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March 4, 2017 at 8:43 pm #4247DavidKeymaster
David M. deLeon
Prof. Wai Chee Dimock
Performing American Literature
March 6, 2017
Cane and Kabnis
The project in question is how to translate, perform, reexamine, retell, reenact Jean Toomer’s seminal novel/short story collection/lyric sequence/closet drama/uncategorizable other Cane. This work (for it is impossible to further define what it is generically), published in 1923 to near-universal acclaim, explores the black identity through multiple sections, modes, genres, and registers. What it doesn’t do is ever settle on a singular form or singular answer. As Karen Ford writes:
Here is a poetics of disruption. Cane rejects the burden of representation, disrupting formal conventions as a means of shattering racial expectations. Cane still performs a political function but now through the indeterminacy, not the authenticity, of racial identity. The text registers resistance to rigid racial categorizations in the ambiguity of its formal structures, and what is “represented” is the impossibility of a stable racial portrayal.
Of course, there is no reason we need to retell this story; it is already told. However, the form of the final section, a three-act closet drama titled “Kabnis,” invites us to think of the work not only as text but as performance of text. Performance studies theorists from Daniel Conquergood on have stressed performance, actively acting-out, as fundamental to racial and cultural identity. Performance is how a culture is, it is how a culture does, and the dialogic interaction of performances makes the drama of race relations. Rather than see Cane and “Kabnis” as historical texts existing far in the past, the form of “Kabnis” insists that we view it as an active, present-tense performance, and a retelling or recasting of this performance today would make this present available to a new generation of performers. Toomer wanted to perform “Kabnis” in his lifetime but was rejected by contemporary playhouses, who thought the play lacked narrative focus (which it does).
This will not be an easy task, though. Much of Cane is set in its historical time, and much reflects the problems inherent to both Toomer’s milieu and to Toomer himself. Famously, Toomer rejected his black heritage after 1931, declaring himself simply an “American.” He also depicts life in rural Georgia as an outsider, a northern-born light-skinned and well-educated black man slumming it in the ignorant south, and some of his representations verge on exoticizing the simple, rural life of the post-slavery south. There is also the problem of Toomer’s sexual politics. While the vignettes in Cane depict black women and their bodies free of many of the stereotypes of his time and invest them with agency and power, they are still uncomfortably sexualized — even the children — and through this sexualization are idealized into the angel/whore dichotomy that is so pernicious in society.
A retelling of Cane would have to address all three of these issues. But simply the process of devising this with contemporary actors would bring these issues out. I trust their creativity to respond to the problems in creative ways. And I trust the play to remain relevant, despite its flaws, its historical and geographic fixity, its strange accents. If Moonlight has taught us anything it is that depicting the black experience doesn’t require white people, and this is what interests me the most in Cane. It is the experience of a black person trying to define their identity against other black people — in a legacy of slavery but not necessarily in response to white people. All of the characters in “Kabnis” are shades of black, and the implicit color hierarchy is very much on display.
The steps of this project are as follows:
- Make a text. “Kabnis” is hosted on the Black Drama, 2nd Edition website in a roughly dramatic form. This would need to be transcribed into a proper modern play format. Places where stage directions run long would be marked for cutting. During the devising process we would decide if any of these (often beautiful) passages need to be spoken. The play would also need to be marked for cutting for length.
- Make a secondary text. The plays and vignettes in Cane play a part in the unfolding drama, and it is important to find ways to fold these into the dramatic action of “Kabnis.” If the character of Kabnis is Toomer’s authorial stand-in, the vignettes and poems can be performed as Kabnis’s reflections/experiences.
- Gather a set of actors/writers/directors of color. Read through the shortened text, changing roles and scenes at will. Discuss problems, moments of clarity, dramatic through-lines, possibilities. Consider bringing these discussions into the mix.
- Moving forward: what in here is worth developing? Is there any section we’d want to perform at the mini-conference?
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