Book Orders, How Do They Work?

It’s that time of the semester–time to submit my textbook orders for the impossibly far-seeming Fall semester 2017. The pressure to get them in on time is pretty strong, since each department gets a stipend from the book store that goes in the general account. And who doesn’t want (essentially) free money? (Bookstores do this to ensure faculty get their book orders in on time so that the school is compliant with federal guidelines about such things. But because faculty are notorious procrastinators, they have to bribe us to get it done.) I ordinarily have my book orders in way ahead of the deadline, but I need to shake up a few things in my courses, so I am debating new texts right now instead of just ordering the same texts I’ve used before in these courses. In addition, I have one brand new to me course I’ll be teaching, which requires conceptualizing the course from scratch. So, here’s a brief rundown of my current plans: Continue reading

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A New Native Son, Part 2

Read Part 1 here

As promised, I wanted to address a few more things regarding the proposed upcoming adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son. First, the way the novel links to our current political situation, and second, what Suzan-Lori Parks, the writer tapped to adapt the story, could bring to the work.

It’s not much of a stretch to say that the idea of racial equality and what we pejoratively refer to as “race relations” are strained right now. Even before the current administration and its questionable policies came into being, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement showed the hard truths many of us (i.e., mainly white persons) hadn’t realized: That the criminal justice system, from local police up to federal courts and from local jails to federal prisons, is intensely racist. Of course, the facts of institutional racism are certainly nothing new, and Native Son addresses this head on. Whether it is the police who hurl racial slurs at Bigger, the judge who refuses to allow for a fair inquest, or the death penalty which is applied with lightning speed, Wright exposes these institutions for what they are. Even journalists are implicated, writing stories referring to Bigger as an “ape” and other racial slurs. With all of this in mind, the film will probably be a timely union of fiction and reality.

To next turn to Suzan-Lori Parks, I want to convey how important she is as an American playwright. A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Parks has also written for the big screen, writing the screenplay for Spike Lee’s Girl 6. What Parks is primarily known for is her postmodern style. Her key works, among them The America Play are influenced by such other playwrights and writers as Adrienne Kennedy and Langston Hughes. Characters in her plays might travel across time, space or race in order to comment on history, race, and culture. Parks is also interested in the way we (re)present history and memory, as in her most recent work, Father Comes Home from the War (Parts 1, 2 and 3), which was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer. Because she is a bold and, sometimes, rather abstract writer, I am fascinated to see how she shapes Wright’s long, but generally tightly focused novel (things meander a bit in the last third). To begin, the novel runs well over 300 pages and is told from a narrative perspective that, while 3rd person, is inseparable from Bigger’s own mind. There is a deliberate closeness here that Wright crafted, so the reader would always be seeing the world through Bigger’s eyes, and imagine recreating that for film will be a challenge. I’m also curious as to how the film treats the character of Bigger. He is an unlikeable protagonist, a rapist and murderer–how do you make a film about him without either alienating the viewer or shifting the perspective onto another character? And if you do either of those approaches, how do you keep the flavor and spirit of the novel intact? It will be hard, and though I am generally optimistic about Parks’ involvement, there is precedent for a bad adaptation of Native Son already.

There was a made for TV movie of the novel in 1986, which I have yet to watch, even though it appears to be dumped on YouTube in various lengths. The film starred Oprah (!) among other well known actors, but this is not the adaptation of which I speak. A stage adaptation has been done several times, notably adapted in part by Orson Welles, but I am not interested in this, either. There was a version made in 1951 which starred a 43-year old Richard Wright as the 20-year old Bigger. It was directed by Pierre Chanel, filmed in Argentina, and savagely edited to appease 50s-era American censors. The film was recently found and restored to a 107-minute print which you can read about here.

Chanel wanted to make a kind of film noir version of the novel, which makes a certain kind of sense, since film noir and Naturalism overlap in stylistic ways. Yet the bizarre adaptation and laughable performance of Wright himself make the film a curious artifact, rather than anything approaching a serious text. The film turns poor domestic worker Bessie into a jazz singer, and Bigger seeks her help in covering up what he did, rather than roping her into his scheme and then killing her. With the recent attention paid to this film, the new adaptation will have even more baggage to contend with, especially with regard to what it chooses to cut out or change. The changes in Wright’s film adaptation, which he wrote himself, empty out most of the serious thematic concerns: violence against women, racist mistreatment at the hands of the law, white institutional racism, etc. And because something must be cut out of a lengthy novel in order to adapt it for the screen, Parks’ screenplay will undoubtedly have glaring omissions. But what will be taken out, and what will the effect of those omissions be?

We just have to wait, but I am really excited to see what happens.

