From visual arts to jazz, theater to poetry, the opening program of the Academy’s 2019 Induction weekend celebrated the arts and humanities. The event included a video featuring artist Mark Bradford; a performance by composer, pianist, and singer/songwriter Patricia Barber; remarks about the power and importance of the performing arts from theater director and scholar Harry J. Elam, Jr.; a reading by playwright Donald Margulies from his play Sight Unseen; and remarks and readings by poet, writer, and foundation leader Elizabeth Alexander. Edited transcripts of several of the presentations follow.
2082nd Stated Meeting | October 11, 2019 | Cambridge, MA
Videos of the arts presentations are online here.
When I came to Stanford some twenty-eight years ago, I found the university in the midst of a severe budget crisis: $40 million needed to be lopped off of the operating budget. One easy way to alleviate some of this deep deficit, the administration assumed, was to eliminate unnecessary departments and programs. The Department of Food Agriculture went away, as the administration decided that food was no longer intellectually relevant. A similar fate threatened my department, the Drama Department, and the Committee on Black Performing Arts, which I had also come to direct. Why was the Drama Department expendable? Because some members of the faculty and administration looked to our peers – Harvard and Oxford – and saw that they did not have theater departments and concluded, in their wisdom, so why should Stanford? More fundamentally, their thinking was that theater was recreational and not intellectual, that there could be nothing serious in a play – nothing of significance in either the making, direction, performance, or study of theater. Their budget priorities laid bare this bias. And so I asked myself, what was I doing here? Why had I ever come to Stanford? The answer to my question soon came as the Drama Department banded together as one and used the drama and theatrics of our predicament to our own advantage. I remember I wore a big “Drama Matters” button on my suit coat to a new faculty reception at the house of then President Donald Kennedy, and as he shook my hand, I tried to position my boutonniere in his sight line, just so he could see it. Our department staged rallies and performances that dramatized our situation; we wrote letters and op-eds; we called alumni and colleagues from other institutions: we summoned all our resources in our defense. At the same time, one of my Stanford colleagues, Anna Deavere Smith, gained national renown for her ground-breaking work in one-person shows and for her celebrated play, Fires in the Mirror. Her success helped raise the profile and esteem of the department as a whole. More than that, her work powerfully demonstrated how art might intervene into civic dialogue, into moments of unrest and distress in ways that offered not simply illumination but ways forward. In that sense, drama saved drama. And we are still here!
And yet, casually dismissive assumptions about scholarly work in theater and performance studies still emerge not just during budget or hiring but also in everyday social interactions: At a party at the home of the dean of humanities and sciences at the end of my tenure as department chair, a woman came over and asked me, “What do you chair?” When I responded Drama, she exclaimed, “What fun!” I asked about her own department and she responded, “My husband chairs Statistics.” “Oh, what fun!” I exclaimed. “No,” exasperated she corrected me. “Statistics isn’t fun; it’s serious work!” In innumerable academic settings, even after my professional bio has been shared and even as my colleagues get questions about their own scholarship, I get asked tabloid-level queries about what such and such actor was wearing on the red carpet or asked for advice from parents convinced their kindergartener is an acting prodigy.
So, this is where we in theater scholarship often find ourselves: boxed into spaces where the seriousness and rigor of play, of performance, of theater are undervalued; where the concept of scholarship in theater or the humanities more generally is suspect. Part of what we must continually do, then, is educate others to what we do and why it matters. What I mean here is that we need not just be defensive nor merely assert the value of our profession in reaction to the naive comments or misunderstandings of others. Rather, I think that strategic advocacy means developing calculated and deliberate tactics that draw on the power of theater itself to foreground the importance of performance and of theater and performance scholarship.
