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 dat 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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Are You Ready for Some Rhetorical Analysis??

American football field

American football field

American football is inescapable. And though it is the off season, I’ve been thinking about football and rhetoric quite a bit. This was brought on by watching the second season of Amazon Studios’ documentary-series, All or Nothing, which follows an NFL team from draft day to the bitter end of the season. Season 1 featured the Arizona Cardinals, Season 2 featured the Los Angeles Rams. Now that there are two teams to contrast, the use of speech and rhetoric in the NFL has been swirling in my brain for a few weeks.

I did not grow up a football fan, despite being born and raised in Massachusetts. My family was much more of a baseball household, and while the Red Sox were terrible for pretty much all of my childhood and young adulthood, the Patriots were just as bad. A losing trip to the Super Bowl in 1986 and another one in 1997 weren’t enough to motivate me to watch a virtually incomprehensible game of starts and stops and beer ads.

Then, I moved to Indiana and married a Colts fan. My husband loves football, and like many partners, I’m sure, I eventually started watching games with him. At first, it was just to keep him company, but my curiosity started to increase until I began asking him to explain things to me. And now, here I am: not at all an expert, but someone who really enjoys watching the game of football, even as I despise pretty much everything about the NFL, play safety, and the general attitude of consumption that goes with football fandom. I addition, I hate football rhetoric. I tend to yell loudly at the TV, not about failed plays or exciting wins, but about the bonkers things announcers, coaches, and players generally say. And that is something that All or Nothing, perhaps inadvertently, emphasizes over the course of each season. Continue reading

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Checking Out THE STREET

1st Edition cover of THE STREET by Ann Petry

1st Edition cover of THE STREET by Ann Petry

I’ve been teaching Richard Wright’s Native Son for years in my American Literature since 1914 course. (See related posts under the tag for “Native Son”) But because the book has so many problematic components–rape, murder, violence against women, a really lagging third act–I decided I wanted to find a replacement for it for the upcoming Fall semester.

What could replace a book that falls within the era of the 1940s (thus bridging the period between the Harlem Renaissance and Postmodernism on my syllabus), presents a good example of Naturalism and is written by a person of color? Well, enter The Street. Continue reading

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Mime Field

Banner with logo from SFMT.org

 

 

 

The internet anger machine has finally discovered the San Francisco Mime Troupe (SFMT), a political theatre group that has been active since 1959. Over the July 1 weekend, the Troupe premiered their new play, Walls, about an unlikely romance between an undocumented woman from Mexico and a female ICE agent who is after her.

Truthfully, this doesn’t sound like the *most* radical story the Troupe has probably ever put on. Known for its blend of agitprop and comedy, the SFMT is the country’s premiere activist theatre; they have never pretended to be otherwise, and have lasted through 12 presidential administrations (so far), numerous budgetary crises, and plenty of critique. Yet, in 2017, hot on the heels of the Shakespeare in the Park Julius Caesar mess, it seems the Breitbart-y crowd is spoiling for another staged outrage. (NB: if you’d like to read an actor’s first hand account of starring in Julius Caesar and dealing with all of the protest, read Corey Stoll’s account.)

According to the Washington Free Beacon, the “feds” dropped $20,000 on a musical about illegal lesbians. You can read a quick description, with link to that original story, if you’re interested, at the San Francisco Chronicle. The criticism is tied to the National Endowment for the Arts, that favorite conservative bugaboo, which has awarded many grants to the SFMT (and many other groups and individuals around the nation for many years). The Beacon story also claims that the red star logo used by the SFMT clearly links it to Communist China and the undermines the troupe’s rejection of totalitarianism and authoritarianism. (The troupe directly address their logo and other issues in their FAQ.)

These are surface critiques with little understanding of the substance or influence the SFMT has had on US theatre, political activism, and public arts for over 50 years. It does not hide its collective, progressive politics, but clearly has carved out a space to critique social ills and major political trends within the capitalist US economy. They unmanly on donations and grant funding, and present an alternative model of both stagecraft and business governance. The troupe has also been a model for other political active organizations. In my current research project about the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA), I learned that the cultural committee of the TWWA visited with SFMT members to learn more about how to integrate the arts into their activism work. In a summary of their visit, the TWWA members wrote that the SFMT is mainly concerned with showing audiences that anyone can change things, if they can just get angry enough at the way things are in society. However, the troupe also acknowledged that you can’t expect people to internalize change or immediately jump into action after one play performance. It has to be seen in relation to other things in their own lives, and part of a larger context.

With all of this in mind, I wonder what the angry internet alt-right folks would think about a play which simply wants to reach out to people where they are now, regardless of beliefs? If a play wishes to present characters as real, flawed individuals in order to point out social ills, why should that be so threatening? After all the troupe doesn’t even seem to think that just one performance can really change people’s minds. Or can it?

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Know Your Rights & Act Them Out

Know Your Rights, Kaepernick

Taken from: http://knowyourrightscamp.com/media/

I apologize if this post seems a little stale in terms of the news cycle, but I’ve been pondering it for about a month and now that my blog is back up and running, it’s time to discuss the performance aspect of Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camps. I realize that, at first, that sounds somewhat negative, as though I am calling Kaepernick’s day long seminar for youngsters of color a mere performance–and that is not what I mean. If nothing else, Kaepernick is proving to be extremely earnest in his charity and educational work. What I mean is that I want to take a closer look at the the theatrical components of these camps, what it tells me about his project, and and how performance is used to instruct kids–particularly Black kids–about how they interact with the world. Continue reading

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Back to the Blog

And I am finally back to the blog. The rather long absence was due to the website being compromised and my links going to weird Russian sites and whatnot. Ugh. Fortunately, then-house tech at Casa Emerowsky has fixed everything up and this shouldn’t happen again.

It’s now the summer, which means lots of work that needs to get done, some guilty vacationing and relaxing, and lots of planning for the next academic year. I’m hoping I can blog a bit more regularly and more frequently from here on out, so we’ll see how my energy and commitment hold up. I find summers to be really strangely tiring; when my schedule is more flexible and I’m not on the go constantly, I feel a lot more lethargic.

As an apology for the absence, have a cute pet pic:

Pitbull on leash

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