Multicultural Theater Practice



Multicultural Theater Practice


Spring, 2016






It is the artist’s job to experience the world firsthand and to attempt to make meaning from it. In this effort, artists move each of us closer to one another in our humanity. Through the content of this course, I ask students to broaden their knowledge of the dramatic literature of the African diaspora and to deepen their understanding of the politics of race and culture as one small way to know more of the world in which they plan to live and work as artists. Through this course, students will also be asked to place their work as artists in a wider social, cultural, and political context, thus increasing their awareness of how their work is determined by - and, in turn, contributes to – the values, beliefs, norms, expectations and assumptions that make up the culture in which they perform as actors, directors, dramaturgs, and designers. This course asks students to consider how their artistic choices have been impacted by their assumptions about society, culture, and democracy. At the same time, they will examine the role and the responsibility of artists in society and carefully consider the relationship between art and politics across time. Our explorations will follow three threads:
• An overview of African and African American dramatic literature
• Post-Colonial theory as a tool for interpreting plays and performance texts
• The U.S. Culture Wars of the Contemporary Era and Current Cultural Criticism
We will examine African and African American literature (primarily in the forms of poetry and drama) produced in the 20th and 21st century and written or translated into English. We will observe the differences and similarities between work across geographic and temporal locations and conduct dramaturgical research to support concept statements that could facilitate professional productions of these works. Because the literary work we will consider spans about a century and comes from the U.S., the Caribbean and the African continent, we will pay special attention to questions about race, culture and representation including problematic practices such as the consistent exclusion of dramatic work that challenges dominant social and political agendas across the US. More importantly, we will examine how artists use their creative work to articulate a sense of self, community and nation and just how contentious this process continues to be for artists of the African diaspora. Through an examination of major works by scholars such as Chinua Achebe, Frantz Fanon, Paul Carter Harrison, Robin D.G. Kelley, Sandra L. Richards, Gayatri Spivak, and Ngugiwa Thiongo, this course will introduce students to key concepts of postcolonial literary theory and their applicability to African/African American dramatic creative expression. Using major works, we will hone our skills in understanding culturally specific dramatic literature that explores concepts of power, oppression, and representation. We will focus on Kelley’s Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination as a key tool in our interpretations of the plays and poetry that we will read in this course. Lastly, we will consider these plays with regard to their social function as living works of art. We will examine the challenges associated with producing racially, culturally and ethnically specific work, including access to funding and space as well as audience development issues playwrights often face. These issues have presented themselves in various iterations of the culture wars of the late twentieth century. For example, we will examine the funding fallout of the “NEA Four” in 1990, which led to the cessation of funding to individual artists by the National Endowment of the Arts in 1993, alongside the public debates of African American playwright August Wilson and white theater critic/producer Robert Brustein over casting prerogatives and color-blind casting practices. Their public discourse on this topic was prompted by Wilson’s 1996 keynote address at the Theater Communication Group’s national conference. In that speech, he invoked images of the struggle for freedom on the slave lantations of the south alongside similar cries for freedom expressed by the poets and playwrights of the Black Arts Movements: Ron Milner, Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez. His speech links a sense of national identity to the liberation of Black people similar to Frantz Fanon’s sentiments in his address to The Congress of Black African Writers in 1959. Fanon stated: It seems to me that the future of national culture and its riches are equally also part and parcel of the values which have ordained the struggle for freedom (“Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom”). To better understand the political climate and the public discourse around art, access and censorship of this time, we will read journalistic writing pertaining to both the “NEA Four” and the subsequent restrictions placed on artists and the Wilson/Brustein Debates as key factors in our understanding of the complex nature of race, culture and representation across stages and in galleries, museums and art houses in the U.S. We will examine these issues using plays and poetry of the Black Arts Movements as a national lens alongside the production history and practices at New WORLD Theater (NWT) as a local reference and case study in our investigation of the role of art in our society. New WORLD Theater was a professional nonprofit theater company in residence at the University of Massachusetts Amherst dedicated to presenting and producing work by artists of color for thirty years. In that time, the artists, scholars, students, community members, and audiences who participated in the cultural activities produced by New WORLD Theater shaped a discourse that reflected the challenges and aspirations of people of color on our campus, in the Northeast region of the United States as well as the larger platform of the national discourse on race, representation, access and equity. And these conversations often included international and trans-national components as we consider artists as global citizens.


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Blended Learning Year 3: Multicultural Theater Document

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