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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Fences…Meh?

This is going to sound awfully petty, or snobbish, but I finally got around to watching Fences, the filmed adaptation of the August Wilson play from 2016. Directed by and starring Denzel Washington, it essentially adapts the 2010 Broadway revival in which both he and Viola Davis starred. Most of the rest of the cast is the same, as well, including Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel. Viola Davis’ Academy Award-winning performance as Rose notwithstanding, the film is not particularly good. It is quite slow, suffers from bad direction, and has the same flaw the 2010 revival did: Denzel Washington is just NOT a good fit for Troy Maxson.

When I learned back in 2010 that there would be a revival of Fences, one of Wilson’s best plays (though I am more partial to The Piano Lesson) I was excited, but when I learned that Washington was starring, I was less interested. Washington is a FINE actor, in every sense of the word, and he has given us so many indelible performances in his career. But…he is no Troy Maxson. Troy is described as

“a large man with thick, heavy hands; it is this largeness that he strives to fill out and make an accommodation with. Together with his blackness, his largeness informs his sensibilities and the choices he has made in his life.”

Denzel Washington is many things, but “large” is not one of them. This physical prowess is really crucial to the character of Troy, as he literally and figuratively towers over everyone in his life, from his wife to his sons to his best friend. (For comparison, the original Troy when the play first premiered in 1985 was James Earl Jones. Not only is Jones large in the physical sense, but that VOICE is itself enormous, and fills up every space around him.) As a result of this physical mismatch between actor and character, Washington seems to “play” big. And while there is an element of performativity to Troy’s physical being, the character more uses his body as a means to push others away and prevent them from being closer to him, because he is so intimidating. The kind of intimidation we see, instead, from Troy is the steely-eyed, “I guarantee it” Denzel, rather than someone who just needs to bully people out of the way or tower over them. And, while impressive, that conveys a very different character than the one presented in the text.

I found the direction of the film to be rather plodding, as well. Filming a script that takes place in one location–the Maxson’s back yard–is a challenge, and so Washington places action in different areas (the garbage truck, the Maxson’s bedroom, etc) to provide more dynamic filming, but that has the added effect of dragging the film out, as establishing shots and other work needs to be done to set the scenes. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem, but this also cuts conversations in half, moves around interactions, etc, and generally bogs down the progress of the story. One scene that stands out as a particularly egregious example of this sees Troy visiting Gabriel in the hospital, in between conversations he has with Rose in Scene 2.2. In the play, the conversation between Rose and Troy about whether he will come home that night, how he signed Gabriel into the hospital, and the phone call which interrupts them to tell Troy that Alberta died while having his baby all takes place in this one continuous scene. In the film, this is broken up into several scenes: Rose meeting Troy at work, Troy in the hospital feeding Gabriel, the phone call waking up Troy and Rose late at night.

Beyond dragging this fairly short scene out over multiple scenes, the insert with Troy and Gabriel seems to be an attempt to rehabilitate this component of Troy’s character. We see Troy tenderly feeding Gabriel, who is wearing a bib (much like the baby Troy is about to have himself), and it clearly communicates that his committing his own brother to the hospital wasn’t a cynical ploy to get part of his army disability, but instead a decision he may wrestle with. That is an expansion of the text that isn’t necessary and is far too manipulative in terms of the audience’s sympathies.

While I think Williamson is great casting as Gabriel–both because he is a good actor and because Gabe is so reminiscent of Williamson’s iconic role as Bubba in Forrest Gump–the film’s (and possibly the 2010 revival, I’m honestly unsure) presentation of Gabriel is more tragic than the text suggests to me. I’ve always read Gabriel as a developmentally interrupted character, a man who suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in World War II as a young man, but who appears to more or less be independent and capable of living on his own, which is what makes Troy’s decision to commit Gabriel–something he refuses to do early in the play–a cynical, somewhat cruel thing to do. However, Williamson plays Gabriel as much more disabled, needing to be fed with a spoon at times, and at others, wandering around in circles when he gets excited. This has the effect of making the hospital committal seem much more necessary.

I am sure there is more about the film I could criticize, but truly, it’s not a “bad” movie. The performances are good, the music is nice, the dialogue is of course the great mixture of AAVE and storytelling that August Wilson does so well, and Rose is a really fascinating character. And yet…the film left me disappointed. Instead of Fences, I might recommend the TV movie adaptation of The Piano Lesson, starring Charles S. Dutton, Alfre Woodard, and Courtney B. Vance, from 1995. Now there’s an adaptation that works.

