Approaching Transnational America in Performance

by Birgit M. Bauridl (Volume editor) Pia Wiegmink (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 351 Pages


The volume is uniquely located at the interdisciplinary crossroads of Performance Studies and transnational American Studies. As both a method and an object of study, performance deepens our understanding of transnational phenomena and America’s position in the world. The thirteen original contributions make use of the field’s vast potential and critically explore a wide array of cultural, political, social, and aesthetic performances on and off the stage. They scrutinize transnational trajectories and address issues central to the American Studies agenda such as representation, power, (ethnic and gender) identities, social mobility, and national imaginaries. As an American Studies endeavor, the volume highlights the cultural, political, and (inter)disciplinary implications of performance.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Approaching Transnational America in Performance—Introduction (Birgit M. Bauridl and Pia Wiegmink)
  • Decolonial Performer: Craig Santos Perez as Poet, Activist, Scholar, Teacher, and Blogger (John Carlos Rowe)
  • The Borders that Cross Us: Ethnographic Sensibilities for Transnational American Studies (Ben Chappell)
  • Virtual Theatricality, Transatlantic Representation, and Mercy Otis Warren’s Revolutionary Plays (Leopold Lippert)
  • Staging the Black Atlantic: Fugitive Slaves in William Wells Brown’s The Escape (1858) (Frank Obenland)
  • In the Heights: Performing Change as Evolving Transnational Tradition (Nassim Winnie Balestrini)
  • Performing ‘Little Egypt’: Ashea Wabe and the American Harem Scenario (Martina Koegeler-Abdi)
  • Performing Heidelberg at the Golden Gate (Leonard Schmieding)
  • “‘Little America’ Welcomes You”: Transnational Tacit Performance at the Grafenwoehr German-American Volksfest (Birgit M. Bauridl)
  • Playing (with the) Future: Biology and Preemptive Performativity (Frederike Offizier)
  • Epic (and not-so Epic) Meal Times: Gender Performance in YouTube Cooking Shows (Katharina Vester)
  • Ghetto Aesthetics: Performing Spatial Inequality in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (Julia Faisst)
  • “You think your wooden barriers are keeping them inside?” Performing Health and Spaces of Contagion in The Knick (Claudia Trotzke)
  • “In 2015, we are all indigenous”: Transnational Performance(s) at the World Indigenous Games, Palmas (Christine Plicht)
  • List of Contributors

← 6 | 7 →

Birgit M. Bauridl and Pia Wiegmink

Approaching Transnational America in Performance—Introduction

In his 2005 monograph, Performance in America: Contemporary U.S. Culture and the Performing Arts, performance studies scholar David Román not only points out the neglect of performance in American Studies,1 but also argues for the relevance of performance in contemporary American culture. He explains:

Performance proves an especially effective means to engage in the contemporary in that artists and audiences are constituted and composed as a provisional collective in a particular temporal moment and in a specific localized space. They may or may not share the same history or future, but in the moment during which they compose a group, they enact and perform a temporary and conditional we. Performance’s liveness and impermanence allow for a process of exchange—between artists and audiences, between the past and the present—where new social formations emerge. (1–2)

Román here sketches performance as a corporeal, participatory event, which has the potential to create physical, immediate meeting grounds between diverse audiences from different cultural and national backgrounds. These participants in a performance experience a moment of cultural encounter and interact with each other. Furthermore, Román emphasizes the idea of national self-fashioning but also of critical self-scrutiny inherent in this form of cultural encounter: “[P]erformance engages the contemporary as a dialogue about the country, its people, and its history” (2). Román’s nation is a heterogeneous and diverse construct in constant need of negotiation.

This volume of essays agrees with Román’s assessment of the significance of performance in American culture, yet it proposes to emphasize, if not shift the focus to, larger trajectories. It views performance not only as a site of national self-reflection, but re-considers performance in- and outside the United States as an important subject of inquiry for the study of transnational phenomena and America’s position in the world. “[T]he nation cannot be its own context. No less than the neutron or the cell, it must be studied in the framework larger than itself,” argues Thomas Bender (7). Concordantly, scholars of transnational American Studies like Thomas Bender, Emory Elliott, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Winfried Fluck, ← 7 | 8 → Alfred Hornung, Günter Lenz, Heinz Ickstadt, Leo Marx, or John Carlos Rowe have shifted the discipline’s focus toward cultural, social, or political formations encompassing more than one nation; toward human, material, and cultural mobilities that cross national borders; as well as toward a continued exploration of the nation, yet from a transnational perspective.

