Preface to “Performance Apophatics”–to perform is to not know

With no small amount of trepidation I recently submitted the whole manuscript of my book, Performance Studies and Negative Epistemology: Performance Apophatics, to my publisher, and it’s currently being peer reviewed. I am anxious to move on to the next steps, especially through feedback. I offer here the preface to the book. I hope it’s as short and pointed as I intend it to be.

To perform is to not know.

This book engages with negative theology as a religious practice that has left an enduring imprint on literature, performance, and the aesthetic imagination of the entire western tradition. To seriously study negative theology as an intellectual mainstay of performance theory implicitly argues that religion is not simply an optional sidecar detachable from culture and politics, but an integral reality of cultural and political experience, whether one has chosen to live a secular lifestyle or not. The choice of secularity, whether on the part of nations or individuals, usually arises out of the experience of privilege. Religion is a bare fact of social existence in every part of the world, and for more individuals than not, religion functions as identity and ideology and is not necessarily a matter of choice. This study acknowledges the complex entwining of religion and culture, and will unapologetically blend philosophy, theology, and performance theory. The author is prepared for the likely scenario that some readers will dismiss it out-of-hand because the book approaches the work of the theologian as just that: work. This book will treat the work of the theologian with as much respect as that of the literary critic, the anthropologist, the philosopher, the theorist, or any other scholar

To put it another way, this study of apophaticism and its relationship to performance starts with the simple premise that how humanity has talked about the gods or God throughout the history of western culture has influenced and still influences how we talk about everything else. You may be a person of faith; you may identify with a combination of religious, secular, and cultural practices; perhaps you reject all religion outright, or, like me, you may remain fascinated by religion but possess no beliefs of your own. It doesn’t matter. Our collective religious lives (which include the rejection of religion), past and present, have helped structure our discourse about everything else. It is an inescapable component of our language (spoken and performed), and our language is a great part of who we are. I am not concerned with whether this is the way it should be; I am concerned to understand the depth of influence.

The second simple premise of this book is that when we speak about God, the divine, or the absolute in any form, we absolutely do not know what we are talking about—and this, incidentally, is the starting point for the whole of the apophatic tradition. You may not believe that God exists, or you may be undecided; perhaps you believe in God but suspect that humans can never say anything completely adequate about her, even though there are several holy texts that purport to do just that; or, like me, you may maintain that all speech about God cataphatically expresses an exquisite emptiness and a nothingness that can never be filled, and that the question of belief doesn’t enter into such an operation. It doesn’t matter. The apophatic inadequacy of speech about God is also something that influences how we speak about everything else.

Starting with these two simple premises, we can infer that when we speak we always speak through what we do not know. But this book is about more than just spoken and written language: it is also about act-speeches, otherwise known as ‘performances’, or communications through gesture, dance, ritual, sound, song, orally transmitted stories and jokes, silences, inhabitations, and visual works as well. It follows that when we perform, we also speak through what we do not know. This brings me to the thesis of this book: that performance is a kind of negative knowledge, a negative epistemology.

Speaking through how we do not know is a long and respected tradition, variously called the via negativa, the apophatic way, negative spirituality, apophaticism, apophatic spirituality, and, a bit more recently, negative theology. Although the shape of apophaticism can be detected in spiritual and religious traditions across the globe, this book will, by simple necessity, narrow its consideration to the western Christian tradition, with a brief foray into Eastern Orthodoxy in chapter ___. Traditionally beginning with Plato, moving through Augustine to the European mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Teresa of Avila, to the instigators of modern philosophy with Kant, Kierkigaard and Hegel, to Heidegger, and rising through critical theory in the famous debate between Jean-Luc Marion and Jacques Derrida as to whether deconstruction itself is a kind of negative theology, apophaticism is a tradition that performs against itself, constantly denying itself any positivistic turn. What can we learn about performance from a theological tradition that resists its own resisting, that denies its own denying? And what might we recognize in this tradition if we take a look at its history and consider that perhaps it has been weaving itself through performance theory all along?

Throughout the following chapters, I will use the invented term ‘apophatics’ to indicate a performative operation that traffics through the denial of denial. I offer the term ‘performance apophatics’ to define the restless dynamic of the unknowable that structures performance itself. Performance apophatics describes not only the way performance may deny, resist, or fail, or the way that performance may depend upon the absent or processes of disappearance, or the creation of the indistinguishable, the contradictory, and the im/possible, but also the way that that through such performances we may end up in a place where the negation itself is no longer enough. At that point we may suspect that although negation/resistance/failure/contradiction heralds a promise of something that lies beyond ourselves, such a promise still resembles the shortcomings of the premise we initially resisted, and that in our eagerness to get outside or beyond ourselves we have somehow reestablished ourselves somewhere else, when the whole point of the exercise was to get away from what we already knew. We may sustain the uneasy feeling that comes when one first reads Althusser and asks of him, ‘But how can I live outside of ideology?’ or of Bordieu, ‘But how do I exit habitus?’ It seems that everything we do will only always be about ourselves, and that we keep reinscribing our limited ontology through the very structures we’ve taken such pains to deconstruct. This frustrates us to no end. So what do we do? Performance apophatics describes the moment when the only option is to resist the resistance, or to negate the negation. But our minds balk. Do what now?

The balking comes along with the denial of experience, which is what one in effect is doing when one ‘negates negation’ or ‘denies denial’. Denying experience makes no sense from a positivistic and phenomenological point of view (and therefore, some might argue, from a performative point of view, if one assumes that performance is first of all an event phenomenon). However, this is the operation that defines performance apophatics, and is the crux of the relationship between performance theory and negative theology. Let me illustrate with an example, and then explain the connection.

