Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern

January 22, 2009

Jayna Brown's Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern is a remarkable cultural history of African-American performance from 1890 to 1945. Drawing on archival research, historical documents, literary texts and travelogues, Babylon Girls brings to life the performers of the era and situates them in their complex sociopolitical contexts, thus performing an important act of cultural restitution.

The work covers a wide range of theatrical phenomena, from variety shows and female minstrelsy to practices of racial mimicry and the burlesque. At the heart of the text are the multifaceted ironies that stand behind black performance in the modern period. "Troubling these pages is just how the creative artistry of a nation's most beleaguered and disenfranchised citizens came to represent that nation's most prized claims to freedom, equality, and opportunity," observes Brown. While remaining attentive to the violent social and sexual practices in which modern African-American performance is embedded, Brown opens up a broad vista of black female experience and, in considering black women's experiences as urban citizens, expressive artists and world travellers, shows the ways in which African-American women were both agents and subjects of history. In her attention to female subjectivity in all its complexity, Brown demonstrates how African-American performers were crucial to the formation of a modern urban sensibility.

The work is organised around four pivotal moments in the history of black performance: the first decades of the 20th century in which "picaninny choruses" toured Britain and the eras opened by The Creole Show of 1890, the Darktown Follies of 1913 and Shuffle Along of 1921. The first two chapters are devoted to the troupes of small black children that performed in shows in Britain and continental Europe. Situating these "capering" young performers in the history of US plantation slavery, British colonialism and child factory labour, Brown suggests that they signify a "pastoral innocence", referring to oppressive practices while offering alternative realities.

In the third and fourth chapters, which focus on The Creole Show, Brown is particularly attentive to the complicated operations of humour, satire and farce. In their hyperbolic displays of female sexuality, burlesque reviews both showcased and parodied racial and sexual fantasies. The fifth chapter concentrates on Darktown Follies, a black musical comedy that marked the emergence of Harlem as an important cultural and artistic centre. Chapters six and seven, which open with a discussion of Shuffle Along, the musical review that ushered in "a new era of black female cultural presence", Brown notes, analyse the cultural significance of the transatlantic artists Florence Mills, Josephine Baker and Valaida Snow.

This book is at once a celebration and a lament. The most powerful aspects of the work lie in the disturbing connections drawn between history, histories and representation. In the chapters devoted to the "picaninny choruses", for example, Brown emphasises the disjunction between the frolicking black child on stage and the sombre context from which this stock character derives. Another striking example of performative ambiguity can be found in the history of the cakewalk. A social dance that was born from the parodic imitation of white mores by plantation slaves, the cakewalk ironically became the "folk expression of a nation". Through this dense historical lens, Brown draws a portrait of dance that is both poignant and powerful. Performance here is at once a forum for satire, stereotype, artistic expression, reclamation and celebration.

Brown's richly researched work makes an invaluable contribution to the burgeoning field of performance studies. It is of interest to cultural and dance historians, literary scholars, ethnic and gender studies specialists, dancers and performers and the general public alike.

Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern

By Jayna Brown. Duke University Press. 360pp, £66.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9780822341338 and 41574. Published 29 October 2008

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