Jean Toomer explores the dichotomy between the audience and the performer in “Theater.” Toomer introduces the concept quite literally: John is seated in the seats, watching the rehearsal, and the girls dance upon the stage. In keeping with the paradigmatic “master/slave” binary, the reader can examine the power structure within the audience/performer juxtaposition. In most situations, it would seem that the performer has the hierarchical precedence, the ability to act while the performer can only react. Toomer, however, posits that, as post-structuralists would argue with nearly all binaries, the binary relation between the two is not as clearly favorable towards the performer as one might first expect. Within a binary, one facet cannot exist without the existence of the other. In the master/slave binary, for example, if the master has no slave to control, then his power is weakened. Likewise, since the slave gives the master his identity, the hierarchy is subverted, and power can be redistributed to the supposedly weaker party.
While John is the reactive observer, he has power in his ability to criticize from a relatively safe position. He refers to the chorus girls as “dancing ponies,” connoting that they are objectified—animals to be trained. Toomer also twists the relation between audience and performer in that here, Dorris is aware of her audience. The interaction becomes personal, and John’s reactions influence Dorris’ actions and vice versa. Just as John judges Dorris, observing her physical appearance (“Her lips are curiously full, and very red…”), Dorris, in turn, critiques John: “Hell, he can’t love…his lips are too skinny.”
The seemingly divisive schism between the two characters is inverted and reverted to the point that Toomer seems to be showing that the binary is not as stable as once assumed. While John sitting in the audience implies passivity, he actively judges Dorris. Dorris, who is the dancing performer, is an audience member of John’s internal debate between mind and body, and she reacts, weeping, to his inaction. Dorris dances of her own free will in reality, and dances like a “dancing pony” in John’s daydream, losing the power of performer. The performer has no purpose if no audience sits to watch, just as the audience has nothing to witness if there is no performer. Toomer seems to be exploring the idea that it is the presence of both of these facets of the binary that gives the other meaning, and that their roles are not as concrete as one might originally assume.