My first book, Taking It to the Streets: The Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka, analyzes Black and Chicano protest theater in the 1960s and 1970s. My interest in the cross-cultural commonalties of social protest theater, of Black and Chicano performances in particular, began in graduate school. Previously growing up in segregated Boston, I was well familiar with Black revolutionary dramas of the 1960s. I performed in a troupe of Black teenagers we called “The Family.” Then as a graduate student I found compelling parallels between Black revolutionary theater and Chicano social protest theater. At that time, such comparative analysis was particularly underexplored and even discouraged. A continued commitment to cross-cultural analysis and a profound interest in how theater functions as an agent for social change still drive me today. For, invariably, whenever there is a cause of social need, one of the ways people seek redress or voice their unrest is to dramatize their cause, to catch the conscience of those in charge, to put on a play. How does theater then achieve social efficacy or function as a form of advocacy? What is it about a play that can make people think and possibly even move them to act? These are issues that have motivated my further explorations of the work of playwrights Suzan-Lori Parks, Cherrie Moraga, Tarell McCraney, Lynn Nottage, and August Wilson.
In the process of writing my second book on Wilson and his twentieth-century cycle of plays, The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson, I had the occasion to meet with the late, great Wilson at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. We met during the break between the Sunday matinee and the evening performance of King Hedley II. We had to sit outside on the plaza, because as you may know, he chain-smoked and, of course, they would not allow smoking in the theater. We talked for three and a half hours straight that day. He truly represented what my grandfather would have called a race man. Wilson believed that as a Black artist he owed a responsibility to the history of African-American struggle and survival. Accordingly, he plotted a path of strategic advocacy in which he pointedly critiqued the social and economic structures that limit Black excellence; promoted institutions that could nurture Black theatrical practice; professed the need for African Americans to claim with pride the complexity of our stories; prompted African Americans to move through and with the psychological traumas of the past that still persist.
Within my book I critically engage Wilson’s work and contextualize his proclamations of social advocacy in relation to earlier Black theater activist-artist-intellectuals such as W.E.B DuBois and Amiri Baraka. I consider his representations of gender through such theorists as bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Saidya Hartman. I also put Wilson’s depictions of the Africanness in African-American life in conversation with the work of Nigerian Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka’s theorization of Yoruban drama. Through this analysis I position Wilson not as a racial separatist but as a strategist countering the lens of the dominant culture.
Sitting that day outside of the Mark Taper Forum, Wilson existed at once inside and outside the regional theater system and its hegemonic control. Significantly, as the most produced playwright in the United States during the 1990s as well as the first decade of the twenty-first century, Wilson’s popularity extended across the color line. So, part of my challenge involved relating his race politics to his cross-cultural esteem as arguably the most significant American playwright of the contemporary period.
Throughout history, art and literature have functioned not just as entertainment but as social forces capable of affecting and effecting change. Across time and across the globe, communities and nations have banned and burned books, imprisoned novelists, and executed actors not simply because they questioned a particular work’s “pleasurable” qualities but because they feared the substantive potential of art and literature to influence minds and threaten their preferred social order. Surely one of the many things that the arts and humanities most broadly can “do” is energize social change and have social consequence. That is part of its power – and for some, its existential threat.
In my view, strategic advocacy puts theater and performance studies not as antithetical but as central to the crises in academia and in our world today. Theater’s collaborative ethos, the yoking of practice and theory, its valuing of both process and “end-product,” and the crossing of political camps and ethnic boundaries that so often characterizes theater practice and scholarly inquiry historically have and can today serve as a model. For unlike political stalemates, theater folks get things done; the show after all must go on.
So, we need not ask or petition for our legitimacy. Rather we in our very nature, in our work, in our calling, provide a crucial key to the answers.
© 2020 by Harry J. Elam, Jr.
What I am going to read to you is an excerpt from my breakthrough play Sight Unseen, which I wrote a long time ago, when I was a young man. Like the playwright who created him, Jonathan Waxman is a Jewish artist in his thirties, a figurative painter. I began writing the play in the late eighties, early nineties, when the New York art market was exploding. It was a patently autobiographical drama about a struggling artist; consequently, it was not very interesting.
