Final Prompt

In Young Jean Lee’s piece The Shipment, Lee tries to show readers the constructions surrounding race in theater and what type of roles black people are allowed to play. Lee does this by contrasting two parts of her show. In the first, she constructs the blackness of her actors. They are all performing in black bodies, which have immediate cultural implications on their own, but the actors tell black stories, or rather the black stories that are allowed to be performed in mainstream entertainment, using stylized gestures and speaking styles to consciously construct the blackness on their bodies. Gender is also constructed in this way, with stories of black men and black women put explicitly on bodies of the corresponding sex through a stylized mimesis and dress. Many stereotypes about black people are satirized, which the audience (which I assume is majority “woke white”) laughs at in an “of course I don’t subscribe to these stereotypes” kind of way. In the second part of the play, all of the actors play out a dinner scene. Although nothing about race is hinted at specifically, the underlying assumption is that this is a race play. The characters all have complex personalities and relationships with each other, but all of these pieces seem to link back to their race, like the alcoholism, drug use, lack of fulfillment, and mental health issues, which I even was quick to attribute to generational trauma. The gag is, at the end we find out that the actors were playing white people this entire time. Lee intelligently satires the kinds of stories black people are allowed to portray while also showing that bodies of color are attributed so much meaning even when they are on stage. This play questions if there is neutrality in bodies on stage, which bodies can achieve neutrality on stage, and how we construct different types of bodies even without added information from the official performance.

This correlates extremely well with Judith Butler’s theories on gender performativity. In her essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” Butler writes, “That the body is a set of possibilities signifies (a) that its appearance in the world, for perception, is not predetermined by some manner of interior essence, and (b) that its concrete expression in the world must be understood as the taking up and rendering specific of a set of historical possibilities.” (Butler 2) Although the race and gender of the performers is performed, the social and historical constraints that their physical bodies are understood through limit the different avenues through which they can act. For example, when Douglas Scott Streater does his stand-up comedy bit in the beginning of the piece, he performs a black male by speaking words about the black male experience, using a particular dialect/accent, and by adopting a funny, blunt, and admonishing comedic style that is used by money current black comedians. In this way, neither Douglas’s nor his character’s “interior essence[s]” are taken into account. The audience is perceiving the performance of a black man by a someone who appears genetically male with black skin. Douglas acts a script given by society to people who look like him. While Dougla’s skin demands the script he is given in order to be understood by society, the script is strengthened by Douglas’s performance of it. Gender and race here carry “historical possibilities” of performance, Douglas performs them according the cultural implications already attached to his physical features.

Through the entire first half, the actors embody different types of black stereotypes with a detached, exaggerated, and comedic style. The large movements, bulky visible microphones, and exaggerated megaphone-style of projection make it impossible for the audience to forget that this is all a performance. The performance cannot even become close to naturalistic because the actors are all dressed in formal-wear. It is much easier, then, to see the changes in the actors’ movements and words when they embody different characters. Amelia Workman performs black motherhood by putting her hand on her hip and saying “I do not work three jobs,” and “I am boring.” Mikéa Ernest Jennings and Aundré Chin perform black boyhood by mimicking basketball movements and beatboxing sounds, and by being shot and getting into drugs. The actors’ black bodies already carry all of these meanings, stories, and stereotypes, but the performance of these things reinforces the ideas already culturally imposed onto their skin.

The inability for these actors to shed their blackness can be seen really quickly when Prentice Onayemi says, “Well, I’m a white person.” In this moment, the audience laughed because obviously, Onayemi is not a white person. He was wearing black skin and swaying in a mock “gangster” fashion when he said this. The sentiments, though, of Onayemi’s character (wanting to cuddle with a cat) are not associated with black masculinity. Onayemi’s cannot fulfill whiteness because of the physical black body performing it, and Onayemi’s character’s “inner essence” conflicts with the cultural limitations in understanding and expected performance of his body. This carries into the latter part of the play, which is more naturalistic in comparison. Until the end, the story of the second part is quite neutral. Five friends are at a party, and a host of conflicts within the group upset the party. The friends are dressed in formal wear and discuss upper middle class issues. Although the words and the situations are all neutral, or white since white is neutral in American society today, the characters’ problems are linked to blackness in the audience’s minds. The previous satirical performances of blackness only make audience members more aware of their biases towards black people in terms of drugs and mental health at the end when they realize that the actors were playing white people..The generational issues of the race follow the actors as they transition from playing black people to white people, showing that black people cannot perform whiteness or neutrality because their skin links them culturally to historical accepted notions of blackness.

