- Why Devise?Why Now? Riffing on the Syllabus
Lately, I'm having more difficulty than usual staying on the syllabus. Today in my African American theatre history course, try as I might, I couldn't seem to keep the conversation on Williams and Walker and the development of the Negro Musical. Shortly after I handed out a chronology covering 1900–1910 and giving the required birth and death dates of the Black minstrel performers, the class began to ask about popular versus elite performance; about the conventions of Western theatre that typically keep audiences silent, still, and in the dark; about the play turned video Ma'Dear's Family Reunion and its exceedingly popular minstrel images, versus Pulitzer Prize–winning Topdog/Underdog's less-familiar exploration of self-hatred, a complex masculinity, and multiply- constructed histories.
I can't seem to stay with the syllabus because there is a pressing need to respond to the specifics that arise in class, specifics that I can't always foresee before actually meeting the students and collaborating with them on where the course should go. This fluid response to the here and now requires an abiding commitment to listening, and a willingness to really work with others, thereby stretching one's self-boundaries. I trust that these skills in collaboration will serve the students well in an increasingly xenophobic and violent world.
Collaboration is the motive force behind effective social change, and it is the cornerstone of the jazz-inflected work of several contemporary theatre artists, including Laurie Carlos, Sharon Bridgforth, Daniel Alexander Jones, Erik Ehn, and Aishah Rahman. Collaboration requires that we learn to hold multiple truths simultaneously, that we even see the validity in the contradictions these truths may reflect.
In my classes and in my research on jazz (and on the vagaries of Black life in the US in general), I have been asking myself, how can a jazz aesthetic—a commitment to being present, to a fierce simultaneity, to a raucous multivocality, to an activist spirituality, to the bringing together of sometimes disparate aesthetics and ideas, to a pleasure in the sensuality of honesty—of sweat and spit and venom and blood—how can all of this be a tool for social change?
The seemingly tangential conversation in class today was the heart of the lesson, and even in the digression there was a firm bass line: where is minstrelsy in 2004? A straight line through my lecture notes would have imposed my sense of order and importance on the class, and rendered them impotent in shaping their own education and in responding to what is happening for them right now. Minstrelsy was still the predetermined subject, but the harmonies were developed on the spot. [End Page 49]
I think I can't stay on the syllabus because the times demand something else. My fears about this present moment of wars, greed, economic tightrope walking, rampant public homophobia, "patriarchal Christian racism" (to quote my friend and colleague Edmund T. Gordon) go beyond political parties and even the particular governments of each nation-state. My fears center around social isolation and spiritual alienation, such feelings of disorientation that could be tempered by the rigorous and deeply satisfying act of making work together. Making art is making a world—messy and fragile and ultimately reflective of each courageous contributor.
This is why I devise, and why devising is a critical strategy for us to take up in these ethnocentric and narcissistic times.
Joni L. Jones/Iya Omi Osun Olomo, PhD is an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance and Associate Director of the Center for African and African American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin.