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date: 28 January 2021

Race in Performancefree

  • Sean MetzgerSean MetzgerSchool of Theater, Film and Television, University of California Los Angeles


How are race and performance implicated within one another? Performance understood as theatrical practice extends back to antiquity before modern understandings of race emerged. Moreover, performance as a larger field of inquiry extends far beyond theater and includes embodied spatial practices, live events that hinge on communitas, patterns of behavior, as well as the presentation of certain abilities ranging from sports to rhetoric. Given such broad associations, performance can become a vehicle for the instantiation of race. Race—as psychic, material, and social processes of human differentiation—reveals in turn certain dynamics of performance; for example, the recourse to and privileging of human agency in discussions of performance frequently leaves uninterrogated the very category of human often thought to animate it. What are the relationships among humans, animals, objects, and technologies? What performs and what can be made to perform?

Any attempt to think about how race and performance are bound together raises questions about populations and identificatory actions and feelings. Race in performance suggests how individuals and groups take shape within larger structures of power and suggests the kinds of contradictions and improvisations that might be enacted within said systems. Such dynamics hinge on efficacy, pleasure, and/or discomfort.

A Genealogy of Performance and Race

The contingency of race renders it complex. To invoke race is to invoke certain norms and power relations that pertain to particular times and places. Explicating race and performance thoroughly across transnational and trans-historical contexts requires exploring the conjunction of race and performance and its utility as a frame of analysis, how race and performance articulate through and twine around one another. Such inquiries constitute a methodology for understanding how the idea of the human takes shape and the ways in which said constructions have been and could be challenged.

This entwining of race and performance should not suggest that performance emerges coeval with race. Classicist Amy Richlin has argued that, although performances from antiquity involved slaves and refugees, the ancient Romans understood these concepts quite differently than people living in later eras. In discussing Plautine comedy, Richlin underscores that “Roman slaves were categorized not by race but by civil status, and this status was capable of change.”1 She explicitly differentiates such processes from much later descriptions of African American racialization. Richlin’s analysis thus indicates that performance (she has a specific genre in mind, but ancient Rome indulged in many forms of performance on- and offstage) precede the idea of race in its modern configurations.

Scholars disagree about when exactly to locate the emergence of racial categorization, but general consensus holds that by the time of the Enlightenment, race operated as a category of personhood. The juridical apparatus of the nation-state (arguably the most prominent legacy of Enlightenment thought) is a salient and powerful example of how race comes to matter through performance. The post-Enlightenment elaboration of the human through disciplines like sociology and psychoanalysis further this project, and we see the inheritance of such categorization even in recent theatrical productions that stage issues of racial identification and trauma.

Comparative Racialization in Two National Contexts

At the broadest level of analysis, to consider race in performance is to ask a series of questions about what it means to be human in specific times and places. Race as it pertains to national contexts relates to legal discourse because the law both works as performative in the linguistic sense (that is, the law brings into being what it names) and also elicits various kinds of agential performances in response to legal regulation. Race thus demonstrates how the law enacts and generates racialized performances. For example, tactics of racial passing meant to circumvent the law reveal not only linguistic performatives but also embodied spatial practices in time. In sum, laws and their enactments clarify the stakes of thinking about the imbrication of race and performance.

The forging of the US Constitution exemplifies this assertion in the debates over the worth of black slaves. Each was considered three-fifths of one person for purposes of counting the population of an individual state. Such a move specifically linked issues of economic and political power in the then emerging republic, since population correlated with (and still operates as the metric by which each state determines) the numbers of legislators sent to the House of Representatives. In this example, race consolidates citizenship and white supremacy as the basis for the articulated system of American democracy. To be a black slave in the late 18th-century United States was to be seen from the national perspective as not quite human. In the rhetorical and material acts that founded the American polity and formalized the government of the United States, race performs by marking and instantiating a division between citizens (qua subjects with certain inalienable rights) and those deemed expendable, less than human.2

The implications of dividing the population into free and unfree continued to ripple throughout the growth of the United States. For example, the Fugitive Slave laws (1793, 1850) permitted plantation owners to hunt for their property across state and territorial lines. Such a legacy of anti-black efforts helped to foster a world in which black life was rendered as chattel. Thus, even after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the stage had already been set for the devaluation of black people (the Black Codes and Jim Crow helped to maintain this situation). Unsurprisingly, Reconstruction became a high point in the history of anti-black violence in the United States. Literature, including James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, constructs this historical period and demonstrates through narrative devices the mechanics of and investment in passing as white. The unnamed narrator decides to perform whiteness after witnessing a lynching. The very mobility the narrator enacts through different social environments suggests that recognition as a legitimate subject always involves some sort of performance, and race exposes the structures that produce and mandate such performances that might otherwise remain out of view.

Such legal and social formulations of race do not obtain only in the United States, although systems of governance that rely on explicit racial differentiation enable one to see plainly many of the ways in which race matters. For example, South African apartheid (in effect from 1948 to 1991) formalized structures of racial discrimination and segregation through policies and laws such as the 1949 Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, which initially prohibited wedlock between white and black people. Eventually the law expanded to bar matrimony between white folks and people of any other race as defined by the government. These kinds of injunctions did not simply proscribe relations between existing categories of people; rather they brought into being new taxonomies (efforts to define what exactly constitutes black, for example) that set certain conditions of possibility through which subjects can emerge. Under such a legal system, who can imagine the self as an individual with agency to choose, in the South African case, where to live, what schools to attend, whom to wed? Such questions became complicated in a space like apartheid-era South Africa because the state constructed racial classifications, yet simultaneously justified such constructions by arguing that it described, rather than invented, genetically continuous groups, each of which had a different relationship to the purported ideal of whiteness.

Such a system depends on and again yields various forms of performance. South Africa’s 1949 Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act states, “Any person who makes a false statement to a marriage officer, relating to the question whether any party seeking to have his marriage solemnized by such marriage officer is a European or a non-European, knowing such statement to be false, shall be guilty of an offence and liable to the penalties prescribed by law for the crime of perjury.” Here the written or verbal affirmation facilitates a certain status unless circumstances (generated through an investigation or the presentation of contradictory evidence) renders the initial statement, in linguistic terms, infelicitous. The law also has the unexpected outcome of demonstrating (or at least pointing to) the presence of a number of couples passing as white. In other words, the legal archive created through case law exposes exactly what apartheid tried to invalidate: the desire for mixed marriages and love between races that existed even under apartheid.

The adjudication of race in both the United States and South Africa has involved a variety of evidential bases. These elements include most obviously physical traits narrated as racial characteristics (e.g., certain textures of hair or shades of skin color being deemed black). They also include behaviors ranging from language use to eating habits. Factors such as employment (or ostensible dispositions for certain kinds of labor) and place of residence have also provided means of racial identification. Perhaps more frequently in the millennial era, race has been increasingly re-linked to genetics.3 Such uses of evidence all depend on social construction, even when they seem to be about immutable traits, insofar as they depend on narratives that ground shared assumptions about reality.

However, such narratives alter over time. The shifting racial calculus defining “Chinese” people within the apartheid system illustrates the many challenges in trying to posit race as a category based on some sort of essence as well as the difficulties in defining race through some agreed-upon social norms. Indeed, “Chinese” people sometimes found themselves classified as “coloured” (in South Africa), sometimes as “Asian” (a category that emerged to denote the South Asian population in South Africa), and, in at least one instance, as white.4 During the 1980s and into the 1990s, when international sanctions crippled the South African economy, the apartheid government granted special status to Taiwanese industrialists (following the establishment of formal relations in 1949 that intensified after a 1971 UN resolution recognized the People’s Republic of China and withdrew recognition of Taiwan).5 In the post-millennial years, bids to reclassify Chinese as black occurred in order to provide governmental benefits to those who had experienced discrimination by the apartheid government.6 In the case of Chinese in South Africa, racial identification resulted from complex interactions of economic, political, and psychic identifications that have changed dramatically in a relatively short amount of time.

The processes of racialization in the United States and South Africa involve several different performances. Rhetorical acts justified by some ostensible material evidence constitute different subjects within the purview of the juridical system, racializing certain groups of people. Another example is the case of the “one-drop rule,” or blood quantum, used to label individuals as black or Native American by the US government. In South Africa, race could be gleaned, for example, from an internal passport, a document that might also be forged in attempts to circumvent South Africa’s Pass Laws. In these examples, documentation performs race—that is, it facilitates the task of racial identification, staging race as something knowable and seeable, promising to verify that an individual belongs to a particular group.

Such documents might also encourage related performances in instances of racial passing. The phenomenon of passing, of course, suggests the instability of race as opposed to marking race as fixed and unchangeable. Therefore, within the legal systems of the American republic and apartheid-era South Africa, labeling someone in terms of race did not simply describe something, it actually accorded or denied certain rights and privileges within the system of racial hierarchy. In this sense, race is performative; again, claiming whiteness might enable one to enter into certain public spaces. Anthropologist Dorinne Kondo has expanded philosopher Judith Butler’s work on gender and performativity into the realm of race: “the enacting of identities in fact brings those identities into being, rather than expressing some predetermined essence.”7

Foundational Models of Race from the Social Sciences

Because race is a key term in how societies understand themselves, it is no surprise that some of the most important models for thinking about it come from sociology and related social sciences that investigate communal cohesion and division. For example, the influential sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant have argued for what they call “racial formation” in the United States. Omi and Winant’s scholarship has been generative in arguing that every era has a common-sense logic about race; their definition of race as a “concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interest referring to different types of human bodies” helps to elucidate many of the phenomena discussed earlier in this article.8 As theater and performance studies scholar Harry Elam interprets the overlap: “The inherent ‘constructedness’ of performance and the malleability of the devices of the theater serve to reinforce the theory that blackness, specifically, and race, in general, are hybrid, fluid concepts whose meanings depend upon the social, cultural, and historical conditions of their use.”9 Yet Omi and Winant’s model has also been critiqued for its insistence on parsing economic inequalities and racial formation, since categories of race and class frequently bleed into one another. Moreover, in case studies that move beyond the United States, their findings can be limited because racial dynamics of one country are not necessarily exportable to another.

In contrast to Omi and Winant, the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein has written that race is a subcategory produced not by or within individual nation-states but as part of larger world systems. He argued that many of the analytical rubrics for human social organization—including race, nation, and ethnicity—attach to capitalism. For Wallerstein, such constructions of peoplehood might usefully be elaborated in relation to economic structures, despite the conceptualization of these categories as discrete.

A “race” is supposed to be a genetic category, which has a visible physical form. . . . A “nation” is supposed to be a sociopolitical category, linked somehow to the actual or potential boundaries of a state. An “ethnic group” is supposed to be a cultural category, of which there are said to be certain continuing behaviors that are passed on from generation to generation and that are not normally linked in theory to state boundaries.10

For Wallerstein, each of these terms “hinges on one of the basic structural features of the capitalist world-economy.”11 The details of this argument are perhaps less important than the fact that divisions produced through global capitalism (as opposed to class divisions within a particular national economy) produce meaningful categories of race. Most obviously, one can think of the racialized labor of colonial plantations (in Wallerstein’s model, the “periphery”) fueling core industrial nations. In Wallerstein’s framework, labor drives the market economy, and performance relates to the output of individual nation-states or hubs within that structure. The conceptual elaboration of performance as it relates to world systems theory has yet to be written. However, Michaeline Crichlow and Patricia Northover suggest some productive intersections in their book Globalization and the Post-Creole Imagination: Notes on Fleeing the Plantation by looking at how individual subjects take shape in space and the ways they might challenge political and economic structures through specific performance practices from those of les gens anglaises to the Rastafarian King Arthur.