In the United States, the Supreme Court recently passed a ruling that legalizes gay marriage in all fifty states. Shortly before this event, a transgender rights activist named Jennicet Gutierrez, who is Mexican and living undocumented in the United States, interrupted a speech given by President Barack Obama at a reception in celebration of Pride Month at the White House. ‘Release all LGBT prisoners from detention centers’, she said, in protest of the treatment that undocumented LGBT immigrants face, especially in Immigration and Customs Enforcement centers. The President had her thrown out as a ‘heckler’, and many in the crowd booed her. At a time of celebration for great advances to the rights of gay and lesbian men and women, a transgender person offered an interjection as a reminder that one step toward liberty is not the end of the road, and as a result she was ejected from the party. Whether or not Gutierrez’s actions were appropriate is not what concerns me here; what I recognize in this incident is a voice attempting to resist the resistance, and to negate the negation—to shake the complacent into recognition that to assume that the work of justice has a final endpoint is to close down justice itself. Similarly, negative thinkers of the apophatic tradition constantly resist the dogma of the institutional church because rulings on the person of God assume human understanding of God. Furthermore, negative spirituality resists the conclusion that one’s experience of negation—to deny that one can know anything of the divine—actually teaches anything about the divine itself. Negative thinkers also deny experience, insisting that experience, even of our own limitations, is still part of a positive cycle that bears no relationship to the divine. When Gutierrez called out the President, she likewise denied the experience of a liberal civil rights victory as achieving ‘real justice’. Her implicit question seemed to be, ‘If the pride celebration obscured the suffering of LGBT prisoners at that very moment, then how did it truly achieve justice?’ Guttierez’s protest was an apophatic performance that pointed to the celebration of hope as a dark shadow of willful ignorance. And it seems to me that her ejection from the party may have had as much to do with the discomfiting truth of her denial as much as any supposed lack of social grace.

To deny the denial, to negate the negation, and to resist the resistance—this forces one into a place where no action, no speech, and no event can ensure communication. Instead, we are left with a mere excess of ultimately inadequate expression. Trying to think oneself through the negation of negation lands one in the halls of some outlandish cartoon funhouse, where the door through which someone else disappeared only opens to a brick wall, and by entering what seems to be one room you find yourself re-entering the same hallway, just several doors away. What the negative thinker would emphasize is that this confounding experience of the limitation of expression cannot be equated with otherness or the absolute itself. Ritual transformation, euphoric trance, collective frenzy, mystic visions—even what would seem to be revelation must be negated as the human and the limited. When we perform for one another or for ourselves, we likewise cannot equate the performance of culture, or of identity, or of community, with the instantiation of those things, lest we find ourselves artificially limiting culture, identity, and community to the performance itself. Performance is an elaboration of the unknowing through which we may glimpse something of the complete transcendence (unknowability) of what remains other than the self (and the otherness that is the self). To perform is to not know.

“The Last Empress” 20th Anniversary Performance

Last night I attended the 20th anniversary performance of director Yun Ho Jin’s first smash hit musical, The Last Empress, at Portrait_of_Empress_Myeong_Seongthe Opera Theatre at the Seoul Arts Center. Technically speaking, it’s a fantastic visual smorgasbord, and the theatre geek in me internally squealed with glee watching the rotating raked circular stage (two concentric platforms rotating in opposite directions created endless possibilities) and the pneumatically driven split levels that created two stacked stages. The lighting and costumes—lavish. The music? What it lacked in memorability, the performers made up for with their virtuosity, especially Kim Hyosun, who played the empress that night. At the very end of the finale, she effortlessly yet powerfully punches a high C*, a fifth above the rest of the chorus, that rings out across the opera theatre with brilliant clarity. All the performers, designers, and crew deserve resounding accolades for the production. It was a stunning feast for the senses, and at 140 minutes, it didn’t feel too long, despite the fact that my elementary Korean language proficiency prevented me from following the story very closely.
But even so, I found the script disappointing. For a musical purportedly about the Empress Myeongseong of Korea (1851-1895), this show did very little to develop such a potentially impressive and intriguing character. Having done some background reading before attending the show, I was looking forward to learning more about the formidable queen’s rise to power and self-education, the way she shaped her court in concert with her husband, crafting smart policies to protect Joseon’s sovereignty while also pushing into modern global society through trade, both in cultures and in goods, seeing clearly Joseon’s necessary relationships with China and Japan, and then finding ways to play them strategically off of one another. But instead, Myeongseong’s influence doesn’t really get any stage time until the very end of the first part, right before intermission, where a triadic scene shows Myeongseong arguing against the Daewongun (who represented Japanese allegiance within the court), while her husband swings indecisively between the two. But there was no build-up to her ability to argue so persuasively, no indication that she was more than a kind of conscientious angel who descended upon Korean history with a graceful presence, representing the strength and integrity of the nation. Who was Myeongseong the person? Who was the girl who married that milktoast king Gojong at the age of 16 because everyone thought she’d just make a good wife, but then flouted all expectations by refusing the parties and jewels befitting a queen, instead sequestering herself in her room to read history and political theory, and then finally persuading officials to join her and creating her own court? All while in her early twenties? How can this woman–who in order to accomplish what she did in her short life, must have been a kind of genius–be watered down into a pretty angel? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what The Last Empress seemed to do. Despite the title, the musical is not about Myeongseong at all; instead, it’s a quick succession of scenes, kind of like a slide show, illustrating the events that led to Myeongseong’s assassination. This leads to a contradiction, however, in that there is a lack of motivation (at least that I could see) on the part of the Daewongun to assassinate the queen. Why was she so threatening? The musical gives no indication of the kind of serious danger she posed for the Japanese. Instead, we get sweet scenes showing the queen learning French and then teaching it to her son; she meets with ladies of foreign courts; she greets foreign dignitaries at the side of her husband. But what about the fact that she actively encouraged foreign missionaries to build schools, and started an English language school inside the palace? What about her founding of Ehwa Women’s College, and her progressivism concerning gender equality, and her tolerance of new religions in the country? What about her dealings with the Chinese over and against the Japanese to train her soldiers in modern warfare and weaponry? Myeongseong didn’t just entertain foreign dignitaries because it was quaint to do so; she rapidly modernized Korea and strengthened its economic clout in ways that threatened the imperial ambitions of Japan, who saw Korea as a gateway to the rest of the East. There is so much important and intriguing historical material that the script glossed over, resulting in a hasty summary of events rather than a story focused on a character. In consequence, the assassination scene, to this audience member’s eyes at least, seemed randomly brutal and cruel (it was, in actuality, quite brutal and cruel; the invaders did not know which woman in the court was Myeongseong, so they killed any woman that might match her description), instead of a direct attack on a political figure who stood in the way of Japan’s imperial progress.
The finale shows the spirits or ghosts of the murdered women, with Myeongseong as their leader, rising and marching forward toward the audience, singing a stirring anthem (“Rise, People of Joseon”). Dressed all in white robes, it seemed to me they could represent many things: not only the spirits of these particular women, but the ancestors of Joseon, calling upon contemporary Koreans to push on with their mission of freedom and political sovereignty. But the women were also like guides or angels, martyrs and/or saints whose purity and innocence were to serve as examples for the kind of strong-hearted, pure patriotism that should continue to lead the nation, despite any adversity. They were also the sacrificial victims of historical circumstance, innocent lambs who had been led to the slaughter. It was a highly emotional scene, and the audience responded in kind, standing in ovation, clapping and cheering; I noted more than one tear being shed. And yet, for all the stirring of religious and patriotic fervor, I felt a lot was missing. This musical managed to reduce Myeongseong and her court attendants as well to empty icons or representations that could be filled with a generalized patriotic sentiment, rather than explore them as the significant political players they were in a decisive moment not only in Korean history but in the history of contemporary East Asia and its rising global significance. It seems ironic to me that for a show that expends so many resources on such a technically brilliant performance, it barely does its subject matter justice.
*This is my best guess; I don’t have perfect pitch!

