Neither Villains nor Minstrels: Blackface Performance in the Theatres of Saint-Domingue

Neither Villains nor Minstrels: Blackface Performance in the Theatres of Saint-Domingue

Julia Prest (St. Andrews, Scotland)

Discussant: Jeffrey Leichman (LSU)

Monday, February 5, 2018
5:30 PM – 7:00 PM
LBC 202 (Rechler Conference Room)

It is widely understood that throughout its thirty-odd year history, the public theatre in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti), when staging occasional black or brown roles in its predominantly French repertoire, featured white performers in dark make-up, or blackface.  While this assumption is not necessarily a false one, the only explicit mention in the local newspapers, which constitute our richest known source of information regarding these performances, of blackface is in relation to a handful of performances of a local work, Jeannot et Thérèse (a créole-language parody of Rousseau’s Devin du village) and the dances that accompanied it.  Here blackface is explicitly associated not with European repertoire but local repertoire and its alleged purpose is one of verisimilitude, to make white performers look more like the characters that they are playing in front of an audience well-acquainted with people of African or part-African ancestry.  While the vast majority of actors and singers on the Saint-Dominguan public stage were white, we know of two young women of mixed racial ancestry who, exceptionally, became solo performers: Minette and her younger sister, Lise.  Minette is understood to have eschewed performing in local works featuring black characters preferring, for reasons that can be debated, to perform only European repertoire.  She was thus racially cross-cast when performing a series of roles that are commonly assumed to be white.  In modern parlance, she perhaps represents an early example of colourblind casting.  Lise, by contrast, did on at least one occasion, perform a role that is identified as being black, in none other than Jeannot et Thérèse.  We do not know if Lise also wore skin darkening make-up, nor how dark her skin was naturally.  

In this paper Julia Prest shall unpick these rare but significant examples of casting practices that were, by the standards of contemporary Saint-Domingue, highly unusual and, in the context of a slave society in the grip of increasing racial tensions, highly charged. In so doing she shall seek to avoid reading blackface dance as a simple forebear of the better-known but later phenomenon of minstrelsy and to question the possibility of colourblind casting in a society that was increasingly colour-conscious. 

The lecture is part of the ongoing series of PARIFA (Performances, Archives and Repertories in the Francophone Circum-Atlantic World) events. It is free, open to the public, organized by the Department of French & Italian, and made possible through the generous sponsorship of the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South and the Kathryn B. Gore Chair in French Studies.

For more information, contact Felicia McCarren (fmccarren@tulane.edu) or Toby Wikström (twikstro@tulane.edu).

Speaker Bios

A graduate in Music and French, Julia Prest is Reader in French at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.  She is a specialist in early-modern French and francophone theatre, including ballet and opera.  Julia is the author of two monographs: Theatre under Louis XIV: Cross-Casting and the Performance of Gender in Drama, Ballet and Opera (Palgrave 2006 & 2013) and Controversy in French Drama: Molière’s Tartuffe and the Struggle for Influence (Palgrave 2014 & 2016).  She is currently working on a book project entitled Master, Slave and Free: Theatre and Citizenship in Saint-Domingue (1764-1804) for which she has been awarded a Leverhulme Research Fellowship for 2017-18.  Julia is currently preparing a database documenting all known performances in the public theatres of Saint-Domingue c1764-1791.  Her critical edition of the first play known to have been composed in Martinique, Les Veuves créoles, was published by in April 2017.

Jeffrey Leichman is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of French Studies at Louisiana State University. A dix-huitièmiste, his work focuses on theatrical literature and performance culture from the early modern period through the present. His first book, Acting Up: Staging the Subject in Enlightenment France, was published by Bucknell University Press in 2016. His articles on eighteenth-century theatre have appeared or are forthcoming in Eighteenth-Century Studies, L’Esprit créateur, Diderot Studies, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, and the edited collection Lesage 2015. Recent work on performance and cinema has been published in The French Review and in the forthcoming collection La Théâtralité comme (contre-)modèle esthétique; he is also a member of the MLA Working Group on Comparative, National, and World Cinema. In addition to this work, Dr. Leichman is co-Principal Investigator, with Professor Françoise Rubellin at the Université de Nantes, on an NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant for the V-ESPACE (Virtual Early modern Spectacles and Publics, Active and Collaborative Environment) project, an international collaboration between humanists and computer scientists to design and implement a virtual reality video game based on early-eighteenth-century Parisian Fair theatre. In 2018, Dr. Leichman will be hosting an international conference on theatre and slavery in the early modern French Atlantic at LSU, in coordination with Dr. Karine Bénac at the Université des Antilles. 

Dr. Leichman’s research and teaching at LSU have been recognized with a Louisiana Board of Regents ATLAS (Awards to Louisiana Artists and Scholars) Grant in 2013-2014, an LSU Alumni Foundation Rising Junior Faculty Award (2016), a Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society Junior Professor Award (2016), two LSU Tiger Athletic Foundation Undergraduate Teaching Awards (2015 and 2016), an LSU College of Humanities and Social Sciences Robert K. Udick Undergraduate Teaching Award (2017), and two Manship Summer Research Grants (2013 and 2017).