2017 Reading List

Happy New Year! We are officially in 2018. I find New Year’s Eve/Day to be a bit of a downer holiday. Celebrating the onward march of time can be a little depressing, but mainly as an academic, January is hardly a new year, or time for a fresh start. It’s just the beginning of the Spring semester. I tend to find renewal and fresh thinking as the academic year prepares to kick off, in the fall.

But to take a moment to look back at 2017, I’ve stolen the idea behind this post by Erik Loomis at the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog. My list is quite short compared to his, but the reasons for that are: 1) I am a painfully slow reader; 2) I teach a 4-4 plus 2 courses in the summer, so my work load does not provide nearly enough reading time; 3) these are books I read in their entirety, unlike Loomis’ list, which includes books he read only parts of in his research, or for class prep. So here they are, in no particular order: Continue reading

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A Twitterary Approach to Poetry

Sometime earlier this year, William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is Just to Say” became something of a phenomenon on Twitter. The 1934 poem, simple in its Imagist style, is now a funny meme, getting remixed, reinterpreted, and set to music all over the social media platform. While it is now starting to irritate many users, I think the emergence of this meme is a delightfully postmodern love letter to the poem itself, and to poetry more broadly. First, here’s the original text: Continue reading

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What Does Conservative Theatre Look Like?

Image of a Bald Eagle

Bald eagle: MURICA!

I am teaching an upper level elective, American Drama, this semester. My students are about to embark on their final projects, which are “play recovery” projects. The students had to find a lesser-known play they thought could be placed into “the canon” of American drama, and produce several assignments based on this recovery. I’m excited to see what they come up with! If you want to check out some of their blog posts about their projects, you can read them at: American Drama Blog. Continue reading

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The Theft of Marsha P. Johnson

Over the past few weeks, it has come to light that a new documentary about the legendary transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson was made in a highly unethical fashion. The still-developing story about The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is a sad one, and one which I think has clear overlap with academia. In fact, I think seeing this story through the lens of academic research further emphasizes the unethical behavior of the film’s director, David France.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can read a good article about it at Mother Jones. The broad strokes are that France relied on footage gathered and in some cases, found, by Reina Gosset, who had been gathering video footage and other materials about Johnson for years, partly with the intention of making her own documentary. France never credited or paid Gosset for any of this work. The fact that Gosset is a trans woman of color and France a cis white man only further highlights how messy this ordeal really is.

For his part, France claims that the materials on Gosset’s Vimeo and Tumblr pages were not really germane to his film, despite an assistant saying this material was, in fact, copied to hard drives belonging to the production:

“Furthermore, France admits that Gossett’s Vimeo channel, which consists of 19 videos, was one of several that his crew examined during the course of their filmmaking process and video from that channel may have appeared on their ledger to keep track of available footage. But he maintains that Gossett did not hold the copyright for the archival footage of Johnson that appeared on the channel and that it also appeared elsewhere. He says his team legally obtained permission from copyright holders for the footage that ultimately appeared in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.

I’m afraid that Kamran [the assistant] misunderstood the process of research and documentary filmmaking,” France tells Mother Jones. “The deeper question is: Did we learn anything from finding those videos on her Vimeo page? And that answer is no.”

France doesn’t deny using and incorporating the material into his larger research, he just claims he “learned nothing new.” If we take him at his word, this doesn’t technically amount to plagiarism, but it is an unethical theft of someone else’s hard work. When a scholar goes to an archive, for example, they dig through folders and boxes of material. They have to scan endless amounts of documents and photos, and make careful judgements about what is useful and what isn’t. When they write a paper or develop a project based on that research, they don’t own the copyright. That has to be credited to the archive, or the entity which owns the rights to that material. However, the research–the act of finding these documents, collecting them, sifting them, and prioritizing them–is their own work. It takes time, effort, and money to do this work. To take someone else’s efforts without credit, and then dodge complaints by saying “well they don’t own that stuff, anyway,” is a gross misunderstanding of the value of work and research.

This year, I spent two days in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. You can read about that here. If I were to post some of my PDFs from that research trip, or publish a blog with a comprehensive list of my findings, I would have to credit the Collection where I found them. I don’t own that material. But if a person came by and downloaded or copied what I posted here, and then incorporated all of that work into another project, without crediting me, that would be the same kind of unethical behavior David France is exhibiting here. It would be wrong.

Gosset found this footage; she labored to bring the legacy of Marsha P. Johnson to a larger audience. That labor needs to be at least acknowledged, if not outright compensated. Otherwise, France is nothing more than a cheap thief.

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Angels in America at the Actors Theatre

Program for 2017 run of Angels in America at the Actors Theatre, Louisville, KY

Angels In America, 2017

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to see Part 2, “Perestroika,” of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. As I have mentioned several times in this blog, I teach Angels regularly as part of my 20th century American literature course. Students tend to respond to it really effectively, and it is a near-perfect example of postmodernism, which is helpful for literature students to unpack.

The play is seeing something of a resurgence lately, after years of not being performed very much. It’s a fairly long theatrical experience, two full-length plays (if both are produced, sometimes theatre only do Part 1, “Millennium Approaches), lots of scene changes, a complex wiring setup required for the Angel character, etc. But, as the play has reached its 25th anniversary, and with the advent of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, Angels seems to have renewed vigor. Continue reading

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Pageants Used to be Theatrical

Welcome Back! If you were able to take Labor Day off, I hope you relaxed and had a great day. If you weren’t able to take the day off, I hope you got paid extra for working on this day dedicated to labor and its achievements on our behalf.

