General Issue: Vol. 74, Issue 2 (June 2022)
By Laura Edmondson
As Charles Kipng'eno Rono explores in this issue, Kenyan playwright Francis Imbuga's dedications to the deceased serve as portals to what lies beyond the text. In that spirit, I dedicate this issue to the memory of Tom Postlewait, our beloved colleague who passed from this earth last November. Many of us have a "Tom story": mine is that during my undergraduate years at Indiana University, he advised my honors project on US female playwrights. Not only did he point me to pioneering work by playwrights such as Adrienne Kennedy and Cherríe Moraga, but he also pushed me to sharpen my prose through his famously intensive editing style. As I take up my new position as coeditor, I aspire to his legacy of critical generosity. I also wish to acknowledge the influence of Jean Graham-Jones, another tireless editor who worked closely with me to refine my essay on trauma and performance in northern Uganda in what would become my first publication in this journal. I seek to live up to Tom's and Jean's examples in my collaborative exchanges with authors. It is a privilege to witness their intellectual journeys as they come to inhabit fully the power of their ideas.
It is also a privilege to learn from their work. The authors included in this issue have introduced me to the specificities of neoliberal violence in Mexico; the potential of Afropessimism, Black feminist theory, and abolition theory to invigorate dramatic criticism; the possibilities of hauntology as a lens for postcolonial drama; and the creative power of Polish fringe theatre during the pandemic. I am grateful to previous editor E.J. Westlake for ensuring that I had such a rich collection of essays already in the pipeline as I transitioned into my role; I appreciate her thoughtful efforts to ensure that I had a soft landing.
To borrow another concept from Rono's essay, two specters haunt this collection. The first is that of the COVID-19 pandemic. Granted that only one essay specifically invokes the pandemic; still, I am struck by the fact that almost all of them focus on textual analysis and only occasionally invoke performance. In the shuttering of live performance over the past two years, did we retreat into our texts? I realize, of course, that this question belies the fact that we often work on projects for years before they make their way to a journal; I also recognize that the distinction between page and stage is easily blurred. Still, this pattern bears mentioning in light of the journal's historic emphasis on the interplay of text and performance, broadly defined.
The specter of state violence also looms. These plays and performances were created in the shadow of neoliberal Mexico, a carceral United States, a dictatorial Kenya, and an autocratic Poland. As Russia wages a deadly war in Ukraine and as horrific civil wars continue to take thousands of lives in Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Yemen, these essays bear fierce witness to the multiple overt and covert ways that states maintain a stranglehold on power. Significantly, they also highlight the ingenuity and courage of playwrights and artists across four continents to expose and critique widespread damage and harm. As tactics of state violence seep across the globe, so too does the creative spirit of protest and solidarity.
In contrast to the spectacular nature of direct violence, neoliberalism tends to manifest itself as a more hidden, "ordinary" violence, which our field continues to theorize as a political and aesthetic force.1 Analola Santana's article "Neoliberal Transactions: Staging Prostitution in the Mexican Nation" expands the conversation through a cogent analysis of how neoliberal violence is performed in Mexican drama; as in so much of the Global South, the damage of late capitalism is exacerbated by the forces of Western imperialism. Specifically, she explores how the Mexican playwrights Luis Enrique Gutiérrez Ortiz Monasterio (more commonly known as LEGOM) and H. Iván Arizmendi Galeno employ a "prostitute imaginary" to critique endemic neglect and systemic corruption. As Santana explains: "In both plays, sex work becomes the means for exposing these 'silent and invisible' forms of violence. The figure of the prostitute facilitates a critique of economic consumption in a nation ravaged by the violent implementation of a neoliberal model that has wreaked havoc upon ordinary lives." The combination of poignancy and parody in both plays coalesce in powerful excoriations of neoliberal violence.
The next two articles build upon Westlake's recent special issue on "Shooting" (December 2021) through their focus on police violence in the United States as addressed in contemporary Black plays. In "To Be Free of Air: Narrative and Negation in the Alexander Plays," Esther Beth Sullivan draws upon Afropessimism and Black feminist theory as an analytic for the Alexander plays—a series of plays and dramatic pieces by Adrienne Kennedy (one of which is coauthored by her son, Adam) that feature Kennedy's alter ego, Suzanne Alexander. This essay sheds new light on Kennedy's brilliance as it delves into how her plays both anticipate and complicate Afropessimism's stance on the entanglement of narrative with anti-blackness. As Sullivan writes: "Narrative and racism appear inescapable and inescapably intertwined, as if together they seep into every breath taken by Suzanne and [her son] Teddy." Air itself is clouded with white supremacy. Yet, as Sullivan also demonstrates, Suzanne's ferocious commitment to writing speaks to Kennedy's own determination to find a way to "be free of air," even "while finding no other source of breath and life." Thanks to Sullivan's diligent efforts at locating production images of Kennedy's work, I am delighted to dedicate the cover to honoring her extraordinary legacy.