I set the play aside. When I revisited it a few months later, I gained a fresh perspective. I realized that I needed to make the autobiographical figure the not me; in other words, someone who may share some of my biography but who is an alternate me. Instead of Jonathan Waxman being the unknown artist I was at the time, he would be a superstar artist at the pinnacle of his success, something I had not yet experienced. That epiphany galvanized the play that became Sight Unseen, which, when it was first produced in 1991, proved to be that elusive breakthrough.
In this scene, Waxman is in a London art gallery for the opening of a retrospective exhibit of his work. While in the UK, days prior to this occasion, he reconnected with the muse of his college years, a reunion that went less than smoothly; the reverberations of that visit provide the subtext. As the retrospective unfolds, Waxman, the Jewish artist from Brooklyn, is interviewed by a sleek, smart German art critic.
A Reading: From Sight Unseen
GRETE: You just said your definition of good art is “art which effectively reflects the truth.” Do you think it is your responsibility as an artist to always tell the truth?
JONATHAN: In my work? Yes.
GRETE: And in your personal life?
JONATHAN: My personal life is my personal life. Look, if my work tells the truth, then I think people are compelled, they have to deal with it, they can’t not. I like to shake ’em up a little, I admit it. People see my stuff at a gallery, a museum, and the work competes for their attention. They’re preoccupied, overstimulated. All I can hope is maybe – maybe – one night, one of my images’ll find its way into their unconscious and color their dreams. Who knows? Maybe it’ll change their perception of something forever. I mean, in art, as in life, we tend to affect people in ways we can’t always see. You can’t possibly know what that other person has taken away with her. You can’t see it. And just ’cause you can’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
GRETE: Hm. Getting back to “good art . . .”
JONATHAN: Okay, let me ask you something: When we talk about good art, what are we talking about? Stuff we like? Stuff our friends make? We’re talking about value judgments. Most people, do you think most people, most Americans – my father – do you think most people have any idea what makes good art? . . . The little old lady who paints flowers and pussycats at the YMCA – and dazzles her friends, I’m sure – I mean, does that little old lady make good art? I mean, why not?, her cat looks just like that. I’m not putting her down; I think it’s great she’s got a hobby. But is what she does good art? See, most people . . . I remember, years ago, the big van Gogh show at the Met?, in New York? The place was packed. Like Yankee Stadium. Buses emptied out from all over; Jersey, Westchester. All kinds of people. The masses. Average middle-class people. Like they were coming into the city for a matinee and lunch at Mamma Leone’s. Only this was Art. Art with a capital A had come to the shopping-mall generation and Vincent was the chosen icon. Now, I have nothing against van Gogh. Better him than people lining up to see the kids with the big eyes. But as I braved that exhibit – and it was rough going, believe me – I couldn’t help but think of Kirk Douglas. Kirk Douglas should’ve gotten a cut of the house.
See, there’s this Hollywood packaging of the artist that gets me. The packaging of the mystique. Poor, tragic Vincent: He cut off his ear ’cause he was so misunderstood but still he painted all these pretty pictures. So ten bodies deep they lined up in front of the paintings. More out of solidarity for Vincent (or Kirk) than out of any kind of love or passion for “good art.” Hell, some art lovers were in such a hurry to get to the postcards and prints and souvenir place mats, they strode past the paintings and skipped the show entirely! Who can blame them? You couldn’t experience the paintings anyway, not like that. You couldn’t see anything. The art was just a backdrop for the real show that was happening. In the gift shop! . . .
Now, you got to admit there’s something really strange about all this, this kind of frenzy for art. I mean, what is this thing called art? What’s it for? Why have people historically drunk themselves to death over the creation of it, or been thrown in jail, or whatever? I mean, how does it serve the masses? Can it serve the – I ask myself these questions all the time. Every painting I do is another attempt to come up with some answers. The people who crowded the Met to look at sunflowers, I mean, why did they? ’Cause they thought they should. ’Cause they thought they were somehow enriching their lives. Why? ’Cause the media told them so!
