Lecture by Julia Prest, February 2018

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.
Julia Prest is Reader in French at the University of St Andrews, Scotland and 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).
Jeffrey Leichman is Associate Professor of French Studies at Louisiana State University and the author of Acting Up: Staging the Subject in Enlightenment France (2016).
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).