Wallerstein’s work builds upon and intersects that of several other theorists. Karl Marx suggested how modes of production might construct race, particularly in his writing on primitive accumulation, which he saw as a point of departure for capitalism. The politician and writer Eric Williams developed these ideas further in his 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery. There, Williams, who became the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, argued that economic necessity produced slavery and that slavery, in turn, produced racism. Although later scholarship would contest these assertions, Williams marks a relatively early theorization of the ways in which race and capitalism are implicated within one another. Cedric Robinson advanced this discussion when he coined the term “racial capitalism,” which he used to describe the social structures emergent from capitalism.12

If Wallerstein emphasizes economics over discursive constructions of race, the interdisciplinary scholar Denise Ferreira Da Silva offers yet another way of approaching this complex issue. She has argued that the very notion of a human subject with reason and agency (in other words, a being considered self aware in the Cartesian philosophical tradition) came into existence in contradistinction to those (not quite) humans who are subjected to forces outside of their control. For Da Silva the very idea of the reasoning human depends for its definition on a cleaving through which the post-Enlightenment European man and the assumption of that figure’s subjectivity depends on a fusion of “particular bodily traits, social configurations, and global regions” as the constitutive other against which the idea of the universal human subject takes shape.13 From Da Silva’s perspective, racial categorization is not so much an effect of human reason but instead is central to the founding of the reasoning subject (a subject that has, in the history of philosophy, always defined itself against some “other”).

I am not so much repeating the argument that the others of Europe have been fixed in an earlier time or altogether outside time, as objects. . . . What I am highlighting is that, rather than producing the others of Europe outside of historicity and universality, the arsenal the racial guides engulfs them by writing their difference as an effect of the play of productive reason.14

For Da Silva, Man (as a Subject) emerges through post-Enlightenment thought, which uses the racial other for self-definition. Race relations do not explain racial subjection; rather racial subjection is a condition of possibility for the subject to emerge. She illustrates this point by moving through philosophy, anthropology, and sociology more or less in that order.

Da Silva’s argument hinges in part on the notion of affectability and the corollary understanding that whiteness comes to signify universality. In other words, the European subject becomes a transcendent subject (an “I”), whereas the others of Europe are always subjected to conditions and regulations outside of their control. Da Silva’s arguments implicitly rely on performance in the sense that the European philosophical tradition must continually iterate the idea of a reasoning subject against an affectable other. Such continual reenactments might be productively unpacked by thinking about performance and the ways that such performances fail or otherwise misfire.

These three models of race differ significantly from one another. Yet they all facilitate different ways of approaching race in performance. Omi and Winant offer a way to consider how social conflicts within the United States (like racism) produce rather than reflect categories of race. Witness Black Lives Matter, which is not particularly interested in quibbling over African-American versus immigrant African versus Afro-Caribbean experiences. Instead “black lives” is a kind of coalitional performance that seeks to counter the structure of institutional violence against black people in general (but especially within US borders). Wallerstein and Da Silva push us to think more globally about large-scale systems (emphasizing economics in the former case and philosophy in the latter) that relegate certain groups to the category of racial other. What role does race perform in the global capitalist system or in the philosophical and social scientific elaboration of the reasoning subject? And also how do such systems enable or even require certain performances of race? In the case of Wallerstein, the formal abolition of slavery leads not so much to its cessation as to a change in the system of transnational labor in which the Asian “coolie” takes the vacated place of the African slave. In practice, this substitution created a shift in degree more than in kind in terms of the value accorded to racialized bodies.15 Continual contract deferrals for indentured labor forced Asian coolies to perform as if they were slaves.16 Such relative assessments of the worth of human (and not quite human) kinds lead us to Da Silva’s work. How is the human subject defined, or under what conditions is the performance of human subject recognized and legitimated? These kinds of inquiries pertain to many debates in the early 21st century including, for example, those seeking to claim status as human traffic victims (the current version of the overlapping categories of slavery and indentured labor).17

Frantz Fanon, Race, and Performance

Although approaches to race generated from the social sciences offer useful means of elaborating and complicating understandings of race, they sometimes de-emphasize the role of imagination in racial constructions and identifications as well as the ways that individuals or groups might appropriate or contest the discursive and material contexts that work to define racial categories. Yet the contradictions of race yield perhaps the most fruitful analyses of the processes of racialization. In this vein, Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) has been exceptionally generative in terms of thinking about performance and race across media platforms and in transnational contexts.

Fanon’s life provided several different circumstances to consider the question of race. Born and raised in Martinique, Fanon completed his psychiatric studies in Lyon, France. He moved to Algeria in 1953, the year before the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962) began. There he became active in the Algerian National Liberation Front. Eventually expelled by the French government, Fanon moved to Tunisia before taking a post in Ghana. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, he published a number of significant articles and books. These writings consider the topic of racialization from within the French colonial perspective, but they also exceed that framework. He died in the United States (undergoing treatment for cancer) at a time when the civil rights movement was in full swing.

Turning to a psychiatrist active in revolutionary activities may elicit surprise, but performance has been imbricated with psychoanalysis in one form or another since the latter’s inception. Scholar Patrick Campbell explains:

In making the hidden visible, the latent manifest, in laying bare the interior landscape of the mind and its fears and desires through a range of signifying practices, psychoanalytic processes are endemic to the performing arts. Similarly, the logic of performance infuses psychoanalytic thinking, from the “acting out” of hysteria to the “family romance” of desire.18

Fanon added much nuance to these discussions, seeing through psychoanalysis structures that affected not only psychic interiority but also social spheres: the family, relationships to the other, the arbitrary meanings attributed to certain material realities like skin color, etc. Fanon’s inquiries crossed scales because he sought to understand both individuals and groups as they took shape in the tumultuous period of the mid-20th century.

As Fanon himself noted during a speech entitled “Racism and Culture” given before the First Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956, colonialism and Nazism intensify questions of race. In other words, the extensive violence in which many political regimes engaged during Fanon’s lifetime encouraged his acute analysis of how race means, particularly in the 20th century. Probably the most circulated Fanonian text during the 1960s and 1970s was The Wretched of the Earth (first published in French in 1961) because it reverberated with anticolonial movements occurring around the world. Ever the humanist, Fanon could never quite bring himself to say that racism is inseparable from modern life (thus Da Silva’s intervention is important), but his work offers tools to think through race in and as performance.

