March 21, 2018
Noémie Ndiaye’s Work on Theatrical Black Representation Wins Dissertation Award
By Daniel Hirsch
The Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) recently awarded Noémie Ndiaye, assistant professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, its annual J. Leeds Barroll Dissertation Prize for distinguished scholarship related to Shakespeare’s life, times, and works.
Ndiaye earned the award for her dissertation “Marking Blackness: Embodied Techniques of Racialization in Early Modern European Theatre,” which she produced while getting her Ph.D. at Columbia University. It’s research all about how black characters were represented on stage by white actors and what those representations did to Europeans’ understanding of race.
“This award means that my peers and colleagues from the Shakespeare Association of America who have read the dissertation value the work that I do, and that is extremely encouraging for me as I develop the manuscript further,” Ndiaye said recently. “It gives me hope that many more readers might value the monograph.”
Combining methods from cultural studies, comparative literature, theatre history, and performance studies, Ndiaye’s researched how primarily white actors on early modern stages in Europe created racial impersonations of Afro-diasporic people through their performances and stage craft.
“I focus on blackface, blackspeak (a mock-African accent), and black dances, and I argue that those techniques led spectators—in a variety of ways—to think of Afro-diasporic people as belonging naturally at the bottom of any well-constituted social order,” Ndiaye said.
Ndiaye argues these theatrical performances and impersonations of black people on stage helped create an ideological framework and justification for a racialized institutions like colonization and color-based slavery.
In a year when Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” won an Oscar for best original screenplay, in which (spoiler alert) white people literally inhabit black bodies, Ndiaye’s work on early modern theater has contemporary resonance. And for Ndiaye, the original inspiration does indeed stem from personal experience. She explains that this work’s early motivation stemmed from her experiences as an acting student years prior to her graduate work.
“Having spent three years in acting school myself, I brought my interest in the intersections between performance and racialized bodies to graduate school with me,” Ndiaye said. “As is the case for most long-term projects, the shape of the project changed significantly over the course of my graduate studies… But I do think that, at its core, the project actually originated in acting school years ago.”
Ndiaye is in the process of developing the dissertation into a manuscript—of which she says, “stay tuned!”—and will be honored at the annual SAA conference later this month.
Image above: The "Peacham Drawing," the only surviving contemporary illustration of Shakespeare's work, created circa 1595. It depicts a scene from "Titus Andronicus" featuring the character Aaron, a Moor.