The Right to Represent: The Transformation of Topsy in Robert Alexander's I Ain't Yo' Uncle
Type of DegreeThesis
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For my master’s thesis, I intend to examine the reception of “Topsy” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin from the date of publication as a novel in 1852 through 1892. I will investigate and demonstrate the struggle to control Topsy’s representation and what was at stake. In conclusion, I will describe Topsy in the “New Jack” era of the 1990’s as portrayed in Robert Alexander’s 1992 dramatic revision of Stowe’s novel, “I Ain’t Yo’ Uncle.” My overall goal is to identify what vestiges of the original Topsy as she was received remain, and how Topsy is being used in the 1990’s. Additionally, I am interested in what “work” Topsy does in the culture. It is important to know how and why Topsy is still important, and why she, a character who is only active in Stowe’s novel for eighty pages, had such an impact on 19th century audiences and in 20th century popular culture In order to accomplish my goal I have examined what Topsy says in Stowe’s novel, how it was received, and in what context. I will trace decade by decade, starting with 1852 and working to 1892, how Topsy was received, portrayed, and represented, as evidenced in the media of that day. Important also to my methodology is the search for the black response to Topsy as she is portrayed in Stowe’s novel during the years from 1852-1892. In order to demonstrate the lingering influence of the struggle to control the meaning and representation of Topsy, I have chosen a contemporary version of Topsy’s representation. I will examine the years surrounding the first performance of Alexander’s play, 1992, to contextualize Alexander’s desire to “answer” Stowe’s novel with a play that centers strongly on the representation of Topsy. I will also look for the black response to Alexander’s play, and Topsy in particular, and how it was received in the years it was performed on stage. Finally, I will point out the relationship of Alexander’s Topsy to the various meanings assigned to her from1852-1892.