“Democracy and Apophasis: Longing for a Just Community”–abstract for IFTR 2015

On July 6 begins the 2015 conference for the International Federation for Theatre Research. It’s the first time I’ve been able to attend, and this year it is in Hyderabad, India. The theme is “Performance and Democracy”. I will be representing the Performance and Religion Working Group, and the abstract of my paper (which I am still working on!) is below:

Democracy and Apophasis: Longing for a Just Community20120508-augustine Giusto_di_GandJoos_van_Wassenhove

Apophatic spiritualities revel in the paradox of the impossibility of belief, turning instead to an epistemology of the negative. From the ancient Platonists’ rejection of earthly manifestation of the true, to the existential dialectics of Soren Kierkegaard and his failed “leap” of faith, to French Catholic theologian Jean-Luc Marion’s apophatic phenomenology of the gift, and “post-theological” philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s negative notion of the Other through Being as both singular and plural, modern and recent negative theologies correspond to negative epistemologies—how one may know beyond belief; knowledge in the absence of positivistic affirmation or even hope. If we consider contemporary negative theologians alongside performance theory from the last twenty years or so, a pattern of negative thought emerges. Especially in relationship to gender and queer theory, concern for the indistinguishable, the non-categorizable, and the felt presence of the absent and unknown marks the rise of performance studies throughout the 1990s and into the 21rst century. Muñoz’s and Halberstam’s work between utopias and other “queer arts” highlight the revolutionary potential of impossibility, while the “poetics of failure” (Bailes) demonstrate how the accidental and the unknown can open up the performance of the possible. Throughout the development of the discourses that describe theatre and performance studies, both transformation and resistance remain key terms that mark an abiding interest in such liminal experiences (MacKenzie). However, such theories are still based upon positivistic outcomes: learning, development, change. What can we learn from a history of thought that radically rejects the positive, not only negating any positive proposition, but striving to negate the negation as well? This paper will look to one foundational apophatic thinker whose writings have helped shape, for good or for ill, theories of democracy: St. Augustine of Hippo. I will focus on Augustine’s Confessions, which, written as monologs to be orally performed for friends, dramatize the soul’s search for God. The abiding emptiness at the core of the restless heart makes the soul what it is: a vehicle of longing for the Lord. The Confessions are a spiritual autobiography, but also an allegory for community. Just as at the heart of the Soul’s relationship with God is an emptiness forever waiting to be filled, so too is a good community structured by constant longing for justice. The work of self-discovery in the Confessions is the work of discernment in discovering the just society. Just as Augustine was constantly haunted by the question, “How can I long for what I do not know?” so too must a democratic society strive for a justice it has not yet embodied. Through explication of Augustine’s performative spiritual autobiography as political theology, I suggest that democracy itself can also be understood as a negative epistemology, and that there is nothing short of our humanity itself at stake not only in our awareness of the blind spots in our knowledge, but also in our ability to negate the performance of our own ignorance.

What I hope you learned in “Understanding Drama”

I’ll be teaching “Understanding Drama”, a survey course for undergraduates in the English Department at my university, for the second time this coming semester. It’s been almost two years since I taught it the first time. Looking back through my folders I found this: a letter I composed for my students toward the end of the semester that summarized the ideas and aims of the course. Usually the “course objectives” are something you present students at the beginning of the semester (and I did that when I distributed the syllabus as well), but for whatever reason I got the idea to return to the “course objectives” as a recap at the end. I remember a sense of clarity emerging from this exercise out of what had been a struggle of a semester (first time teaching the class, new job, new country, new language, etc…). Perhaps I should make this a regular thing. Here’s what I wrote:

Dear Students,
It’s been a wonderful semester! I greatly appreciate the contributions each and every one of you have made to this class. You are smart, insightful, playful, and delightful. I look forward to getting to work with you again someday! Don’t be strangers; anytime I am on campus, I am at your service. I’d love it if you stopped by my office, J906, just to say hello.
We have covered a LOT of material in this class, and you worked VERY hard. “Understanding Drama” was a course designed to give you three specific things: 1.) the theoretical and practical tools you need to continue study in dramatic literature, 2.) the tools to appreciate and understand the performing arts in general, and 3.) the tools to understand “performance” as a concept and interpretive schema. Have I succeeded in giving you all three of these things? I hope so, but honestly, I don’t know for sure. I look forward to your evaluations (which I read carefully and take very seriously) to learn if you’ve found this to be a productive class. And I am always open to your constructive criticism. I mean that.
Any good teacher would agree that the conceptual framework for a class can be easily condensed into a brief, clear outline. To end our semester together, I’d like to summarize for you, in outline form, what I hope you learned.
A. The study of dramatic literature must begin in the history of theatre, which is ancient.
Drama is an art-form that draws from its prediscursive roots, even as it takes the form of discourse. Every drama has its roots in ritual, religious rites, mythology, and storytelling. How is Endgame like a ritual, for example? How does Angels in America construct a contemporary mythology?
B. The development of different styles in dramatic literature corresponds to the development of theatrical styles that are the result of specific cultural movements and historic events.
Think about how melodrama begets realism, which begets naturalism, which begets expressionism, etc. This is a literary and theatrical genealogy. Would Pirandello have written in a meta-theatrical style if he had not experienced fascism in Italy?
C. In order to understand dramatic literature, you have to know a bit about how theatre works. Dramatic literature reflects the theatrical spaces and performance techniques used by the artists who produce the plays!
Playwrights write for certain kinds of theatrical spaces with their specific architectures. These architectures reflect a certain kind of society. Playwrights write for certain actors and directors, whose choices reflect society’s changing attitudes and philosophies. (What would Chekov’s plays be like without Stanislavsky? What would Brecht’s plays be like without the influence of Marx?)

