Book Review of 

Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business 

edited by Bernth Lindfors

 

in Modern Drama, 43.4

Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Winter 2003

pp. 646-650 

 

Article excerpt

 

Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business is a collection of essays focusing on the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century practice of dis- playing Africans in world's fairs, museums, circuses, and pseudo-scientific road shows. Most of the articles focus on the exhibitors and spectators (i.e., the Europeans and Americans) from this particularly shameful era in the histo- ries of Western performance and science. The text puts names and faces to shrewd businessmen who capitalized on curiosity regarding the freak/other and who exploited Africans in the name of a science (ethnography) that was mostly about sensationalism. Descriptions of the Africans are given mainly from the viewpoint of the exhibitors and spectators. Though primary docu- ments illustrating the attitudes of the Africans are probably scarce, more spec- ulation as to how the Africans might have felt would have given a more balanced representation of the significance of this practice. As it stands, the reader has a difficult time knowing what to take as accurate representation and what to recognize as the product of a less enlightened time. Scholars cannot always take the primary written documents at their word, as only Jeffrey P. Green frankly acknowledges when he writes, "The study of theatrical enter- tainers must avoid uncritical acceptance of contemporary comments" (162). The truth of exhibitors' claims that their Africans were on display voluntarily and were satisfied with their lives, as well as of the few accounts of spectators translating the Africans' speeches as desirous of murdering the audience, is suspect. In general, the essays are more concerned with historical exegesis than with philosophical and psychological theorizing on the systems that cre- ated this performance genre: in other words, the text speaks to how this hap- pened, but not much to why it happened. Very few theories of colonialism or analyses from a postcolonial perspective are invoked. Also, from a theatre/ drama perspective, not much is given by way of performance analysis. 

 

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