The Black Circuit: Race, Performance, and Spectatorship in Black Popular Theatre, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

The Black Circuit

Race, Performance, and Spectatorship in Black Popular Theatre, 1st Edition

By Rashida Z. Shaw McMahon


216 pages

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pub: 2020-03-27
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The Black Circuit: Race, Performance, and Spectatorship in Black Popular Theatre presents the first book-length study of "Chitlin Circuit" theatre, the most popular and controversial form of black theatre to exist outside the purview of Broadway since the 1980s. Through historical and sociological research, Rashida Z. Shaw McMahon links the fraught racial histories in American slave plantations and early African American cuisine to the performance sites of nineteenth-century minstrelsy, early twentieth-century vaudeville, and mid-twentieth century gospel musicals. The Black Circuit traces this rise of a black theatrical popular culture that exemplifies W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1926 parameters of "for us, near us, by us, and about us," with critical differences that, McMahon argues, complicate our understanding of performance and spectatorship in African American theatre. McMahon shows how an integrated and evolving network of consumerism, culture, circulation, exchange, ideologies, and meaning-making has emerged within the performance environments of "Chitlin Circuit" theatre that is reflective of the broader influences at play within acts of minority spectatorship. She labels this network "the black circuit."


Rashida Shaw McMahon’s exhaustive investigation of the history and ongoing appeal of the theatrical “Chitlin Circuit” sheds light on a crucial component of contemporary Black popular culture that continues to be ignored by most scholars. In her masterful movement across time, geographies, and source materials, she offers an unparalleled gift and resource to African American Studies and Performance Studies.

GerShun Avilez, author of Radical Aesthetics and Modern Black Nationalism

Rashida Z. Shaw McMahon provides a first-hand, comprehensive history of the “Chitlin Circuit,” or what the author calls the “Black Circuit,” a popular entertainment potpourri consisting of drama, comedy, gospel music, Christian faith, family, romance, melodrama, hair salons, barber shops, and vaudeville. Methodically researched, The Black Circuit illuminates the plays, performers, and audience responses rooted in the African American cultural experience. Building on the theme of “Chitlins," an African American "soul food” that slaves cooked primarily from swine leftovers, McMahon tracks the development of this eclectic genre, from artists like Langston Hughes to notable contemporaries Tyler Perry, David Talbert, the team of Johnson and Guidry, and many others. This groundbreaking work will be the standard study of this unique subject for years to come.

David Krasner, author of Resistance, Parody, and Double Consciousness in African American Theatre, 1895–1910 and A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910–1927

Rashida McMahon ambitiously takes on the challenge of chronicling and conveying black theatrical pleasure in “the chitlin circuit,” deftly nuancing black performance and reception, beyond easy scripts. Using rigorous methods and analyses, The Black Circuit taps into an original, rich, and dynamic archive of performances—to tell a beautifully complex story of another side of black theatre history and world-making.

Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr, Associate Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies and African and African American Studies

Whether you call it the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” the “Urban Theater Circuit,” or, as Rashida Z. Shaw McMahon does in her important and timely book, The Black Circuit, you will want to know all that she can tell you and more about this effervescent scene of African-American popular entertainment.

Joseph Roach, author of Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance

The Black Circuit is the first sustained examination of “Chitlin Circuit” theatre, best exemplified, perhaps, by Tyler Perry and “Madea.” Rashida Z. Shaw McMahon skillfully debunks accusations that this theatre simply recycles stereotypes to unsophisticated, African American audiences willing to ignore low production values. Instead she unearths historical links not only to poet Langston Hughes’ gospel plays of the 1950s but, equally importantly, to the sermonic and other performative strategies crafted over centuries by the Black Church. Indeed, the reader sees how this theatre offers a secular Christianity, steeped in contemporary popular culture yet aimed at enabling spectators to surmount, with grace, challenges facing black communities.

Sandra L. Richards, Professor Emerita, African American Studies and Theatre, Northwestern University

Table of Contents


  1. The Black Circuit
  2. Slow Roasted Chitterlings
  3. Looking for Langston
  4. David Talbert: Resurrecting Langston
  5. Johnson and Guidry: Vaudeville 2.0
  6. Tyler Perry: Minstrelsy Inverted
  7. Small Acts: The Politics of Black Theatrical Pleasure


About the Author

Rashida Z. Shaw McMahon is an Assistant Professor of English at Wesleyan University. Her research exemplifies interdisciplinary methodologies and collaborative approaches towards examining the dramatic and performance traditions of Africa and the African Diaspora. Professor Shaw McMahon is originally from the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

About the Series

Sociology Re-Wired

This innovative series is for all readers interested in books that provide frameworks for making sense of the complexities of contemporary social life. Each of the books in this series uses a sociological lens to provide current critical and analytical perspectives on significant social issues, patterns and trends. The series consists of books that integrate the best ideas in sociological thought with an aim toward public education and engagement. These books are designed for use in the classroom as well as for scholars and socially curious general readers.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Sociology / General