Still from 2011 Black Theatre Workshop public presentation at the University of California Berkeley. Photo by Anna-Marie Panlilio.
From the Archives to the Stage
For the archive can never be a quiet retreat for professionals and scholars and craftspersons. It is a crucible of human experience, a battleground for meaning and significance, a babel of stories…
The archive is more than just an old library or repository of dusty papers, letters, photographs, and recordings. It is a magical space of ultimate theatricality. What the past has left over are as Achille Mbembe describes: “pieces of time to be assembled, fragments of life to be placed in order, one after the other, in an attempt to formulate a story.” This is what AT BUFFALO attempts to do. Using collections from over 30 archives located around the United States and in Ghana (West Africa), AT BUFFALO performs “a babel of stories” virtually verbatim from the fragmented archive of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. From an actor performing newspaper descriptions of the minute-long laugh of a 96-year-old former slave named “Laughing Ben” to dancers recreating cakewalks learned from film, the musical combines performance techniques commonly used in creative arts practices like acting, songwriting, filmmaking, and choreography, to resurrect the experience of the past. The results have been simultaneous translations of the archive into a holodeck of history for scholars to analyze and an unforgettable, entertaining new musical theatre audiences can enjoy.
Achille Mbembe, "The Power of the Archive and Its Limits" in Refiguring the Archive, edited by Carolyn Hamilton, et al. (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002).