From the first settlers to the present day, many, often-times exceptionalist, versions of American self-fashioning—in form of a model community, the land of unlimited opportunity, Jefferson’s ‘empire of liberty,’ Kennedy’s ‘nation of immigrants,’ or as a pertaining “regulatory fantasy” (Pease 11)—have defined America as a national and seemingly homogeneous entity. Despite the nation’s diversity on the inside, U.S. borders until today remain an indicator of in- and exclusion and they function as an affirmed or challenged marker of (collective) national identity (however constructed it may be). In ideological, social, political, but also geographical terms, the idea of the nation still possesses “affective power” (Traister 4). In the wake of the transnational turn, nations have come to be seen as players in debatably global and decentered networks. Material and immaterial national borders have come to be considered porous, and phenomena encompassing more than one nation and culture have been discerned. While not denying its impact, scholars of American Studies suggest a flexible, dynamic, and open concept of the nation that allows for and requires transgression and change.

We argue that performance constitutes a primary field of inquiry for questions pertaining to the United States as an effective “nation among nations” (Bender) and for discussions of the impact of transnational processes on the set-up, position, and definitions of the United States. Concordantly, this essay collection critically explores the complexity of transnational phenomena without believing in their univocal global character or in their full-fledged dissolution of cultural or national identifications. Rather, following Lenz’s appeal to “redirect our critical perspective back to[wards] the specific, the concrete workings of the politics of American cultural studies” and towards “a more cogent engagement with the political workings of ‘culture’ in American democratic society in a world of globalization” (393), this essay collection stresses the idea that ‘global’ processes are in their immediate and particular manifestations nevertheless subject to local cultural imaginations and socio-political particularities.2 In other words, although ← 8 | 9 → ‘global’ phenomena may display structural similarities, they nevertheless become manifest in specific cultural and socio-political contexts and interpretations and may differ from site to site. In order to examine this local embeddedness of seemingly global processes, the essays in this volume critically explore a wide range of performances emerging in and negotiating these local spaces impacted by transnational mobilities.

Scholars of transnational American Studies such as Lenz urge us to scrutinize “a multiplicity of locations” (393), when it comes to understanding global processes. Following Marie Louise Pratt or John Carlos Rowe, these spaces may be characterized as ‘contact zones.’ Pratt defines contact zones as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths” (34). To Rowe, “the ‘contact zone’” constitutes a “liminal region or ‘borderzone’ in which different cultures meet and negotiate—violently or otherwise—their ‘neighborhood’” (12). Thus, contact zones can be characterized as crossroads of transnational trajectories; they are spaces calling for negotiation of diverse encounters.

The essays in this volume are particularly interested in contact zones as spaces of manifestation and negotiation of transnational phenomena. Yet, while the contact zone, e.g., in its definitions by Pratt and Rowe, oftentimes “remains” to be seen and investigated as a “predominantly linguistic and textual space” (Bauridl and Wiegmink 160), in “Toward an Integrative Model of Performance in Transnational American Studies,” we call for “shift[ing] the focus of inquiry from the primary concern with forms of textual representation to forms of corporeal and physical cultural expression” (161). In a similar vein, the contributions to this volume investigate a diverse range of performances in contact zones. More precisely, the contributions to this volume seek to reflect upon the local confines and sites of performance as an immediate form of cultural encounter at the crossroads of larger transnational processes. Performances depend on materiality, corporeality, and presence. They “not only function” as platforms for cultural encounters, but also “as contact zones via the copresence of diverse audiences” (Bauridl and Wiegmink 162). As essentially site-specific forms of individual or collective expression and negotiation, “they are also prone to emerge and participate in the negotiations of already existing contact zones” (Bauridl and Wiegmink 162).3 If ← 9 | 10 → the site of a performance is a contact zone, this contact zone becomes part of the cultural, social, and political work of performance and can be studied as such. Taken together, the essays in this volume approach performance in discourses that highlight the thematic, generic, and methodological crossroads of specific physical and local acts and intangible global developments and proceedings.