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Drama is Always Relevant

I’m teaching a new-to-me play in my Introduction to Drama course this semester: Death and the King’s Horseman (1975), by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. I feel quite ignorant for not having read any of his work before, but I am an Americanist, after all. The play is one of his best known works, though he wrote poetry, essays, and books, in addition to plays. It is based on a historical event for which I can find irritatingly little information about: the intervention of a British colonial officer in Nigeria which prevented a ritual suicide in a local village in 1946.

The play contrasts the Yoruba rituals of the Nigerian village with the cultural trappings of the British occupiers. Soyinka warns against seeing this as a mere “clash of cultures,” which he says “presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter.” This is part of his directive to producers of the play, in order to avoid presenting the conflict as a struggle of equals simply misunderstanding each other, when it is in fact a struggle between occupier and the occupied, colonizer, and the colonized. The struggle (if that is even a suitable word here) in such cases is never equal, as Soyinka reminds us. The play itself makes this clear, as the British colonizers have guns and resources unavailable to the villagers. Yet beyond being a very good play, I found the dialogue to be remarkably modern in places, and that it even anticipates current debates over cultural appropriation.

When we are introduced to the British officer Pilkings, and his wife, Jane, they are preparing for a costume ball being held at the British Residency, and at which the King’s brother, Prince Henry, will be in attendance. The Pilkings are dressed in egungun clothing the colonial officers confiscated from the villagers during an arrest. These costumes can be part of a variety of ceremonies, but the play refers to garments worn during ceremonies honoring ancestors who have passed on. The spirits of the ancestors are invited to dwell in the community during such a ceremony, and may in fact momentarily possess the wearer of the garments.

Upon seeing Officer and Mrs. Pilkings wearing the egungun clothing, the indigenous police assistant officer Amusa becomes frightened and is unable to speak to either of them, as he is afraid and shocked. He tells them it is improper for them to wear clothing associated with the “dead cult” and that he cannot speak about death (specifically, the ritual suicide about to take place) to someone in a costume related to death: “I arrest ringleader but I treat egungun with respect.” The Pilkings tell Amusa he is being ridiculous. Later, the character Olunde arrives to see Mrs. Pilkings dressed in the egungun costume. Olunde is himself a villager, but has been studying medicine in England. (He has come back because it is his father who intends to commit suicide.) Jane asks for reassurance from Olunde that he isn’t shocked by her costume, and he assures her he is not. She says that wearing is “all in a good cause,” meaning for the ball and the arrival of the Prince. Then, Soyinka provides a rather cogent anticipation of that white-person-in-inappropriate-cultural-costume trend that rears its ugly head every Halloween:

OLUNDE: “And that is the good cause for which you desecrate an ancestral mask?

JANE: “Oh, so you are shocked after all. How disappointing.”

OLUNDE: “No I am not shocked Mrs. Pilkings. You forget that I have now spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand.”

JANE: “Oh. So you’ve returned with a chip on your shoulder. That’s a pity, Olunde […]”

Every Halloween, it seems, people of color have to contend with foolish costume choices by white people who are either deliberately ignorant or deliberately cruel in their understanding; Soyinka indicates here that it doesn’t matter why it is done, or whether it is purely accidental. It is still a kind of desecration at worst, or illustrative of a lack of respect at best. The Pilkings’ attitude here, toward the egungun costumes, reflects their later attitude toward the ritual suicide in the village. The Horseman of the late King is duty bound by Yoruba tradition to commit suicide; by preventing him from completing this responsibility, they interfere in a web of cultural and familial relationships they do not understand. And because they refuse to respect that which they do not understand, tragic results follow.

None of us can ever hope to know every detail about every culture on earth. But speaking as a white person, I can say that we tend to use that as a justification for not learning, and/or just not caring. And even worse, we dress up in these “costumes” for no particular important reason–for parties, for contests, for FUN. Heaven forbid we maybe not don the garments of another person’s culture just so we can look super cool in front of our other white friends. And, should a person speak up about the hurt or damage such cultural appropriation causes, we dismiss them as “too sensitive,” “too PC,” or “having a chip on their shoulder.”

As an educator, I am so happy to have finally read Death and the King’s Horseman, and appreciate how adroitly it speaks to this particular issue and others. I may sound naive, but I am a firm believer in the power of education–specifically, of centering minority voices and exposing students to voices outside their everyday experience–to shape minds and attitudes.

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