D. Dramatic literature is an artifact that documents performance.
The external form of dramatic literature is the blueprint for a production’s design. Every written drama has a production history, and the drama’s production history often affects the text itself.
E. Performance can be understood as a paradigm for knowledge and identity—for individuals, cultures, nations, and perhaps ultimately our globe. Drama and theatre describe the never-fully-describable relationship between Doing, Being, and Knowing.

That’s it! If you can explain and expand on any one of the points in this outline (maybe not all, but at least one), using the materials we studied in this class, then I would consider your participation and my teaching a success. Let me know! It would be my pleasure to hear from you. Shoot me an e-mail or send me a text message.
Your dedicated teacher,

Claire Maria Chamber; 010-5278-8911; Jeong Hasang Hall Room 906

Can God be Cute?

Here’s an abstract of a project I’m working on:

Can God Be Cute? Precious Moments Figurines and

Cuteness as the Darkness of the Divine

A retro-futuristic re-reading of Rudolph Otto’s 1917 theological tract The Idea of the Holy may shed light on religious practices that consume commodity culture kitsch as acts of devotion. According to Otto, the holy is the “numinous”—that which is both terrifying and fascinating at the same time. Although the numinous is an experience, its object lies beyond the rational and the sensible; through it, Otto attempts to describe the human approach to the unknowable reality of the divine. While religion and consumerism share a long history of devotional practices trafficked through icons and relics (among other goods), their intersection through the more recent phenomena of modern mass-production and consumer culture has culminated in the cute object of divine adoration. Examples exist cross-culturally (see the photos of cute Buddhist monk devotional figurines at the end of this abstract, as well as examples of the figurines discussed below). Christian-themed Precious Moments figurines, dolls, and illustrations (such as those that appear in a special children’s Precious Moments Bible) signify buyers’ adoration of the divine though their adoration of cute, smiling but weepy-faced, (mostly) white children with strange, teardrop-shaped eyes. Interestingly, even though “Jesus Loves Me” (in loopy cursive script reminiscent of sweet decorative frosting) is a common motif adorning crosses and picture frames, Jesus himself never appears as a teardrop-shape-eyed figure. Other Biblical characters, such as Mary, Joseph, Abraham, Isaac, and Moses (sweetly smiling as he holds up two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments), are offered as porcelain figurines or illustrations; and the baby Jesus likewise appears in nativity scenes with three childlike kings and tear-eyed sheep at the manger.

precious moments jesus and children illustrationBut the adult Jesus only appears as an adult. It would seem, then, that for all the over-signification of adoration through adorableness, the Precious Moments aesthetic fails right at the place where it promises to bring consumers closer to God: when seeking the actual face of Jesus. Why is this? In the Orthodox traditions of icon-writing and gazing, the face of Jesus and the saints are explicitly represented as human figures but understood as conduits, although through darkened corridors, to union with the divine. Theologically speaking, contemporary cuteness in devotional Christian kitsch is a kind of collapse of that corridor for which the Orthodox icon serves as entrance. Instead of the Precious Moments figure signifying an entrance to a process, it is a signal of a religious identity that has been achieved and proclaimed. If an Orthodox icon is an invitation into divine unknowing, the Precious Moments figurine is an assertion of knowledge. And yet, as “cute” objects, there is still something aggressive about their helplessness (recalling Ngai’s discussion of Murakami’s art in “The Cuteness of the Avant-garde”) that brings to mind Otto’s insistence on the holy combination of terror and fascination that leads to the experience of epistemic failure. The cuteness of devotional kitsch is therefore a kind of collapse of knowledge as well, or a negative epistemology. The over-signification of the adorable leads only to the impossibility of adoration when its aesthetic cannot represent and cannot comprehend the holy; its cuteness is numinousness. If we retro-futuristically look backwards through this history of object-oriented devotion, could we also consider that such a collapse of knowledge into the darkness of the divine as critique of doxological assuredness is also kind of “cute”? I propose that Precious Moments figurines complexify the shining of “this little light of mine,” their cuteness also offering an entrance into the darkness of apophatic unknowing.

precious moments modonnaprecious_moments_abe is gonna kill isaac precious-moments-moses IMG_7451 IMG_7452 IMG_7454 IMG_7455

To Belong Without Belonging: Musical Woyzeck and the Question of Global Genre

What follows is my abstract for the paper I will present with the “Crossing Borders–Theatre and Cultural Encounters” conference at the University of Helsinki on May 7, 2015:

To Belong Without Belonging: Musical Woyzeck and the Question of Global Genre

How do non-western theatre artists challenge the western cultuphoto 2 Woyzeck as specimenral hegemony of globalized genres such as the Broadway-style musical? As Jean-Luc Nancy has written, the border between aesthetics and politics is a space where each term is transformed into its other (The Sense of the World, xxvi). But what happens when a minority presence in a global economy functions as the border itself, as the space where aesthetics and politics relativize one another? In order to participate in the global economy of musical theatre production, one South Korean director and producer, Yun Ho Jin, addresses both domestic and international audiences through musicals like The Last Empress and Hero that attempt to universalize specifically Korean narratives. But perhaps responding to criticisms that the nationalistic undercurrents of his previous works contributed to a lack of appeal outside Korea, his latest offering, Musical Woyzeck, reverses this pattern by attempting to universalize the story of Büchner’s modernist drama by referencing specifically Korean concerns. According to his director’s notes, Yun desires “to make a musical out of a more universal story in order to penetrate the world market in earnest”.
Yun’s adaptation is a complex synthesis of the musical theatre tradition with its emphasis on choral performance in contradistinction to the central figure of Woyzeck himself, who stands painfully apart from the community within which he is thoroughly entrenched. Woyzeck, when read as representative of the South Korean nation, himself becomes the mark of “genre”, the space where both belonging and participation transform one into the other, both structuring and cancelling processes of categorization. Derrida writes, “The re-mark of belonging does not belong. It belongs without belonging….” (“The Law of Genre” 65). The mark of recognition within a global genre comes with the high cost of participation without belonging. Yun’s Muscial Woyzeck is a direct challenge to the western cultural hegemony within the global economy of musical theatre, which is also a challenge to a prevailing “sense of the world” which fails to recognize that the margin not only stands at but is a border itself.