Indeed, his first major work, Black Skin, White Masks (1951), illuminated unconscious mechanisms of colonialism and racism. Fanon described the process of what he called epidermalization, the inscription of race on the skin, when the sense of one’s own corporeal schema crumbles and yields to what he called an “epidermal racial schema.”19 Fanon tied the pleasures of looking (the scopic drive) and racism to historical, cultural, and explicitly sexualized fantasies.20 His most famous example concerns a child, who, upon seeing Fanon, exclaims, “Maman, look a Negro; I’m scared.”21 This encounter becomes a primal scene for Fanon that brings him to a significant realization:

I was responsible not only for my body but also for my race and my ancestors. I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered my blackness, my ethnic features; deafened by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders, and above all, yes, above all, the grinning Y a bon Banania.22

Fanon’s list progresses from bodily to (allegedly) cultural traits to specific histories of human toil to a mass-produced stereotypical image. The gaze of the child renders him conscious of the role the black man plays in dominant French society.

This point recalls W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness articulated in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois described this “peculiar sensation . . . always looking at one’s self through the eyes of other.”23 Du Bois had in mind specifically the “history of the American Negro,” but his writing, like Fanon’s, offers a compelling model to consider more generally how race works as a kind of performance under conditions where the racial other occupies an inferior status within the social structure.24 Fanon pushed the implications of Du Bois’s assertion, seeking ways for the man of color (he was, at least initially, quite specific about gender) to liberate himself from this sort of conceptual position or, in some cases, to turn it to his advantage.

After the scholarly return to Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks initiated by Homi Bhabha in the 1980s, Fanon’s work particularly resonated with scholars invested in thinking through the conjunctions of visuality and race.25 In one attempt to summarize and expand these conceptions, Nicole Fleetwood has written in her book, Troubling Vision, “Frantz Fanon is the starting point for many studies of black visuality and studies of race and subjectivity,” but she extends the implications of such critical positionings, particularly the centering of “hailing and trauma.”26 For Fleetwood, Fanon’s argument is productive in that it generates a failed performance—his attempt to smile that dissolves as laughter becomes impossible in the process of the white child objectifying his body. In an intersecting emphasis on performance, Michelle Ann Stephens wrote, “it is striking how much Fanon uses metaphors of the skin and sensation to capture the black subject’s phenomenological and physiological experiences of his racialization.”27 These inquiries function to elaborate Fanon’s performative primal scene of black subjectification (that is, being subjected to a white gaze and simultaneously emerging as a black subject in the process of being looked at).

Voluminous scholarship has explored the repercussions of Fanon’s incipient theories, but these early ideas form a larger analytical frame with which to think through various kinds of performance in conjunction with race; one of the most illuminating examples of performing race in Fanon’s oeuvre is his discussion of Algerian women. His essay “Algeria Unveiled” conveyed a dialectic of revealing and self-revealing, given that the title in French can also be translated, “Algeria Unveils Itself.” His thoughts on the surface of clothing advanced his earlier writings in Black Skin, White Masks on racialization and the surface of skin.28 In “Algeria Unveiled,” Fanon demonstrated that clothes carry racial and colonial connotations, given that they are “the most immediately perceptible” aspect of a culture.29 His examination of the veil, which he saw as a relatively homogeneous signifier of Algerian femininity, detailed the multiple reactions of the colonizers to this garment. He identified individual desires for the “beauty” within the veil as well as the wish to break her resistance, “making her available.”30 Fanon also argued that the colonial administration saw unveiling women as the key to disrupting native Algerian social structure: “Algerian society with every abandoned veil seemed to express its willingness to attend the master’s school and to decide to change its habits under the occupier’s direction and patronage.”31 During the Algerian War of Independence, Algerian women modified their use of the veil as a way to subvert the occupier’s control. Fanon explained that the resistance debated this strategy of allowing women to participate actively in the conflict, approving such action in 1955. Women’s revolutionary performances (that is, women engaging in resisting activities such as serving as scouts or carrying weapons, including bombs, underneath their flowing garments) took several different forms that played with the expectations placed on veiled individuals. For example, some female revolutionaries adopted European styles in order to facilitate their ability to move through otherwise restricted and highly surveilled spaces.

Fanon’s provocative writings on clothing do not leave psychoanalysis behind (indeed, he draws his findings both from hearing confessions as well as from analyzing dream content); nevertheless, his work serves as an antecedent for many other studies of clothing, performance, and race that overlap with and depart from his emphasis.32 Monica Miller’s study of black dandies might well fit into this genealogy. Miller looked at several key figures from the 18th through the 20th centuries across the black Atlantic including Du Bois’s Dark Princess (1928).33 Sean Metzger’s work—on principally Chinese garments and hairstyles that cross the Pacific, exposing and animating a Sino/American interface through “the skein of race”—explicitly drew on Fanon’s corpus.34 In still another context, Mimi Nguyen analyzed the semiotics of the hoodie to think about what she called the “significance of surfaces for racial optics.”35 In her work, she substituted for the semiotic term “indexicality” the provocative term “contiguous intimacy,” which marks a vexed relationship between garment, wearer, and the contexts that activate these as meaningful. Nguyen’s outlook remains understandably grim given the attention to the hoodie in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder in the United States.

Of course, Fanon’s work in terms of colonialism and resistance was not limited to surfaces—be they clothing or skin. In another chapter in A Dying Colonialism, he turned to the radio to demonstrate the contradictory relationship of colonized subjects to a specific technology. Initially, the radio in Algeria represented the presence of the colonizer, and it created links for people living in Algeria to connect to France. As the revolution progressed, it became a medium to disseminate news about revolutionary efforts. After 1954, “it was from the occupiers’ reactions that the Algerian learned that something grave and important was happening in his country.”36 Subsequently, Algerians appropriated the radio and tuned themselves into “new signaling systems brought into being by the Revolution.”37 Ian Baucom has argued that we should read the importance of the acoustic across Fanon’s work (because “Look a Negro” is also a verbal performance).38 To read Fanon through Baucom is to emphasize the role of the audience, particularly active listening, as a potentially revolutionary practice. Fanon, of course, also linked practices of listening to psychic processes consistent with his overall approach to processes of racialization. Nevertheless, Fanon’s essay on radio, like so much of Fanon’s work, opens in a more expansive network of writings that articulate the significance of race and performance together.