Week 13 Prompt

Hey Molly,

The first thing I thought of as I was scrolling through to the first post of the blog was that you wrote a lot. But after reading the first few, I sensed your passion and genuine interest in forms of theater. I am struck by the depth and complexity of your thoughts and the formality of your language paired with such casual words as “bleh.”

I also see the clear distinction between analyzing theater form and culture. Your writing shows me that you think primarily in terms of theater form. It sounds more objective than my own, yet more passionate and grounded in theater. I probably sway too much towards cultural critique, but if theater acts to connect people, to make them feel, then if we ignore culture, who gets to feel? This is probably both a difference in perspective and a difference in thinking style.

Molly you literally filmed a scene drunk. That’s freaking spectacular.

Hell House. I think the coercion in Hell House cannot be entirely separated from what happens in more liberal theater. I think that although the ideology is different and maybe less popular, the mechanism is very similar. For example, more liberal shows are in effect trying to “coerce” audience members to think in certain ways as well, and maybe these are seen as less so because they are preaching to the choir.

I can really see the effort that you dedicated to this class. You thought (and still are thinking, I would assume) so deeply about all of your ideas. Most of this I commented on as I read, but I hope it sometimes makes sense. Through this assignment, I was mostly just trying to understand the way that you think. It actually baffles me (in the best way) how what you wrote, sometimes so different from the way that I was thinking of these ideas at the time, even occurred to you with the same source material. Sometimes it took me a little more effort to wrap my head around, but you think in such a creative and different way that inspires me. I understand some things a lot more after reading your blog posts. Litlitlitlitlit.

Week 12 Prompt (Again)

In The Emperor’s New Clothes, Tailor 1 and Tailor 3 are in an illicit love affair. The dangerous war state of the disco empire made them realize their affection for each other, but in order to not make Tailor 2 feel left out, they keep their love a secret. Tailor 1 actually bullies Tailor 3 in public so that their relationship seems as far away from romantic as possible. Tailor 2 bullies because she is a follower, always trying to impress Tailor 1. Tailor 1 is desperate to cause a revolution so that she and Tailor 3 can live happily ever after.

The tailors are the three musical theater core members of the cast. They are three females who always share the stage and revel in each other’s company. No matter what happens in their world, they are always strong together. Their love is so strong that it doesn’t even need to be explicitly stated. It is assumed that they are always together.

The Narrator is also very in love with the tailors, but she is afraid to express her love for them. She actually cannot stop talking about them, but when they catch her, she blushes and starts stammering. She is a proponent of the revolution because she wants to see the love story between Tailor 1 and Tailor 3 have a happy ending. The Narrator is really invested in this because she believes Tailor 2 will come to her for consolation.

Week 12 Blog Post

Sex and the City is a film about a polyamorous relationship centering four lesbian women and their efforts to aid each other in performing femininity in the cishetero mainstream world. Carrie is getting married to Big, but her public image is threatened by his hesitation on their wedding day. Miranda’s efforts at performing a happy, heterosexual family are frustrated by her husband’s affair (because he was unhappy that she couldn’t show him enough affection because she doesn’t like men).

Miranda and Carrie find solace in each other, and their romantic bond grows. They eventually help each other regain control over their performances of heteronormativity while still centering their relationship over all. Carrie also has a brief dalliance with Louise, portrayed by the incredible Jennifer Hudson. Louise’s romantic constraints are frustrated, her being a black woman in a film that centers the world around white women, so she has to move to St. Louis to successfully perform heterosexuality.

Charlotte really loves her kids, and her husband serves really as a slightly more present sperm donor and babysitter. Charlotte’s devotion to Carrie really shows when she internalizes Carrie’s pain over Big’s indecision. Samantha is really frustrated by her relationship with Smith, and continually watches her neighbor having sex, jealous of the fact that he is able to sleep with so many women while she has to stay loyal to Smith. She eventually leaves the relationship, focusing on her love for herself and freeing herself up to have all the sex she wants. She moves back to New York to be with the women she loves again.