 

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A New Native Son, Part I

Content Note – discussion of fictional rape and murder follows.

THIS IS NOT A DRILL, Y’ALL: Variety is reporting that Richard Wright’s novel Native Son will be adapted for film by Rashid Johnson and Suzan-Lori Parks. And I’m not sure I can effectively express how excited, interested, trepidatious, and curious this development makes me! Native Son is a crucial text of the 20th century. Published in 1940, it was an enormous best seller and the first Black novel to made a Book of the Month Club selection, which was sort of like being listed on Oprah’s Book Club back in the day. It is a challenging, at times frustrating, yet very true to life expression of urban Black life under de facto Jim Crow. It is also possibly the last truly Naturalist novel of the American 20th century. I teach Native Son quite frequently, in a 20th century American lit course. It fits well at the middle of the semester, requiring students to engage with the lack of progress for Black Americans in 1940, and to set up the (minor) advancements made by 1959, the year the next text on the syllabus, A Raisin in the Sun, was published. But Native Son is a problematic text. So problematic, in fact, that Wright wrote an entire essay, called “How Bigger Was Born” to head off possible critiques and explain his reasoning behind the novel. So, it is this problematic quality combined with the choice of screenplay writer combined with our current political/social zeitgeist that has me so excited. Oh, and did I mention that there’s already been a film adaptation of the novel, starring Richard Wright as Bigger? Yeah, so let’s talk about it. But there is so much to discuss, this is going to be a two-parter. Continue reading

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Trumptuffe

I was teaching the 17th century French play Tartuffe, by Molière, last week to students in my introduction to drama class. We got into a really interesting discussion about hypocrisy and why phony human beings irritate us so much. Why is being a hypocrite, as the main character is, so annoying, and why do we fight so hard to break the spell they cast over others? While I did not directly bring it up in class, the political parallels felt overwhelming. Continue reading

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Blogging Break

I’m finding that this semester is a bit overwhelming right now. My class meetings and work load have shifted only slightly, and yet it appears to have upended my normal routines and scholarly output. I also must confess to being MUCH more focused on politics and current events than I ordinarily would be. And, apparently, I am not alone. The Atlantic published a piece noting that 29 percent of their small sample say they feel more distracted and less productive at work these days, mainly due to checking social media and news more frequently since the election. This tendency is no doubt exacerbated–or caused?–by the rather slapdash debut of the current administration.

For my part, I am waking up to the fact that I have been woefully lazy in my civic engagement, and have decided that now is as good a time as any to get involved. Thus, I have found myself doing more calling and writing to elected officials, more social media outreach, and more attendance at rallies and events that I think matter right now. This, of course, all takes time and energy, which would ordinarily be directed to professional matters.

And, so, I’ve come to the realization that I may be simply treading water this semester, rather than moving forward. I have a book review coming out soon, and I am waiting to hear back about a grant. I am making plans to hit an archive, funding by another grant, and I am working as a campus peer reviewer for the improvement of teaching. So, it’s not as though I am doing NOTHING. It just feels like a bit more nothing than usual.

So, to wrap up, there is no blog of substance this week, just this missive to tell you where I’m at right now. And hopefully, you’re at least treading water, too–it beats drowning!

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Fast Take: The Postmodern Presidency

My husband sent me this column in The Irish Times in which Fintan O’Toole writes the following about Trump’s Muslim ban:

The problem the executive order is really meant to address is not terrorism, but Trump’s own campaign rhetoric. The order relates, not to actual, living, breathing events or conditions, but only to language.

It is pure postmodern politics: The order is a text that refers only to another text, which is Trump’s stump speech on the campaign trail and its dark promise of a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

My husband knew I would find this interesting because I teach postmodernism in an American literary context quite frequently, and this certainly caught my eye.

O’Toole’s point about the ban mentions that not one person from any of the 7 countries covered by the ban have committed a terrorist attack within the US; because the Executive Order (EO) mentions 9/11 and the San Bernadino shooting, neither of which originated with visitors or citizens of those 7 countries, one is left to wonder what the purpose of the EO really is. And that, for O’Toole, is what makes the EO a postmodern text–because it is untethered to any objective reality.

And I would agree with him. Postmodernism, among other hallmarks, is defined by its resistance to any notion of objective, capital-T truth. Postmodernism developed out of the anxieties and uncertainties following WWII and the destructive capabilities of both atomic weapons and the Nazi war machine (how odd that both nuclear weapons and Nazis are such prominent topics right now!). It seemed humanity could no longer create anything new, but could only destroy. And since any and all notions of reality and Truth had been obliterated, artists sought different, non-traditional ways of making meaning. One method saw writers ratcheting up the meta-referential style the Modernists had started post-WWI, and another saw artists take bits and pieces of other artistic ideas and paste them together to make something else (often referred to as collage, both literally and figuratively).