This collection of essays is the scholarly outcome of the founding phase of the research network “Cultural Performance in Transnational American Studies,” funded by the German Research Foundation. The network consists of a group of fourteen core members and approximately 25 affiliates and associated institutions.4 It aims at exploring the benefits of (cultural) performance both as an object of study (i.e., acts of performance) and as methodology (i.e., cultural performance studies) for questions and discourses relevant for transnational American Studies.

In addition to the narrow notion of performance as a something that is performed in front of an audience in a specific space and for the duration of a clearly demarcated time span, the contributions to this volume depart from a much broader conception of performance. From diverse forms of actual physical encounters (in the theatre, during a festive cultural experience, in a restaurant) to the performative practices (and its mediation) of preemptive security exercises; from the use of performance as a crucial element in mediatized cultural formats like YouTube cooking shows, documentary film, serial television, or websites to diverse conceptualizations of performance ranging from definitions of ‘cultural performance,’ notions of the performativity of gender, and theatricality—the contributions collected in this volume make use of and help refine a broad variety of forms and concepts of as well as approaches to performance in order to explore the benefits of performance as a conceptual tool to approach questions pertaining to the transnational. The diversity of performances discussed in this volume, firstly, speaks to the large potential of the field of performance studies for American Studies and points to the richness of the material base that needs to be explored and conceptualized. Secondly, it accentuates the fuzzy borders of the term performance—fuzzy not because attempts to conceptualize performance may have been ← 10 | 11 → inadequate, but because scholars in Performance Studies, like the contributors to this volume, consider performance neither a mere artistic and mimetic rendering of reality nor a form of showing off or deceit. Social, behavioral, artistic, staged, rehearsed, mediatized, accidental, and spontaneous performances, as the essays in this volume demonstrate, are agents in the negotiation of cultural encounters in transnational contact zones and, ultimately, in the constitution of culture.5 In their approach to diverse forms and concepts of performance, all contributions share the purpose of investigating the motivations, dynamics, and results of transnational processes and cultural encounters.

The first two essays in this collection invite us to enter into an interdisciplinary dialogue about performance and about the benefits of using approaches from Performance Studies in transnational American Studies. Rather than speaking from the viewpoint of Performance Studies as a discipline, John Carlos Rowe and Ben Chappell, from their own disciplinary perspectives, address scholars working in the field of performance. They invite their readers to engage in interdisciplinary perspectives relevant for performance. In his essay about the native Pacific Islander poet, performer, scholar, and activist Craig Santos Perez, Rowe reflects on recent scholarship in Archipelagic American Studies and discusses decolonial cultural politics in the work of Perez. In his call to shift from ‘continental’ towards ‘oceanic’ epistemology, Rowe exemplifies the performative nature of Chamorro identity, community, and ontology inherent in the poetry of Craig Santos Perez. In “The Borders that Cross Us,” Chappell approaches issues of transnational American Studies from an ethnographer’s point of view. Resonating with the works of early Performance Studies scholars coming from the field of ethnography and anthropology (like Milton Singer, Victor Turner, or Dwight Conquergood), Chappell’s essay discusses the politics inherent in ethnographic interactional fieldwork when examining “small transnationalisms” (xxx) in everyday lived experiences.

The next set of essays examines transnational entanglements in American performing arts. Analyzing plays and musicals from the revolutionary, antebellum, and Obama era, Leopold Lippert’s, Frank Obenland’s, and Nassim W. Balestrini’s essays address different border-crossing discourses inherent in the performances and their cultural contexts. Lippert and Obenland survey the transatlantic contexts that inform the plays by Mercy Otis Warren and William Wells Brown. While Lippert shows how Warren employs theatricality as a mode of inquiry into and ← 11 | 12 → critique of political representation and British imperialism, Obenland’s analysis of William Wells Brown’s The Escape (1858) examines Brown’s use of diverse theater traditions ranging from Shakespearean tragedy to the minstrel show in order to present ‘fugitivity’ as a condition that transcends national conceptions of race and citizenship. Balestrini’s essay draws on the conceptual repertoire of transnational American Studies and Performance Studies to discuss the multiple performance traditions employed in Miranda and Hudes’s musical In the Heights. Furthermore, she distinguishes the protagonists’ “sense of transnationally grounded selfhood” (131) from previous (stereotypical) representations of immigrants in Broadway musicals.