GRETE: You seem to have such contempt –
JONATHAN: Not contempt; you’re confusing criticism with contempt.
GRETE: – for the very same people and the very same system that has made you what you are today.
JONATHAN: What I am today? What am I today? I just got here. People like you suddenly care what I have to say.
GRETE: I do care.
JONATHAN: I know you do. It cracks me up that you do; it amuses me. You know, up till like eight or nine years ago, let’s not forget, I was painting apartments for a living. Apartments. Walls. Rooms. I was good at it, too. I’d lose myself all day while I painted moldings, then I’d go home and do my own painting all night. A good, simple, hardworking life. Then, like I said, like nine years ago, my world started getting bigger. I couldn’t even retrace the steps; I can’t remember how it happened. All I know is I met certain people and got a gallery and a show and the public started to discover my work. The night of my first opening, it’s like these strangers witnessed a birth, like the work had no life before they laid eyes on it. We know that’s ridiculous, of course, but this is what happens when you take your art out of your little room and present it to the public: It’s not yours anymore, it’s theirs, theirs to see with their own eyes. And, for each person who sees your work for the first time, you’re discovered all over again. That begins to take its toll. You can’t be everybody’s discovery. That gets to be very demanding. Who are these people who are suddenly throwing money at you and telling you how wonderful and talented you are? What do they know? You begin to believe them. They begin to want things from you. They begin to expect things. The work loses its importance; the importance is on “Waxman.”
GRETE: Would you prefer to have remained an outsider?
JONATHAN: Preferred? No. It’s cold and lonely on the outside.
GRETE: And yet being cozy on the inside –
GRETE: – seems to make you uncomfortable as well. Is this not an illustration of that Jewish joke?
JONATHAN: What Jewish joke?
GRETE: Forgive my paraphrase: not wanting to be a member of a club that would also have you as a member?
JONATHAN: That’s not a Jewish joke, that’s Groucho Marx.
GRETE: Groucho Marx, then. Is he not Jewish?
JONATHAN: Yeah, so?
GRETE: Well, does not that joke apply to the problem Jews face in the twentieth century?
JONATHAN: What problem is that?
GRETE: The problem of being on the inside while choosing to see themselves as outsiders? –
JONATHAN: Is that a Jewish problem?
GRETE: – even when they are very much on the inside?
JONATHAN: “Very much on the inside”? What is this?
GRETE: Perhaps I am not expressing myself well.
JONATHAN: No, I think you’re probably expressing yourself very well.
GRETE: All I am suggesting, Mr. Waxman, is that the artist, like the Jew, prefers to see himself as alien from the mainstream culture. For the Jewish artist to acknowledge that the contrary is true, that he is not alien, but rather, assimilated into that mainstream culture –
JONATHAN: Wait a minute wait a minute. What is this Jewish stuff creeping in here?
GRETE: You are a Jew, are you not?
JONATHAN: I don’t see what that –
GRETE: Are you?
JONATHAN: Yeah; so?
GRETE: I am interested in the relationship between the artist and the Jew, as Jonathan Waxman sees it.
JONATHAN: Who cares how Jonathan Waxman sees it? I’m an American painter. American is the adjective, not Jewish, American.
GRETE: Yes, but your work calls attention to it.
GRETE: The Jewish cemetery in Walpurgisnacht –
JONATHAN: One painting.
GRETE: One important painting – the depictions of middle-class life, obviously Jewish –
JONATHAN: How can you say that? “Obviously” Jewish.
GRETE: I have studied your paintings, I have done research on your upbringing –
JONATHAN: Oh, yeah?
GRETE: – I have written many critical studies for art journals in my country. The middle-class life you explore – It is safe to say that your paintings are autobiographical, are they not?
JONATHAN: In what sense? Of course they’re autobiographical in the sense that they come from me, they spring from my imagination, but to say that the subjects of my paintings are Jewish subjects, because a Jew happened to paint them, that’s totally absurd!
