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date: 28 January 2021

Nation and Ethnicity in American Performance and Theaterlocked

  • Heather S. NathansHeather S. NathansTufts University

Summary

Scholars have long wrestled with definitions of what might constitute “American” performance or theater. Early 19th-century histories defined it in strictly white, largely anti-British terms, imagining an art form that could instruct citizens of the newly created nation in lessons of civic virtue. In his History of American Theatre (1832), playwright, theater manager, and theater historian William Dunlap described theater as a “powerful engine” for a democratic state. Subsequent theater historians would catalog records of “firsts”—such as the first American stars (including Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman), or the first long-running American dramatic hits (including The Drunkard or Uncle Tom’s Cabin). The roles of women and racial or ethnic minorities were frequently relegated to the anecdotal or the exceptional.

In the wake of the Civil War, and with the expansion of the frontier, definitions of American theater grew more capacious, encompassing more amateur, popular, and immigrant performances as new groups struggled to establish footholds in American culture. The turn into the 20th century and the unfolding series of civil rights movements on behalf of women, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer) citizens, people of color, and people with disabilities rapidly transformed the nation’s theatrical landscape. Groups that had found themselves represented by others onstage discovered new opportunities for creative expression in the playhouse.

Over the past twenty-five years, theater scholars have shifted away from a narrative of “firsts” and national exceptionalism toward a more nuanced series of intertwined histories that illuminate the complex discourses of national and ethnic identity in American culture. Their work has revealed a performance community—whether in the playhouse or on the streets—constantly struggling to create workable definitions of citizenship and belonging. Theater artists have never stopped pushing themselves and their audiences to challenge definitions of national identity. Their work invites contemporary students to expand their understanding of what constitutes the canon of “American” theater.

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