Teaching deconstruction using drama and improv games

This semester was the second time I attempted to teach Suzan-Lori Park’s The America Play to Korean students completing English majors in a rigorous program with an international faculty. We began reading the text just after the news about the supreme court decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown broke in the news, and protests (which are still ongoing) began to spread throughout the United States. As we were discussing the text’s unique breaks with dramatic and writing conventions, the news of the court decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner via strangulation also broke, further inflaming protests. My students, ever thoughtful and perceptive, reflected on the violence of the protests through their own encounters with racism or other forms of exclusivism, both abroad and at home. One young woman’s comments especially struck me: she spoke about noticing the tendency of people to hold “dual” or “double consciousnesses” within themselves, rightly decrying racism when they encounter it, but not noticing their own prejudices. This became an especially valuable insight when students began reflecting, prompted by the idea that the Ferguson riots were “not just a black and white issue”, on the kinds of prejudices and stereotypes, whether positive or negative, they’ve noticed between Korean and Korean-American and African-American communities. Many of these Korean students have spent time in the United States or in other countries where they have become more fully aware of their own potential outsider status.

In order to more fully understand Parks’ notion of repetition and revision, I decided to pair the play with an introduction to the concept of deconstruction and differance in literary theory, and then open this out into the question of performing and interpreting identity, especially racial or ethnic identity. We spent one class period on the broad idea of deconstruction, and another class period on differance as difference and deferral. In the first class, we played a simple improv game wherein the group stands in a circle and passes a sound and movement around the circle like a wave. The objective is for each participant to copy, as exactly as they can, the sound and movement “passed” to them from the previous participant. It’s an audible and kinetic game of “telephone.” By the time the sound/movement gets back to the original “sender”, it has morphed into something perhaps similar, but more than likely completely different. After playing this a few times, getting over the giggles and hesitations, the game functioned as a wonderful analogy for the process of communication. In each repetition, something changed. Each “original” began something new. Yes, we could physically trace the pattern back to the original “sender”, but where did each variation “come from”? How did these variations arise, and how could we predict what would remain recognizable of the “original” and what would not? Now the students had a clear visual and physical aide to understanding the process of difference and deferral in the interpretation of meaning: communication is a process wherein signs differ and defer from one another. We then turned to Parks’ text to look at examples of repetition and difference. What is the setting? Who are these characters? Do they represent real places? Do they represent individual people? Students began to “get” the play when they began to see the setting (The Great Hole of History) as an idea itself, and the characters as explorations of what it means to find your identity through the deconstruction of history, rather than in a history that one is given as a “truth”.

I began the second class in a similar way. We reviewed the idea of deconstruction as peeling away the layers meaning, to try to discern an idea’s genealogy. Rather than viewing history as having an origin and a linear trajectory (from the Big Bang to the space shuttle; from the Garden of Eden to America the Beautiful), what about history as multiple, fluid, as representations of representations (the students especially found this significant in relationship to the TV, the bust and the pasteboard cutout of Mr Lincoln that Brazil digs up in the Great Hole, which is itself an “exact replica” of the Great Hole of History). To introduce the idea of differance, we again stood in a circle and played a simple free association game. I urged them to not censor themselves and allow the association with whatever the last person has said to pop out of their mouths (which can be really difficult to do if you’re translating yourself in your head between two or more languages!) To play this game, simply pass a word to the person to your right or left and go around the circle. The objective is to allow the word you receive to prompt images, sounds, ideas, whatever that is for you, and to say the first thing that you associate with that word. It can sound like “pen–pencil–eraser–eraser head–movie–popcorn–butter–greasy–hair–brush…” etc. This game illustrates the idea that the meaning of any word is constructed through its relationship to all other concepts related to it. Meaning is constructed through difference. Differences defer from one another–there’s always a space between a word and meaning. Language is a network of related ideas, rather than a set of signs that correspond to a set of truths or absolute meanings. By grasping this basic concept, students understand the basic notion that differance contests any philosophy that aims at revealing a universal or higher truth. Instead, differance reveals relationality. This was especially helpful in helping students understand that as an African American playwright, Parks is doing something very different from people like Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson. Such African-American problem-plays are about the conflicts African Americans face in US society. They are plays about black people. But Parks wants to take on the who set of assumptions about what African American theatre is supposed to be. The America Play is a play about history itself, not just about African Americans and the history of slavery. It is a play about identity itself, not just about African American identity. In deconstructing the whole project of African American dramaturgy, Parks helps readers understand the very concept of drama anew. I am not sure that my students became well-versed enough in American drama as a whole to fully appreciate this last point, but what they certainly did come to appreciate, judging from their thoughtful written reflections afterward, was that Parks’ play challenges any idea that identity must correspond to a normative history.

