This essay develops a theoretical framework of biopolitical performance, or more simply bioperformance, with which to approach the 1957 televised broadcast of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s A Drum Is a Woman. Presented on the drama anthology program The United States Steel Hour, this theater-music-dance suite fused elements of Afro-Caribbean rhythm with swing and bebop to tell a history of jazz, featuring acclaimed performers such as Carmen de Lavallade, Margaret Tynes, Joya Sherrill, and Talley Beatty. Structured by the conventions of the corporate-sponsored anthology drama, the CBS broadcast promoted two competing and incompatible narratives: one that traced a direct line from the innovations of mid-century corporate prosperity to middle-class domestic security and another that followed a black expressive line of flight as it moved across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, New Orleans, the US urban North, and finally the moon. I argue that through their musical/theatrical/televisual experimentation Ellington and Strayhorn created a hybrid performance in the mode of “calypso theater”: a formal and thematic engagement with an Afro-Caribbean performance history. Their calypso theater sounded and staged a philosophy of the history of jazz predicated on the production of a people that emerge as a refusal of the biopolitical population addressed by US Steel. By focusing on the televised performance’s dance and dramaturgy, this analysis shows how A Drum Is a Woman imagined a decorporealization of the body and a queer transubstantiation of sound that contested the corporate body of national citizenship and the regularized body of Jim Crow.
Shane Vogel; Madam Zajj and US Steel: Blackness, Bioperformance, and Duke Ellington’s Calypso Theater. Social Text 1 December 2012; 30 (4 (113)): 1–24. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-1725775
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