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Elastic Melodramas: Abjection and Self-Authorship in African-American Theater

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Abstract

My dissertation, “Elastic Melodramas: Abjection and Self-Authorship in African-American Theater,” highlights the transformative role of abjection in African American melodrama. The concept of the abject – a state of being “cast off” from society – was initially developed as a dilemma of self-representation by the French feminist theorist Julia Kristeva. Abjection later emerged as a critical concept in the Black Studies canon. It was radically rethought by Frantz Fanon, who argued that Algerians suppressed by French colonial rule were abject figures, and later through the critical discussions of Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved. More recently, it has been championed by theorists like Darieck Scott to describe Black queer subjects who enact agency from a place of marginalization. I use the abject as a means of analyzing dramatic literature, specifically African-American melodrama. My work builds upon previous uses of the abject in critical theory and performance studies, which posits the category as a private reaction to a horrible sight. In melodrama, which depends on an exchange of affect between the performers and the audience, the abject becomes public. On stage, we see who is cast off, and can thus mobilize empathy and ultimately, transformation. In my account, the idea of the abject has an elasticity that refers to a character’s ability to see freedom beyond the embodiment of white power, harnessing the courage to reshape the contours of an antiblack world. It is the 'othered' bodies on stage - female, disabled, displaced, sick, and poor - who push to imagine a new form of black subjectivity, an Afro-futuristic space beyond abjection. In my dissertation, key authors of plays produced over a century of writing for the American theater are discussed, from Angelina Weld Grimké to Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. I ultimately end with a coda on Black melodrama on primetime television, emphasizing that melodrama is a multimodal category, existing on screen and stage.

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172 pages

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2020-08

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Union Local

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Warner, Sara L.

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Sheppard, Samantha Noelle
Samuels, Shirley R.

Degree Discipline

Africana Studies

Degree Name

Ph. D., Africana Studies

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document

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dissertation or thesis

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