The essays by Martina Koegeler-Abdi, Leonard Schmieding, Birgit M. Bauridl, and Frederike Offizier approach yet another facet of performance by drawing on the theoretical framework of ‘cultural performance.’ Here, performance is employed as a cultural model for the study of “discrete events” (Singer xiii), i.e., cultural events in which notions of Americanness are exhibited, reiterated, and negotiated in transnational contact zones. Koegeler-Abdi and Schmieding examine historical examples of Arab American and German American cultural performances, respectively. Bauridl and Offizier analyze contemporary forms of cultural performance, namely, German American joint celebrations in spaces located outside the confines of the United States and so-called pre-emptive security practices that emerged in the wake of 9/11. In her analysis of the public appearances of the late nineteenth-century belly dancer Ahsea Wabe, Koegeler-Abdi traces the construction of American harem fantasies that were informed by discourses and practices of both Orientalism and slavery. Schmieding’s essay scrutinizes the conjunction of a German play and the performance of Germanness in the San Francisco restaurant Heidelberg Inn in the early twentieth century. Schmieding shows how San Francisco’s German immigrants performed German identity and staged German culture by preparing, exhibiting, and eating ethnic food at the Heidelberg Inn. Complementing Schmieding’s case study of German American identity construction via food culture, Bauridl explores in her essay “‘Little America’ Welcomes You” the idea of “tacit performance” (184) as a means of conceptualizing intercultural encounters during the annual “Volksfest” on the Bavarian U.S. Army base in Grafenwoehr. She draws attention to the function of corporeal practices in perpetuating stereotypical notions of one’s own and foreign national identities. In her essay “Playing (with the) Future: Biology and Preemptive Performativity,” Offizier introduces readers to the performative character of scenario exercises, i.e., crisis situation rehearsals in which the threat of global contagion reinforces national confines, and investigates the logic of preemption inherent in these performances. ← 12 | 13 →

The last set of essays addresses the aesthetics and politics of re-mediated performance. Similar to the first two essays in this volume, these essays invite us to think of performance as a methodological tool that transgresses the confines of the “here and now” (Román 1), i.e., the characteristics of live performance as an ephemeral event. Instead, the essays by Katharina Vester, Julia Faisst, Claudia Trotzke, and Christine Plicht take their cues from a broad range of theoretical conceptualizations of performance—ranging from Judith Butler’s “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” and Richard Schechner’s notion of performance as “restored behavior” (Between Theater 36) to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s theorization of the “agency of display” (1)—and apply them to case studies in global media formats. In her essay “Epic (and not-so Epic) Meal Times,” Vester examines the performative qualities of the exhibition, construction, and subversion of gender stereotypes in American and international YouTube cooking shows. Faisst’s reading of Chad Freidrichs’s documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011) investigates the film as a performative intervention into the pertaining legacy of race-based spatial inequality created by mid-twentieth-century urban housing projects like the Pruitt-Igoe. Trotzke’s essay, which could also be read in conjunction with Offizier’s essay, employs the theoretical lens of Performance Studies to demonstrate how the first two seasons of the TV series The Knick (2014–16) negotiate discourses of health, contagion, and national security. Finally, Plicht’s analysis of the World Indigenous Games and in particular its website discusses the complex politics of (national and indigenous) representation at work in the context of this international sporting event.

This volume of essays thus approaches trans/national America in performance. It constitutes an approach in multiple aspects: As an American Studies endeavor, it approaches one of the contemporary core questions of American Studies by drawing on Performance Studies. It uses actual performances as well as concepts of performance to scrutinize the position and participation of America in transnational processes. Vice versa, it approaches actual performances and conceptual definitions of performance from a transnational American Studies perspective. The essays in this volume are a far cry from Randolph Bourne’s 1916 well-known celebration of America’s supposedly exceptional status based on its ‘transnationality.’ Instead, these essays show how exploring America via diverse performances deepens our understanding of America’s transnational entanglements as one nation amongst many. It helps dissolve notions of this nation as a unique container and contributes to its actual and scholarly decentering. The volume claims performance as an enriching and apt way to study transnational processes in American Studies. As a first approach to this approach, the essays in this volume testify to ← 13 | 14 → the potential and sketch some of the basic contours of this intersection; they hope to invite further work and investigations along similar routes.

