Q&A with Joseph Plaster on The Peabody Ballroom Experience, Part II

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Editor’s Note: This is the second of two parts of a conversation with Joseph Plaster, director of the Winston Tabb Special Collections Research Center at Johns Hopkins University, who won the 2023 Outstanding Public History Project Award-Small Institution for the Peabody Ballroom Experience. The editors sat down with Joseph to dig deeper into some particularly intriguing aspects of his project. Part I of the conversation is available here. These posts are part of a series of reflections from winners of NCPH awards in 2023. Part I of our conversation can be found here.

Editors: What can public historians learn from performance studies?

Performance studies scholars show how dance, ritual, and spoken language preserve a sense of communal memory and identity, especially for marginalized publics. Ball competitions are ritual performances that call forth Black and LGBTQ cultural traditions, creating and recreating a thriving public culture in the process. Electronic music derives from modern progressions of the African drum and is influenced by blues, jazz, gospel, and funk. Voguing, an improvised dance form, is influenced by a variety of Black diasporic movement practices. Ball commentators, or masters of ceremony, are griots: storytellers and living archives of the community’s cultural knowledge. My goal in launching the Peabody Ballroom Experience was to bring together the knowledge and history found in the Sheridan Libraries, especially its collection of rare books, and the knowledge and history found in ballroom, particularly its use of performance to transmit cultural memory and critique normative knowledge about gender, sexuality, and family. By taking performance seriously as a repository of knowledge and history, the Peabody Ballroom Experience expands what public history can look and feel like.

Back of person wearing black leotard and high black boots with judges holding up "10" placards in the background.

A performer prepares to walk the catwalk in a Butch Queen Performance category. Photo credit: Saskia Kahn.

Editors: What was the nature of student involvement in your project? How did the project facilitators navigate traditional power differentials between Johns Hopkins students and the Ballroom community associated with race, class, or other characteristics? How were students prepared to engage in this work?

Undergraduate students enrolled in my course “Queer Performativity” (Spring 2023) studied ballroom history and culture for three weeks before receiving invitations to attend our third ball on Saturday, April 15, 2023. These preparatory sessions enabled students to attend the ball as knowledgeable participants rather than voyeurs, and to appreciate performance as a system of learning, storing, and transmitting knowledge. For example, in one class session on the controversial 1990 film Paris is Burning, we read and discussed Phillip Brian Harper’s “The Subversive Edge,” which analyzes the film in terms of cultural appropriation and structural oppression along axes of race, class, gender, and sexuality. These discussions enabled students to consider their own subjectivity as Hopkins students and power differentials vis-à-vis Black LGBTQ communities in Baltimore. In addition, one of my Peabody Ballroom collaborators, the Legendary Marco West, visited our class and provided a first-person account of contemporary ballroom culture. These sessions gave students the analytical tools that enabled them to attend and interpret the ball in the context of queer of color worldmaking.

In a reflection, one student pointed to the “deep past” on display at the ball. They continued: “The ball did not feel like a simple, one-night event. It was part of a legacy of the many balls and performers that have taken stage in nights just like this.” Another student wrote that the ball “put all the things I’ve learned in class about the history of ball and its transformative power for the queer community into perspective.” Being able to immerse herself in the experience “helped shape my understanding of the beauty of ball culture . . . and the work that goes into queer of color worldmaking.” A third student was “struck by the importance of preserving cultural history.” They went on to explain that “It’s important to remember that it is not a privilege for the ballroom community to be hosted at Johns Hopkins, but rather an honor for Johns Hopkins University to be entrusted with documenting the Baltimore Ballroom community’s history and legacy. . . . I feel grateful to have been a part of this unforgettable event and to have witnessed the beauty of Baltimore’s ballroom scene firsthand.”

Editors: Can you give us an example of how someone associated with the project used a book in the library collections to inspire their Ballroom experience?

Our runway, vogue, and realness competition categories are co-curated by the core planning group and Peabody Library curators. Curators begin by presenting books, manuscripts, and archival materials at workshops and informal gatherings. Ballroom artists then interpret these materials through ballroom performance traditions. For our first ball in 2019, for example, a core planning group member wrote a vogue dance category inspired by an illustrated 1688 edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. We posted the category on our Facebook event page along with illustrations from the book: “The epic poem Paradise Lost . . . explains the story of God and Satan battling for humanity’s soul as Satan tempts Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Tonight we want you to tell the story of this war between Heaven and Hell.” Performer Buffy West, who traveled from Atlanta along with several house members to compete in the category, told me about their creative process in a phone interview: “I read up on a lot of [Paradise Lost] prior to actually walking the ball just to ensure I understood the character,” West said. “The main thing that I captured was trying to define the story of the battle between heaven and hell. I helped a few people [in my house] understood that when it comes to the battle between good versus evil, there was emotion tied to it, and there was a long, drawn-out fight. I ensured they understood exactly what the battle was like. . . . because I feel like storytelling in vogue fem or in vogueing in general is very important. That way people in the audience can understand. You wanna think about, “what looks godly? What movements can you do to represent somebody that’s battling the Devil or battling hell or demons that could be included in your performance while getting your tens.” Then the same thing for hell. We had a discussion [in our house]: “make sure you tell a story.” From the performance categories to the costumes to the rare books lining the stacks, history suffuses our epic ball competitions.

~Joseph Plaster is a lecturer in the Museums and Society program, Curator in Public Humanities, and director of the Winston Tabb Special Collections Research Center at Johns Hopkins University. His book Kids on the Street: Queer Kinship and Religion in San Francisco’s Tenderloin (Duke University Press, 2023) explores the informal support networks that enabled abandoned and runaway queer youth to survive in central city tenderloin districts across the United States, and San Francisco’s Tenderloin in particular, over the past century. To learn more, visit Plaster’s personal website.

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