And so, Donald Trump’s EOs seem to fit the bill. They are borne out anxieties and fears, and do not adhere to a fixed notion of reality. Instead, these orders are self-referential in the extreme, taking parts of document from the Obama administration, parts of ideas from  the Bush administration, and sticking them together to create a collage representative of the post-9/11 United States.

I’d rather have a soup can, honestly.Campbell's cheddar cheese soup can

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Some Thoughts About Intersectionality

Intersectionality has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s an important concept in my scholarly work, but it is having a larger cultural impact right now, I think, and it might be instructive to consider this impact more closely. Much of this is inspired by the Women’s March of January 21, 2017 and a recent article about the woman who accused Emmett Till of whistling at her, directly causing his lynching.

I’ve encountered critiques of intersectionality, sometimes from pundits who think it’s “too complicated” a concept to foreground in a protest, sometimes from conference committees who think the word is too esoteric for academics and thus shouldn’t be in a panel title (true story). But that simply isn’t true. Intersectional feminism (and the broader ideas of intersecting identities) is simple enough that USA Today, of all newspapers, had a short but well explained article defining it. So–not complicated, really. But I’ve been thinking so much about intersectionality and sacrifice, inspired by seeing the Mothers of the Movement at the Women’s March. These remarkable women show up and show out at important events. They supported Hillary Clinton. They do work in their own communities. And they stood on the stage at the Women’s March. And I started crying.

To  back up a bit, the Women’s March was initially a somewhat white idea. When it was first conceptualized, it was a small grouping of marches suggested by white women, which started to consolidate into a larger march. At this point, the march was a backlash against the Trump election and his particularly abhorrent remarks about women (about white women, mainly). At this time, I recall seeing in Black Twitter some resistant comments along the lines of “y’all voted for Trump, so you can go get shot in a protest, I’ll be fine right here at home.” Because 53% of white women in this country voted for Trump, compared to about 6% of Black women, his election is often specifically attributed to the failure of white women to consider what a Trump Presidency means for women, particularly women of color (WOC). So, a white women’s march in anger against Trump was not something that seemed especially productive nor something for WOC to participate in.

Along the way, professional organizers and WOC were brought in and given the opportunity to recraft and reframe the march. A written platform was drawn up. Sister marches around the world were planned. And the largest single day set of protests in history happened. What follows is no an analysis of the march itself, of it goals, of its results, or anything of that nature. There is plenty of that available online. What I am concerned with here is the nature of sacrifice and how it relates to intersectional feminism. Continue reading

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It’s not “Street Theatre” if you freak out the oppressed

As a scholar of political theatre, I would love nothing more than to see a resurgence of activist drama, agitprop theatre, and street theatre in these times. Because proposals floated by the Trump administration have not been reassuring to artists, scholars, or higher education more generally, I would welcome artistic challenges to such moves. Theatre is a particularly sharp tool that can be used as a form of resistance, even as we increasingly turn to TV and Internet culture for political art. Yet the immediacy of live theatre can be an effective way to motivate and mobilize against a larger obstacle. Theatre turns into marches easily–Orson Welles’ production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock (1937) turned into an impromptu pro-union march of 20 blocks as the company (and audience) had to change venues due to the WPA shutting down the performance. Theatre can, at any moment, also be “street” theatre. When I was (briefly) an undergraduate theatre major, I remember learning that only 3 things are needed for theatre to happen: actors, audience, and a space. Theatre can happen anywhere, which brings me to the topic of this post.

Street theatre is a legitimate mode of performance. I am currently doing (grant funded!) research into the work of the Third World Women’s Alliance, which may have done street theatre in the 1970s. But other, more famous groups, such as the San Fransisco Mime Troupe and the Bread and Puppet Theater have been doing street theatre off and on since the 1950s. Key to the idea of street theatre is that anyone watching should KNOW that it is a performance. Otherwise, you’re doing some sort of Yes Men/Billy Eichner on the Street/Street Improv kind of thing–which is fine, but it’s not actually street theatre.

Street theatre also has a close relationship with political action, particularly labor and minority movements. This is partly because oppressed groups are less likely to have the means to produce drama in a traditional theatre space, but also because such performances are meant to call to mind the conditions of the oppressed. These are crucial aspects of street theatre specifically and political theatre more broadly, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” if I may use a cliché.

My work on the Free Southern Theatre (FST) demonstrates the critical nature of street performance. While the FST did not generally perform in a literal street, it toured plays throughout the rural South and performed wherever a space was provided, sometimes just in the center of town. But the FST was a theatre of the oppressed: after its first couple of years, the actors were Black actors, the scripts were written by Black writers, and the audience were almost exclusively Black audiences. The FST’s goal was to uplift and inspire–to tell stories to other Black people that would encourage them to see themselves and their fellow community members with pride. It became a place to create solidarity with each other, and to send a message about the vital importance of Black spaces.

