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.
Heather S. Nathans
Ricardo L. Ortiz
For half of his nearly sixty-year writing career, John Rechy was recognized primarily for his contributions to homosexual literature in the United States, even as from the beginning of that career he consistently cast his major protagonists as young men of mixed ethnicity, part-Mexican and part-Scottish, hailing like him from the border city of El Paso, Texas. As the fields of queer and US Latinx literary studies emerged in the 1980s, critics and scholars began to study the important intersectionalities of Rechy’s multiple identities more explicitly and intentionally, and that attention has been sustained ever since, leading to a significant rethinking of earlier responses to Rechy’s literary work, and a significant opening of the possible viable readerly approaches to Rechy’s entire writing career. Underrepresented in this matrix of critical approaches toward Rechy’s work that favor issues of identity, however, is a more direct, committed interest in describing the specifically literary, and aesthetic, aspects of Rechy’s contributions to the cultural traditions to which he matters, regardless of whether that interest foregrounds or not the understandably compelling factors of identity (ethnic, gender, sexual, class, geographic, etc.) that drive so much extant Rechy criticism. That critical project will surely benefit from a greater attention to, for example, Rechy’s experiments with form, style, and the materiality of print across the six decades of his career, very likely discovering there that those experiments can open alternative doors to understanding not only Rechy’s artistry, but also the unique qualities of his queerness, and the unique qualities of his latinidad.