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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Performing the Racial Scale: From Colonial Saint-Domingue to Contemporary Hollywood

Abstract

This piece explores the notion of the racial scale in two performance contexts: first, in the theatres of the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue in the eighteenth century, and second, in twenty-first-century Hollywood. The racial scale as conceived by the colonials in Saint-Domingue was a means of establishing and upholding a social hierarchy that was built on the dominance of white European master over the black African slave, but which had also to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of free people of colour. One free woman of colour named Minette challenged the whiteness of the colonial stage by appearing in solo roles in a number of productions in Port-au-Prince throughout the 1780s. Her ability to move up the racial scale onstage is significant, though ultimately limited. Moving into the modern era, contemporary casting practices in Hollywood are examined in relation to a modern perception of the racial scale, often known as colourism. The controversy caused by the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in a recent biopic reveals the complex politics of casting even ‘black’ actors in ‘black’ roles as perceptions of different shades of colour persist across different social groups.

Insights Volume 10 Article 7