Watching Whoopi: The Ethics and Politics of the Ethics of Witnessing

Geraldine Harris


However, any attempt to provide an objective account of the event, either by breaking it up into a mass of its details or by setting it in its context, must conjure with two circumstances, one is that the number of details identifiable in any singular event is potentially infinite, and the other is that the ‘context’ of any singular event is infinitely extensive, or at least is not objectively determinable.
(White, 1996: 22)

On January 30 2005, just into George W. Bush’s second term in the Oval Office, I saw Whoopi Goldberg’s Whoopi: Back to Broadway the 20th Anniversary Show (Whoopi: Back) on the last night of its run at the Lyceum Theatre in New York. Coincidentally, on this particular night the show was being filmed by HBO who broadcast it later that year. In April 2006 I received the DVD of this performance, ordered via the internet, which includes a copy of the “original show” Whoopi Goldberg: Direct from Broadway (Goldberg: Direct) the anniversary of which was “commemorated” by the 2004-5 version. The 1984-5 show was performed in the same theatre and was also filmed by HBO.

I bought the DVD because during the live show I had a sense that its political significance might be greater than the sum of its theatrical parts. Since then, the more I have researched into this piece (and watched the DVDs) the more it has taken on the appearance of ‘an event’ as theorised by historiographer Hayden White above, writing under the influence of Jacques Derrida. By this I mean that after the event, the more I discovered about this performance and its various contexts (before and during the event), the more its possible meanings have expanded into the past and future in a manner that is potentially, infinitely extensive. Except in my mind as an event some of these meanings came together in a “pause” in January 2009 when Barack Obama was inaugurated as Bush’s replacement.

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