Brian Eugenio Herrera and Tavia Nyong’o will present at The Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation Seminar in New York and American Material Culture. They will each give a short paper followed by a moderated conversation and Q&A session.

“The Tawdry, Terrifying, but Totally True History of the Casting Couch” (Brian Eugenio Herrera)

In January of 2018, one of Harvey Weinstein’s former assistants filed a lawsuit claiming sexual harassment. By then, the former Hollywood powerbroker had been accused of sexual harassment, exploitation, and assault by scores of accusers, both famous and not. The former assistant’s legal claim, however, contained one particularly sordid detail. The claimant alleged that, as part of their employment, they were obliged to clean bodily fluids from the couch in Harvey Weinstein’s office. After months of scandalized reporting on Weinstein’s cruel, callous, and criminal exploitation of women employees (many of whom were actresses), this was perhaps the first mention of that rarest of objects: an actual “casting couch.” In this talk, Herrera excavates the history of the “casting couch” as a cultural construct. Drawing from an archive that includes the illegitimate press (gossip rags, gentlemen’s magazines, “sleaze” paperbacks) and “under the counter” entertainment genres (party albums, joke books, stag films), he traces how the “casting couch” became one of the twentieth century’s most efficient discursive devices for revealing the reality of sexual abuse and exploitation that “everybody knows about” while simultaneously concealing the reality of that abuse from public scrutiny. As a titillating catch-all (neither so real as the fainting couch or the analyst’s couch but related to both), he argues that the peculiar metonymic power of the “casting couch” collapsed the complex transactional intimacies, collaborative proximities, and material realities of the entertainment industry within the long-standing and enduring narrative of the actress as a compromised worker.

“Black Arts of the Archive” (Tavia Nyong’o)

Tavia Nyong’o will present on the afterlives in art, performance, and scholarship of Mary Jones, a nineteenth-century Black transgender sex worker. Focusing on how historians, activists, and artists have responded to her story—and in particular an 1836 color lithograph of her now in the collection of The New-York Historical Society—Nyong’o considers how contemporary Black artists Arthur Jafa, Tourmaline, and Lezley Saar have differently interpreted both the presences and gaps in the archive regarding her life.

Brian Eugenio Herrera is, by turns, a writer, teacher, and scholar—presently based in New Jersey, but forever rooted in New Mexico. Brian’s work, whether academic or artistic, examines the history of gender, sexuality, and race within and through US popular performance. He is author of The Latina/o Theatre Commons 2013 National Convening: A Narrative Report (HowlRound, 2015). His book Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in Twentieth-Century U.S. Popular Performance (Michigan, 2015) was awarded the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism and received an Honorable Mention for the John W. Frick Book Award from the American Theatre and Drama Society. With Stephanie Batiste and Robin Bernstein, Brian serves as co-editor of “Performances and American Cultures” series at NYU Press. Also a performer, Brian’s autobiographical storywork performances (including I Was the Voice of Democracy and TouchTones) have been presented in venues large and small across the United States, as well as Beirut and Abu Dhabi. Brian is also the Inaugural Resident Scholar for The Sol Project, an initiative dedicated to producing the work of Latinx playwrights in New York City and beyond; is a longstanding contributor to the Fornés Institute, a project committed to preserving and amplifying the legacy of María Irene Fornés; and is part of the Core Facilitation Team with ArtEquity, an organization dedicated to creating and sustaining a culture of equity and inclusion through the arts. Brian is presently at work on two scholarly book projects: Next! A Brief History of Casting, a historical study of the material practices of casting in US popular performance, and Starring Miss Virginia Calhoun, a narrative portrait of a deservedly obscure early twentieth-century actress/writer/producer. Brian Eugenio Herrera is Associate Professor of Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, where he is also a core faculty member in the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies and a faculty affiliate with the Programs in American Studies, Music Theater, and Latino Studies.

Tavia Nyong’o is Professor of African-American Studies, American Studies, and Theatre and Performance Studies at Yale University. His research interests include the ethics and aesthetics of social and cultural analysis. His books include: The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (U Minnesota, 2009), which won the Errol Hill Award for best book in African American theatre and performance studies, and Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (NYU Press, 2018). Nyong’o co-edits the journal Social Text, published by Duke University Press, with David Sartorius (U Maryland). Nyong’o is co-series editor of the Sexual Cultures book series at New York University Press, with Ann Pellegrini (NYU) and Joshua Chambers-Letson (Northwestern).