Session V – Panel B

SESSION V, March 2, 11:00-12:30PM

Panel B: Social Comedy
Moderator: Anaid Perez Mata
Room: University College 225A

J. Coplen Rose (Wilfrid Laurier University) – Laughing Across a Social Divide: Corruption and Class in Pieter-Dirk Uys’s MacBeki

Loren Kruger’s seminal text The Drama of South Africa: Plays, Pageants and Publics Since 1910 divides post-apartheid South African drama into two distinct categories: post-anti-apartheid and post-apartheid. This division defines post-anti-apartheid drama as works that “demand an eye on the past as well as the future” (191), whereas post-apartheid works are characterised as productions that look predominantly to the future of South Africa (191-2). While Kruger’s definition proffers an approximate temporal frame, post-anti-apartheid running from 1990 through to 1998, many South Africans – and playwrights – remain trapped thinking within apartheid categories of race (Jamal 17-8).

Using Kruger’s two-step post-apartheid model, this paper analyzes the construction of racial identity in Pieter-Dirk Uys’s MacBecki and seeks to locate the play within Kruger’s framework. MacBecki, modeled after William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, underscores neocolonial problems impacting the New South Africa; these problems include corruption, financial control of the country’s resources by MNCs, as well as in-fighting among political leaders. This paper posits that Pieter-Dirk Uys’s depiction of the black political elite in the play intentionally draws connections with apartheid-era constructions of the white upper class. MacBecki suddenly – and comically – shows black political leaders emulating stereotypically white performances of financial and political power, subverting codes of ‘whiteness.’

Comparing MacBecki to Uys’s famous apartheid-era production Paradise is Closing Down, this paper asks: how can humour lead South Africans away from apartheid-era race divisions? Addressing this question I will examine how the stereotypical traits given to white characters in Uys’s apartheid plays – such as a constant fear of theft and violence from lower class blacks – are now appearing amongst the black elite. As a result, this action suggests a fluidity of racial identity in South Africa, helping to “decolonize the minds” of South Africans by subverting racial stereotypes through humour (Thiong’o). Furthermore, and as the paper’s final argument, I assert that undermining rigid categories of race helps to foreground another significant problem facing the South African nation: a “shift towards a class-based conflict” (Singh 88) rather than the strictly race-based divisions symptomatic of apartheid logic (Krueger xi).

My name is J. Coplen Rose and I am a fourth year PhD student at Wilfrid Laurier University. I study humour, South African theatre, postcolonial studies, and critical race theories. As a member of the African Literature Association’s Graduate Student Caucus I have presented a number of papers on humour theories and postcolonialism at conferences across the United States and Canada. This paper is based on fieldwork I conducted in South Africa between June and September, 2012.

Irvin Hunt (Columbia University) – Laughter, Freedom, and History in the Works of Ralph Ellison

Among twentieth-century American authors, few are committed to humor as deeply as Ralph Ellison. In Ellison studies, three arguments prevail about his humor: it extends the tradition of the American trickster, it develops the tenets of existentialist philosophy, and it follows the view of Kenneth Burke, his mentor, that the “comic frame” conditions the widest perspective on history. I argue that Ellison is more indebted to this Burkean “frame” than we have realized, that it structures not only his characters’ perspectives, but his textual forms: it is not only a view, but a new historiography. My point is that we have missed Ellison’s reconception of American history, specifically the Civil War and its afterlife, because we have yet to see him as primarily a comic writer. I take moments in his short story “Flying Home” (1944), his essay “Extravagance of Laughter” (1985), and his classic novel Invisible Man (1952) as emblematic of his corpus. My overarching argument is that he rewrites traumatic history into comic form with comic plots and devices that redress historical wrongs. This is a curative historiography that brings victim and perpetrator together in what Ellison calls “antagonistic cooperation.” To enact this mode of cooperative remembrance, a mode Burke touts as more collective than the tragic, he merges the technique of punning with the African American tradition of “telling a lie.” Because the cooperation is antagonistic, his texts challenge the claim of Jacob Levine: that “laughing at the same thing forms immediate bonds.” But more, they complicate laughter as not only balm but resurrection of historical pain. They make us reconsider Freud’s conclusion that humor is “impervious to the arrows of reality.” To finally see Ellison as a comic writer is to trace his contributions to American historiography and humor studies in general.

Irvin Hunt is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His dissertation, “African American Satires for Twentieth Century Racisms,” examines how humor in the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Fran Ross, and Paul Beatty illumines the evolving conditions of American racial violence.

Elisabeth Wood (University of Michigan) – Choju Giga Scrolls

The Choju Giga Scrolls of the 12th century are a collection of emakimono (picture scrolls) depicting anthropomorphic animals engaged in various activities. The scrolls have been cited as the origin of manga, the Japanese genre of comics, but their strong satirical component and political commentary suggest a purpose similar to modern political cartoons, using humor and “cuteness” as biting social criticism. This element of the scrolls has not received much scholarly attention. This paper will first examine the socio-political environment of the period, the makers of the scrolls and their role in that environment and their purpose in making them. Then, the second part of the paper will focus on the humorous elements of the scrolls. This will explore the reason animals were used as figures, the mocking tone of the scrolls, and why humor makes the message more effective. A study of the cultural backdrop of the scrolls and first-hand analysis of the black comedy in them suggests that by using humor and an element of cuteness, the pictures both negate any defensiveness of the viewer in the face of criticism and, by juxtaposition, lend the satire a much more biting edge. This research offers a case study of humor as a tool for social criticism, a window through which to examine the political upheaval in the late Heian period, and questions the assumption that cute and fluffy cartoons are for amusement only.

Elisabeth Wood is currently pursuing her Masters in Japanese studies at the University of Michigan, specializing in pre-modern art history. Her research interests include humor, narrative and religious thought in art. As an undergraduate, she studied art history and studio arts. She is married with cats.

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