Sovereignty and Stagecraft in Panama and the Canal Zone

October 2018

Katherine A. Zien, Sovereign Acts: Performing Race, Space, and Belonging in Panama and the Canal Zone (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017); 265 pages; ISBN 978-0813584102 (paperback)

Whatever we mean by “labor migrant,” we are unlikely to use the term for the thousands of Americans who went to Panama to work during the almost one hundred years of a US-controlled Panama Canal (1903–99). This term is used for these migrants’ many West Indian counterparts, however. One reason is that when Americans went to work in a foreign country as administrators and managers and technicians and laborers, they were encouraged to think of their new home as if it were on American soil. They celebrated American holidays, watched American films, and sent their children to schools with American curricula. Living in the Canal Zone put them in a legal gray area: the Panama Canal Treaty granted the United States jurisdiction in the zone, which meant sovereignty in everything but name. What, then, did being a “Zonian” mean for migrants (American and not) and their children (American and not)? Katherine A. Zien takes up this question, as well as the question of what having a US-controlled Canal Zone meant for Panamanians, in her new book Sovereign Acts: Performing Race, Space, and Belonging in Panama and the Canal Zone.            

When it comes to meeting points of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, Panama has been an understudied borderland, and to my knowledge no previous work on Panama connects disciplines as well as Sovereign Acts. The book’s central insights and conceptual mobility hinge on the link Zien makes between the “subjunctivity” of US sovereignty in the Panama Canal Zone and the “as if” fundamental to theater and performance. In the absence of “clear frameworks of sovereignty and citizenship,” performance fills in (5). Zien’s “performance-oriented investigation of isthmian sovereignty” assembles a rich and surprising archive of performance in and outside the Zone, from staged shows and protest actions to Zonian architecture and rituals of civic, national, and racial belonging (18). Her argument for “fram[ing] sovereignty in the language of performance, subjunctivity, and ‘as if’” has broad implications for global sites of “contested sovereignty,” which include Panama beyond the controversial Canal handover of 1999 (11, 18). With the American withdrawal from the zone, this narrow strip of land connecting the Atlantic and Pacific reverted back to national territory. As Zien explains, private capital then replaced the nation’s so-called fifth border with “a thousand proliferating micro-borders” (182).

While Zien classes the Panama Canal Zone as one of many sites of American “‘not not’ imperialism”—pointing to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for example—the canal emerges in her first chapter as integral to what she terms the “necessary aesthetics of New Empire” (25, 23). Apologists defined “the aesthetics and style of US New Empire” (43) against the immoderation of imperialisms of the old European stripe, identifying the canal’s “austere locks” as the model for zone architecture and infrastructure. Zien makes clear that when the US Commission of Fine Arts evaluated the near-completed canal in 1913, the “sublime beauty” they found in the locks reflected a moral as well as an aesthetic judgement (26). The locks’ “professed lack of ornament” affirmed the “global good” of the American project at large (26, 24). Reducing the professed global good of “intercontinental trade” to a matter of engineering made sovereignty (Panamanian) an “archaic abstraction” and obscured narrow national (American) interests (24, 37).

Making American workers feel as if they were on American soil had a moral dimension as well. Extending the work of historian Julie Greene on the social engineering of the Panama Canal Zone, Zien notes how zone infrastructure created “a theatrical sense of staged US civic life” (47). Integral to what she calls “sovereignty’s mise-en-scène,” a white township would include “a US post office, fire and police stations, a commissary, clubhouse, theatre, school, and church” (23, 47). “As solid as they looked,” Zien writes, “many of these buildings were mobile, multifunctional structures that could be loaded on railroad cars and moved easily, like scenery” (48). The middle section of the book in separate chapters addresses white and black infrastructure, state-sanctioned entertainment, and sense of belonging, since the zone was notoriously racially divided and unequal. Zien’s insight that the “staged civic life” of the Zone made residents “feel national” extends to the black townships as she argues that for the largely West Indian labor force, “immersion in the Zone’s landscape of Jim Crow segregation and blackface minstrelsy bred identification with African American racial and social justice struggles” (80). Her discussion of what she calls “civil rights spectacles” deserves special mention here (111).

The Canal Zone’s sizable labor force secured Panama a place in the international circuit of West Indian and American performers. Zien focuses on West Indian and Panamanian concert organizer George W. Westerman, who brought black celebrity performers for classical music concerts mainly in the cities of Panama and Colón. Her argument is that Westerman used these concerts to leverage the “self-identification” of Americans and Panamanians as liberal, democratic, and antiracist, encouraging both to perform “as if” in ways that laid the ground for real change. The Westerman classical music concerts “functioned,” Zien writes, “as sites of rehearsing democracy, or acting democratic.” Through this period in the 1940s and 1950s, “the concerts formed subjunctive sites . . . performing a utopian conditional (‘as-if’)” (88; italics in original). While it is hard to quantify the practical effects of these “civil rights spectacles,” Zien notes that Westerman integrated West Indians into the cultural life of Panama City and Colón, desegregated the governor’s mansion, and gave African American musicians “new routes of transnational performance, with Panama as a hub” (70).

Sovereign Acts affirms Panama’s place among key sites of hemispheric history, with a long history of subjunctive citizenship and sovereignty that speaks to the precarious identity and uncertain legal protections of many in the tense political climate of our own time. The question in Panama of what to do with the material remains of empire strikes a familiar chord as well. Do we live with leftovers (like the architecture and infrastructure of the zone) or level them? While this decision matters, Zien reminds us of the inevitable subjunctivity of sovereignty, dependent as it is on the “politically and aesthetically distorting, scrambling, or world-making work” of performance (15).

For Zien, the location of the “pueblo panameño” remains an open question. She explains that Panama’s nationalist theater has used two geographical settings for this symbolic space: an invented domestic interior and the reclaimed Panama Canal Zone. One might ask, What if stagings of civic life featured Panama’s Atlantic port city of Colón instead? This city, American-built but outside the zone, was home to generations of West Indian canal workers and their descendants. While the infrastructure that remains today (like the Hotel Washington from 1913) reminds us that American subjunctive sovereignty extended beyond the Canal Zone, Colón was infamous for its informal economy and forms of entertainment disallowed in American-controlled territory. The story Zien tells of West Indians going off-zone to meet, organize, and improvise forms of belonging invites further attention to places like Colón, Panama City’s counterport and the nation’s shadow city.


Jennifer Brittan is a lecturer in the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Her research focus is hemispheric American studies, and her published work includes “The Terminal: Eric Walrond, the City of Colón, and the Caribbean of the Panama Canal,” which appeared in American Literary History (2013). 


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