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Performance Research Workshop: Rhaisa Williams, “Three Black Mothers in a Cleveland Cabaret as the City Comes Crumbling Down”

March 30, 2023 @ 2:00 pm - 3:00 pm

The Performance Research Workshop welcomes Rhaisa Williams.

This is a story of Cleveland, Ohio in the 1970s—when it was affectionately known as “the mistake by the lake.” The city, once a booming manufacturing town, positioned between the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie, had begun a rapid decline in industry and population starting in the late 1950s. But the Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969 had sealed its fate as a symbol of urban decay. However, the history of rapid decline did not feel rapid, nor did its decline feel acute to many of its black residents. My presentation wrestles with this contradiction by thinking of the city’s process of decline in the unlikely site of after-hour joints during the 1970s. Specifically, I examine a photograph featuring my mother, grandmother, and great-aunt taken at an after-joint in Cleveland. Thinking about stories of city-wide devastation and dis-repair through the unlikely sites of after-hour joints is an example of what I call “episodic events” to collapse distinctions between memorable events and the quiet passage of non-descript episodes. In this example of black women frequenting extra-legal social “institutions” such as after-hour joints, I focus on the people who consumed the polluted water, lived next to the river carrying specimens of decay, and their experience of Cleveland as both wretchedly mundane and dangerously blissful. Doing so uses performance and spectacle to think explicitly about processes of deindustrialization that have an all-at-once feeling and a glacial impact on space and time.

Rhaisa Kameela Williams is Assistant Professor of Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University. Williams’ research uses mixed-archive methods—spanning across literature, family history, archives, and public policy—to focus on the intersections of blackness, motherhood, affect, and disquieting modes of freedom. Currently, she is writing her manuscript, Mama, Don’t You Weep: Black Motherhood, Performance, and the Economics of Grief that traces the intimate relationship between grief and black motherhood from the civil rights movement to the present. In 2020, she co-edited a special journal issue with Stacie McCormick on Toni Morrison’s influence on performance studies and adaptation, published through College Literature: A Journal of Critical Literary Studies. Williams earned her Ph.D and M.A. in Performance Studies at Northwestern University and a B.A. in Africana Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has been supported by the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium, and the Mellon, Woodrow Wilson, and Ford foundations; and has appeared or forthcoming in College Literature, Transforming Anthropology, Callaloo, and Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly.

Please email Lindsay Hunter at to register.


March 30, 2023
2:00 pm - 3:00 pm
Event Category:


Performance Research Workshop