Emerson College Professor and Dramaturg Magda Romanska talks to Harvey Young, award-winning author, theatre scholar and internationally recognized authority on African American theatre, about Robbie McCauley, the African American experience and the importance of the body, memory and confession.
Magda Romanska: In your book, Embodying Black Experience,you talk about the importance of the black body in African American performance art as a site of trauma, history and memory. In Robbie McCauley’s art, in particular, the body is a palimpsest, a conduit of historical and personal narrative that weaves into the larger context of national identity and global African American Diaspora. In her Obie Award-winning performance, Sally’s Rape (1991), the objectified, commodified body of a black female becomes a site of meta-narrative about money, sex and labor – the entire complex nexus of political, economic and sexual interconnections that construe the American legacy of the slave trade.
Harvey Young: In my book I tell the stories of artists, athletes and every day Black folk who use performance to interrogate the history, experience, and legacy of racial violence. I center on Robbie McCauley’s Sally’s Rape as a powerful and exemplary theatrical model that demonstrates how past abuses echo into the future. The play, which draws its title from the name (and suffering) of McCauley’s great-great-grandmother remembers and reimagines the experiences of Sally, who was a captive on a southern plantation, bore the child of her “master,” and likely was a survivor of sexual assault. A passing reference to this Sally is made in Sugar.
MR: Sally’s Rape won a number of awards, but besides the awards, it was unquestionably the gutsiest performance piece of the 1990s. Putting herself on the auction block, Robbie, as she said, tried to exercise that demon. She said, “I wanted to do this to free us.” Margot Weiss, Duke University scholar, writes that re-enactment of slave auctions in a S&M context is not a “safe space” removed from its historical context, but that it depends on current social hierarchies, from which it attempts to escape. The reenactment puts the actors in charge of the narrative which this time around can have a different, cathartic ending.
HY: At one moment in the play, McCauley stood atop a block, which became an “auction block” through her stand, and dropped the sack dress that she wore. Naked and (briefly) silent in this moment, she stands as audience members, goaded by her performance partner Jennie Hutchins, chant “Bid ‘em in.” In this way, the scene of the auction block gets recreated. Although I never saw a live production of Sally’s Rape, I have spoken to a number of audience members about the experience of sitting there as McCauley stood naked atop the block. One recollection that stands out to me was a spectator’s feeling of intense discomfort at being cast as a person who would or could buy a Black person and a desire for the scene to end as quickly as possible. This particular audience member had the distinct feeling that if she didn’t chant “Bid ‘em in” – which she didn’t want to do – then the scene would continue and McCauley would remain standing naked atop the block. In the end, she chanted alongside the audience. This moment – and, indeed, the entire play – is gutsy not only for McCauley’s fearlessness on stage but also for her insistence that her audience engage with the history, the objectification and the exploitation of African Americans.
HARVEY YOUNG is Associate Professor of Theatre at Northwestern University. His books include Embodying Black Experience (2010), Performance in the Borderlands (2011) and Reimagining A Raisin in the Sun (2012).
See Robbie’s latest work in Sugar when it premieres next week, running JAN 20 – 29 at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box in the Paramount Center.