including women's labor (both at the workplace and in the household), motherhood, and collectivity. She further illustrates how everyday actions assumed political import during the pandemic; this construction riffs on a longstanding feminist trope of the personal as political, which Snyder-Young also addresses by discussing her own identificatory processes as a working mother. Telecommunication platforms like Zoom both extended such identifications by creating new digital communities and limited them by normalizing white middle-class experiences and marginalizing others. Her argument does not ignore the subjectivities and experiences of white middle-class women, but explains how they matter and also why they might not matter in given circumstances.
The next essay extends these questions by examining the Polish fandom of famed actor Modrzejewska. It develops a "pirate theatre history" and a history of theatre piracy emphasizing women's experiences and uses of celebrity culture during the late nineteenth century in urban Polish lands. Reading against the grain of dominant Polish theatre historiography, Agata Łuksza demonstrates how two groups of urban women disrupted conventions of separate public and private spheres and refashioned normative social relations. By examining diaries, letters, and other archival documents, the author finds fragments to assemble the complex negotiations of female spectators with an "enchantress" of the stage, whose influence extended across the Atlantic. White Polish women of different generations found in their muse a means to circumvent the patriarchal expectations of wife- and motherhood.
The essay illustrates a feminist historiography attentive to the contradictions of burgeoning commercial culture, some of which facilitated Polish women's advancement. Within patriarchal systems of signification, these Polish women's stories simply have not registered. Such invisibility points to the importance of fashioning new methodologies that do not simply refuse women's lack of representation, but attempt to create structures in which women's desires emerge as meaningful. Piracy works not as a supplement to dominant representational strategies, but as a subversion of them. In this sense, Łuksza's essay intersects a work like Kang's, despite their different emphases and focus on quite disparate geopolitical questions.
Every age has its enchantress. Jane Barnette expands this idea in relation to witchy performances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe's WandaVision (directed by Matt Shakman, 2021). In this case, the protagonist Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch has transformed reality, transmogrifying a town and its inhabitants in response to her grief over the destruction of her beloved: the synthetic humanoid named Vision. The essay argues that such grief engendered by fictional circumstances in the diegesis resonate with the extradiegetic audience's sense of loss produced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the continued recognition of the precarity of Black life in the wake of reenergized BLM protests (the central Black female character activates this second line of inquiry). The series plays with layers of spectatorship as episodes pay homage to various moments in dramatic history (from The Wizard of Oz to The Crucible to Bewitched), with a particular emphasis on televisual style. Fans watch events transpire in Wanda's magically created world, which is itself surveyed in the narrative by an extra-governmental agency (elaborated in the comic books if not so much in the television miniseries itself); these source materials give Wanda and Vision their names and provide many backstories for the roster of secondary characters. Such layering manifests what Barnette calls the "palimpsestuous pleasures" of adaptation.
Performance constitutes this televised miniseries in terms of the acting and costume and production design that materialize the narrative and, more obliquely, in terms of the series' attention to performativity. A central provocation of WandaVision is to ask how we see through the hex, a word that at once names both act and actor, spell and spellcaster. For those who wield magic, spells tend to function as performative utterances, bringing into being that which they name (just ask any student at Hogwarts). Barnette suggests that the series also provided a platform to see the ethical conundrums of real-life individuals whose positions of power grant their words authority; witness former president Donald Trump inciting the attack on the Capitol. In this vein, WandaVision explores what performative language might do both to heal and rupture a sense of community. The feminist methodology emerges here largely through the object of study and the meanings generated by groups of women marginalized within the societies to which their otherness otherwise lends stability. Put otherwise, the witch forms the constitutive outside of the category of normative womanhood. Acting outside her given social script, the sorceress can help us to see the grounds of social inclusion and the potential pleasures and dangers of transgressing such boundaries.
In a move that aligns with Barnette's use of the witch, Amanda Reid reads against the grain of extant sources like Katherine Dunham's ethnographic films and descriptions of Gerardo de Leon's Orientalist drag. Reid offers a feminist and potentially queer account of leisure practices that emphasizes how bodies create political meanings through quotidian performance. Such an approach supplements her more traditional archival work. This multifaceted methodology explores the contradictions engendered by Marcus Garvey's Edelweiss Park in terms of nation-building efforts in Jamaica, as well as the circulation of Garveyism as a form of Black internationalism. The venue hosted a variety of entertainments, including jazz-age social dances such as the shay-shay, that activated discourses of working- and middle-class labor and pleasure in relation to commercialism, Black uplift, and cosmopolitanism in the first half of the twentieth century. Reid's essay revises both histories of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and histories of Caribbean dance by juxtaposing different archives of ostensibly Black Jamaican experience.
