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Brother to Brother: A Rereading of Black Masculinities in Embodied Performance

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender book series (PSRG)

Abstract

Michael McMillan’s critical intervention explores the formation of diasporic Black masculinities which has—from the cradle to the grave—been subject to colonial fantasies of fear and desire and draws attention to the historical continuities in racial physical and symbolic violence. From an autoethnographic and self-reflexive perspective, his article applies Stuart Hall’s ‘reconstruction work’ and Christina Sharpe’s ‘wake work’ to present a rereading of his own 1996 performance piece Brother to Brother. In his astute analysis, which traces the consequences of colonial history as well as diasporic experience, McMillan shows how performance constitutes both what the late bell hooks called ‘a site of opposition’ and what he terms a ‘safe space’ that empowers Black men to fashion their identities as ‘in becoming’ and become agents in the construction of Black masculinity and corporeality.

Keywords

  • Wake work
  • Reconstruction work
  • Safe space
  • Double consciousness
  • Rememory
  • Architexture

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Based on the African belief that the spirits of the dead live on and following a Caribbean cultural practice after the death of a loved one, African-Caribbean families in the UK will for nine nights create a space for mourners to come and celebrate the deceased in the family home. On the final night of the funeral, a wake is held, which includes food, drinks, music, and even dancing to give the deceased spirit ‘a good send-off’ into the next world.

  2. 2.

    Some notable Black female representatives here include activists Angela Davis, Olive Morris, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw; novelists Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Octavia E. Butler; poets Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez; visual artists Sonia Boyce, Faith Ringgold, Lorna Simpson; and film makers Julie Dash, Euzhan Palcy, or Martina Attille. Films like Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989), Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989), and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (1990) also valorized Black queer identities in the era of HIV/AIDS and created a space to rethink other forms of masculinities coming into being.

  3. 3.

    George C. Wolfe’s award-winning work as a playwright includes The Colored Museum (1986), Spunk (1990), Jelly’s Last Jam (1991), and, as a director, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (1993). From 1993 to 2004, he was artistic director and producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theatre.

  4. 4.

    Pomo Afro Homos was founded in San Francisco by choreographer-dancer Djola Bernard Branner, actor Brian Freeman, and singer, dancer, and actor Eric Gupton. Later, Marvin K. White joined the group.

  5. 5.

    This statement stems from an interview with Brian Freeman, conducted by Michael McMillan at Drill Hall Arts Centre, London, 1993.

  6. 6.

    Black-men-only workshop. London: Double Edge Theatre, summer 1994.

  7. 7.

    This statement stems from an interview with Douglas Russell, conducted by Michael McMillan, London, 2021.

  8. 8.

    Tour venues included: The Green Room, Manchester; Afro-Caribbean Family and Friends (ACFF), Nottingham; Kuumba Arts Centre, Bristol; West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds; Spring Gardens Arts Centre, High Wycombe; and Yaa Asanatewa Arts Centre, London (October 1996). The workshop performance practice that was developed in Brother to Brother also informed a series of workshops I led with Black prisoners in HM Prison The Mount and co-led workshops with young Black boys at Crofton Secondary School. It further formed the basis of the Brother 2 Brother workshop project (McMillan 20012002) that was developed in collaboration with the NHS based community development organization Young People’s Sexual Health Project. Over a year, we explored relationships between older and younger Black men through a program of intensive workshops that culminated in an ensemble presentation with workshop participants at The Albany Empire, Deptford, in 2003.

  9. 9.

    Another piece which negotiates the racialization of the Black male body is Master Juba (McMillan 2006), which is based on the nineteenth-century young Black male dancer, William Henry Lane aka Master Juba from New York, who was famous for fusing African dance styles with the Irish jig as a basis for tap dance. This was also the era of blackface minstrelsy where white performers began blackening up and grotesquely caricaturing Black vernacular culture, especially in terms of orality, music, and dance, which later fostered the rise of Vaudeville on both sides of the Atlantic, and the appropriation and commodification of Black performance. In competing for work, many Black performers wore blackface minstrelsy as well, bizarrely imitating—and in some cases parodying, such as Bert Williams later—a white man imitating a Black man.

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McMillan, M. (2022). Brother to Brother: A Rereading of Black Masculinities in Embodied Performance. In: Dexl, C., Gerlsbeck, S. (eds) The Male Body in Representation. Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-88604-2_2

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