On the intercultural encounter and the death of Micheal Brown

Not too long ago, having had the opportunity to travel to Cambodia to see Angkor Vat, I booked tickets one night for Smile of Angkor, a theatrical production being performed throughout the week at the Siem Reap Exhibition Center. Smile of Angkor is a fast-paced 70-minute music and dance extravaganza, epic in technique and scale, covering the basics of Cambodian traditional performance, acrobatics, martial arts, mythology, and political and religious history. The highly-trained performers are dancers from the Royal Cambodian Ballet. The audience follows a young boy character on a time-travelling adventure as we learn about the Angkor civilization. His guide is Buddha, kind and serene, who takes the shape of a 10-foot-tall, articulated reproduction of the smiling face of one of the famous Bayon temple statues. As we follow our hero through time, each Angkor temple site comes to life; large puppets representing the enigmatic faces of Angkor Thom and Preah Khan, with articulated mouths and eyes, sweep across the stage. Sitting among an audience consisting largely of Chinese tourists, I enjoyed myself and the spectacle, and followed the story as best I could, assisted by the subtitles projected on either side of the capacious stage simultaneously in English, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. The end of the show is a tribute to the international crowd assembled in the theatre, as well as our common humanity, and a plea for peace: all the puppets and brightly costumed dancers parade once more across the stage, carrying flags from around the globe, as ‘Ode to Joy’ triumphantly blasts through the speakers. When the assembled cast waves to the audience, the audience, happily, waves back.
When I heard the strains of ‘Ode to Joy’, I found myself laughing. Why did I laugh? It was fun, for sure, and I enjoyed the upbeat atmosphere. But I laughed at something more than that. I laughed because suddenly hearing ‘Ode to Joy’ in this vast theatre created to promote the commodity of Cambodian history and culture to an international consumer-tourist audience seemed an odd juxtaposition to the specificity of Cambodian dance and music, which is, literally, worlds away from 19th century Germany. To me, it seemed bizarre. I understood, also, that Beethoven’s well-known tune was being offered as something of a musical handshake, attempting—and perhaps succeeding—to create a space for the universal, the human, and the common. I laughed, however, because the gesture also seemed inappropriate, and my laughter—escaping from my throat without my permission—marked the authority with which I, as a Western consumer, could interpret the ‘attempt’ of an Asian other to insert itself into the economy of global cultural capital as the funny failure of an inappropriate appropriation of a Western cultural artifact. In the moment, the use of ‘Ode to Joy’ seemed awkward and naïve, like a teenager’s first attempt at serious fiction. My unspoken and largely (at the time) unconscious prejudice manifested as this honest but derisive laughter. The fact that I laughed as a visceral response to difference is what makes me feel ashamed. Despite a profession backed by an education committed to ferreting out invisible forms of prejudice, I was not and I am not magically immune to the structures of power which have shaped my very person. In the words of Edward Said, ‘No one has the epistemological privilege of somehow judging, evaluating, and interpreting the world free from the encumbering interests and engagements of the ongoing relationships themselves. We are, so to speak, of the connections, not outside and beyond them.’ I laughed without thinking. And in doing so, I re-inscribed in my very viscera the attitudes of authority and privilege that I have spent so many years, in one way or another, trying to deconstruct.
Let me be clear: Smile of Angkor is a dazzling, technologically stunning show, and the musicians, dancers, and technicians deserve each and every standing ovation they rightly earn. It is nowhere near naïve. It accomplishes what it sets out to do efficiently and professionally, which is to educate an international audience about Cambodian history and culture, creating a platform for its appreciation and global visibility, all while remaining highly entertaining. Following this, the use of ‘Ode to Joy’ is an effective tactic for bringing everyone together, no matter their nationality, under the banner of a common humanity. Whether or not one believes that such common humanity is truly possible is beside the point; the production successfully engaged those terms when it used one of the most readily recognizable melodies in the world. Smile of Angkor did not inappropriately appropriate a German anthem, but chose to speak in the closest thing to a universal language at hand. If the laughter I describe above is a problem, it is a problem with me, not with Smile of Angkor.
What this laughter has taught me, as I have contemplated my reaction over the months, is that the intercultural in performance is not a thing, but an experience. Much in the way that Kristeva describes the abject not as specific objects or places that challenge our bodily integrity, but the very experience of that challenge, so too is the intercultural the experience of treading, precariously, the border zone between myself and all I consider in relationship to me, but not of me. And so too does the experience eviscerate this body of skins, containers, and binding ligaments that purports to make me and mark me off as individual, unique, and incorruptible. If the abject reveals us as ‘at the border of my condition as a living being’, the intercultural reveals us likewise on the border of our condition as a sovereign subject, the finite limits of our thinking and being. ‘[W]hat disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.’ The intercultural in performance happens as much on the level or the person as it does the national or the cultural. It engages each of us, singularly, within the plurality of the globe.

Now I would like to tell a story about something that made me angry.

Not too long ago, I attended a literature conference in Seoul. This conference had a good representation of scholars from around the world. In one English-language session, a Korean theatre scholar presented a paper in which she argued that a Korean theatre director appropriated a particular work of William Shakespeare’s not to argue for any kind of post-colonial politics, but as a way to explore universal themes of conflicting drives within the self. Predictably, an American theatre scholar (Caucasian) sitting in the audience took issue with this. She objected that this Korean scholar should blatantly disregard the unequal power dynamics that would bring Shakespeare to the Korean peninsula in the first place, and then permit his global circulation in the second. After the panel had concluded, I happened to be standing by when this American scholar approached the Korean scholar to confront her (albeit in a friendly way) about what she regarded as the flawed conceptual outlook of her paper. When the Korean scholar defended her stance that the director she was analyzing was exploring a ‘common humanity’, the American scholar interjected, ‘But what common humanity?!’ The Korean scholar was forced to pause mid-sentence, aware, so it seemed to me, that she had nothing to say that could make her interlocutor see that not everyone involved in academic scholarship has to be thoroughly convinced that difference results in unequivocal alterity, as so much North American critical theory purports, having become the acolyte to a certain reading of deconstruction enchanted by ‘Otherness’. I walked away, unsure how to feel about what I’d just witnessed. I did not hear the end of the conversation. Over the following days and weeks, the experience stuck with me, and I noticed within myself a growing anger. I sympathized with the Korean scholar. I felt that she had been attacked by a well-meaning fellow scholar who was blind to her own complicity with the very forces of imperialism that she was being so careful decry. Insisting that difference is the only way to engage with the cultural other, she refused to listen to the careful and thoughtful analysis of the Korean scholar, who did not feel it was necessary to bow to any pre-determined critical patterns already in place in North America, just as the theatre director she analyzed did not feel it was necessary to engage in a post-colonial interpretation of Shakespeare, despite the fact of his country’s post-colonial standing. The Korean scholar’s wordlessness, for that one moment, in the face of the confrontation with the other scholar, is what continues to anger me—that she should have been forced into a position that demanded her silence when she was the one who had asked for someone else to listen.

Recognizing my own position as white, Western, and educated, it is shame and anger, but not guilt or despair, that precipitates my attempt to understand the intercultural in performance. To witness the intercultural is to experience the disruption of my own self, but in relationship to the (often uneven) global structures that order international dialog and intercultural exchange. As of this writing, my own country, the United States, is mired in violent racial conflict, as the grand jury ruling not to indict (white) police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of (black) eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, continues to fuel protests. Brown’s death, the (even momentary) enforced silence of the Korean scholar, and my own derisive laughter inhabit the same continuum of oppression, correspond to the same dynamics of cultural and ideological power and control. This is something that I don’t want to forget as I continue my research into intercultural performance.

Woyzeck…the Musical! (With zombies. Yes, zombies)

woyzeck poster

At first I thought that Yun Ho-Jin, the so-called “godfather” of the Korean musical, didn’t know where to stylistically–musically or dramaturgically–place his newest creation, Woyzeck. Based on Büchner’s fragmented and unfinished script, this musical is a grab-bag of visual references to iconic images from the likes of Chicago and Metropolis, and sounds like a mixed-CD sampler of genres–the bust-yer-gut Broadway anthem a la Rent, the soaring, vaguely religious or patriotic melody accompanied by flute and drum reminiscent of The Lion King, a Latin salsa, a Polka-inspired dance song, and good old-fashioned love songs, among others. (I’d heard that underground British band The Singing Lions would be collaborating on the music, which might have lent some continuity to the score, but at rise, the conductor cues a piano that is soon joined with what sounded like a basic live plus synthesized orchestra. If one expected a Brechtian exposure of the instrumentalists, this was nowhere to be found.)