In "Abolition Dramaturgies: Reformance, Waywardness, and the End of the World," Nicholas Fesette also explores Black dramaturgical resistance to the constraints of narrative. First, he considers how plays such as American Son by Christopher Demos-Brown enact conservative ideas of reform, or what he calls reformance, which reiterate "a structure of repetition in which some change, or difference, is proposed and/or implemented without transforming the foundational structure." The politics and aesthetics of reformance foreclose more capacious pasts and alternative futures. He then moves into more radical work of Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu and Suzan-Lori Parks, drawing upon Saidiya Hartman's ideas of waywardness to theorize the characters at the heart of Nwandu's Pass Over and Parks's In the Blood as ungovernable figures. Moses, Kitch, and Hester enact refusal of the state itself. Fesette persuasively argues that through their enactment of an abolitionist dramaturgy, these plays "embody Black sociality that undoes the individualizing confinement of the carceral world order."
Charles Kipng'eno Rono's essay returns us to the Global South. It demonstrates how Francis Imbuga, a revered playwright across eastern Africa, employs dedications, dreams, and specters as techniques to expand political horizons despite the surveillance of an autocratic regime in the 1980s. Even when the plays are not explicitly addressing this regime, its presence still looms, as Imbuga's plays "excavate the possessed trajectories of subjects denied sociocultural and political rights by those in power." As in Santana's essay, the plays are haunted by the failure of the nation; Rono, for example, invokes Frantz Fanon's description of the postcolonial state as "an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been." Imbuga transforms failure into a generative space, filling it with spectral figures who demand redress.
COVID-19 emerges from the shadows in "On the Benefits of Plague: Polish Fringe Theatre in 2020" by Edyta Lorek-Jezińska, Marek Jeziński, and Piotr Domeracki. These authors consider Artaudian theory alongside an essay by philosopher Susan Neiman to propose a theatrical aesthetic that speaks to solidarity rather than cruelty. As they explain, "the pandemic has offered spectators who come from positions of privilege an opportunity to expand their perspective by making them more aware of their vulnerability and precarity." They examine how Polish theatre artists reimagined computer screens as new stages that generate solidarities across and among refugees, the disabled, and those who challenge a conservative regime. The essay offers a powerful corrective to nostalgic longings for pre-2020 theatre through its exploration of the creative potential unleashed by the pandemic, even as the world continues to grieve and cope with staggering loss. The bold experimentation with telepresence in Polish fringe theatre points the way to brave new worlds, as does the rich collection of performance reviews included in this issue. We welcome work that theorizes space, embodiment, and temporality in new ways as the field grapples with the watershed moment in which we live.
The field also continues to reckon with the transformative impact of the Black Lives Matter revolution. Fesette speaks to this reckoning when he writes that In the Blood "asks us to contribute materially to repair (and reparation) in our research and creative works, as well as in the processes of their making." I am reminded of La Donna L. Forsgren's editorial note to the most recent issue of Theatre Survey: "The movement to foster freedom, liberation, and justice has penetrated every institution, from our theatres to our universities to academic presses. Theatre Survey is not exempt from this call."2 Neither, of course, is Theatre Journal. The artistic work explored in this issue reminds us that the forces of global anti-blackness are sweeping but not indefatigable, and that calls for liberation and justice reach well beyond the United States and encompass the Global South, or what some call "the Majority World."3 Rono asks from his vantage point in Kenya: "How can the brilliance of our continent's playwrights help us to grow the field and introduce new registers?" How can the journal showcase more of these registers (movements, geographies, artists, and scholars) that pave the way for a transformation of the field?
I am delighted to partner with editor Sean Metzger in these endeavors. During the short time that I have been coeditor, I have already learned so much from his commitment ] to supporting emerging scholars, his dedication to expanding the discipline, and his command of the field. I am also indebted to our new assistant editor Jordan Ealey. She has already established herself as an asset to the journal thanks to her intellect, knowledge, dedication, and graciousness; the authors in this issue have benefited tremendously from her keen and discerning eye. Carla Neuss has also been a pleasure to work with as she develops and curates online material that expands the issue; I urge readers to peruse Deena Selenow's interview with Nwandu and Elka Fediuk's interview with LEGOM in tandem with these essays.
On that note, I must close with an acknowledgment of yet another loss. As this issue was going to press, we received the tragic news that LEGOM passed away. Fediuk's interview—LEGOM's last one before he died—is a rich testament to the legendary playwright's powerful intellect and lively sense of humor. In this season of loss, we mourn both Tom and LEGOM. May we honor their memories through a process of "looking backward, dreaming forwards," to quote the last email I received from Tom. And may we find ways to remember and dream in community with each other.
1. Recent examples include Jisha Menon's Brutal Beauty: Aesthetics and Aspiration in Urban India (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2021), and Patricia Ybarra's Latinx Theater in the Times of Neoliberalism (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2017).
2. La Donna L. Forsgren, "The Work," Theatre Survey 63, no. 1 (2022): 1.
3. Shahidul Alam, "Majority World: Challenging the West's Rhetoric of Democracy," Amerasia Journal 34, no. 1 (2008): 88–98.