Date of Degree

5-2019

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Theatre

Advisor

James F. Wilson

Committee Members

Jean Graham-Jones

David Savran

Subject Categories

African American Studies | American Popular Culture | Asian American Studies | Dance | Latin American History | Latina/o Studies | Social History | Theatre History

Keywords

United States, Comedy, Popular Performance, Musical Variety, 20th Century, Comedians

Abstract

While the practice of white musical variety clowns embodying stereotypes of African, Chinese, and Mexican Americans has been widely documented and theorized in scholarship on US American popular performance, it has been done largely in segregated studies that maintain the idea that racial impersonations in musical variety is a privilege of white performers. For instance, no study exists that focuses on more than one stereotype at a time, and the performer’s body is always either white or of the same “color” as the type being played. In addition, very little has been written about the tours and circuits run by the three groups under consideration and how the clowns on those stages also participated in such racialized and class-based comedy. What studies do exist on those tours certainly do not consider them in context of each other. As a result, the wide world of musical variety is often reduced to the domain of just white performers, and the presence of the large number of clowns and show managers who were not of European descent has been neglected.

This dissertation sets out to address that process of “invisibilization,” to use Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s term, by focusing on the Black Vaudeville circuits, the Chinese American Chop Suey Circuit, and the Mexican American las carpas tours of the early twentieth century. In distinct chapters devoted to each circuit, I demonstrate some contemporary socio-political challenges (and victories) the comedians and their managers faced outside the theatre on tour throughout the United States. This establishes the historical contexts in which they existed and thrived despite the hostility they often met on the road, as well as the experiences these clowns often responded to on stage in their performances. In addition, I provide case studies of performers on those circuits and highlight their racial and class impersonations, which always included impersonations of blackness, Asianness, Mexicanness, and US Americanness, complicating the notion of who gets to ridicule whom in the name of comedy.

In order to accomplish this, I use archival materials, such as business records, handwritten scripts, publicity and personal photographs, newspaper reviews, playbills, and personal oral accounts documented by historians and ethnographers. Provided together in one study, the research presented in this dissertation belies the myth that such performances and business management in the United States were the privileged domain of a so-called white culture. It also shows how the performers and managers on these three circuits productively worked to challenge dominant notions of Americanness, whiteness, and cultural belonging. This dissertation demonstrates that in the United States, racial and ethnic impersonations of and by people of African, Chinese, and Mexican descent coincided with those by comedians of European descent, and even pre-dated them in some cases. Ultimately, I argue for serious reconsideration of the notion that musical comedy is an entirely “white” art form as well as reconsidering questions regarding who belongs in US musical comedy history.

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