In regard to sound specifically, Fanon echoes W. E. B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folks in which each chapter begins with a musical passage and lyrics. These kinds of rhetorical devices, prevalent particularly in black Atlantic literature, have led Paul Gilroy to name the antiphonal quality of cultural production in the black Atlantic.39 Shane Vogel has explored both cabaret and calypso as musical forms that both construct and are produced by or through categories and cartographies of race.40 Edwin Hill Jr. has studied Francophone sound in the black Atlantic.41 Fanon, then, is one node in a series of authors who amplify the formation of race through dialectical relations between figures like the colonizer and colonized or master and slave.

Fanon’s work provides a generative archive from which a number of theories of race and performance have been advanced. However, this assertion should not suggest his approaches necessarily eclipse others. Psychoanalysis has, after all, developed one of the largest lexicons with which to elaborate human subjectivity and the psychic processes that motivate human behavior. In this regard, it has been a useful critical tool across many fields of study. Other scholars like Anne Cheng, David Eng, and Karen Shimakawa have all developed this inquiry to think through various forms of performance, albeit with different emphases.

Qui Nguyen and The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G

Qui Nguyen’s play, The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, explicitly and obliquely reveals and discusses processes of racial identification at both individual psychic and material social levels. The title conjures the notion of agent and agency and raises the structures of law with its titular homage to the G-man (a designation given to special agents in the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, which historically engaged in various efforts at policing political organizations, such as the Black Panther Party). The play demonstrates complicated identifications across racial lines and offers performances of blackness and Asian-ness that highlight the role of the imagination in such constructions.

The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G is an iteration of playwright Qui Nguyen’s attempts to narrate the trauma his family members experienced escaping Vietnam. Whereas Fanon could not muster laughter when reflecting on his traumatic encounter, Nguyen insists that his audience laugh. Nguyen thus offers a seemingly contradictory perspective on racial trauma and provides a divergent way of apprehending racial performance and its meanings from those offered by Fanon. That said, the intersections of these disparate perspectives offer challenging ways to think through race and performance.

The principal arc of the play concerns a character in the United States named Hung (named after Qui Nguyen’s cousin). He receives a letter from a woman living in Vietnam named San, who promises to reveal information about Hung’s parents to him. The narrative tracks Hung’s and his fiancée Molly’s journey to Vietnam. On the one hand, that storyline explicitly comments on narrative construction given that the protagonist desires to learn what happened to his family. The accounts of what happened vary in Hung’s and San’s versions, each of which offers a partial window into events that might have occurred. This line of inquiry resolves in a poignant monologue at the conclusion in which the playwright (a character in the play named Qui; hereafter “Nguyen” denotes the actual playwright as opposed to his likeness on stage) tries to do justice to the traumatic experience of Nguyen’s relatives, despite the fact that the record of exactly what happened will always remain somewhat opaque. On the other, this plot serves as a loose thread on which to hang several spectacles in which characters explicitly perform race.

Nguyen’s efforts to dramatize his familial trauma began with his graduate school productions in Ohio, where he workshopped Trial by Water (2001;it had its New York premiere in 2006). This play recounts the tale of refugees fleeing Vietnam and focuses on two young adolescent boys, Hung and Huy, stuck on a small, overcrowded craft for several weeks on the South China Sea. By the author’s own assessment, this initial play failed because the production did not capture Nguyen’s unique voice and mode of storytelling. Nguyen returned to this tale with The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, which opened in the spring of 2011 at the Incubator Arts Project (an Off-Off-Broadway theater). He then revised this same play but with a new ending for an Off-Broadway premiere at the Beckett Theatre in 2012. He has continued to chronicle with a characteristic comic flare his family’s experiences. His most critically and commercially successful play in this vein is Vietgone (2015), which tells some of his parents’ story and has been produced across the country including its premiere at South Coast Repertory followed by productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Manhattan Theatre Club, Seattle Repertory Theatre, American Conservatory Theater, and others. Nguyen’s success notwithstanding, the development of Hung’s story in particular haunted the first decade of his career, and The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G works as a kind of exorcism of the demands often placed on plays by people of color in the United States.

Nguyen developed and elaborated his theatrical mode of storytelling with a group of artists with whom he formed Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company in 2000; as their website reads, “Every legend has its beginning. . . .” Vampire Cowboys has developed a signature aesthetic by mixing genres with physical comedy and fight choreography to create “geek theatre.” Nguyen trained as a fight choreographer, and the influence of that work appears in the exaggerated combat sequences that occur in nearly all of his work. The titles of various productions suggest the range of influences and exhibit a nostalgia for certain forms of popular culture that have helped to mark Nguyen’s generation. For example, Living Dead in Denmark follows three Shakespearean heroines as they fight zombies. Fight Girl Battle World riffs on Star Wars, and She Plays Monsters draws heavily on the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. In each case, the narrative plays a secondary role to the theatricality of the actors, the physical energy infusing the action (usually involving hyperbolic displays of martial arts), and the campiness of costumes and sets. The plots frequently feature strong female characters, even if they are not always the protagonists.

Nguyen understands generic conventions and plays with their subtexts. For example, his Men of Steel (2007), as the name suggests, cites superhero adventures. In this case, Nguyen tugs on the (often repressed) homoeroticism depicted in comic books, explicitly commenting on how spandex clad bodies of caped crusader lore might appeal to certain queer sensibilities. The Vampire Cowboys’ work provides a space for representations of frequently marginalized people but emphasizes human flaws and imperfections rather than subscribing to more earnest or politically correct representations. This irreverent aesthetic has characterized nearly all of Nguyen’s published writings, and it certainly infuses The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, which riffs on the spy genre. Spies obviously destabilize the idea of fixed identity and demonstrate various means by which personhood can be performed. This play further introduces hallmarks from wide-ranging genres including “a cheery Japanese television host” to what the script refers to as “gangsta” dress and lingo to the style of the cinematic Western to shadow theater to kung fu battles to hip hop aesthetics. Such generic shifts enable the cast to showcase their virtuosity at playing stock figures. In so doing, they emphasize that these roles are theatrical rather than inherent to certain masculine persona (like, e.g., John Wayne or Clint Eastwood in the case of the Western). The rapid changes in genre also encourage the audience to think about how we tell stories and what modes or genres seem most appropriate to certain kinds of content.