Now, this heady mix of styles and genres isn’t necessarily a problem, and as the show progressed, I started to see how Yun’s refusal to set a style and stick with it could actually be read as a brilliant theatricalization of our title character’s own patch-work mental landscape. Woyzeck is many characters in one, just like this musical is many musicals in one: the tender father, the sensuous lover, the soldier, the sycophant, the friend, the murderer. This all combines, though, to render Woyzeck the object of the Doctor’s scientific experiment, rather than a fully human being. Likewise, could Yun be inviting his audience to try to isolate what can’t be defined, to objectify and scrutinize his creation, hoping that in doing so, we find we’ve turned our microscopes back around on ourselves? Perhaps. One might leave Seoul’s LG Art Center believing that Yun’s Woyzeck suffers merely from being newly produced and has not yet found the footing that will make it a cohesive performance. Or, like me, you might be convinced that he’s something of a theatrical genius.

Most scenes reference a different style or genre. Woyzeck’s visit to the knife shop is a Sweeney Todd-ish musical nightmare, with zombie-like characters that offer Woyzeck the weapons with which they had been killed–weapons that still protrude from their bodies. A ghoulish man dislodges a hatchet from his head, and a woman draws a knife from her heart. Early on, in the carnival scene where Marie is tempted away from Woyzeck’s side by the Drum Major, the show seemed almost a watered-down family version of Woyzeck, if such a thing is possible. The carnival setting is fun and silly, doing nothing to create the ominous foreboding of Büchner’s original script, failing to play up the disturbing potential of circus sideshow freaks in cages. While red and white festival lights descend like bunting from above, the chorus, dressed like carnival clowns and circus performers in costumes that seem a little too bright, clean, and colorful, wheel on circus cages which, when their curtains are lifted, reveal the “freaks” within: a mermaid (a stocky man dressed in blue sequins with a long blonde wig, which draws a laugh from the audience) and a werewolf (a masked actor who grasps the bars of his cage and “howls”), while a pair of conjoined twin girls, connected by a Shirley Temple-style dress and wearing four knee-socks, prance at the behest of the ringmaster. The twins are also played by two male actors. In fact, much of the “freakiness” of the circus sideshow seems to rely upon cross-dressing, and the chuckles that this elicits are very tame, almost wholesome. This family funfair, rather than carnival freakshow, culminates in the demonstration of the genius horse who can tell time. Played by one actor in a costume with long dangling forelegs, the horse seems to come straight out of children’s morning television—with the exception of its enormous penis. The ringmaster and horse routine revolves around a classic gag that anyone familiar with traditional Korean masked performance would immediately recognize: as the ringmaster demonstrates the fine qualities of the horse, it lifts its leg and “urinates” on the crowd. In the Hahoe T’al Chum, Korea’s intangible cultural property number sixty-nine, which is often performed at national festivals, the butcher’s bull also “urinates” on the audience, and the humor of the butcher’s monolog as he slices open the bull’s carcass also has to do with its large genitals. It’s here that the humor of the scene broadens from the fun into the ridiculous, and the darker undercurrents one may have been waiting for start to emerge. As the circus distracts Woyzeck, the Drum Major leads Marie, still carrying her baby wrapped in a blanket, to a rock in the grass, where he convinces her to lift her skirts for him. Now we move into the decidedly campy: when Marie sets the “baby” on the ground so as to free her arms, the Drum Major, with a twisted grimace, uses his foot to shove it further aside. The lights go down on that disturbing image.

The show seems to finally find its dramaturgical footing during the Doctor’s lecture to his medical students. The medical academy’s observation theatre is suggested by flying down a bright-white square flat directly center stage. The concentric semi-circles of its design is art-deco. As the chorus of white lab-coat-clad students parade around Woyzeck, violently poking him with their pens (among other indignities), and carrying bright red or green exam folders, they cast clear-cut black shadows on the white flat. Visually, this scene comes straight out of an Elmer Rice play from the 1920s; its stylistic expressionism is more The Adding Machine than The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The references don’t stop there. The shaking Woyzeck, at the culmination of the Doctor’s demonstration, is hooked up by two attendants in dark-blue worker’s coveralls to an electric chair, with a metal carapace for his head attached to coils of silver wire. When the Doctor turns the switch and Woyzeck begins to fry, lights pulsing from white to red, one can’t help but see the automaton of Metropolis. Finally, by contrasting the gestus of the chorus itself to Woyzeck’s own, this scene achieved the powerful alienation that perhaps Yun had been striving for. The medical students’ and the doctor’s complicated dance routine was visually and vocally rousing and impressive. But as they kick and twirl, mugging hilariously to the audience, Woyzeck stoops on the examination podium, or slumps in the electric chair, staring straight ahead with vacant eyes. Wearing only a loincloth, his naked body is vulnerable compared to the bright-white lab coats of the chorus. As the medical student chorus builds up to the final climax of the routine, Woyzeck begins to scream. His screams clash discordantly with the chorus, who cheerfully continue their routine, stepping around Woyzeck when they need to, who drops to the floor to writhe and scream in agony. The gaiety of the musical number becomes increasingly menacing and sinister as Woyzeck physically deteriorates before our very eyes. The number comes to a triumphant finish with a major chord from the orchestra and crashing cymbals, the medical student chorus striking a Broadway pose with arms thrown, hips thrust. Immediately, an intense red spotlight comes down on Woyzeck, still writhing in agony and screaming. Then blackout.

It was here that the potential of a Broadway-style musical version of Woyzeck was finally realized. While the Berg opera version and Robert Wilson’s and Tom Waits’ musical version have also explored the use of music to capture Woyzeck‘s themes of love, loss, and the insidiousness of social control, Yun achieved something unique: he allowed the conservative, formalistic gestus of the Broadway-style musical to clash with the modern gestus of Buchner’s script. The effect, when you get there, is truly stunning.