Read in combination with Barnette's essay, Reid also helps us to understand how Black women might disrupt dominant ways of seeing in relation to worldviews. In these cases, the conjuring of small-town life that the Scarlet Witch desires to inhabit or the enactment of cosmopolitanism materialized through Garvey's Edelweiss Park stand as idealized environments from certain perspectives and as potentially harmful from others. The potential to reconfigure modes of being returns us to Kang's book, in the sense of how interventions performed through particular women's bodies in different moments facilitate alternatives to living within dominant scripts, even as they also reveal them.
In the online-only section, our readership can see both elaborations of some of the work in the journal, as well as hear from voices that multiply and further complicate feminist methodologies. In Dani Snyder-Young's contribution, she provides digital footage of the works she describes along with additional commentary about how attempts to manage grief through performance might succeed or fail. Amanda Reid's contribution also offers a digital archive: Katherine Dunham's ethnographic films. Reid explains how these works function as a heuristic for a historiography of people whose voices have often been silenced in official archives. Clara Wilch's wide-ranging interview with artist Himali Singh Soin also examines how the digital might be incorporated into performance research; however, their conversation moves beyond the human to investigate relations that structure the ecosystems in which we live. As a woman born in India who has spent much of her life moving between London and New Delhi, Soin returns us to the meanings and values attached to Asian women, even as her work resists inscription into such identificatory labels. Her concerns with feminist approaches to the environment are also evoked by the images on the cover.
This issue of Theatre Journal introduces Vabianna Santos as assistant editor. An interdisciplinary artist concerned with feminist and queer representational strategies, Santos's work adorns the front and back covers. On the front, s(he) has provided a still from (he)r 2019 video piece, Beast Script. The video work builds micro-choreographies of gender that reference shapeshifting and genderfuck, extending classical dance poise into moments of failure and searching. The subject captured in the video is split: providing both a profile view and a spectral doubling from a different angle—extending self out into other and back again. Conjuring multiple bodies of the same subject in the illuminated foliage of an otherwise dark and wooded landscape might also convey a sense of witchiness: the fear and delight of what lurks outside the camera frame likewise indicates what is beyond the viewer's purview.
A strikingly different provocation appears on the back cover; an image captured from a live performance of Downfall Meditation (Future Ruin Meditation No. 7) (2021) in a collaborative project called SELF-ESTEEM with composer Clint McCallum. Again, doubling occurs in the cheerleading costume that subtly organizes a spectrum of gender and suggests self-representation as unfixed. As part of another queer mythology enacted in gesture, the image of the cheerleader defies normative expectations of schoolmodeled nationalism and oversexualization. Rather than energetic leaps and celebratory extensions with pom-poms, the pair move at an exquisitely slow rate: arching back and then forward—arriving face down on the ground in a series of prostrations. By distorting time and changing the expected dynamics of movement, the choreography functions as a speculation on ruinous temporalities as if to say: When will it all end, or what are potential trajectories for altering disempowering aspects of subjectivity?
One meaningful connection between Santos's work and the essays collected here is the subversive flashing between what can and cannot be represented. At the boundaries of self where we experience loss or the unruliness of the body, collectivity remains the sometimes immaterial spark between us that might enact new political meanings. Such effort mobilized through artistic practice provides a different register to understand the methodologies of materialist feminism that this issue and this editorial have attempted to perform.
As a last note, we wish to thank our generous and incisive former editor, E.J. West-lake, for her guidance these last few years. Thanks also to Jason Fitzgerald and Patrick Maley for their keen eyes as, respectively, book review editor and performance review editor. We welcome to the editorial team our new coeditor Laura Edmondson, our new book review editor Arnab Banerji, and our new performance review editor Joshua Williams (who will officially rotate onto the masthead with the June 2022 issue). We look forward to continuing the tradition of rigorous scholarship that has defined this journal over many decades.
1. This period also coincided with work on the December 2021 issue of Theatre Journal on "Shootings" edited by E.J. Westlake. As her initial impetus, Westlake mentions three mass shootings: Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016; Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas, October 1, 2017; and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018. She moves on to link gun violence to white supremacy as instantiated through legal discourse. See Westlake's "Editorial Comment: Shooting" (Theatre Journal 73, no. 4 : xi).
2. Indeed, back in our 1985 issue on "Staging Gender," Rubin's citations appear in several of the essays by prominent scholars of feminism and theatre.
3. Laura Hyun Yi Kang, Traffic in Asian Women (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 36.