GRETE: Mr. Waxman, I cannot tell to what you have most taken offense: the suggestion that was made, or that it was made by a German.
Excerpted from Donald Margulies, Sight Unseen. Copyright © 1992 by Donald Margulies
Thank you for the honor of being asked to talk about my work. I am an educator, a scholar, a poet, and a mother. Now I also bear the unusual title “philanthropist.” I write and I collaborate with and champion other artists and art forms. I teach African-American literature and culture, and now I lead a foundation dedicated to supporting the arts, the humanities in higher learning, and our cultural heritages and deep knowledge.
I am proud to have helped build the field of African-American studies, and at that nexus of disciplines and critical approaches I have found all the myriad tools I’ve needed to help me do my present work. I am an Americanist, a diasporist, and an evangelist for black culture, which I see at the center of dynamic American culture. Without the experience of black people in the United States – our fundamental experience of being denied freedom and humanity – we would not fully know the humanities. African Americans asserted their subjectivity, claimed their humanity, and made culture that rocks the world on many fronts.
I write many poems that look to history, for I have found that the archive of African-American and women’s history especially holds extraordinary voices and tales that long for poetry to reanimate them. The sonnet that I will read takes up the story of Prudence Crandall, a white Quaker educator in Canterbury, Connecticut, who in the early nineteenth century started a school solely “for young ladies and little misses of color” after the townspeople objected to her teaching black and white girls together. Young women from the age of eight to twenty-seven traveled from states away for this extraordinary opportunity that was beyond the wildest imaginings of most in this antebellum moment. The townspeople were not happy. They terrorized the girls, they terrorized Ms. Crandall, and eventually they burned the school to the ground. Many decades later, Prudence Crandall was recognized as a state heroine of Connecticut, and I thought a lot about what drove her, in the face of so much opposition, to educate those young women, and about what drove those young women to travel to learn. In writing the poem, from the imagined perspective of Crandall, I found words that I myself believed about the power of education.
Teacher is bewildered when packages
and letters come from far to say how brave,
how visionary, how stare-down-the-beast
is Prudence Crandall of Canterbury.
Work, she says, there is always work to do,
not in the name of self but in the name,
the water-clarity of what is right.
We crave radiance in this austere world,
light in the spiritual darkness.
Learning is the one perfect religion,
its path correct, narrow, certain, straight.
At its end it blossoms and billows
into vari-colored polyphony:
the sweet infinity of true knowledge.1
My mother is a historian. As a professor, she used to tell her students to think about their grandparents, their words and deeds, how they smelled, who they were to them and what they learned from them, and to understand that as American history. She asked them also to understand the proximity and how a grandparent can reach us back to touch the hem of an earlier century. Then she would tell them that she knew her maternal grandfather in her remembered childhood, and that he was born enslaved. My mother passes stories of her known grandfather, these stories, to my now grown children. The nineteenth century is not far away, and the legacy of slavery is experientially with us.
That grandfather helped to found and build Tuskegee Institute. Imagine the audacity of men and women born property, born three-fifths human in the eyes of the law of the land, to make an institution dedicated to the higher education of those people. I think about that now when I think about my own work running a foundation that is dedicated to the question of the value and brilliance, and the importance, of access to higher education. Sometimes you find yourself doing what you were destined to do, even if you haven’t known it along the path to get there.
I share the following excerpt from my memoir The Light of the World to illustrate work that takes you in unexpected directions, how simply living our lives sometimes beckons us down an unknown path, asks us to take a turn. I have tried in all of my work, both in my writing and elsewhere, to follow those turns, even when I didn’t always understand what I was doing or why I was doing it. To appreciate this passage, you need to know one character: my late husband Ficre, a painter.
The language of flowers is not a language I grew up knowing. I grew up in the city, Washington, DC, the child of transplanted New York Harlem apartment people who did not know how to grow things. There were crocuses in spring time that my mother planted along the walkway of our townhouse, I remember my grandmother – born in Selma, Alabama, and reared in Birmingham, then Washington, DC – advocating that we plant hardy pachysandra, which her sister in Durham used as groundcover.
