David M. deLeon: Performing Jean Toomer

David M. deLeon
Prof. Wai Chee Dimock
Performing American Literature
March 6, 2017

work-in-progress blog

Cane and Kabnis: Performing Jean Toomer

The project in question involves finding a way to perform Jean Toomer’s seminal novel/short story collection/lyric sequence/closet drama Cane. This work, published in 1923 to near-universal acclaim, explores the black identity through multiple styles, modes, genres, and registers. 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.[1]

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, and while Toomer attempted to get it produced in the 20s, it has yet to be put on stage. (The Beineke has Toomer’s papers, and perhaps would be interested in seeing this happen as well.)

I hope to explore how one would turn “Kabnis” into theater for a contemporary audience. Performance studies theorists from Conquergood on have stressed the concept of performance and performativity 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 enacts the drama of race relations.[2] 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 enacting, and a retelling or recasting of this performance today would make this present available to a new generation of performers. “Kabnis” was rejected by contemporary playhouses, who thought the play lacked narrative focus (which it does).[3] A contemporary retelling would have to address this, using the same techniques that Toomer used: pastiche, collage, polyvocality, play.

This will not be an easy task, though. Much of Cane is set in its historical time, and 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.”[4] 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. Many of his representations verge on exoticization. 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 real agency and power, they are still uncomfortably sexualized — even the children.

A retelling of Cane would have to address all three of these issues. But the process of devising this with contemporary actors would bring out these issues even if we weren’t already aware of them. And I trust the play to remain relevant, despite its flaws, its historical and geographic fixity, and its strange accents. If Moonlight has taught us anything, it is that depicting the black experience doesn’t require white people. 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 presence (though whites remain as an ever-present phantom of “sin”).

The tentative 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.[5] 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, with the other actors playing out wordless dumbshows.
  • Find a collaborator from the YSD or an undergrad with experience producing to help organize. Find adequate rehearsal space. Gather together a group of theatre artists of color and schedule 3-4 sessions of around three hours each.
  • Read through the shortened and secondary texts at these sessions, changing roles and scenes at will. Discuss problems, moments of clarity, dramatic through-lines, possibilities. Consider bringing the discussions of these problems onto the stage.
  • Moving forward: what in here is worth developing? Is there any section we’d want to perform at the mini-conference?
  • Alternatively: Film the rehearsal process and edit it into a presentation for the mini-conference.



[1] Karen Jackson Ford,Split-gut song: Jean Toomer and the poetics of modernity (Tuscaloosa, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 2015).

[2] Dwight Conquergood, Cultural Struggles (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013).

[3] Darwin T. Turner, “The Failure of a Playwright,” in Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation, ed. Therman B. O’Daniel (Washington, D.C: Howard University Press, 1988), 377–88.

[4] Nellie Y. McKay, “Jean Toomer in His Time: An Introduction,” in Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation, ed. Therman B. O’Daniel (Washington, D.C: Howard University Press, 1988), 7.

[5] http://solomon.bld2.alexanderstreet.com/cgi-bin/asp/philo/navigate.pl?bld2.219.

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