Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 10, 2018
E. Patrick Johnson and Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, eds. Blacktino Queer Performance Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. 584 pp.; 23 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780822360506)

According to E. Patrick Johnson and Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, the terms “performance,” “queer,” and “blacktino” in the title of their coedited book Blacktino Queer Performance signal collaborations: queer as non-normative sexualities; performance as a lens to examine sociocultural phenomena; and blacktino analytics as a “critical optic [which] allows us to maintain the goals of queer-of-color-critique and to ground it in [. . .] black and brown intergroup relations” (7). On the volume’s cover is a seminal moment in queer blacktino performance: Sylvia Riviera and Marsha P. Johnson, foremothers of blacktino transgender activism, at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Gay Pride Parade in New York City in 1973. The parade presents a foundational moment of critique of gay activism that has at times marginalized transgender people through the policing of behaviors in the gay rights movement. The photograph was taken on the same day Riviera gave a speech and received boos by the crowd. Riviera and Johnson cofounded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which supported homeless trans and gender nonconforming youth. Riviera and Johnson evoke the cultural manifestations of struggle and marginalization present in gay, women’s, and civil rights’ movements of the time. The concept blacktino imagines the performative, the permeable, the flexible, and connected as methodology. Permeability illuminates meaning and subjectivities that are not easily discernible. Like Riviera and Johnson and the tenuous terms with which they are incorporated into the gay rights movement, performativity visualizes bodies on the line. Blacktino queer analysis can also be applied to engage readers of the book—its nine sections, each focused on a different performance, are connected and permeable.

Each part takes its provocation from an original stage script and images from the original performance, and is followed by two chapters: an interview with the performer, director, and/or writer and a theoretical essay that maps provocations of the performance. Johnson and Rivera-Servera believe that the relationship between the performance script, the interview/discussion, and the essay forms a blacktino queer reading practice. As the editors suggest in the introduction, a blacktino reading practice imagines collaboration in local and global registries. Several themes overlap across the nine parts.

Part 1 begins with performance artist Sharon Bridgforth’s play The love conjure/blues Text Installation (2004) and its two chapters: a theoretical essay by Matt Richardson and an interview conducted by Sandra L. Richards. The script traverses an intertextual approach, outlined by the editors in their introduction, that imagines overlap and reflection between multiple materials. Bridgforth’s script is multivocal and draws on jazz aesthetics’ uses of disparate and connecting parts in music to create a whole. Bridgforth’s play works at the flexible seam of black and brown subjectivities. In the companion essay, African diaspora scholar Matt Richardson notes the use of multivocality and jazz aesthetics imagine more than one event, sound, or idea to tell untold stories (65). Multitextuality continues as a thread in part 2 where readers encounter the Latinx feminist theater ensemble Teatro Luna in an essay by performance studies scholar Tamara Roberts and an interview with Coya Paz by Patricia Ybarra. Teatro Luna’s performance piece Machos (n.d.) uses data gathered from interviews with men on experiences of racialized masculinity. Conjoining a cacophony of skits and musical interludes, Machos uses an ethnography-based performance practice to move through topics that include stylization, heterosexual/queer intimacies, and gender violence. Parts 1 and 2 comment on the intertextual approach to performance, whether through jazz aesthetics (Bridgforth) or through what Robert’s essay on Teatro Luna refers to as the recasting of Machos through camp and an all-women-identified cast of performers.

An exploration of queer performative work and the displacement of queer as a sexual identity represents two themes of the volume, which emerge in part 3, where Johnson incorporates his own performance Strange Fruit (2000), originally staged at the Black Queer Conference at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The sensory overload and overlapping texts that characterized Strange Fruit are represented in Javier Cardona’s Ah mén (2004), part 4, through the sheer physicality of their dress. Ah mén explores masculinity as a social construct. Through visual, verbal, and bodily texts, six dancers perform networks of prescription, transmission, and enforcement of normative masculinity by social institutions (e.g., family and church). While the subjects of these two performances mark homosocial and/or queer relations, both performances are interested in queer alterity outside the construction of normative social and aesthetic practice. This might best be reflected in Jeffery Q. McCune Jr.’s performance piece Dancin’ the Down Low (part 5) and Pamela Booker’s Seens from the Unexpectedness of Love (part 7). McCune, in an interview with John Keen, argues for the importance of asking the reader to consider men that have sex with men but do not consider themselves gay as exceeding assumptions of shame. In this way, Dancin’ (n.d.) pivots between labels of sexual orientation, identities, and social worlds and utilizes “layered complications and complexities . . . [that] never make it easy for [the] audience” (331). Booker’s Seens (2005) explores this relationship between complex intimacies and the element of doing queer performance methodology. This is best exemplified through the illegibility of gender in the names of the main cast of characters—TheFACE and TheEX.

