I had the honor of returning to the Five Colleges for the first Theater Alumnae of Color Residency this fall. In small class settings and casual encounters over lunch or coffee, I spoke with students from Amherst, UMass, Hampshire and Smith about my work as an actress, playwright and performance scholar.
During two larger forums in Kirby Theater, I joined the stage with four other Five College alumnae to share thoughts and examples of making “Theater in These Times.” As I prepared to come to campus, I asked myself, “What do we mean by these times? What work are artists doing now? What creative work needs to be done and for what purposes?”
I was a theater and dance student at Amherst in the late 1980s and early 1990s. To work as a theater artist in those times meant contending with the loss of institutional support, of government funding for the arts, and of losing colleagues, friends and family to the HIV/AIDS and crack epidemics. It meant digging deep to build communities at a time when Rent was a revelation and Angels in America a radical statement.
Amherst had little more than 100 black students on campus. Like other students, we struggled with the transition from high school to college. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and arriving at Amherst, the additional challenges of living for the first time in a predominantly white community impacted my thinking about the legacies, limits and possibilities of American society. Questions raised then about belonging, citizenship, rights and responsibility have continued to shape my creative work, teaching and scholarship.
Today, I make theater in Michigan, where I work as a professor at Michigan State University’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. In July, I premiered a new play I wrote, After/Life, about the 1967 Detroit rebellion. The script weaves together archival materials with oral histories, poetry, music, song and dance.
After/Life was one of the few community events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the unrest that occurred in the neighborhood in which the rebellion started. Most importantly, it may have been the first black feminist retelling of the rebellion, in that it focused heavily upon the experiences of women and girls. Each night, the show served as a vehicle through which Detroiters could reflect upon the past. It also created spaces in which audience members could share their memories and collectively dream the future.
In these times, I believe it is imperative for those who are called to make art, large or small, to do so. If you can, make art in collaboration and partnership with other people. Make art that recovers our fragmented, misrepresented and distorted pasts through ordinary people’s stories. When we fail to represent the past honestly, we risk circulating half-truths and false representations that can be used to implement harmful public policies and cultural practices.
Decades from now, when historians look back at these times, it is to the artists that they will turn to understand what we knew, who we thought we were and what we dreamed of. In the meantime, we can get to work injecting into the public sphere and into our private hearts the worlds and ways of being together that sustain life, promote respect and honor both ourselves and our planet’s inherent dignity.