With this alienation effect achieved, the set design begins to speak significantly, seeming to position the characters between partnering forces: the military and industrial capital. The open, natural space center stage, hung behind with a versatile scrim that bleeds from tones of royal blue and black to red-orange and gold–sometimes hung with a milky, oversized moon—is framed by tall clusters of dry, rustling grasses, hinting at an unseen water’s edge. In contrast to this natural space, the stage is flanked right and left by dark, imposing structures. Stage left are two overlapping flats that extend up into the flies, painted black and with the horizontal lines of their ribbing exposed. Their shape evokes military boots, with stubbed toes ready to march across the stage toward the stage right structure, which looks like nine cargo shipping containers stacked upon one another, with their short ends extending about a quarter of their length onto the stage. As the show progresses, these shipping containers extend in and out of the stack, like some sort of imposing, oversized filing cabinet, a la Accidental Death of an Anarchist, or a joy-killing Rubik’s cube. Marie’s apartment is the middle box, with a balcony that looks down to the stage and a bassinet for the baby; the bottom downstage box is the Officer’s quarters and the military barracks; the upstage-most stack of three containers fully extends, in a scene depicting the debauchery of the Drum Major, into a purple-lit brothel, with ladies of the evening posing lasciviously in each of the six upstairs windows, recalling the iconic jail house of Chicago, and a bar pulsing below. Later, the bar transforms into the shop where Woyzeck purchases his knife.

As with the ending of the first half, in a similar way, Woyzeck’s murder of Marie achieves a powerful distanciation when it is tenderly carried out in a scene that is a sweet love song. Woyzeck and Marie forgive one another and make amends. In a highly disturbing as well as beautiful gesture, Woyzeck slits Marie’s throat as though her were embracing her, slowly and gently; the murder becomes an act of love, not a gruesome fit of jealous rage. The love duet here is again the musical gestus that is contrasted to Woyzeck’s slow embrace of Marie, who trustingly stays in his arms as he draws the knife from his shirt, then gently draws the tip across her neck. They slowly sink backward, almost like lovers whose kiss turns away from the audience to suggest the continuation of lovemaking. As Woyzeck cuts Marie’s throat the lights shift from dark red to a clear blue-white, suggesting a new clarity of mind. Where one would expect the scene to descend into red rage and darkness, it ascends into light. While the flats and the shipping containers suggest the dark forces that work unheeded to shape the lives of Woyzeck and his companions, the open sky and grass hint at the possibility of escape. And it is through these grasses, into the red sunrise, that Woyzeck carries Marie’s limp body (in a pose that calls to mind the Pieta) in the penultimate scene.

As is well known, Buchner died before he completed his script, and over the years directors have added their own endings. Autopsies have proven the popular choice. But Yun offers something completely different: the townspeople process Woyzeck and Marie’s coffins center stage, where they shower them with flower petals and sing a reprise of a soaring melody with flute and drum. Woyzeck and Marie become timeless lovers; their funeral is celebrated like a wedding. But in one last alienating twist, the audience must remind itself that the love it is celebrating is dead. In the best Broadway musical tradition, the love story ends with a wedding. Yun certainly knows his genre. But in one last brilliant contrast, the musical genre’s gestus grates sharply against the gruesome naturalism of Büchner’s modern script.

Although I’m still puzzled by many aspects of this performance (and plan to see it again) one thing is clear: the best in musical theatre these days isn’t only coming from Broadway and the West End. It’s also coming from Seoul.

Teaching “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in Korea, part 2

When I asked my students about blackface performance in Korea, I got a wide range of responses. I’d been hoping for something of a cohesive discussion, but that didn’t happen, owing, I think, to the fact that some students spoke up who lacked the same level of intercultural sensitivity as other students. And if I’ve learned anything about Korean culture when it comes to speaking aloud in groups, when people sense disunity, things get quiet. People tend to like to agree, and really dislike to disagree. This is interesting considering that down at City Hall in central Seoul, protests against the Park government have been pretty much non-stop since the Sewol ferry incident. But the protest groups agree with one another, and present a unified front to their opposition.  Anyhow, I’d like to think I was prepared for the stall in discussion; as it was, I think I rolled with the punches, but that was about it. Here are some excerpts:

One woman who had obviously thought about this issue presented an idea that was truly new to me: that blackface performance in Korea is self-reflexive, that these performers are parodying Koreans who would, unthinkably, still believe that “primitives” inhabited the southern hemisphere–and therefore should not be seen as a parody of black people. She argued that these performances are aimed at older, conservative Koreans who isolate themselves from the rest of the world. I could tell that her argument was difficult for some of the other students to follow, and so I urged her to clarify her meaning, which she did. I invested so much in her expression of this reflexive analysis that I failed to ask what I wish, in retrospect, I had: “Does that make it ok?”

Another woman related a recent incident that occurred in Itaewon, the international district in town near the American military base where many Americans and Middle Easterners live. In response to the news about the spread of the Ebola virus, a pub owner had posted a sign saying that Africans were not being served at their establishment. Word of this enraged local Korean nationals and international expats alike. The woman relating this incident expressed disgust at the pub owner’s racism and ignorance, but when I prompted students to express their thoughts on the incident, things were again very quiet.

“Why are stereotypes powerful? Do you find yourself prone to stereotyping?” I purposely avoided the use of the word “racist”. For some reason, this question piqued the interest of another student who reflected that stereotypes weren’t all bad. For example, when she sees a black person, she might just think that they are a good dancer, and that’s it. …Crickets. I mentally face-palmed myself and said calmly, “So it’s clear that sometimes we unintentionally fall into the stereotyping of others.” As I gazed at the 30-odd silent faces turned respectfully toward me, I sensed the discomfort in the room, and I decided to leave this attempt at discussion behind and move on to the next section of the unit.

Should have would have could have… It’s clear that my own expectations about how a class discussion on a sensitive topic should proceed don’t yet meet the cultural needs and attitudes of my students. I’m left wondering if there was a better way to bring this up in a group context, or if the group context is just not appropriate for such a topic, and if not, then what is?

This seemed to me a pretty sound failure on my part to truly get my students connecting an important piece of American dramatic literature to their immediate context. But perhaps the one redeeming thing about it was how surprised (and also embarrassed) some students seemed to be. Perhaps this was the first time they were confronted with their peers’ thinking on such a subject and asked to consider its long-term effects on the potential community they want to live in. After class, one man came up to me to say what he’d been thinking but didn’t feel he could say aloud in front of others. “What that girl said back there; that made me so angry,” he said. “You should talk to her about it”, I said.  “People really need to open their eyes,” he said, as he was exiting the room. “Hey,” I said, before he completely disappeared, “thanks for telling me how you feel.” I was rewarded with a wry smile. “See you Monday, Professor.”