The late Robin Williams, huddled amidst his angst-ridden, teenage students in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, makes a case for appreciating artistry as an intrinsic source of meaning: whereas “medicine, law, business, engineering . . . are noble pursuits,” the beauty of humanistic pursuits such as art, literature and performance “are what we stay alive for.” Spanning a variety of critical approaches towards the page, canvas and screen, this section of the 2024 Review of Books responds to several recent pieces of scholarship about the very things that make life worth living. Specifically, these reviews center on the cultural meanings created by various creative works, and the ways in which artistic expression not only describe life but wholly define it.

First, Michael Vaclav’s review of Latinx Shakespeares: Staging U.S. Intracultural Theater by Carla Della Gatta opens the section with an overview of Latinx representations of Shakespeare plays in the 20th and 21st century, arguing that these performances engender meanings that can be evocative, healing and/or de-colonizing. Next, I.B. Hopkins’ review of Jennifer Lee’s Oriental, Black, and White: The Formations of Racial Habits in American Theater unpacks the “dual understanding of performance’s meaning-making process—that it simultaneously represents and produces difference” via Asian stereotypes in American theater. Then, Holly Genovese details the essential history of Black country music in a review of Francesca T. Royster’s Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions. In particular, Royster’s text focuses on the gendered dynamics which determine the role of Black women and men in their respective roles as Black country musicians performing for predominantly White audiences. Erin Wheeler Streusand’s review of Iván A. Ramos’ Unbelonging: Inauthentic Sounds in Mexican and Latinx Aesthetics also examines meaning through the lens of the space “between belonging and unbelonging, between art forms that fuse and others that refuse to mix.” Lastly, Morgan Price’s review of Latino TV: A History by Mary Beltran ends the section with a depiction of decades of Latino representation in television, describing the ways stereotypes of Latinx people were both upended and reinforced in various TV performances.

Art, performance and literature, as critically examined by all of the texts reviewed in this section, are vital parts of the human experience. These things give life meaning and shape our lived experiences. It is our hope as reviewers that this section encapsulates and indeed demonstrates the complex ways that creative expression leaves an indelible effect on human life, that we may echo Williams’ powerful statement in Dead Poets Society: “That you are here—that life exists, and identity . . . That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”