The Body, Mourned and Performed

Harvey Young Public Lecture

At the beginning of his afternoon lecture, “Black Death and the ‘Undeadness’ of Blackness in Performance,” Harvey Young slowly scrolled through a list of murders in Chicago in the last week. The names of mostly young black men killed in the past few days made his talk immediately about both the past and present, about theater and about the urgency of black death. Reading Amiri Baraka’s play Dutchman (1964), and contemporary play series surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, such as Black Lives Black Words, Young stressed the everydayness of black death, which he framed as “the tragic oppressing itself upon our everyday experience,” and which happens at random while on vacation, driving, selling cigarettes. The experience of mourning this quotidian death, Young suggests, is that of the “undead,” of seeing ones possible future in the past, of being alive amidst the experience of death. This connection between bodies is one that messes with the temporality of death, that projects images of the deceased into ones own future.

Although the body was also central to Elaine Scarry’s lecture, “Consent and the Body in Theatre,” their readings were strikingly different. While Young focused on the temporality of the black body as at once alive and dead, Scarry focused on the performance of the body in space, proposing that tacit consent in the theater is achieved through a freedom of movement: the ability to leave and the choice to stay. Scarry used political theorists such as John Locke to define the difference between tacit and explicit consent. While explicit consent of government, she explained, appears in voting, tacit consent can be provided through the fact of being in residence. Consent is tied to the body, Scarry posited, and to one’s power over ones body to move freely. Returning to the experience of black death that concerned Young’s lecture, the idea of consent expands beyond the performative power of the individual body. The intrusion of tragic death into everyday life violently strips ones ability to live and move in the world. The images of death also pull the living, without consent, perhaps, into the experience of mourning and their own possible future death. I wonder if consent is also operating beyond the self here, whether the experience of mourning, of the “undead,” breaks down the divisions between one body and another, demanding a collective reclamation of consent. Perhaps this is the reclamation of D'bi Young Anitafrika’s performance, which Harvey Young left us with, when she says “we cannot live without our lives.”