Josephine Lee

Oriental, Black, and White: The Formation of Racial Habits in American Theater

University of North Carolina Press, 2022

344 pages

$29.95 paperback, open access via JSTOR

Reviewed by I. B. Hopkins

“As performed in the theater,” Jennifer Lee writes, “racial stereotypes are not just distorted images misrepresenting real people but also experiences convincing live audiences of their reality and authenticity.” This dual understanding of performance’s meaning-making process—that it simultaneously represents and produces difference—opens significant new terrain for examining the theatrical construction of race. In Oriental, Black, and White: The Formation of Racial Habits in the American Theater, Lee assembles a rich array of case studies at the intersections of black and oriental stage aesthetics located primarily in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century US. She argues across ten chapters that the binary logic of race founders at these sites of “the collusion (or collision) of these two kinds of racial performance” precisely because “racial habits can have not only iterative but also combinatory properties.” As such, by reading instances of black performers adopting oriental tropes or minstrel songs that include exotic imagery associated with Asian cultures, this monograph highlights orientalism’s importance in the early American theatrical vernacular traditions of blackface minstrelsy, vaudeville, and musical comedy.

Drawing frequently on theorists Edward Said, W. E. B. DuBois, and Pierre Bourdieu, Lee presents a proximal world of often surprising encounters between Asian cultural stereotypes and the shifting social conditions of black performers. She speculates that the interracial relationships that this wealth of evidence suggests are at least possible and ponders the ramifications of performance modes that implied that these groups could be “imagined as interchangeable.” Propinquity is essential to this study, and so here the terms “black” and “oriental” designate sets of performance aesthetics confined to the fictional worlds of theater while her use of “African American” and other ethnically specific designations for people themselves de-emphasizes the performativity of race in everyday expression. It is important to note, as Lee does in her delineation on terminology, that “the theatrical examples in this book often lack both radical intention and profundity” and carefully distinguishes her project from more revolutionary forms of “‘Afro-oriental’ affinity.” Certainly, the stereotypes, slurs, and caricatures of race that comprise the archive of this book provoke a great deal of discomfort in reading, and the text should not be misread as a secret history of abiding interracial solidarities. Rather, Lee contributes meaningfully to the discourse on race and performance by virtue of the robust collection of theater history marshaled here as well as her decision to linger with the value and limitations of these difficult intersections.

The first chapters of this volume trace the association of orientalism with “opulence, exoticism, and deception” through case studies that vary from story tropes to actors, and from fads to recurring characters. Commencing with the most recognizable of recent examples, Chapter One outlines the long history of Western European and American fascination with the story of Aladdin from the early eighteenth century up to Disney’s 2019 live-action remake of its 1992 animated smash hit. Lee surfaces both African and Chinese origin stories for the magical wealth at stake in the story and then reads these against the cultural references interlaced within the two Disney screen adaptations—paying special attention to the themes of servitude and unfreedom. Chapter Two narrates the “lesser roles” of nineteenth-century star Ira Aldridge—who, while famous for his internationally successful tours portraying Oroonoko, Othello, and other non-black Shakespeare heroes—also maintained a repertoire of various comic, vengeful, debased, and often enslaved oriental characters. The well-documented association between the New Woman of the late nineteenth century and a craze for Japanese goods following the so-called “opening” of its markets in 1853 set the stage for Chapter Three. Previously unexamined, however, is the minstrel theater’s adoption of Japanese aesthetics, where Lee shows how the empowerment of white women through exoticized internationalism also reinforced white supremacy. Chapter Four follows several instances of “John Chinaman” (a kind of oriental Jim Crow) across the frontier melodramas of the 1850s-1910s and identifies several key cross-sections with Eric Lott’s pathbreaking work on blackface minstrelsy as a vehicle for both “love” (erotic desire) and “theft” (the expropriation of labor and agency through intimidation). These foundational readings make possible Lee’s fifth chapter on the Chinese laundry as a recurrent sketch and a signature venue for intercultural misunderstandings frequently enacted by black performers.

The second half of the volume documents the rising numbers of African Americans developing unique oriental roles in the early twentieth century as distinct from racial habits perpetuated by white actors. They did so, according to Lee, “not only to showcase their mimetic skills but also to challenge their confinement to stereotypical black roles.” Chapter Six treats several examples of prominent male vaudeville and minstrel performers, and Chapter Seven details the careers of black women who used the association of the oriental female with “erotic attraction, sexual availability, and acquiescence to masculine power” to challenge the decorum expected of their social position. Turning to the growing status of musical comedies at the turn of the century, Chapter Eight surveys highly successful all-black extravaganzas that fancifully purported to import exotic performers in trivial (and problematic) plots such as Oriental AmericaA Trip to Coontown, and Creole Burlesque Show in order to show how these aesthetics give the lie to narratives of racial uplift. Chapter Nine plumbs further examples by reading four important early all-black cast musicals (among them the familiar In Dahomey and Shuffle Along) in terms of their depictions of oriental imagery to repurpose minstrel stereotypes. Finally, Chapter Ten more pointedly brings together examples of musical comedies that depicted (not always seriously) the US’s imperial wars in the Philippines. Even in comic characters, Lee finds examples of racial exchange at the imagined edges of the imperium that could not “be encompassed within the related logics of benevolent assimilation and racial uplift.”

Arcing from Disney’s Aladdin to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Flower Drum Song, Lee bookends her most recognizable case studies and concludes with “hope that something other than mimicry or mockery conditioned these African American performances of orientalism.” In two very personal portraits at the end of Oriental, Black, and White, she profiles dancer Lily Yuen—one of an admittedly small number of performers in such roles who could claim both cultural backgrounds—as well as singer/actress Juanita Long Hall, of South Pacific fame. As a black woman, Hall “challenged the exclusive privilege of white actors to define cross-racial performance” and won a Tony doing so. Her rendition of the song “Chop Suey” in The Flower Drum Song comes to represent many of the contradictions of the color line in the lives of real people as opposed to an abstract binary. The breadth of examples and depth of analysis in this study’s array of often unsettling crossings between black and oriental performance secure its place as a valuable contribution to early American theater history. More broadly, Lee destabilizes presumed certainties about racial habits across time and for this reason will appeal to any readers interested in stereotypes’ functions of both channeling and challenging what is legible onstage.