The final scene shows that the love between the four women, not their relation to the men in their lives, overpowers all. Carrie talks about how she doesn’t like labels anymore (“labels almost ruined it”), showing that their tactic for surviving in a world that is hostile towards homosexuality is performing heterosexuality with the men in their lives while always maintaining that their relationships with each other are the most important.

Week 11 Prompt

I would set Waiting for Godot in a playground, around the park bench area where parents and seniors usually sit. This park would be in a deteriorating condition, but still recognizable, with the tree shading the park bench. Estragon and Vladimir would be around late middle age or early senior age. The park bench, rather than the park, would be the center of their world. The combination of their age and the state of the surroundings would emphasize the themes of waiting and add a hint of neglect to the story.

I would make the boy very present in the background, which is the playground. In very dim and shaded lighting, the boy would sometimes swing around on monkey bars or go down a slide. He would never be noticeable enough to attract the attention of Vladimir and Estragon. Maybe he would laugh in the background sometimes too. This carefree, deliberate, and almost gleeful action would constantly contrast with the unchanging nature of the main action of the play.

Pozzo and Lucky I would cast as a young, cocky “finance bro” and a clumsy intern. I think this would add an interesting layer to the relationship between Lucky and Pozzo, especially in today’s society. Their appearance in the second act would show how they, or rather Pozzo is not a powerful actor in their world either. Estragon and Vladimir, as they age, would keep on waiting, while the boy keeps playing in the background.

Week 9 Blog Post

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is trying to explain that the state as an actor is inherently powerful. It’s actions are always a performance of power over the people within the state. The artist, however, is not inherently powerful. The action of creating art is what empowers the artist, and the artist can only be powerful with its art. The artist is made an artist by doing art, and the artist’s influence is through the performance of that art. The state in all of its actions is exercising power over people and norms of social and political life, and because of this works to maintain allegiance from its people to its laws. The artist has to sway the audience to listen to their message through the art that they produce.

Arturo Ui is an example of a piece of theater that was more powerful because of the space that it was performed in. The play about a fascist dictator relies on the fact that Hitler once sat in the seats of that theater when it pulls the audience on stage to see the final scene play out in the center balcony. The fact that fascism played out in real life in that space and the deep historical impact of Hitler’s regime on that space make the themes of the play that much more poignant. Even though it is not in the same time of Hitler’s regime (although the political state of the US might have made this more poignant for American audience members), the location makes these themes ever present and immediate. Audience members cannot help but be weary of the signs of fascist rulers because the tangible evidence of these events is presented in the seats that they were sitting in.

Week 8 Blog Post – Swan Lake

One ballerina graces the stage. The music is loud, almost eerie after the dancer describes how she wants to scream or leave stage every time her body is used as a backdrop for a star. She sadly walks, in what would be described as a grumble if it wasn’t so defeated, and then assumes a delicate posture. In one place, just off-center, she glides through many postures, obviously not the star. Then she turns slowly from her posture, and requests that the music be louder.

She assumes a reaching posture, a branch yearning to touch the heavens and the ground simultaneously, and freezes. A decoration, an adornment valued only for its relation to the star. The hands stop reaching and bow together into a delicately resigned position in front of the body. She bows her head sideways towards center. The music is sweet, thick with action, and the one dancer’s scream can almost be seen, stifled into her position becoming stiff with fatigue.

And then action. She turns and lifts her leg, performing small jumps in a radius of about three feet. She moves, reaching, seeming to be missing the power of the group that the music implies. In it, we are exposed to the intricacies of one snowflake falling furiously, in the absence of her blizzard.

And then she freezes again. The scream, distracted by the movement dictated before, now has room to build again. She then walks to bow, elegantly, with the wings of a dove almost. She does a bourrée, and then repeats the sequence. She turns and freezes into stone, hands framing a non-present star. The bowing sequence is repeated, only to lead our not-so-prima ballerina into another posture. Her eyes glance down, demurely, resentfully.

She then glides across the stage, with an elegant demure, and settles into another pose just in time for the music to begin a joyous celebration for the missing stars of the piece. The dancer’s unmoving body, wanting to move, burns with stiffness. She finishes with a final bow of the head and arms, consenting to participate in the stars success.

Week 7 Blog Post

We chose to perform an excerpt from the beginning act of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In this scene, George and Martha are arguing after coming home from a party. Albee bases the play in realism, then slowly breaks down the realistic elements of the character’s world to reveal absurdism. We chose this specific scene because it is one of the most realistic in the play, but we were also interested in how realism functioned in the entire play. Though Martha herself is a very extreme, emotional, and, for lack of a better word, extra character, her dialogue with George is believable and realistic. It seems like a natural conversation between a bickering couple with an extreme personality.

In order to act this, it was necessary that both of us had actually read the play beforehand to know the characters fully through all of the decisions that they made. Because we were both familiar with the play and had analyzed it previously in different classes, we had pretty clear ideas of the intentions, motivations, and emotional states of the characters, so we could afford to skip the character analysis that I consider necessary before performing a role. We then chose our characters by thinking of who’s natural personality leant to performing which roles. This is very important in realism especially, because the goal is to make the scene reflect real life as closely as possible. After we cast ourselves, we read through the scene and chose a specific cut that we felt showed the realism in the scene well. Then we recorded.

Week 6 Response

I have chosen the first scene in Antigone, where Ismene and Antigone discuss the events of the play. If I were to direct this, I would have Antigone on a proscenium stage and Ismene enter from the audience, implicating them as complicit in the dishonorable act of not burying Polyneices. Ismene (if sound works out okay) would be on the same plane as the audience, and would turn no further than a quarter angle out. Antigone’s rage would be accusatory and directed at the audience, in an effort to prevent them from being on her side by making them shut down because human’s don’t like to be yelled at.

Conversely, Ismene is hidden in the audience almost. She is a part of them, speaking for them. Loyalty to the father is the overwhelming sentiment, and the intellectual argument is Ismene’s. I would also show the two brothers on stage as actors. One would be in white burial cloth, the other in really bloody and torn war rags. At the end of the they would be looking at each other on opposite sides of the stage facing stage left and stage right respectively. The battle would be reenacted as Antigone describes it. They would cross the stage and die on the opposite sides with a flash of red in their spotlights.

As Antigone and Ismene’s argument cools down, the spotlight on Eteocles would gradually brighten, maybe rose light to make him look nicer, while harsher ugly light would shine on Polyneices and eventually fade. Ismene would walk proudly through the audience to the doors, with Eteocles following almost angelic. Polyneices, hit by a red low light only, would remain on stage, dead. Antigone would be upstage of Polyneices by the end of the scene, on a stair leading up to a raised platform, almost at the level of the middle of the audience. She would hold a lingering glance at Polyneices, then look angrily at the audience.

Week 5 Response

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play Fairview is spectacular because Drury knows how to play to specific audiences very well. If catharsis is “the process of releasing and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions,” then I do not believe that Fairview offers a catharsis for every audience member, but rather that the play functions differently for white audience members and audience members of color.

For white audience members, I believe the play’s function is to prevent catharsis. Specifically, I think the ideal white audience member for this play is liberal, aware of social issues and all the “woke” terms, “worldly,” and probably not vigilant in watching for how they systematically and personally hurt people of color in their daily lives. The majority of the theater-going audience is like this, going to see a race play to affirm their “wokeness”, to learn through watching black trauma. This play functions by preventing the catharsis that usually is given to white audience members by transferring the hyper-visibility of the black body on stage to the white body in the seats. Maybe white audience members can find a catharsis in walking to the stage at the end and possibly releasing the shame that this play projects on them. There is certainly a feeling of discomfort and shame that is maintained for white audience members who stay by their seats, for they now have the hyper-visibility that people of color feel always.

Conversely, for audience members of color, maybe this play functions to provide a much-needed catharsis that is not accessible in daily life: the ability to expose white privilege and the hurt that is done through white hands, especially those that believe they are “not the problem.” This play affirms the experiences and thoughts of people of color and allows them the space to speak, exist, and breath without fear of or concern for white guilt and white retaliation. Drury truly knows how to affect her audience.