We would like to thank the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft / DFG) for funding this publication as well as the network “Cultural Performance in Transnational American Studies.” We are grateful to Peter Lang-Verlag and Michael Rücker for his enthusiastic support. Heartfelt thanks go to Florian Weinzierl and Julia Bienek for their diligent help with this publication and their passion for American Studies. Finally, we want to thank the members of the network and the contributors to this volume for the intense and fruitful discussions and their dedication to both this publication and to the cause of bringing (more) performance to American Studies.

Works Cited

Bauridl, Birgit M., and Pia Wiegmink. “Toward an Integrative Model of Performance in Transnational American Studies.” Amerikastudien / American Studies 60.1 (2015): 157–68. Print.

Bender, Thomas. A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006. Print.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519–31. Print.

Carlson, Marvin A. Performance: A Critical Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Conquergood, Dwight. “Rethinking Ethnography: Towards a Critical Cultural Politics.” Communication Monographs 59 (1991): 179–94. Print.

Desmond, Jane C. “Making American Studies Dance.” American Quarterly 53.3 (2001): 526–34. Print.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. “Diskurse des Theatralen.” Diskurse des Theatralen. Ed. Erika Fischer-Lichte et. al. Tübingen: Francke, 2005. 11–32. Print. Theatralität 7.

–. Theatre, Sacrifice, Ritual: Exploring Forms of Political Theatre. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

–. The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. Trans. Saskya Iris Jain. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. “Crossroads of Culture: The Transnational Turn in American Studies—Presidential Address to the ASA 2004.” American Quarterly 57.1 (2005): 17–56. Print.

Fluck, Winfried. “Inside and Outside: What Kind of Knowledge Do We Need?” American Quarterly 59.1 (2007): 23–32. Print. ← 14 | 15 →

Hebel, Udo J. “Internationalization and International Outreach.” Section of “Usable Pasts, Possible Futures.” Comp. Udo J. Hebel, Carmen Birkle, and Philipp Gassert. Amerikastudien / American Studies 59.2 (2014): 241–56. Print.

Hornung, Alfred. “Planetary Citizenship.” Journal of Transnational American Studies 3.1 (2011). Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

Ickstadt, Heinz. “American Studies in an Age of Globalization.” American Quarterly 54.4 (2002): 543–62. Print.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998. Print.

Lenz, Günter H. “Toward a Politics of American Transcultural Studies: Discourses of Diaspora and Cosmopolitanism.” Re-Framing the Transnational Turn in American Studies. Ed. Winfried Fluck, Donald E. Pease, and John Carlos Rowe. Hanover: Dartmouth College P, 2011. 391–425. Print.

Marx, Leo. “On Recovering the ‘Ur’-Theory of American Studies.” American Literary History 17.1 (2005): 118–34. Print.

McKenzie, Jon. Perform, or Else: From Discipline to Performance. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Paul, Heike. “Critical Regionalism and Post-Exceptionalist American Studies.” Towards a Post-Exceptionalist American Studies. Ed. Winfried Fluck and Donald E. Pease. Tübingen: Narr, 2014. 397–424. Print. REAL – Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 30.

Pease, Donald E. “Re-thinking American Studies after US Exceptionalism.” American Literary History 21.1 (2009): 19–27. Print.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (December)
Globalization Cultural encounters Cultural performance Theatricality Interdisciplinary concepts
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2016. 351 pp., 13 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Birgit M. Bauridl (Volume editor) Pia Wiegmink (Volume editor)

Birgit M. Bauridl is Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Regensburg. Pia Wiegmink is Assistant Professor in American Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz. Together they head the international research network «Cultural Performance in Transnational American Studies,» which is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).


Title: Approaching Transnational America in Performance
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