Star of Ethiopia Program, Philadelphia 1916: a Black Woman Holding a Banner

Star of Ethiopia Program, Philadelphia 1916

I was teaching about pageants last week–my American Drama course was reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ Star of Ethiopia, and we discussed the purpose and form of pageants, a rather popular form of theatre in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pageants were essentially   a combination of parade, variety show, and dramatic performance, with music and dance included.

Du Bois’ pageant was often held over several days, and told the story of the “Six Gifts” Africans have given to the world, such as iron and spiritual faith. Some productions of the pageant featured as many as 1200 performers and elaborate moveable staging.

In 1913, an epic pageant was held in Madison Square Garden in honor of the striking silk workers of Paterson, New Jersey. It told the story of workers striking with the International Workers of the World (IWW), in order to raise money for the striking workers and to educate the public about the labor movement. Continue reading

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Prison & Performance

Welcome to the start of the brand new 2017-18 academic year! I am feeling sightly off-kilter still, since the ECLIPSE took up quite a bit of the first day of our semester, but I was happy our students got a chance to do some real active learning. 😉

But today’s post is more related to my current research project about the Third World Women’s Alliance. As I work on this conference paper, I have been reading Dani Snyder-Young’s book Theatre of Good Intentions: Challenges and Hopes for Theatre and Social Change. This fantastic resource has given me a phrase that I embarrassingly didn’t know before: Applied Theatre. As Snyder-Young writes, it can refer to “a wide range of practices in which participatory dramatic activities and/or theatre performances are used for a broad set of purposes […] used to describe many practices including (but not limited to) Theatre of the Oppressed, classroom drama, theatre-in-education, community-based performance, prison theatre, Theatre for Development, [and] political theatre…” (4). “Applied Theatre” is a useful term that sums up much of what I research in a more elegant way than constantly referring to “agitprop” or “political theatre.” Continue reading

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Learning is More Important Than Teaching

Last week, I got to attend a teaching and learning conference and surprisingly, the keynote was wonderful. I say this because I have honestly been to so many conferences over the years for which the keynote was decidedly a snooze. But today, Dr. Todd Zakrajsek from the University of North Carolina gave a great talk that hammered home a lot of what I’m already doing in the classroom, but with more data to back it up! Here are my key takeaways: Continue reading

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Teaching A Streetcar Named Desire

I’m happy to share this post I wrote for the Theater Historiography website about multimodal approaches to teaching Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. I like to use the play text combined wth film, animation, and visual art sources in the classroom.

Learn how here: “A Multimodal Approach to Teaching A Streetcar Named Desire

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Alt, Schmalt

You may have heard about the new show concept announced from the creative team behind the HBO hit Game of Thrones. The new show, to be produced for HBO, is called Confederate and is set in a “grisly dystopian future” in which the South won the war, remained in secession, and kept enslavement legal. As you could imagine, this announcement generated a lot of backlash, to which David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, two white men, professed great surprise. The article linked above is a lengthy interview with Weiss and Benioff, as well as two African American producers, Nichelle Tramble  and Malcolm Spellman, who will be working on Confederate. In the interview, the team declares the backlash unfair, since the show has yet to even be written, let alone seen. They also emphasize another curious defense against its critics–that the show “will be an alternative-history show. It’s a science-fiction show.” This jumped out at me, since the team has some curious ideas about the history and effects of the Civil War. It also caught my eye because we ave, quite recently, had an alt-history-cum-sci-fi text which imagined an America in which enslavement never ended:

Cover image for novel THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

Cover image for novel THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

Thus, I can’t help but see Confederate not as a poorly thought out, edgy, groundbreaking concept, but as a poorly thought out, stolen concept. (Colson Whitehead’s novel is set to be adapted into a series for Amazon, done by Barry Jenkins, Oscar winner for Moonlight.)

What further irked people about this interview and concept was how condescending the team appeared to be in their comments. Claiming that Confederate was a way to really wake people up to the fact that this “shit is alive and real today. I think people have got to stop pretending that slavery was something that happened and went away.” Clearly, African Americans are all too familiar with the aftereffects of enslavement and how systemic racism works in the United States today. White Americans certainly have blind spots, willful ignorance, or straight up don’t care about these issues, but will a show that imagines a US with legal chattel slavery in the 21st century help those viewers? Or will it simply serve to reinforce the “Lost Cause” notions that have never gone away? Remember, people still fly Confederate battle flags. People still refer to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression.” How would a show that essentially plays into that idea illustrate to people that “this shit is alive today”?

Certainly, a bulk of the criticism is due to the fact that the creative team heading this project is two white men who have brought two African Americans along with them to create this show. But I’m not sure this project would sound much better if it were being helmed by a team of people of color; the very concept itself is both derivative and offensive. Imagining a US which never ended chattel enslavement doesn’t help us imagine a better world. It actually erases the post-enslavement history which landed us where we are in 2017. Thus, the result may not be a critical re-evaluation of our own racial history, but a dodge of that history in the guise of a “sci fi alt history” show.

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