Statement by Concerned Members of the Theatre and Dance Community
As members of the Theatre and Dance community we actively condemn the so-called “Compton Cookout” party organized by UCSD students and the subsequent racially charged performance aired by The Koala on SCTV. We call on the UCSD administration to take all means necessary to prevent these types of acts from taking place in the future. As scholars and practitioners of theater and performance we recognize that there is an intimate link between these racist performances and the historical popularity of blackface minstrelsy in the United States. A multitude of theater scholars have argued that this tradition, which originated in the 19th century, was used as a medium to turn white anxiety surrounding the threat of free blacks into mockery and entertainment. Although the invitation to the “Compton Cookout” reads as if the organizers were the clever inventors of blackface, racist stereotype, and colonialist mimicry, blackface minstrelsy is actually considered the first form of American theater. In other words, this was the first theater developed in the US that was neither indigenous performance nor directly imported from Europe. This tradition, and its perpetuation well into the 20th century, relies on the performance of a collection of images, sounds and embodied acts that are imagined to signify “blackness.”
This history therefore underscores the way in which “blackness” is divorced from black bodies and performed by any number of bodies (including whites, Asians, Latinos and blacks), much as one would perform other characters. However, for African Americans, unlike playing a character in a play, one does not cease being seen as black even outside the world of the performance, and the negative, buffoonish qualities of the character are in turn ascribed to the body being signified. While the performance of any kind of stereotype should be critically examined, there is a particularly charged history of the performance of blacks by non-blacks, particularly when the intended result is laughter at their expense. While many kinds of comedy rely on the use of stereotypes, they should always be understood in an historical relationship to power.
Furthermore, we are concerned about the way in which the primary metaphors of “acting” and “performing” have been invoked in defenses of the “Compton Cookout” as “harmless fun.” Much like the director of a play, the organizers encouraged attendees to take on the looks and actions that reflected their view of residents of Compton or “the ghetto.” Following an explicit list of desired characteristics, the Facebook invitation reads, “ The objective is for all you lovely ladies to look, act, and essentially take on these “respectable” qualities throughout the day.” Despite emphasis on the fact that this party was “make-believe,” and therefore billed as “inoffensive,” there remained an interest in depicting the “real.” Before the misogynist and dehumanizing description of what “Compton girls” supposedly look like, the invitation welcomes the unknowing reader, “For those of you who don’t know what ghetto chicks act like,” as if to clarify any misconceptions and to set the record straight. Literally scripting the scenario by providing words (“constipulated”) and limiting what can be said (“Ghetto chicks have a very limited vocabulary”), the directions for performing “ghetto chicks” seems to rely on other embodied mimetic qualities (“making noises, such as “hmmg!” or smacking their lips, and making other angry noises, grunts, and faces”). Finally, the young men organizing this event seem to be aware of one of the other crucial elements of performance: the audience. Apparently unconcerned about how their party might be received by more distant audiences, they trusted that their guests would be an approving and contented audience. However, as theater scholars and practitioners we hold that even if someone performs a stereotype for amusement and without any mal-intent, that person cannot control what their performance leads others to believe about those depicted in the stereotype. It is precisely stereotypes like those invoked in the invitation that lead to the belief that most African Americans, and especially African American women, are lazy, inarticulate, vulgar, and not to be respected.
Performances of any kind, whether on a stage, in film, in daily life, or at a theme party, invoke the act of representation. Any act of representation always involves aesthetic and performative choices of what to represent and what to leave unrepresented. Therefore no act of representation is ever purely objective, or simply an unmediated reflection of “reality.” Conversely, just because something is depicted in the space of performance, it does not mean that it is entirely detached from any real-life significance. Additionally, while there is a long tradition of anti-theatrical prejudice born out of the moralizing of art, and we do not wish to reproduce this here, we wish to point to the important intersection between aesthetics and ethics. The dismissal of ethical concern in favor of aesthetic choices can be socially irresponsible and reflects the need for critical examination of all acts of performance, both within and outside of a theatrical space.
As faculty, graduate students and staff, we understand that recent events like the “Compton Cookout” and The Koala’s insensitive and bigoted interventions in the name of “humor” could be potentially prevented in the future through education not only about theater history but also about the theories of comedy, the language of performance, and the power of embodied representation. Classes that provide this understanding should be valued by the university and should be taught regularly. Finally, we endorse the Black Student Union’s list of demands and insist that the Chancellor and the UCSD administration work to rectify the embarrassingly small percentage of undergraduates of color that attend our school. The incidents of the last week are not isolated examples, but rather they speak to the need for deep-rooted and broad reaching changes in our classrooms as well as on an institutional level.
Julie Burrelle, Maritxell Carrero, Kyle Donnely, Rai Genna, Nadine George, Jorge Huerta, grace shinhae jun, Lily Ketling, Gabriel Lawrence, Ursula Meyer, Irugu Mutu, Carolyn Passeneau, Lisa Porter, Jade Power, Heather Ramey, Patricia Rincon, Megan Robinson, John Rouse, Emily Roxworthy, Rana Salimi, Rebecca Salzer, Janet Smarr, Terry Sprague, Jessica Watkins, Terry Wilson, Shahrokh Yadegari, Aimee Zygmonski