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Playing Eastern, Enacting Afro-Orientalism: The Hampton Singers and William Bradbury’s Esther, the Beautiful Queen

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Abstract:

William B. Bradbury published his sacred oratorio Esther, the Beautiful Queen in 1856. Esther enjoyed enormous popularity, with thousands of performances throughout the United States and many reported in Africa, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and Singapore. Bradbury’s score went through many reprints, rendering it one of the most successful vocal works of its era. Performers and audiences envisaged the possibilities for colorful staging and dramatic enactment and Esther rapidly became transformed into Orientalist music theater. Contemporaneous reviews document audience fascination with Oriental costumes and the splendor of a stage set as an exotic palace. When interpreted by those already Other-ed by the white population—such as African Americans—Esther assumed additional layers of representation and symbolism associated with what James Parakilas terms “auto-exoticism.” To illustrate, I turn to a performance of Esther in 1893 by the Hampton Singers in the famous Daly’s Theatre of New York. In a review of this performance, published in Harper’s Magazine, celebrated author Charles Dudley Warner acknowledged, albeit with evident surprise, that the Singers were “perfectly at home in their Oriental costumes” and emphasized how they communicated a “profound realization of the characters” they portrayed. Musically, the Singers endowed their unconducted performance with what Warner described as “primitive pathos” and “semi-tropical” nuances—pejorative terms that nonetheless convey the presence of interpretive practices quite beyond the capabilities of Eurocentric critical acumen and vocabulary. Moreover, Bradbury’s rather sparse and imprecise score invites improvisation, talk-singing and chanting—components of the “heterogeneous sound ideal” of African-American music making, as characterized by Olly Wilson. The Hampton production of Esther embodied what Susan Nance calls “playing Eastern,” and served as a communal strategy that allowed black performers and audiences to experience a level of cultural expression and participation otherwise denied them by the white population. Their interpretation transcended the constraints of U.S. “internal colonization” (as explicated by Malini Schueller) and, in so doing, offered an early manifestation of Bill Mullen’s conception of “Afro-Orientalism.”
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Association:
Name: 96th Annual Convention
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http://www.asalh.org


Citation:
URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p521525_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Karpf, Nita. "Playing Eastern, Enacting Afro-Orientalism: The Hampton Singers and William Bradbury’s Esther, the Beautiful Queen" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 96th Annual Convention, TBA, Richmond, VA, Oct 04, 2011 <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p521525_index.html>

APA Citation:

Karpf, N. , 2011-10-04 "Playing Eastern, Enacting Afro-Orientalism: The Hampton Singers and William Bradbury’s Esther, the Beautiful Queen" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 96th Annual Convention, TBA, Richmond, VA <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p521525_index.html

Publication Type: Individual Paper
Review Method: Peer Reviewed
Abstract: William B. Bradbury published his sacred oratorio Esther, the Beautiful Queen in 1856. Esther enjoyed enormous popularity, with thousands of performances throughout the United States and many reported in Africa, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and Singapore. Bradbury’s score went through many reprints, rendering it one of the most successful vocal works of its era. Performers and audiences envisaged the possibilities for colorful staging and dramatic enactment and Esther rapidly became transformed into Orientalist music theater. Contemporaneous reviews document audience fascination with Oriental costumes and the splendor of a stage set as an exotic palace. When interpreted by those already Other-ed by the white population—such as African Americans—Esther assumed additional layers of representation and symbolism associated with what James Parakilas terms “auto-exoticism.” To illustrate, I turn to a performance of Esther in 1893 by the Hampton Singers in the famous Daly’s Theatre of New York. In a review of this performance, published in Harper’s Magazine, celebrated author Charles Dudley Warner acknowledged, albeit with evident surprise, that the Singers were “perfectly at home in their Oriental costumes” and emphasized how they communicated a “profound realization of the characters” they portrayed. Musically, the Singers endowed their unconducted performance with what Warner described as “primitive pathos” and “semi-tropical” nuances—pejorative terms that nonetheless convey the presence of interpretive practices quite beyond the capabilities of Eurocentric critical acumen and vocabulary. Moreover, Bradbury’s rather sparse and imprecise score invites improvisation, talk-singing and chanting—components of the “heterogeneous sound ideal” of African-American music making, as characterized by Olly Wilson. The Hampton production of Esther embodied what Susan Nance calls “playing Eastern,” and served as a communal strategy that allowed black performers and audiences to experience a level of cultural expression and participation otherwise denied them by the white population. Their interpretation transcended the constraints of U.S. “internal colonization” (as explicated by Malini Schueller) and, in so doing, offered an early manifestation of Bill Mullen’s conception of “Afro-Orientalism.”


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