All of which brings me to this video. [Content Warning: people dressed in KKK hoods and “Hitler Trump” masks] This was a group of individuals associated with the Social Media handle @RefuseFascism, and they intended to send a “message” through “street theater” to Donald Trump and affiliated persons in the week prior to the Inauguration. They are chanting in a call and response style: the leader shouts a Trump Tweet/slogan and the group yells “Heil Trump!” and does a Nazi salute. I want to unpack everything that is wrong with this particular brand of “street theatre.”

While the goals of Refuse Fascism are admirable, and the close connections between Trump, his administration, and actual Nazis and white supremacists are well documented, this particular performance was ill-advised and ineffective, for two main reasons:

  1. Because of the aforementioned Nazis and white supremacists, and because of the actual KKK endorsing, celebrating, and generally carrying water for Trump, tensions and fear have been very high in many communities. Threats from Nazi groups, white supremacist groups, and the Klan have increased dramatically since Trump’s election, and many minority communities are scared, especially Muslim Americans and Jewish Americans. Because of this, the decision of a poorly known and poorly publicized group to hold a poorly publicized event in which the “performers” don the familiar and prominent KKK white hoods was in very bad taste. Seeing a group of Klan hoods is a frightening scene, and the instinct of most decent people is to get far away from them, rather than draw closer to see what’s happening. Many citizens were scared of what they saw, and had no way to know this group wasn’t the actual KKK, given the climate of the nation right now. Thus, Refuse Fascism not only frightened people needlessly, but ensured that no one would get close enough to them to hear their message.
  2. Because the Trump administration already has such close ties to white supremacy groups, I am not sure anyone in the administration would be terribly moved by this particular theatrical sight. I’m not saying that a performance can only be measured in terms of its “success” in affecting change or attitudes, but rather that the audience for this performance was murky. Reading back Tweets and slogans to shame a man whose Chief White House strategist is this guy is probably never going to work. Thus, it’s not remotely clear who the audience for this performance could possibly be.

I’d encourage the folks behind Refuse Fascism–who may not have intended to upset and intimidate the oppressed, but did, regardless–to read up a bit more on the politics and praxis of street/political theatre. It couldn’t possibly make things worse!

Reading List

Hübner, Zygmunt, and Jadwiga Kosicka. Theater and Politics. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1992.  Print.

Rabkin, Gerald. Drama and Commitment: Politics in the American Theatre of the Thirties. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1964.  Print.

Saal, Ilka. New Deal Theater: The Vernacular Tradition in American Political Theater.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.  Print.

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Presidential Performativity

Welcome back, dear readers, to 2017! It is the first week of the semester, and I am slowly but surely getting back into the swing of things. I am buried under lesson plans, grant applications, and other deadlines, but I’ve had a blog post on my mind for a while now, and it seems like this is the perfect moment to write it.

In my 30+ years, I have never had much interest in the rituals and pageantry involved in the United States Presidency. The President has many responsibilities that fall outside of the Constitutionally mandated duties of the executive. I’m talking about events such as the Annual Turkey Pardon, which is officially named the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation (I admit, that as a vegan, I find this particular event especially farcical), or the Easter Egg Roll. They have always seemed frivolous and a bit silly–the President may be dropping bombs one minute and helping children find eggs the next. However, in light of the Obama Presidency and the impending Presidency of Donald Trump, I have been reconsidering what these rituals mean, particular from a performative perspective. I’ve written about ritual before, and the significant role it plays in a culture or society’s sense of self and history. When I started thinking of Presidential rituals as a performative aspect of the Presidency, I realized that I now see them very differently. Continue reading

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End of Semester Breakdown

There’s just one more week left in the Fall Semester and, as usual, I am ready to be DONE. There are still piles of grading and then two more classes to teach, final exams to put together, and student evals to prep.focuz.ru

Yet, as I look at my office whiteboard, I feel somewhat accomplished. I checked off nearly everything on my semester long to-do list (something new I tried this semester), except for one article submission, which I have three days (!!!) to complete. Being able to see so many accomplishments checked off is a great feeling and reminds me that I do quite a bit during an average semester. Usually, I am scrambling like a maniac at this time and worrying over everything I haven’t done. This time, I am scrambling like a maniac but not worrying about a lack of productivity, because I can just look at my whiteboard and relax.

Posting has clearly been a bit spotty lately, and will likely be pretty light until the end of the year. But I’ll be back to consider 2016 in review, for sure.

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