In addition to the citations of various popular genres, this particular play stages (like Nguyen’s later Vietgone but to a much greater degree) the drafting of the dramatic text within the play itself. In this manner, Nguyen offers metatheatrical commentary on the staging of race. Playwrights have long used such performance conventions to stage Asian and American encounters.42 But Nguyen’s use of such devices is particularly provocative because it presents scenes of racial identification that resonate strongly with Fanon’s primal scene, albeit in a very different register.

The metatheatrical elements appear starting in the first scene when the protagonist, Hung, announces that the audience will see the third of three iterations of this same tale by Qui Nguyen (Blood in America, we later learn, was never produced). The dialogue progresses to discuss conventions of Asian American theater. Hung quickly asserts that Nguyen “is Vietnamese. Just like me.”43 Here Hung suggests the frequent expectations by audiences and producers that ethnic playwrights inscribe their respective differences within the worlds of their plays. Qui, the playwright (played by a black actor), appears on stage, and the pair discusses the convention of having the script’s writer appear as a character. They specifically mention David Henry Hwang, the most commercially successful Asian American playwright, who staged himself in Yellowface (2007). Hung then chastises Qui: “you’ve commandeered my life to get Off-Broadway productions. . . . You’ve made money off of some of my life’s worst tragedies. . . . You’re gonna tell this story right.”44 Nguyen demands that the audience consider who benefits from this dramatic account and who has control over the story a community might or might not want to tell. The use of different genres further informs this process of getting “this story right” as the dialogue concerning the editing process relates how Nguyen came to this version of the story.

Within the world of the production, the character Qui responds to Hung’s admonishment with “how?” How indeed! That question of how to represent his cousin’s experience to an American audience invokes the national trauma of Vietnam from an American perspective. As scholar Sylvia Chong has argued, certain images of the Vietnam War “complicate and perhaps subvert the notion of the imagined community [of the United States] by pointing to fragments of historical reality that are only incompletely digested by the process of national consumption”; Chong continues with a more general remark describing what she, following a wave of cultural commentators, calls the Vietnam syndrome: “What defines trauma is not simply the suffering of a violent shock, but the inability to fully comprehend that experience.”45 Here Qui reminds us of Fanon’s work. Qui’s question posed through the dialogue also inquires into how the American public thinks about its overseas military ventures and what that means for both American national identity and the population of racialized refugees it brought to US soil. We might say, following Chong, that Nguyen’s drama addresses these issues as central themes even as the production questions what representational mode might best serve those ends.

Nguyen demonstrates an acute consciousness of signs people employ on stage to convey meaning to the audience. Nguyen’s theater deploys such signs with full expectation that the audience will recognize them. For example, a kind of teaser trailer for a campy revenge quest entitled Lady Shaolin Bouncer begins The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G (it serves as something like a prologue). The trailer sets the tone for what is to come in terms of its enactment of over-the-top violence, and it also serves as a reminder for audience members to turn off their cell phones lest they meet their doom at the hands of the enraged kung fu master of the trailer’s title. This opening shifts to the “FEATURE PRESENTATION” as indicated in a video projection in which the audience sees a character adorned in a “rice hat” and armed with a knife, ostensibly killing Viet Cong soldiers.46 As the lighting shifts to a spotlight on Hung, he announces, “Hi, I’m Hung Tran and I’m a badass. I know karate. And I’m Vietnamese . . . you can tell by my rice hat.”47

The play’s inaugural moments treat the audience to representations of Asian characters familiar to American audiences in the form of the Asian martial arts experts (in both male and female iterations), but it also subverts expectations. The Viet Cong (played by a multi-ethnic cast) read as such because of their costumes and the fact that they are killed in a Rambo-like rampage by the protagonist. The scene thus borrows from a tradition of Hollywood stereotypes by appropriating it and calling attention to a tradition of cinematic images from the 1980s that constructed Vietnamese soldiers as evil and expendable and their killers as heroes. Related stereotypes recur throughout the production. For example, a Vietnamese pimp first speaks in heavily accented, clichéd Asian speech before breaking into rap. Hung’s first utterance encourages the audience to reckon with such hackneyed dichotomies. His self-description lists the easy substitution of one Asian cultural marker for another—Vietnamese, karate, rice hat—that structures a lineage of Hollywood orientalism. As an unacknowledged semiotician, Hung, like Fanon, attributes national, cultural, and racial identification (because the character performs within an American theatrical space with full knowledge of the stock images that have appeared on those stages) to clothing, among other signifiers, including language.

Nguyen forces awareness of the arbitrariness of cultural, national, and racial signifiers, pushing against the investment in realism that a (loose) biographical narrative might otherwise reveal. In the fourth scene, the playwright defends himself against the nonplussed protagonist because Hung objects to Qui’s lack of knowledge of Vietnam as indicated in the setting (the stage is minimalist, save for large sculptural letters spelling out Vietnam). When Hung challenges Qui’s vision with “That’s what Vietnam looks like,” Qui responds wryly with “Yes, motherfucker, can you not read?”48 This silly gag is one of many throughout the production that destabilizes location and cultural specificity by pointing to the arbitrary ways in which cultural productions signify such things. As other examples, Qui justifies the presence of a threatening Russian flight attendant en route to Vietnam, arguing that the Russian must be a communist spy. When Molly and Hung motorcycle through the Vietnamese countryside, Ninjas suddenly assault them. Such scenes celebrate Nguyen’s signature aesthetics, shattering illusions of realism and revealing the illogic of representational systems like Hollywood’s orientalism that establish Asian-ness through the repetition of arbitrary signifiers. Nguyen increases the random associations by inserting characters who would seem out of place except in the world of a Nguyen show. Such intentionally ridiculous cultural circulations expose the flimsiness of generic representational systems more generally. The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G thus queries what kinds of signs produce meaning in terms of race, ethnicity, and nationality.

Two scenes, in particular, illustrate such issues. In the second act, Qui reads actual letters sent to Nguyen trashing Trial by Water. In the midst of this activity, a large furry creature, which resembles a yellow version of Cookie Monster from Sesame Street, enters the stage. Qui greets his new companion as “Gookie Monster.” Gook, a term used to label a number of racial others constructed through US imperialism, has clearly served as an epithet for Viet Cong in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. As Sylvia Chong explains, “the gook syndrome was a form of dehumanization that stigmatized the Vietnamese enemy so as to enable American soldiers to kill them without guilt.”49 Gookie Monster informs Qui that his plays would receive better reviews if they were more “gookie.” Gookie Monster then launches into a rap describing things gookies like, including “Honda civies, good grades, Hot ladies, getting paid,” to which Hung (moved by the beat) adds “Karaoke, Tiger Balm, Academics, mahjong,” and the list continues.50 Gookie Monster and Qui join forces in a sonic duet that explores through its content popular associations with Asian and Asian American cultures even as it transcends such explorations through its form.

