The Phenomenology of Racialism: Blackface Puppetry in American Theatre, 1872-1939

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2005-04-20

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Abstract

In 1872, a company headed by English theatrical entrepreneur William John Bullock introduced the first full marionette minstrel show to the American stage. Throughout the following sixty-seven years, puppeteers presented a variety of productions featuring ostensibly African or African American characters, including: traditional blackface minstrel shows, adaptations of Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo, numerous "Punch and Judy" plays, and productions of such ostensibly "authentic" portraits of black persons as Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones and Joel Chandler Harris's "Uncle Remus" stories.

This investigation employs phenomenology to explore the "essence" of specific blackface puppets, maintaining that none of the objects or plays discussed here are necessarily examples of authentic black representation. Rather, this investigation adopts the shifting perspective of phenomenology to show that what some past puppeteers thought were authentic African or African American characters, were, with but a single exception, consistently racialized exaggerations derived from the heritage of minstrelsy. Phenomenology, in its emphasis on the essence of "things," permits the scholar to investigate both the physical existence of empirically verifiable objects, such as the puppets that are still in existence long after the deaths of their creators, and the meanings their observers embed them with, such as the character the puppets were imagined to be during their manipulators' careers.

Phenomenology helps explain the interaction between the puppet's corporeal form and its perceived dramatic meaning, which is often a result of apportioned, or as some critics call it, atomized components, including: object, manipulation, and voice. Thus, while phenomenology is useful in explaining how an early twentieth-century puppeteer might see Topsy as an authentic representation of a young African American woman, even if an early twenty-first century scholar would see it as a minstrel stereotype, it is equally useful in explaining how different components of a single puppet performance could contribute to a contradictory essence for a single blackface character.

This investigation details the careers of a number of puppeteers and puppet companies, using the phenomenological method to explain the diverse essences of their work. Included are companies spanning a history from the Royal Marionettes to the Federal Theatre Project.

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