Collusions of Fact and Fiction: Performing Slavery in the Works of Suzan-Lori Parks and Kara Walker
University of Iowa Press, 2021
Reviewed by I. B. Hopkins
“Not loss and haunting inform [Suzan-Lori] Parks’s and [Kara] Walker’s engagements with slavery,” writes Ilka Saal, but rather “the effort to take ownership of its histories and to rearticulate them in ways that enable the fashioning of postslavery subjectivities.” Saal’s 2021 monograph, published as an entry in the University of Iowa Press’s long-running Studies in Theatre History and Culture series, holds the playwright and the visual artist in sustained conversation. Through this dual focus, she develops an “interpretive model for reading a variety of verbal, visual, and performance-based narratives of slavery” of which Parks and Walker are exemplary rather than extraordinary. Certainly, the two artists’ many accolades and prolificacy warrant serious consideration of their methods, but Saal emphasizes their generational coincidence and coeval success around the turn of the millennium as a way of thinking about larger shifts in the “form, politics, and ethics of memory work.” These artists, she contends, can help scholars and critics better understand the move in recent years by many Black artists who have resisted “melancholic historicism” in favor of artistic agency.
Saal introduces the term “historiopoesis” as a theorization of artistic works across media that foreground “the making (poeisis) of history through poetic/formal means.” While decidedly “not a comprehensive poetics,” in her analysis, these “reoccurring tools” do functionally bring together disparate art objects through two main criteria. First, they draw attention to the work of the work—the procedures by which the artist gathered their materials and crafted a piece. In addition, historiopoetical methods also “stress the performative dimension of [historical] discourse (the capacity to create, not merely to reflect).” Saal rightly notes that this profoundly reflexive approach to narrative depictions of transatlantic slavery do not originate with Walker and Parks—that they find their roots, to give only a few examples, in the critical traditions of Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; the artistic oeuvres of Jamaica Kincaid, George C. Woolf, and Cheryl Dunye; and extend their lineage further back to the works of Zora Neal Hurston and William Wells Brown, among others. More than critique or recovery, though, their plays and art objects at the center of this study represent an insistence on forging something new in the historical record. Saal collates a substantial list of scholars and popular critics who have identified the “playful” character of their work, often discomfiting audiences in the service of upsetting entrenched narratives. With historiopoesis, this study examines the techniques that cohere under the notion of “play” within the serious topics of the enslavement of African people and its aftereffects.
After an introductory Preface and outlining her framework in Chapter One, Saal lingers with Parks’s and Walker’s individual aesthetics in Chapters Two and Three respectively. These analyses cover the early to middle years of each artist’s career and offer useful overviews of their projects as much as they demonstrate the application of her interpretive tool. Parks’s “potent gothic strain” spans her plays from Imperceptible Mutabilities of the Third Kingdom (1989) to White Noise (2019), repeatedly staging scenes in which characters encounter American history in monstrous forms. By engaging with history—rather than fleeing from it or becoming its inevitable victim—these characters “appropriate and refigure it in the process.” Saal proposes three main strategies across five plays (notably excluding works written since 2001) that draw on Parks’s own well-known “Elements of Style” (1995) manifesto, various interviews, and the verbal dexterity (i.e., punning) that often distinguishes her characters. “Digging,” “Rep and Rev-ing,” and “Faking” constitute the methods by which Parks takes up the serious work of making history in the surreal landscape of the American past. Yet, even in the more Realistic setting of Topdog/Underdog (2001), Saal contends, the playwright thematizes performance itself to remind the audience that the theater event is a structure as much as a vehicle for meaning.
These formal concerns wash over into Saal’s analysis of installations and exhibitions from Walker’s early career, which frequently emphasize the dominance of “canonical and popular narratives of history.” The recurrent figure of the “Negress” is a critically unreliable narrator across the body of work from this period. Her multimodal functions (as Black woman artist, author, performer, and protagonist reappearing in different settings) destabilize authority and reveal intrinsic ideologies embedded in each scene. Saal interprets this figure through the picaresque tradition. In particular, Saal sees the ‘Negress’ taking up the use of silhouette—“a genteel lady’s art of the antebellum period”—which depicts bodies but reorients the viewer’s perception of expression. Calling this technology a Blickmaschine (“gaze machine”), she reads a series of works that deploy this technique from an untitled silhouette (1996) counterposed to J. M. W. Turner The Slave Ship (1840), the American Primitives series (2001), and her After the Deluge exhibit (2007) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Across this range of visual subjects, Saal argues that Walker produces “an allegory for the mechanics and pleasures of racializing projections.”
Just as the uneasy presence of pleasure lurks in Walker’s silhouettes, the often grim humor of Parks’s loquacious characters also underscores historiopoetical attention to artists’ craft and the event of art consumption. The synthesizing turn of Collusions of Fact and Fiction brings these principles to bear on the controversies that Walker’s and Parks’s works have caused and, thus, the ways in which they implicate their own audiences as consumers. Saal finds new points of comparison by closely reading Walker’s gargantuan sculpture The Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014) alongside Parks’s take on Sarah Baartman’s life in Venus (1996). In her analysis of these two works of extreme scale and cross-temporal plays on race, gender, and sexuality, Saal surfaces the radical theatricality of each. By depicting the “multivalent affective charge that the encounter with slavery and its various legacies continues to carry for contemporary audiences,” she argues that Parks and Walker are able to transpose the figure of the spectator into the object of critique.
The final chapter steers toward other applications of this framework and models what that might look like with readings of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s 2014 play An Octoroon and Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad. This movement forward in time manifests the stakes of this study as it draws urgency from rhetoric of the Trump era and its renewed discourse on racism and white supremacy in the US and around the globe. Saal’s title echoes with the language of that political moment—charges of collusion with foreign entities, alternative facts. Historiopoesis may, at its best, be something like an antidote to ‘fake news’ as it reveals the fictions that always lurked behind, within, and alongside the facts. This study does not dwell on recent political history, though. Its force arrives in its focus on the methods and interests of two contemporary Black American women artists working in a certain time. Place, training, and other elements of their milieux are of less concern for Saal. Collusions of Fact and Fiction is a useful contribution for scholars of their work but also offers productive tools for reading performance as an element of cultural productions generally, especially regarding studies of transatlantic slavery and its place in the historical imagination.