The style of delivery connects Gookie Monster and the vexed playwright to a tradition of politically inflected hip hop with roots in the Latinx and African diasporic cultural practices that popularized the form. Although Asian American as well as Asian hip hop artists have taken to the microphone over the last thirty years, the audience literally sees a yellow monster and a black actor performing on stage.51 Nguyen answers the requests for certain forms of racial representation that saturate Nguyen’s letters and reviews with an unexpected display of affiliation across racial lines. Both in terms of casting and in terms of musical form, the play enacts connections across difference.

Gookie Monster further disrupts stereotypes of the Viet Cong by literalizing fears of a yellow monster and rendering them ridiculous by embodying them through an iconic image from a major children’s educational program. That program originated in the United States and now has extended across the globe through several international co-productions. Sesame Street frequently addresses misunderstandings produced through cultural and other sorts of human difference. Gookie Monster performs a similar function in The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G. The production cites rap and Sesame Street, which have both served as vehicles for cross-cultural understanding through transnational media platforms. Nguyen thus leads unexpectedly back to Fanon. Echoing Fanon’s observations about radio, Nguyen appropriates these transnational media technologies to mitigate inequities produced by impositions of racial difference.

One more moment in the production recalls Fanon’s work: the scene with Fanon and the child, where the child recognizes Fanon as a “negro.” I cite Nguyen’s scene at length in order to illustrate a kind of reimagining of such a scene.

  • Hung:
    . . . This is how you see yourself, playwright? . . . I’ve been meaning to say something ever since you stepped onto stage. But this—this is how you see yourself?
  • Qui:
    I don’t know what you mean.
  • Hung:
    Do you have a little bit more soul here than you do in real life? You know—a bit more hip? A little more “athletic””
  • Qui:
    I’m also a professional fight director.
  • Hung:
    And you’re black?
  • Qui:
    I was born and raised in a primarily middle-class African-American neighborhood in El Dorado, Arkansas.
  • Hung:
    And that makes you black?
  • Qui:
    This is what my heart looks like. And in my heart—in my heart—I’m black.52

This scene raises questions about the theatrical convention of having actors match the race of the roles they play.53 While not overstating the connection to Fanon, this scene also stages racial identification, albeit in a humorous manner. Both Fanon and Nguyen’s scenes understand the moment of racial identification as productive: Fanon in the sense of creating an epidermal schema (however dehumanizing) and Nguyen in the sense of verbalizing his psychic identifications with African American cultural constructions. Fanon lived in a very different world than Nguyen, in which the stakes of being seen as a negro had far-reaching and often negative material and psychic consequences. Nguyen, on the other hand, sees opportunity in affiliation and connection across apparent lines of difference. The affective charges of Fanon’s and Nguyen’s scenes also differ. For Fanon, the encounter produces fear and repulsion, apparently validated by a silent white authority (the mother). In Nguyen’s case, the affect also includes surprise but also intimacy. The audience is left as the authority to adjudicate Hung’s question and Qui’s response.

One of the play’s provocations is to place the audience in a position to evaluate that exchange. How should one evaluate racial comedy? How does one adjudicate loss and the feelings produced by traumatic events? What kinds of new ways of inhabiting the world does one imagine through the theater? And, finally, when does theater fail in its efforts to represent trauma?

In an early version of The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, the production ended with Qui taking center stage and asking the audience to forget everything they had just seen. The only truthful thing in the production had been a boy named Hung and his cousin Qui. In a long monologue, Qui then recounted Hung’s story, finally concluding, “one day I promise I’ll get it right. I’ll tell it the way it should have been told. Today, however, I’m just happy to stand here and be able to hear it all out loud. . . .”54 Qui, still played by an African American actor, delivered this speech in a somber tone, a radical departure from the events that had just preceded this moment. Hung spoke the last words: “Lights fade.”

The Off-Broadway premiere in 2012 concluded very differently (and this version became the basis for the publication). Although Qui also delivered a long speech, the style began as spoken word and eventually became a rap complete with an electronically amplified beat. The final lines became more dialogic. Qui asks, “So?” Hung responds, “It’s a start.”55

Certainly, this conclusion remained more consistent with the overall tone of the rest of the play. Whereas the first version suggests that memory fades, the second indicates more to come; in psychoanalysis, that might be a path to some sort of balance or resolution through a kind of talking (or, in this case, performance) cure.

To perform race in Nguyen’s theater reveals the elements that work to construct such categories of difference. Nguyen’s insistent intertwining of hyperbolic fantasies with pathos derived from traumatic historical events encourages the audience to think through the realities to which we might cling as deriving as much from our imaginations as from the material circumstances in which we find ourselves ensconced. Indeed, the very capacity to visualize race depends on contradictory ideas about how we understand cultural representation and control. Who authorizes a story, and who is beholden to it?

What remains out of view in this production are the material mechanisms that facilitate human migration, whether voluntary or forced. These mechanisms involve certain processes of racialization. In the case of Vietnamese Americans, such issues return to the legal frameworks with which this essay began (in this case, the 1975 Southeast Asian refugee resettlement policies in the United States formalized in the 1980 Refugee Act). However, Nguyen does not address such concerns here. In place of such analysis, he centers the imagination as a condition of possibility for thinking through race, in terms of both its restrictive and its liberatory aspects. To redeem the gook, as Nguyen seems to desire, is to think through race not just as a descriptive category that reduces one’s humanity but as one that enables the new possibilities for experiencing agency, and maybe even laughter, in a violent and paradoxical world.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Agamben, Georgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
  • Crichlow, Michaeline, with Patricia Northover. Globalization and the Post-Creole Imagination: Notes on Fleeing the Plantation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.
  • Cheng, Anne. The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Elam, Harry J., Jr. and David Krasner, eds. African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Eng, David. Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.
  • Fanon, Frantz. Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press, 1964.
  • Kondo, Dorinne. About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater. London: Routledge, 1997.
  • Nguyen, Qui. Men of Steel. New York: Broadway Publishing, 2007.
  • Nguyen, Qui. Trial by Water. New York: Playscripts, 2011.
  • Nguyen, Qui. Vietgone. New York: Samuel French, 2017.
  • Pao, Angela. No Safe Spaces: Re-casting Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality in American Theatre. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.
  • Rangan, Pooja, and Rey Chow. “Race, Racism, and Postcoloniality.” In The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies. Edited by Graham Huggan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Richlin, Amy. Slave Theater in the Roman Republic: Plautus and Popular Comedy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  • Shimakawa, Karen. National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
  • Stephens, Michelle Ann. Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Black Male Performer. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.


