- Rehearsing for Revolution: Practice, Theory, Race, and Pedagogy (When Failure Works)
In the spring of 1996, we co-taught a course in the School of Theatre at Florida State University explicitly designed to merge theory and practice and to culminate in a performance at the end of the semester. 1 At the time, Wendy was a PhD student, an African American, Mississippi-born and raised, Baptist minister, believer in a transcendent African spirit, actor, and theatre director. Stacy was an assistant professor, a white, Jewish, northeast coast lesbian with poststructuralist leanings.
Together we designed and conceptualized a course on African American performance that focused on plays and on performances in everyday life, including rituals, religion, relationships, and the meanings of “race.” Although we chose to teach the course together, we were both hypersensitive in our early meetings. We planned everything: what books to include, how to structure the class sessions, when one of us would lead discussions. Our interactions became much freer when we admitted our trepidation, acknowledged that we’d both likely mis-speak, and emphasized our mutual commitment to this yet unknown pedagogical, political, and performative project. The course readings included articles by Richard Schechner, Phillip Zarrilli, bell hooks, and Michael Eric Dyson, some of which problematized the notions of “theatre” and of “acting.” We framed the course around Amiri Baraka’s argument for a “revolutionary theatre” and continually asked if that’s what we were doing. By the end of the semester, we felt that we had not only failed to create revolutionary theatre but perhaps had enacted the futility of even imagining we could create revolutionary theatre in this historical moment and in those circumstances. At this later juncture, we want to rethink that performative failure in terms of its pedagogical potential.
This essay will explore the complicated negotiations of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, power, and privilege in the context of a class of half African American students and half white students in a state university in the deep south. We will suggest that the performance base of the class, which stipulated that students collaborate with their bodies as well as their minds, pushed the demand for cooperation and understanding well beyond the expectations of a [End Page 13] typical (however politicized) classroom. 2 We have constructed this “story” as an unfinished conversation, in part because we are left with more questions than answers, and in part because we hope to suggest the urgent need for such “encounters” to take place.
Encounters, a yearly, spring-semester course, is designed not only as praxis, but also to give BA students a chance to perform at the end of a semester spent learning about a specific time period, playwright, or topic. In 1995, for example, the course covered English Renaissance playwrights excluding Shakespeare. The year before, students studied and performed Bartholomew Fair. The organization of the class tends to allot part of each week to discussion of readings and part of the week to student performances, the latter generally providing the basis for the final performance. The class attracts both students interested in the chosen topic and those who want a guaranteed performance opportunity.
On the syllabus, we described the course like this:
Encounters is a course explicitly designed to merge theory, criticism, and practice. Through readings and in-class performances, we will explore a few of the various manifestations of “African-American performance.” We will raise questions of authenticity and identity, history and community. We will read, discuss, and perform rituals, religious events, relationships within families, whether natural or constructed. We will also focus on a variety of acting techniques and will practice performance in an expanding, contextualized way to break traditional ways of thinking about acting and theatre. The course will culminate in a final performance during the weekend of April 4–6.
What should theatre and performance do in terms of African-American identity and community? How is performance political? spiritual? How can theatre and performance become a site to embody and practice alternative social relations that could lead to social change? In the words of Augusto Boal, how can performance be a “rehearsal for revolution...