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returning to “anagnorisis”

I’m currently working on a proposal for a new journal, along with colleagues from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, and the International Federation for Theatre Researchers. We need a name for this journal, which will exhibit the talent of international scholars interested in the intersection between theatre, religion, performance, and spirituality. I’ve been tasked with creating a first draft of the proposal, and this is what I’ve come up with for a suggested name and its explanation. Give it a read, and let me know what you think. We hope to submit the journal proposal very soon.

“Historically, religion/spirituality and theatre/performance have always gone hand in hand. Anagnorisis, as an international journal of religion, spirituality, performance and theatre, takes its name from the Greek term Aristotle used to describe the emotional-intellectual nexus of tragic drama. “Anagnorisis” has been variously translated as “recognition” or “discovery”. The Greek word is about knowledge; it specifically connotes action, a turning from ignorance to knowledge (“ana-”: upward, toward, + “gnorizein”: to make known). Aristotle argues that the best form of anagnorisis in tragedy coincides with the peripeteia, the reversal of an expected outcome for the protagonist (The Poetics, chapter 11). Tragedy truly “imitates” anagnorisis and peripeteia when it excites “pity and fear” from the audience. If tragedy is the poetic form that finds and tests the limits of not only what can be humanly endured, but of what is human, seeking the catalyzing moment where human potential stands on the precipice between exile or community, monstrosity or man, then pity and fear is the emotional combination necessary for simultaneous empathy and horror. Anagnorisis, new knowledge, is the discovery of likeness through the experience of difference, and the re-cognition of what has already been assumed, but again encountered with new clarity. The tragedian’s art is to hold the mirror up not to nature, but to the possibility of stark otherness in ourselves, to the possibility that we can look in the mirror and not recognize what we see, and that we may see ourselves in what seems impossibly other–others whom we can but little, or sometimes fail to, recognize as human.
Anagnorisis is the moment where fate hangs in the balance, and the gods watch carefully. We take our journal’s name from this word because we see the scholar’s work likewise inhabiting that pivot point between recognition and knowledge, especially when seeking understanding of the complex crossroads between religion, spirituality, performance, and theatre. Religion and spirituality speak to both our most intimate convictions and the mores of our cultural contexts, while performance and theatre demonstrate both self-reflexivity and the unspoken habitus of praxis, be that in everyday life or within our most sacred rites.”

Teaching “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in Korea

Teaching Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Korea–September 10, 2014

I didn’t know that there had been a recent spate of blackface performance in the Korean media when I decided to begin my Fall 2014 Modern American Drama class with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The motivation was due more to my experiences speaking with undergraduates who showed a real concern about racial tensions between US and Asian cultures, especially since so many of my students have lived abroad in the US or Canada (usually either sent to school by conscientious parents, or because their parents held jobs overseas). Given the relative global awareness of these students, I couldn’t chart a syllabus that overlooked the history of American theatre that developed alongside the performance traditions of America’s largest minority, and the appropriation (and often degradation) of black culture by the majority. When I showed them a clip of Judy Garland’s performance as Topsy singing a jazzed-up version of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in the 1938 musical Everybody Sing, I was intentionally setting the context for the next “text” we would turn to–Porgy and Bess, which debuted in 1935. I wanted them to understand how deplorably normal the literal effacement of the black person by white performers was when Gershwin’s “folk opera” took white America by that storm that rages through Catfish Row. And when I also showed them a clip of the not-even-groan-worthy jokes and puns between Mr Interlocutor and his clowns in Yes Sir, Mr Bones (1941), I wanted them so see how the Jim Crow stereotype did not die with the Emancipation Proclamation or even the Civil Rights Act, but is deeply entrenched in American culture. With the recent deaths of Micheal Brown and Trayvon Martin echoing that of Emmet Till, the inevitable question arose: has anything changed? The irony that UTC was performed in blackface while apparently arguing for the abolition of slavery, and purportedly upholding the humanity–and Christianity!–of the black person, was not lost on my students. But when confronted with these images, they looked embarrassed. It was later that day that a student tipped me off on K-pop idol G-Dragon’s recent selfie kerfuffle, where he posted a photo of himself in a hoodie with a blackened face in a pose that recalls the iconic photo of Trayvon Martin. A little internet browsing yielded more stories about blackened Korean performers making their way into popular and prime time comedy shows like Gag Concert, and Saturday Night Live Korea, as one ex-pat blogger has documented. In reading through the opinion pieces in English, the outcry among young Koreans against such insensitivity seems to be two-fold: that this blatant racism has to stop because 1. it is wrong, and 2. it creates a negative impression of South Koreans. When I used these images of blackface performance in class without first addressing the recent issue of blackface performance in Korea, did I create the impression of accusation? That’s the worry I have right now. I won’t get to meet my students again for a week, since we’re on a national holiday, but when we return, we’ll need to work through this complex tangle of racial representation in a global context. More to come.