  • 1. Amy Richlin, “Slave-Woman Drag,” in Women in Roman Republican Drama, ed. Dorota Dutsch, Sharon L. James, and David Constan (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), 38.

  • 2. One could also pursue this analysis through Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s notion of bare life. Agamben’s formulation follows Aristotle and Hannah Arendt’s divisions between a sort of political life (bios) of agency and mere biological existence (zoe). For Agamben, bare life is certainly not bios, but it is also not quite zoe; rather bare life denotes the indeterminate space between human and beast. Bare life names the status of social death, a kind of non-being rendered through technologies of sovereignty including enslavement and incarceration.

  • 3. Jenny Reardon, Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

  • 4. Melanie Yap and Dianne Leong Man, Colour, Confusion and Concessions: The History of the Chinese in South Africa (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1996), 315–370.

  • 5. Gillian Hart, Disabling Globalization: Places of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), chaps. 5 and 6.

  • 6. “ S Africa Chinese ‘Become Black’,” BBC News June 18 2008.

  • 7. Dorinne Kondo, About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater (London: Routledge, 1997), 7.

  • 8. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1994), 55.

  • 9. Harry J. Elam Jr., “The Device of Race: An Introduction,” in African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader, ed. Harry J. Elam Jr. and David Krasner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 5.

  • 10. Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Construction of Peoplehood: Racism, Nationalism, Ethnicity,” in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, ed. Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein (London: Verso, 1991), 77 (original emphasis).

  • 11. Wallerstein, “Construction of Peoplehood,” 79.

  • 12. Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), 2.

  • 13. Denise Ferreira Da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), xix.

  • 14. Da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race, 166.

  • 15. On this point, see Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).

  • 16. See Lisa Yun, The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008).

  • 17. Here we might also insert several other scholars, including those from the humanities. One example that would intersect Da Silva’s work is Ranja Poogan and Rey Chow’s article “Race, Racism, and Postcoloniality” in which they explore philosopher Michel Foucault’s notion of biopower and the ways in which power, immanent in the social field and subtended by institutions, functions to manage populations; racism attends to these processes. Given the complexity of Foucault’s arguments, I have chosen to footnote this argument here. Those interested can pursue this line of study through the Further Reading section.

  • 18. Patrick Campbell, “Introduction,” in Psychoanalysis and Performance. ed. Patrick Campbell and Adrian Kear (London: Routledge, 2001), 1.

  • 19. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2008), 92.

  • 20. Stuart Hall makes this observation in “The After-life of Frantz Fanon: Why Fanon? Why now? Why Black Skin, White Masks?” in The Fact of Blackness: Frantz Fanon and Visual Representation. Ed. Alan Read (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts and Seattle: Bay Press, 1996), 12-37.

  • 21. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 91.

  • 22. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 92.

  • 23. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Vintage, 1990), 8.

  • 24. Du Bois, Souls, 9.

  • 25. The 1986 edition featuring Bhabha’s introduction was reprinted in 2008. Homi K. Bhabha, “Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche and the Colonial Condition,” in Black Skin, White Masks, ed. Frantz Fanon, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto Press, 2008), Xxi–XXXvii.

  • 26. Nicole R. Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 21, 23.

  • 27. Michelle Ann Stephens, Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Black Male Performer (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 21.

  • 28. See Sean Metzger, Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).

  • 29. Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, trans. Haakon Chevalier (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 35.

  • 30. Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 43.

  • 31. Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 42–43.

  • 32. Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 59.

  • 33. Monica L. Miller, Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).

  • 34. Sean Metzger, Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).

  • 35. Mimi Nguyen, “The Hoodie as Sign, Screen, Expectation, and Force,” Signs 40, no. 4 (Summer 2015): 792.

  • 36. Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 75.

  • 37. Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 84.

  • 38. Ian Baucom, “Frantz Fanon’s Radio: Solidarity, Diaspora, and the Tactics of Listening,” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 1 (2001): 15–49.

  • 39. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,), 79.

  • 40. Shane Vogel, Stolen Time: Black Fad Performance and the Calypso Craze (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018); and Vogel, The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

  • 41. Edwin C. Hill Jr., Black Soundscapes White Stages: The Meaning of Francophone Sound in the Black Atlantic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

  • 42. See, for example, Ju Yon Kim, The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 65.

  • 43. Nguyen, Inexplicable Redemption, 4.

  • 44. Nguyen, Inexplicable Redemption, 6.

  • 45. Sylvia Shin Huey Chong, The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 3–4.

  • 46. Qui Nguyen, The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G (New York: Broadway Play Publishing, 2012), 3.

  • 47. Nguyen, Inexplicable Redemption, 3.

  • 48. Nguyen, Inexplicable Redemption, 15.

  • 49. Chong, Oriental Obscene, 99.

  • 50. Nguyen, Inexplicable Redemption, 44.

  • 51. See my work on the “first” commercially successful Asian American emcee Jin; Sean Metzger, “Performance,” in The Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature, ed. Rachel Lee (London: Routledge, 2014), 462–466.

  • 52. Nguyen, Inexplicable Redemption, 50.

  • 53. For a detailed discussion of these issues, see Angela Pao’s work.

  • 54. This version of the script was included with the press kit for The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G at the Incubator Arts Project. The quotation is from page 83 of the unpublished manuscript.

  • 55. Nguyen, Inexplicable Redemption, 72.