The performances of Cedric Brown’s Cuban Hustle (2006) in part 6 and Seens both negotiate in broad strokes queer diasporic desire in same-sex relationships. Notably, performance studies scholar Soyini Madison points to “the political economy of love” (390) in Brown’s performance that animates labor, whether domestic or across nation-state borders, as a defining characteristic of queer desire and love. Labor as an ideological economy and mode of socioeconomic exchange reverberates in Seens when the central cast must negotiate the limits of love at the end of a relationship. In an interview with Booker, performance studies scholar Tavia Nyong’o probes the characters’ gender, which is never fully discernible. The use of masks, rose-colored glasses, and other symbols further animate inconclusive gender. The terms of queer desire and its economies are not specific to parts 6 and 7. For example, returning to Cardona’s Ah mén, theorists Celiany Rivera-Velázquez and Beliza Torres Narváez suggest that the erotic of libidinal love might better be framed through the erasure of blackness from the national imaginary of Puerto Rico and how this erasure would challenge nation building (266).

The desire for the Other is also present in the collection “Berserker” (2003) by Paul Outlaw, part 8, which conjoins the stories of Nat Turner and the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer through a troupe of berserkers—Norse warriors who could perform grotesque cruelty when in a state of psychic fury. The script tugs at the lines of black gay desire and the desire for the Other. This libidinal desire for the Other, is further negotiated in Charles Rice-González’s I Just Love Andy Gibb (part 9). which problematizes racial discontent in two of the characters—or is it different generational versions of the same person? Love Andy Gibb (2007) turns its attention to black Puerto Rican men in the Bronx and their desire for light-skinned objects. Again, we see a cycling back to desire and the libidinal and their mark on the nation-state as represented in Ah mén, among other scripts. 

Methodologically, the performance texts perform the archive by using methods and practices of embodiment: focus groups with men performed by women-identified performers as ethnographic practice (Teatro Luna); discussions at bars and online chatrooms (McCune); and ethnographic interviews shaped into the characters’ stories (Johnson). The book provides new methods for approaching subjects, events, and visual texts, which are increasingly important to art historians. One limitation is the volume’s reliance on the reader to make the connection to permeability by reading the book’s parts out of order. This is not entirely a problematic orientation, rather a practice that implores readers to think beyond the bounds of gender, sexuality, and textual form itself. Another limitation is a reliance on black gay storytellers. At times, they do not fully animate the trans-gendering analytics pointed to through Riviera’s and Johnson’s iconographies. While gender itself becomes problematized through loving, desiring, and the performative, there is a surprising absence of blacktino performance texts such as those by Dynasty Handback, Vaginal Davis, and Carmelita Tropicana. This may be justified in the book’s focus on more traditional theatrical spaces. Still, if we are to make the argument that blacktino queer performance animates these interracial and intertextual sites, then a turn to the lay spaces of performances like the drag shows are worthy of such a consideration. Despite the above criticism, Blacktino Queer Performance is an essential read for scholars of performance, queer theory, and critical race studies and sits among Black Performance Theory (2014) and The Sage Handbook of Performance Studies (2005). Its cross-disciplinary approach provides multiple perspectives through intertextual and intercultural critique. Johnson and Rivera-Servera cogently highlight the long history of interracial collaboration without which blacktino collaboration would not be available. The editors show how such collaborations reverberate in political, personal, and artistic production, long after the performance event. 

Sarah Stefana Smith
Postdoctoral Diversity Fellow, College of Arts and Sciences, American University