Vaudeville as a form of indigenous self-expression

May 29, 2016
Caleb Snider, Congress 2016 student blogger

What do you think of when you hear or read Vaudeville? Nostalgia for a simpler time of gas-lamp lit stage productions? A smile at the thought of the slapstick, episodic comedies that gave rise to early cinema and classic cartoons? Or maybe more problematic images such as the racialized minstrel shows?

I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t have thought of Vaudeville as a space where indigenous performers could practice greater autonomy, self-determination and identity building than in any other venue available at the time. But this was one of the central points of Christine Bold’s fascinating lecture, “Indigenous Modernities: From Wild West to Vaudeville.”

Professor Bold (University of Guelph) described some of the results of her ongoing project to recover a hidden history in which native performers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries used the Vaudeville stage to construct modern indigiocity. According to her research (which includes interviews and collaboration with surviving performers and their children and grandchildren), Vaudeville served as a space where these performers could practice a much greater amount of autonomy, self-determination and identity building than in other contemporaneous venues, such as the Wild West shows, circus sideshows or penny museums. On Vaudeville’s stages, indigenous performers like the gender-nonconformist playwright Go-Wan-Go Mohawk could subvert the expectations of white audiences by undermining racist stereotypes meant to transform them into titillating spectacle by introducing elements of authenticity in their costumes, dances and stories. 

As illuminating as her lecture was, I was most impressed during Professor Bold’s Q&A afterward: the way she spoke at length on every audience question, displaying a vast knowledge of her subject matter and adjacent material, demonstrated that she is a consummate academic and speaker.

Much like the Vaudeville stages she described as a place of exchange of gaze, where the audience is as much seen by the performer as vice versa, Professor Bold’s lecture truly transformed into a forum of the exchange of ideas.

Christine Bold, University of Guelph, presented at Congress 2016 yesterday at an event called Indigenous modernities: From Wild West to Vaudeville, hosted by the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE) and the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (CACLALS).