Oriental, Black, and White

The Formation of Racial Habits in American Theater

By Josephine Lee

344 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 21 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-6962-5
    Published: September 2022
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6963-2
    Published: September 2022
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6221-1
    Published: September 2022
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6961-8
    Published: September 2022

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In this book, Josephine Lee looks at the intertwined racial representations of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American theater. In minstrelsy, melodrama, vaudeville, and musicals, both white and African American performers enacted blackface characterizations alongside oriental stereotypes of opulence and deception, comic servitude, and exotic sexuality. Lee shows how blackface types were often associated with working-class masculinity and the development of a nativist white racial identity for European immigrants, while the oriental marked what was culturally coded as foreign, feminized, and ornamental. These conflicting racial connotations were often intermingled in actual stage performance, as stage productions contrasted nostalgic characterizations of plantation slavery with the figures of the despotic sultan, the seductive dancing girl, and the comic Chinese laundryman. African American performers also performed common oriental themes and characterizations, repurposing them for their own commentary on Black racial progress and aspiration. The juxtaposition of orientalism and black figuration became standard fare for American theatergoers at a historical moment in which the color line was rigidly policed. These interlocking cross-racial impersonations offer fascinating insights into habits of racial representation both inside and outside the theater.

About the Author

Josephine Lee is professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota.
For more information about Josephine Lee, visit the Author Page.


"Using an eclectic approach, Oriental, Black, and White details a number of historically important examples of interracial intersections onstage, unmooring conventional approaches to understanding race in America and providing a timely and much-needed story of racial representation and impersonation in American cultural history."—Esther Kim Lee, Duke University

"Full of fascinating theatrical case studies, Oriental, Black, and White traverses a wide terrain to show us the central role of orientalism and yellowface performance in the evolution of American minstrelsy into a genteel art form."—Edlie Wong, University of Maryland