Date of Degree

6-2017

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Theatre

Advisor(s)

David Savran

Committee Members

Kandice Chuh

Robert Reid-Pharr

James Wilson

Subject Categories

American Material Culture | American Popular Culture | Dramatic Literature, Criticism and Theory | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies

Keywords

Broadway musical, political economy, cultural studies, racism, antiracism, racial capitalism

Abstract

This is an abolitionist feminist study of the role of liberalism in the twenty-first century political economy. It takes as its object New York City bourgeois cultural productions (in particular Broadway theatre and the New York Times) from approximately 1984 to 2009. It offers insights into important yet widely-misunderstood features of turn-of-millennium US society: class, art, political practice, and war. In order to understand liberalism’s political and economic agenda, I look at how these objects are pitched in the struggle over racism. Sometimes when we say “liberal” we mean it in the philosophical sense, with particular attention to liberal humanism. At other times, we mean “liberal” to refer to contemporary US Democratic party politics. When this dissertation examines the role of liberalism, it uses “liberal” in both of these senses simultaneously, even though liberal political practice does not always perfectly conform to liberal humanist philosophy. I examine the calculus of inequalities and hierarchies that are an inherent, structural part of both of these definitions, the particular way in which the defense and uplift of some is used to justify the oppression of others, concomitant with the disavowal of this very relation. This unique formation of liberalism (as hierarchizing with disavowal) takes on particular power through the realm of performance.

This dissertation is ultimately about bourgeois gatekeeping and the performance and practice of class (an always already racial class) as a phenomenon in racial capitalism, with a particular focus on the liberal bourgeoisie of theatre and its role in the formation of social structures. It goes beyond a critique of white behavior or whiteness studies, to discuss class behavior as a whole. Around the turn of the millennium, this class struggled over defining antiracism in order to delineate appropriate political behavior and shape popular political practice. Through the relationship between these antiracisms and their enactment within increasingly more impactful institutional arenas, I shed light on both stalwart and novel hierarchies in turn-of-the-millennium distributions of symbolic, economic, political, and military power.

This work traces one project of New York Times theatre critics deployed around August Wilson and three musicals (Avenue Q, Hairspray, and Wicked) as sites of struggle within this field of racial capitalism, and the positions and capital that the liberal bourgeoisie maintained or gained from these struggles. Chapter One takes up how struggles over racism and antiracism in August Wilson's works are used by the New York Times to gain symbolic capital, which they use to take stances on the distribution of money for the arts.

Chapter Two examines the social relations of the musical Avenue Q, in particular its hit number “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.” In addition to reproducing racial hierarchy and deferring radical political action, the musical positions the act of consuming a commodity as the only permissible political action to resolve the racial hierarchies that result from that commodity’s production. This logic is echoed in the marketplace for housing in the Brooklyn neighborhood Bedford-Stuyvesant. Expanding “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” within that context, I argue both that there is a shift in the site at which commodity fetishism operates, and that the racializing nature of economic exploitation remains a central component of the twenty-first century liberal economy in practice.

Chapter Three works through the social relations of Hairspray to examine the significance of “postrace” to popular political practice. Hairspray utilizes “postrace” to generate a nostalgia for political activism that can only be fulfilled by the consumption of black culture, such as the musical Hairspray itself. This postrace logic, especially the appeal to the victim-hero, was taken up by the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign and its associated media support, with an important distinction: the campaign provided an outlet for material political action.

Chapter Four traces a history of popular participation in policing and security, placing Wicked within this context to account for the expansion of this participation in both geographical scale and ideological scope after the turn of the millennium. Finally, the musical’s popular antiracist practice provides an illuminating framework for understanding the appeals by which US counterinsurgency policy works to shape popular political practice abroad. US counterinsurgency connects the practice of participating in surveillance and security to both a representational imperative and to its global production of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. The consequence of Wicked and counterinsurgency, I argue, is the production of global popular participation in the US’s racial security regime.

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