As a little girl in Washington I liked to sit on the ground beneath the dogwood tree in our tiny front yard at 819 “C” Street Southeast and search for four-leaf clovers. Clover was all I knew of “flower”; that was the time I spent in “nature.” A family joke was, they say I bawled when first placed on grass to crawl. At my elementary school, honeysuckle vines and mulberry trees grew surrounding the parking lot; my best friend and I would gorge at recess in springtime and imagine ourselves foragers in the wilderness. Rain puddles seemed as significant as lakes or ponds. In our neighborhood in the Sixties when I was growing up, country people still lived on Capitol Hill. I’d see them in their front yards catching a breeze when our family would go for slow walks on weekend summer evenings. In their yards grew geraniums and others that I thought of as the province of black people, Negro flowers. Though as an adult I have rarely been without fresh-cut flowers in my home – even a fistful of dandelions in a water glass – I did not begin to know flowers until I knew Ficre and we moved into our house.
Now, the first full spring after his death, the still lives he set in the garden emerge. A small composition rises in a corner by the driveway: a stalk of grape hyacinth, scientific name muscari, derived from “musk” referring to the intoxicating scent which Ficre knew was my favorite olfactory harbinger of spring. A rare, almost cocoa-colored tulip which I now learn were originally planted in the Arts and Crats era to match those houses in the style of ours. A shiny, frilled, purple-black parrot tulip that feels as late Victorian as the time period of the house. The whole cluster forms a dark, strange, gorgeous little still life, as carefully made as Ficre’s paintings, with histories and etymologies and referents that continue to unfold.
With each community of flowers in the garden, a story: white and pink-streaked peonies, which always, always blossomed on my birthday, May 30, his birthday gift to me each year. There was never not a peony clipped and in a short drinking glass to greet me on my birthday morning, its head heavy with morning dew and often a small beetle. This spring I learn our peonies are double blooming, the rarest and most revered by gardeners. Ficre did not see them achieve this status but he was more patient than anyone I ever knew by far, and knew they would come up in the future. This year, the peonies are magenta and white, and they blow open as big as toddlers’ heads, and soon they are spent and rotten, their petals brown and withered in the ground. Over and done until next year.
And then, this morning, out the back: huge, ruffled, cream- and apricot-colored iris. I have never seen these before. I bring the boys to the window, one at a time. “Look,” I say, “Daddy is saying hello to us,” and he surely is. Through the stalks and the blooms come the touch of his hands on the bulbs. Hi, honey, I say, and I hear him say, Hi, sweetie, and the hurt is completely fresh, the missing, the where have you gone. I do not feel comforted. And I am still bewildered, from the archaic, “wilder”: to be lured into the woods, into some wildness of mind. Will I really never speak to him again?
I look again at the color of the iris. It appears in many of his abstract paintings. The New Haven Italian printers who manufactured a catalogue of reproductions of his book kept coming to the studio to make color corrections, because they said, “this color doesn’t exist.” It only existed in his paintings.
Ficre did not paint what he saw. He saw in his mind, and then he painted, and then he found the flowers that were what he painted. He painted what he wanted to continue to see. He painted how he wanted the world to look. He painted to fix something in place. And so I write to fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember, even though I know I will never forget. “This is a compound like the one I grew up in,” he said, when we first visited the house. He squatted in the yard like it was land to be farmed. Compound: where families were safe, even when they were unsafe. Where families were families.
Flowers live, they are perfect and they affect us; they are God’s glory, they make us know why we are alive and human, that we behold. They are beautiful, and they die and rot and go back to the earth that gave birth to them.2
We are here on earth to learn from each other. We are here to be reverent of the beauty and power that life presents us. And we are here on earth to love each other. How to learn from intimacy and do that in ever-widening communities and not just one-on-one is the work I am trying to do.
© 2020 by Elizabeth Alexander