Scripts of Blackness: A Review – by Ellen R. Welch

Noémie Ndiaye, Scripts of Blackness: Early Modern Performance Culture and the Making of Race, RaceB4Race: Critical Race Studies of the Premodern series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022). 376 pages, 8 b&w halftones, 12 color images. $64.95. ISBN 978-1-5128-2263-2.

This book’s striking cover design cites a costume print produced by Henri Bonnart (1642-1711) in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century.[1] Titled “L’Afrique,” the image depicts a figure who we might presume is an opera dancer. She wears a striped knee-length skirt with floral and chevron trims, layered under a tasseled overskirt or substantial ceinture, flowing ruffled sleeves, and a striped stole, fastened with a gemstone in front and billowing off her shoulders, all crowned by a bejeweled, feathered headdress. The luxuriousness of the costume reads as vaguely exotic, as does the shorter skirt length, suggesting more vigorous movement than would normally be enacted by a contemporary European female character. But it would be difficult to pin down the time period or geography the costume was meant to represent were it not for the image’s accessory elements. The costume looks remarkably like those worn by figures in other prints and identified as “Americans,” ancient Romans, or shepherds. This figure is legible as “African” thanks to its title, the scorpion and lion on the ground, and, of course, the dark-skinned mask in the figure’s hand—an unmistakable sign of blackness as it has been imagined and reproduced by European and white American cultures across the centuries—here presented in a typically Baroque gesture of self-disclosing artifice.

This image efficiently conveys the central concepts and paradoxes of Noémie Ndiaye’s rich, thought-provoking work. Examining English, Spanish, and French drama, ballet, and opera from the sixteenth through the early eighteenth centuries, the book explores “performative blackness,” defined as “racial impersonation that brings into being and fashions what it claims to mimic” (2).[2] The word “performative” here evokes both an artistic mode (the performing arts) and, in an Austinian sense, the effectiveness of its racial representations. Ndiaye is interested, above all, in what early modern Europe’s masks of blackness did and perhaps continue to do. She calls this work “racecraft,” arguing that the staging of blackness produced stereotypes, narratives, habits of mind, and structures of feeling that contributed to racialized hierarchies and ideologies in this formative period.[3]

In four substantial chapters, the book investigates the visual, acoustic, and kinetic dimensions of performative blackness on the early modern stage. Chapter 1 examines examples of blackface or “black-up” in performances of religious and ethnic differences. Ndiaye begins by discussing medieval plays and processions that depict the devil as a blackened figure. She then goes on to show how this “diabolical script of blackness” echoes in early modern English and French dramas that stage characters identified as Moorish or African. Briefly pointing to evidence of the presence of Afro-diasporic people in Tudor London and Renaissance Rouen, she argues that this redeployment of the “diabolical script” represents “theatre’s response to a new racial climate” (43). A slightly different progression emerges in the analysis of early modern Spanish theater. Although “Africanized devils” frequently appear in the “autos” or pre-Baroque religious plays, they disappear by 1590, after which religious theater emphasizes the deceptive, ubiquitous nature of temptation in the form of a devil who blends into the surroundings. Instead, African and Afro-diasporic characters tend to be associated with discourses of economic exchange, particularly through objectifying metaphors that liken the appearance of their bodies to foodstuffs and luxury goods. This “commodifying script of blackness,” Ndiaye argues, supports “the ideological demands of a slavery-based economy” (73).

Extending the reflection on “cosmetic blackness,” Chapter 2 shifts attention to its intersections with gender. Although previous scholarship has focused on the lack of Afro-descendant women characters in early modern drama, Ndiaye notes their ambivalent presence in seventeenth-century performance. While acknowledging a “dearth of Afro-diasporic women” in French plays and ballets, she proposes that this erasure is made palpable in several works that depict Afro-diasporic men “enslaved” in the Petrarchan style by their unrequited love for white women. Ndiaye suggests that “Afro-diasporic women’s exclusion from the interracial erotic economy of the high Baroque stage” reflects “shame and denial about colonial realities,” including white men’s sexual desire for and exploitation of Afro-diasporic women. In contrast, English performance culture exhibits a “sudden and sustained feminization of black-up” in the Jacobean era (103), where representations of feminine blackness reflect contemporary obsessions with witchcraft. The resulting “succuban script of blackness” is characterized by “a fetishistic structure accommodating taboo fantasies of coercive sex with Afro-diasporic women” (107). Lastly, the chapter explores the prevalence of mulatta characters in Iberian comedia, hypersexualized figures that represent the nexus of fetishization, colorism, and anxieties about racial legibility in the Spanish empire. While highlighting differences in form and emphasis among these three national traditions, Ndiaye reveals how the pan-European stage is haunted by the reality of interracial sexual exploitation in the colonies.

