Monday, February 6, 2012

Ramblings on Roach

“Across the transnational groupings and reinvented affiliations of such an oceanic inter-cultural but within the stubborn eloquence of the intersecting diasporic memories performed within its distinctive urban vortices, the precise location of the New World is no longer clear.” (286)

Roach’s book examines a history of transformation and travel, of appropriation and reclaiming of identity.  The strong postcolonial streak in his writing examines the way memories are preserved and the narratives that this preservation is in service of.  Songs are heard, uprooted, and planted in a new context that serves the hegemony in some completely different way.  Icons are reassigned and their original meaning all but forgotten.  Even the human body itself is employed in ways that the individual might never have anticipated.  Looking at the pageantry of the Betterton funeral alongside the pageantry of the slave trade, there is a stark contrast in the meaning of the respective human effigies.  Betterton comes to represent a certain level of culture and artistic refinement – reanimating a living effigy out of a dead body and making it into an instrument of expression around which a community could continue to gather.  In life, as an actor, he was already a living symbol.  (The discussion of the life or death struggle between the actor and the audience was particularly amusing.  As we ‘knock ‘em dead’ or ‘die out there’ for all to see, there is an exaggeration to the liminality of the theatre act that brings added life to the risk an actor submits him/herself to with each performance.  Theatre transforms the actor into something more – an inherently semiotic entity that takes on a meaning beyond the individual.  And according to Roach’s observations, the power of that performance can live long after the passing of the physical actor.  Actors are replaced by their own legends.)  While theatre and the funeral of a theatre icon create a sort of hyper humanity, his account of the slave markets illustrates a use of performance to diminish humanity.  Dressing up the “auction items” in attractive clothes (just like Betterton and his fellow actors) only to strip them and humiliate them.  They dance and smile and perform in a way that, to an outside observer, might seem quite similar to the theatre of Betterton and his peers.  But the community that arises out of each is painfully different.  As Roach digs through the myriad performances in this group, over and over again we see images of people and populations whose identities are not their own.  But from the point of the hegemony, it is all too easy to forget that these people and traditions have their own history distinct from the popular narrative.  My grandfather used to sing all sorts of old songs.  Some were harmless old sea chanties, and some were negro spirituals complete with “dems” and other well-known colloquialisms.  My mother was mortified when, at the age of 4 or 5, I related the story of the tar baby to my best friend across the street, who was black.  In some senses there can be an innocence to the lack of recognition of an artifact’s history.  Certainly, I just thought these songs and stories came from my grandfather.  I never gave a thought to any lengthy origin story.  But as ignorance implants these appropriated pieces of identity deeper and deeper into the culture of the colonizer, it becomes harder and harder to locate real roots.  “Great discoveries” built on the backs of conquered and subjugated populations rarely recognize the debt they owe.  But when we attempt to untangle these webs of influence that stretch back and forth across the nation and across the Atlantic (in Roach’s examples), we encounter complex stories of give and take that then demand that we rethink our assignment of “new” and “first” and “primary.”  It becomes a huge, historical game of six degrees of Kevin Bacon 

No comments:

Post a Comment