- Three ATHE 2019 Awards Speeches and a Response
Kathy A. Perkins, ATHE Career Achievement Award 2019 Acceptance Speech
Thank you ATHE for this outstanding award. I never intended to pursue a career in academia, but to work exclusively as a lighting designer. However, a higher power had other plans for me (fig. 1).
On my first day of graduate school at the University of Michigan in 1976, I asked a young white male for directions to the design orientation. He asked me why, and I told him I was a design major. He said he didn’t know black people did anything other than perform, and since he had a PhD in theatre he never read anything about black designers. I said, “We exist, because you’re talking to me.” I thanked him for his directions and went to my orientation.
Throughout the day, I was filled with anger by his comments, and as soon as orientation ended, I spent the next six hours in the library examining every theatre book available. My anger intensified when I discovered he was right—we didn’t exist in publications except for a paragraph on the Federal Theatre project and a section in Black Drama by Loften Mitchell. Later that night, I called my sister, Linda, who was completing her PhD in education, and shared my encounter with this young man. “You need to write a book,” she said. I explained I wasn’t a scholar and didn’t write well. She said, “If you don’t do it, who will?” I didn’t give the project much thought until years later.
One year out of graduate school I was successfully free-lancing as a designer in New York and Europe. On a visit home to Mobile, Alabama, my parents said they were proud of me but they weren’t sure where I worked. I explained that I free-lanced for a living and didn’t work for anyone. As far as they were concerned, I didn’t have a “real job.” My father despised the term free-lancing. He said it sounded like a loose woman. He kindly asked if I would find a teaching job for a few years and return to the free stuff later. Because I wanted to please my parents, I pursued a teaching position.
Several weeks later, my sister, who was now a college professor, called excited to inform me that Smith College in Massachusetts had an opening for a lighting instructor, and the announcement encouraged women and minorities to apply. “This is your job,” she said.
At Smith, I realized how much I enjoyed teaching, being a mentor and taking students to NYC to assist me on productions. During my second year at Smith, my sister called to inform me that the Ford Foundation would be awarding three post-doctoral fellowships to people with MFA degrees. “That’s you.” I panicked and said only three? I don’t have a chance. She said you only need one, so don’t worry about the other two!
It was the Ford fellowship that jumpstarted my career as a scholar. I became obsessed with interviewing artists and documenting their stories—first designers, then playwrights, African artists and now the diaspora! Along this journey, I have had tremendous support and encouragement. I realized that I didn’t have to give up my career as a designer to be a scholar. In fact, my design work [End Page E-1] has enriched my scholarship and vice versa. My sister and mentors also made me realize that I didn’t have to be a great writer, but just have a good editor.
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I owe much to my family, particularly Linda, who never allowed me to make excuses. To Lonnie Bunch, the director and founder of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), and the recently appointed director of the entire Smithsonian Institution. As his curatorial assistant, over thirty years ago in Los Angeles, I learned how to take my...