His Grotesque Swagger; or, Morgan Benson, The Black Joke, and the Nineteenth-Century Target Parade


This dissertation examines anti-Black race-based ideologies prevalent in early American musical theatre through a multi-faceted case study concerning Morgan Benson, a child actor of the early musical theatre stage, Target Parades of the long nineteenth-century, and The Black Joke. This is an excavation project, seeking to unearth conceptual underpinnings for The Black Joke, a euphemism for prostitution, sex trafficking, and race-based subjections popular throughout the eighteenth-century. Beginning with Benson's street and stage performances of the 1870s, this dissertation moves backwards to the 1730s to uncover how legacies of The Black Joke persisted across two continents for nearly two centuries. Ultimately, the dissertation seeks to stitch together various material artifacts of The Black Joke trace, returning, in the end, to performances of Morgan Benson and the impact his stage work had on audiences just prior to the turn of the twentieth century. This dissertation offers a methodological approach for treating archival scraps seemingly cast aside in the face of racial inclusion, daring to confront traumatic stories of anti-Black and race-based violence as they were offered to general publics as various forms of light entertainment. Across an extended metaphor of walking on parade, this dissertation examines the labor of actors, street performers, and hired daily workers as they are caught out walking in and amongst the public gaze. The focus of this examination is placed squarely on sites of reception, seeking to trouble how crowds, audiences - publics - were conditioned to receive abject performances of black subjectivity as a base condition of being. The argument advanced in this study claims audiences were groomed to delight in the appearance of black death as a form of entertainment, and, over time, were encouraged to collapse visible, scripted signs of targeted black death as a pre-condition for ontological blackness in the United States of America. Systematically moving backwards in time from the street and stage performances of Morgan Benson as a target-bearer for militia parades of Manhattan throughout the 1870s, to weekly occurrences of Target Parades in New York City from early- to mid-nineteenth century, to the development of The Black Joke in London during the eighteenth century, this dissertation locates an organizing conceptual and paradigmatic frame for not only Target Parades and the Target-bearer figure but also their eventual disappearance from archives of New York City, musical theatre history, and critical race studies. Together, these three bits of historical data form a prism through which reception for anti-Black sentiments on commercial musical theatre stages may be theorized. The grounded theory advanced in this dissertation offers theatre performance historians and genealogists a method for discovering previously veiled performances of Black actors within the professional apparatus of commercial musical theatre.

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