Moving beyond visual signs of blackness, Chapter 3 considers acoustic techniques of racial performance through an investigation of “blackspeak” on early modern European stages. Although “habla de negros” was only codified as such in Iberian theater,[4] this chapter shows that dialects and accents also served to construct racial identities in seventeenth-century English and French drama. With fewer real-life models of Afro-diasporic speech to draw from, English playwrights borrowed from other types of foreign, regional, and class-marked stage accents (163), reflective of broader “imperialist linguistic dynamics” (165). In French performance, Ndiaye hears echoes of the commedia dell’arte’s “moresche blackspeak” (169) and of other forms of stage “jargon” that purported to represent Romani or Turkish languages. Drawing inspiration from Madeleine Dobie’s work on representations of enslavement in Oriental fictions, Ndiaye reads this “acoustic Orientalization of blackness” as another “displacement and erasure” of Afro-diasporic identities indicating colonial denial and shame (174).[5]

Finally, Chapter 4 examines movement, particularly dance, as a third modality of performative blackness. The focus on dance makes space for exploration of actual Afro-diasporic performers, particularly in the case of Spain, where Afro-Spanish dancers (real and fictionalized) achieved social mobility, and in some cases freedom, through their work as performers. In contrast, Ndiaye analyzes the moresque and canarie dances associated with African characters in French court performance as animalizing. Black dances in English court masques and in the “antics” that punctuated English stage plays begin by imitating the French courtly model but then exhibit a “growing Hispanicization” in step with “growing interracial frictions around the notion of mobility in the colonial Anglophone world” as color-based slavery became entrenched (226). Across various examples of European staged black dance, as well as in accounts of black dance recorded in colonial narratives, Ndiaye finds a paradoxical sign of “deprivation of mobility, exclusion from ownership and self-ownership, and indefatigable resistance to those” (234).

This condensed summary fails to capture the full range of works and arguments presented in Scripts of Blackness, which arguably encompasses enough material to sustain multiple book-length studies. Indeed, a great strength of this book is its impressively large corpus of plays, ballets, and civic pageants from three countries and two centuries (all helpfully catalogued in an appendix). The inclusion of different types or genres of performing arts demonstrates the effectiveness of performance techniques deployed across courtly, public, and religious stages. The juxtaposition of Spanish, English, and French contexts, with occasional glances toward Italy, reveals the pan-European, intercolonial stakes of the formation of racial categories through performance.

At the same time, this breadth can force some compromises of depth and contextualization. The passages that linger on a single work (such as the insightful readings of Othello in Chapter 1 and Lope de Vega’s Servir a señor discreto in Chapter 2) showcase Ndiaye’s keen analytical skills and reveal the complexities in the texts. These extended discussions leave the reader hungry for more patient explorations of other works, which are sometimes hastily typologized according to “script.” A more expansive account of the performance of “black dance” in French court ballet, for example, might more carefully attend to the resonances between the dance styles frequently associated with Moorish or African characters and those that depict Turkish, Italian, or lower-class “grotesque” figures. Although Ndiaye briefly acknowledges “the connectedness of paradigms and subparadigms within the racial matrix” (213), French ballet and opera-ballet offer many, complex examples of the insidiously playful slippage of racialized categories (as the Bonnart print attests). How might investigating the quasi-interchangeability of different kinds of otherness on the Baroque ballet stage add further richness to the account of the racecraft performed by this specific artistic form? This is one example of the kind of question sparked by the book’s stimulating framework. Scripts of Blackness will undoubtedly inspire many future studies delving into the specificities of racecraft enacted by particular genres, locations, and narrowly defined periods within early modern Europe.

Finally, with its emphasis on “scripts” written by the ideologies that justified imperialism and slavery, Ndiaye’s book offers an important corrective to the “critical inclination . . . to read drama, theatre, and performance culture as sites that automatically resist hegemonic ideological forces” (235). Perhaps this tendency has been especially prevalent in studies of Baroque performances whose self-conscious theatricality points to the artifice of the conventions they cite, arguably undermining their ideological power. Countering this type of analysis, Scripts of Blackness refocuses our attention instead on the real force of the performing arts’ construction and dissemination of stereotypes, narratives, and beliefs that perpetuated racialized hierarchies. Ndiaye’s reading of the Bonnart print in her book’s postscript reaffirms this approach, showing how the dark, “thick-lipped” mask, together with the language of “monstrosity” in the caption, reenact several of the scripts catalogued in the preceding pages, simultaneously demonizing and erasing Afro-diasporic identities (237-38). The performer in the image can lift her mask. Historical Afro-diasporic people upon whom this harmful caricature was imposed cannot. This important book issues a compelling call to reassess early modern European performances of blackness in the harsh light of their effects on Afro-descendant subjects.

Ellen R. Welch is Professor of French & Francophone Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC

[1] Henri II Bonnart, L’Afrique, c. 1700 in Recueil de modes, tome II: Cent-dix-sept planches (Paris: 1750), 25. BnF,

[2] In this review, I follow Ndiaye’s own practices in her book with respect to racial and racializing terminology, employing “black” and “blackness” (lowercase) when “ventriloquiz[ing] the perspective of early modern white supremacy” and “Afro-diasporic,” “Afro-descendant,” or similar phrases to refer to historical subjects and fictional characters (29).

[3] Ndiaye borrows and revises the term “racecraft” from Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (New York: Verso, 2012).

[4] See Nicholas R. Jones, Habla de Negros: Radical Performances of the African Diaspora in Early Modern Spain (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2019).

[5] Madeleine Dobie, Trading Places: Colonization and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century French Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010).

Cite this note as:  Ellen R. Welch, “Scripts of Blackness: A Review,” Journal18 (February 2023),

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