Theatre, Liberalism and Racism

The toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol by Black Lives Matter protestors over the summer has sparked an important debate about the ways we remember and commemorate history. I’ve been thinking about ways the performing arts contribute to structural racism through the depictions of history and national identity.

For example: On one particularly boring day during the first lockdown, I was idly flicking through Netflix and decided to watch Darkest Hour, the Churchill biopic staring Gary Oldman. It’s sentimental tone, largely uncritical and unreflective portrayal of Winston Churchill, and saccharine depiction of the working class (who must only be listened to if they are deferential) makes it a piece of soft propaganda for the right. The film is part of the long-term project to curate the public memory of the war to support conservative narratives of British exceptionalism and superiority.

Education should be focused on troubling, unpicking, questioning, problematizing and reappraising these narratives that sink ‘under the radar’ into our culture.  But structural racism is as much a way of thinking as it is a question of reforming prejudicial and oppressive practices at an institutional level. Overcoming it requires a reckoning with historical systems of thought.

In his book The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, Stuart Hall argues that the Enlightenment’s ‘panoptic, universalist eye’ represented human difference as gradations of civilisation and barbarism within a single system of classification (2017, pp.54-55). As a discourse, liberalism makes sense of the world by marking out difference between these two states of humanity, which in the context of race becomes intelligible through a person’s skin colour.  Referring to Franz Fanton’s idea of ‘epidermalization’, Hall argues that black bodies function as signifiers ‘that direct us to read the bodily inscription of racial difference’ which allow ‘us to read off one set of signifiers in nature along its chain of equivalences in culture’ (p.63).

I interpret this to mean that we are enculturated to see black bodies as signifiers in the discourse of liberalism that makes sense of the world in terms of barbarism and civilisation. Understanding that identity is a discursive (a very important word in Hall’s thinking) construct is the first step in contextualising liberalism as a discourse produced from a  specific sociohistorical culture (the Enlightenment) which retains the same systems of meaning in respect of race.

This has obvious links with the decolonising the curriculum movement, which has lead me to consider the political implications of developing a knowledge of theatre within educational systems that remain undergirded by Enlightenment narratives of rationalism, universalism and human progress. I want to see how theatre and performance supports and challenges these systems of oppression through representations of Blackness, black histories and liberal discourses of freedom, individualism and rationalism.

To this end I’ve sent in a proposal for an article to an edition Performance Research entitled Undercover, which will look at how performance can subvert authority through hidden or clandestine practices.

Here’s the proposal:

‘Who Is #JeSuisCharlie? Dissimulating and Uncovering Liberalism’s History of White Supremacy’


The murderous attack on the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamist extremists in January 2015 left twelve journalists dead and a further eleven injured. Expressions of global solidarity followed through the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie. #JeSuisCharlie became an emblematic public identity expressing a devotion to free speech and free expression, a rejection of (Islamist) religious violence, and a commitment to the liberal values of tolerance, universalism and pluralism. The invocation of liberalism to denounce terrorist violence and support for freedom of speech turns #JeSuisCharlie into a mode of performativity in its ‘reiteration of a norm or set of norms, and to the extent that it acquires an act-like status in the present, it conceals or dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition’ (Butler 2011, xxi). Butler’s framing of performativity as an activity that constructs subjects of discourse, and which also produces dissimulated ‘others’ by establishing a normative criterion to determine the specific characteristic of this subject (ibid xvii), attenuates the power of #JeSuisCharlie to exclude those subjects who do not conform to a liberal identity as it is articulated in this performative iteration. At the surface level, it is only terrorists who are excluded. But through the process of dissimulation Butler describes, #JeSuisCharlie also serves to reveal those aspects of liberalism’s identity that remain clandestine in the public imagination. Namely, it’s history of colonialism, enslavement and white supremacy (Andrews 2018, xxi). This article will take the performative of #JeSuisCharlie as an interrogative frame to consider how the dissimulated subjects of liberalism materialise through their absence in performative free speech acts and through their explicit staging in theatre. #JeSuisCharlie will be cited as a specific discourse of those liberal defences of racism that have gained prominence in the last decade in Britain and the USA (Smith 2020). The examples of Milo Yiannopoulos’s Dangerous Faggot tour (2015-2017), a series of talks attacking ‘political correctness’ and ‘identity politics’, and Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B (2014), a re-enactment of the Victorian human zoo, will be drawn on to determine how the performativity of free speech as it relates to race and racism iterates itself as an assertion of White people’s right to control public imaginaries and histories of Blackness. Further, the performative gains its authority by citing liberalism’s claims to universality that work to dissimulate counter-narratives which remain perpetually othered from this constative discourse. The second part of the article will look at plays that haunt the borders of this performative by staging the indissociable history of liberalism from racism. Selina Thompson’s Salt (2018) and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview (2019) stage the lingering effects of white supremacy on Black histories and representations of Blackness in theatre, respectively. I will argue that these performances constitute acts that uncover liberalism’s power to control and dominate subjects by becoming the sole form of citational authority in the articulation of freedom.



Andrews, K. 2018. Back To Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century. London: Zed Books


Bailey, B. 2014. Exhibit B [live performance]. London: Barbican Centre


Butler, J., 2011. Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of sex. Abingdon: Routledge


Drury, J.S., 2019. Fairview. London: Oberon Books


Hall, S. 2017. The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation. London: Cambridge University Press


Milo. 2017. Dangerous Faggot Tour – Full Talks. 1 February. Available from: [accessed: 14 October 2020]


Smith, E. 2020. No Platform: A History of Anti-fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech. Abingdon: Routledge


Thompson, S., 2018. Salt. Faber & Faber