Black Arts and Black Publics
On May 30th, 2015, the Department of African American Studies at UCLA in conjunction with the Robey Theatre Company produced a staged reading of Yohen by Japanese American playwright, Philip Kan Gotanda. The performance and post-show discussion was the final portion of a class called Black Arts and Black Publics: Robey Theatre Company and the Continuum of Black Performance in Los Angeles. The course was a collaborative project between Robey Theatre Company and the UCLA community. Throughout the quarter students conducted archival and ethnographic research at the Robey Theatre Company, interacted with professional theater artists and UC professors, performed close readings of scholarly texts, plays, live performances, recorded performances, and developed original research projects. In turn, the students developed new epistemological frameworks for thinking through performance as a form of pedagogy, theater as a site of activism, and writing as a form of liberation. Major themes that were explored in the course were the Black Radical Tradition, aesthetics of the Black Radical Imagination, Black Gender Studies, the Black Arts Movement, the Harlem Renaissance, Colonialism, the Haitian Revolution, Afrofuturism, collaboration with arts organizations, and AfroAsian relations.
Black Arts and Black Publics represents a unique vision and learning modality for UCLA and is designed around three core principles that are at the heart of the University of California: research, pedagogy, and praxis. This triumvirate captures the interdisciplinary spirit of Black Studies scholarship as well as the process of community-based knowledge production. The arts in Black culture historically have rarely been understood and practiced as a solipsistic exercise of individual genius, but as an integral part of a Black public imaginary, both emerging out of and shaping a Black public sphere. The arts have continually provided a forum for collective expression and the expression of collectivity. Black Arts and Black Publics brings into being a dizzying variety of definitions of Blackness, some competing and contradictory, through a confluence of inventive and innovative formalist strategies that include theater, film, visual art, dance, new media, and literature. Black Arts and Black Publics places into conversation scholars and artists working at the intersections of the arts and publics.
Yohen was directed by Robey Theatre’s co-founder and managing artistic director, Ben Guillory. Set in 1986 Los Angeles the two character full-length one-act play focuses on the uncertain relationship between Sumi Washington (Karen Lew) and James Washington (Danny Glover). Brought together during the formal occupation of Japan when James was in the Army, the couple’s thirty-seven year marriage has now deteriorated and teeters on the point of completely shattering. While the career veteran, James, finds solace in hanging around the boxing gym, Sumi’s pottery has become her way of reconciling the past. She describes her work as an “accident in the kiln firing that changes the pot. It gets too much heat and warps, or a piece of ash falls on it causing it to be discolored. Most times it doesn’t turn out good…but once in a while, the accident turns out right. Then you keep it. It’s hard to tell. It’s a matter of taste, yohen. To some, it looks ugly. To others, beautiful.” Yohen operates as a recursive metaphor not only for their imperfect relationship, but for their own experiences as displaced people of color and in this particular case AfroAsian juncture and disjuncture forged under the broader framework of US imperialism and domestic racism.
In addition to completing critical writing assignments, several students created short video pieces that captured their experiences working with the Robey Theatre community. Anthony Elder’s, The Paul Robeson Effect/Affect: The Life, Legacy, and Inspiration of his Performing Black Male Body, focused on the representation of Black masculinity in film and theater. Elder’s project used Paul Robeson as an interlocutor through which to explore Black male embodiment as represented in Robeson’s performance in Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925). The work includes interviews with Ben Guillory and actor, Kem Saunders. Funmilola Fagbamila’s Afrofuturist Feminism and Black Women’s Subjectivity in the Work of Black Women Playwrights provides an excerpt from a staged reading by a Robey Theatre collaborator, Kelley Danier. Fagbamila’s video is part of an ongoing ethnographic research project on Black female playwrights and the way in which Black female subjectivity is represented in the American theater. Furthermore, Fagbamila contends that Afrofuturist feminist playwrights such as Danier create a liberatory space through which to imagine and practice a Black politics that is often marginalized within mainstream white normative theater spaces. In Black Arts Los Angeles: Situating Pedagogical and Liberatory Choreography at Robey Theater, UCLA, and in the Community, Shamell Bell and Bernard Brown created a synthesized dance video which incorporates interviews, music, and choreography around UCLA, Robey Theatre, and the greater Los Angeles area. Their project makes visible the relationship between Black life, art, and activism amongst organic intellectuals outside of the community and political activists within the academy. More specifically, the project calls attention to the history of the construction of Los Angeles as a legally racially segregated city and its impact upon racial violence today. Cristhian Lin Cobos’s paper, Significance of Black Arts as Tool to Reclaim History and the Black Body, examined the role of racial stereotype in theater and film. Using Donald Bogle’s salient text, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, as a framework for analysis, Cobos’s paper addressed the history of Paul Robeson and his complicated relationship with playwright Eugene O’Neill as well as the Black Arts Movement and its continued impact on cultural production as seen in the work of the Robey Theatre Company. Lastly, Imaan Fitzgerald’s paper, Future Narratives and Reflections Upon the Black Body in the Past and Present, asks “what are the implications of using a future discourse to explore contemporary issues surrounding the Black struggle?” Fitzgerald provides intertextual readings of two Afrofuturist works, Thomas Gibbons’ play Uncanny Valley (2015) and W.E.B. Du Bois’ short story “The Comet” (1920) in order to examine how each respective work employs a future discourse with the intention of reflecting upon the perpetual turbulence of the Black body both past and present.
Black Arts and Black Publics is a collaborative platform that is about remembering the past to understand the present in order to build a future of infinite possibility. Throughout the quarter the course was held at locations both on the UCLA campus and at the Robey Theatre Company’s office located at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Students were able to gain first hand access to Robey archives as well as interact with Robey Theatre staff and artists. The course was conducted in a seminar format during which students were responsible for guiding weekly discussions of the readings as well as integrating guest artists and scholars into the discussion. Scholars such as Professor Jeffrey Stewart from the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara engaged the students in critical discussion about the life and career of Paul Robeson. Playwright Melvin Ishmael’s play, Emperor’s Last Performance, further expounded upon Robeson’s life in the theatre and the complicated relationship between Robeson, Eugene O’Neill, and the originator of the role of Brutus Jones in Emperor Jones, Charles Gilpin. Conversations with award winning playwright, Levy Lee Simon, author of The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel, exposed students to the historicity of Black life of Central Avenue during ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s Los Angeles. In addition, Simon’s trilogy For the Love of Freedom based on the slave revolt of 1791 in San Domingue, Haiti and the subsequent struggles of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Jean-Jacque Dessalines, and Henri Christophe, provided a critical framework for understanding the historical trajectory of what scholar Cedric Robinson refers to as the “Black radical tradition.” Co-playwrights Tim Toyama and Aaron Woolfolk shared their collaborative process of writing Bronzeville, a historical drama that narrates the internment of a Japanese American family in little Tokyo during the 1940s and the subsequent conflict that unfolds when a Black family moves into the house previously occupied by the family only to discover the son hiding in the house from the authorities. Currently in film development, Bronzeville, like the aforementioned Yohen, provides a nuanced understanding of comparative ethnic relations rooted in historical accuracy in order to plot forward a collaborative future.