Book Review: Performance and Activism

When all of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers charged in the brutal beating of Rodney King were exonerated with a “not guilty” verdict in April 1992, protests enveloped the city, leaving behind a toll of fifty dead, 2,000 injured, and damages nearing $1 billion (4). In Performance and Activism, Kamran Afary explores the performative aspects of these protests, emphasizing the voices of activists who struggled to transform unrest into social change. As a reporter for a local radio station in Los Angeles during the 1990s, Afary saw firsthand how their calls for justice and revolutionary, democratic social change dissipated behind the mainstream media’s coverage of interethnic violence. Making extensive use of interviews and other archival materials, Afary recovers the “rhetorical arsenals” of these activists to illustrate the methods by which they developed new counter-public spaces and counter-narratives (161).

In his introduction, Afary provides the rationale for his distinctly interdisciplinary methodology, which employs critical race theory, cultural studies, media studies, urban studies, and performance studies. This variety of theoretical lenses adds depth and texture to the frozen, still-life tableaux of the riots that have dominated the narratives of this period in Los Angeles’s history. He reviews literature related to the uprising, as well as theories of postmodernism and the global city, acknowledging prominent sociologists who have taken this sprawling city as their subject (for example, Theodor Adorno, Mike Davis, and Saskia Sassen). Using the lens of performance to examine multiple public spheres, Afary argues that grassroots organizations, such as gang truce collectives and court-watch groups, developed new forms of cultural expression that created what political theorist Nancy Fraser refers to as “subaltern counterpublics,” in contrast to the notion of a single public sphere. In these spaces, Afary explains, people from subaltern groups can “enact their identities and speak in their own voices relatively (but never totally) freely from forces of domination” (28).

His second chapter, “Toward a Historical Political Economy of Los Angeles,” tethers theories of cultural production to political economy, reading the rebellion in terms of both its ideological function in public discourse and its relation to the larger criminal-justice system. It also lends specificity to his profile of the city—particularly its shifting demographics, mass immigration, and economic growth—and lays the foundation for his later shift to the “local” (specifically, the Watts and Compton areas).

After providing his theoretical grounding and sociological framework, Afary focuses on the gang truce movement in chapters 3 and 4. Although it was often misinterpreted by members of the LAPD as threatening, the gang truce movement offered what Afary, following anthropologist Victor Turner, refers to as “healing rituals.” One example was the organization of “gang truce parties,” a new form of urban festivity “comprised of a series of rich improvisatory rituals and ceremonies that symbolized a community’s willingness to deal with rapidly changing political situations” (73). Gang truce negotiations “grew into a multifaceted movement throughout the 1990s, where performances and creative presentations of the self became even more pronounced” (89). These “creative presentations of the self” included the public telling of stories by former gang members, the emergence of new graffiti celebrating the truce, the wearing of clothing that symbolized friendship among gangs, and the playing of music once identified with rival gangs.

Mural by Man One at the Southern California Library. Representing Mothers Reclaiming Our Children is Annette “Auntie” McKinley. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

In chapter 5, Afary focuses on organizations like the LA4+ Committee and Mothers Reclaiming Our Children (orMothers ROC), composed of mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, and their supporters. These women monitored the judicial system in order to “build a movement that would offer their sons a chance for exoneration or a more equitable sentence” (122). Members educated themselves about the legal process, attended court sessions, and mentored friends and relatives of the men on trial. Afary claims that, in their seemingly simple acts of watching trials and collaborating with lawyers, they established a counter-public space, creating “one of the most successful grassroots responses to the injustices of the court system” (122). Women who had “learned to be quiet about their grief in public arenas, such as their place of employment,” had new outlets where they could voice previously private concerns in public (124). [End Page 666]

Chapter 6 uses Anna Deavere Smith’s performance piece Twilight: Los Angeles to address divergent perspectives, including those of Korean Americans, public officials, officers, and the Hollywood elite. Afary’s reading of Smith’s text highlights themes related to inequities of gender, class, and race and the diverse structures of interpretation embedded in her performance. In a fresh reading of the 1999 video version of Twilight: Los Angeles, Afary analyzes the layers of additional meaning that were produced by the technical elements of video production, the alterations Smith made to her text, and the addition of documentary footage that was incorporated into the video.

Afary provides a fascinating model for theatre scholars working at the nexus of urban studies and performance, particularly for those interested in the broader relationship between the city and spaces of performance. Interrupting the media narratives that fed a cycle of fear after the Los Angeles rebellion, Afary focuses on grassroots organizations working for social change, emphasizing the agency of activists and their use of performance to shape their own cultural identities. In doing so, Afary demonstrates the applicability of performance studies to understanding the spaces and rituals of grassroots activism in the twentieth-century urban landscape.