How To Fight for Arts Funding?

Former New York Post theatre critic Elisabeth Vincentelli recently reviewed my Drop Dead: Performance in Crisis, 1970s New York in American Theatre. “How to Fight for Arts Funding? Lessons from NYC’s Lean Years” begins with this way:

“As we enter a period of uncertainty, to put it mildly, one of the areas most at risk is the federal funding of arts and culture. It’s no surprise to hear that the social conservatives and free-market extremists now in power are already making noises about implementing their long-held dream to eradicate the NEA and PBS.

What happens, then, when the faucet is turned off? What are the priorities, how do funds get allocated, and to whom?

Northwestern University Press, 288 pages, $34.95.
Northwestern University Press, 288 pages, $34.95.

Our current predicament makes Hillary Miller’s Drop Dead: Performance in Crisis, 1970s New York an especially fascinating read.”

Read her full review at American Theatre.

Community Engagement and Working It Out

New book review published in Theatre Survey 53, Issue 01, pp 159 – 161. Urban Bush Women: Twenty Years of African American Dance Theater, Community Engagement, and Working It Out. By Nadine George-Graves. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010; pp. 296, 38 illustrations. $29.95 paper, $18.95 e-book.

In Urban Bush Women: Twenty Years of African American Dance Theater, Community Engagement, and Working It Out, Nadine George-Graves provides a comprehensive history of this Brooklyn-based contemporary dance troupe founded by Artistic Director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. George-Graves investigates the salience of “work” in the context of Urban Bush Women: What works in the rehearsal room, and why? How do we work through choreography, and how do performers “work” an audience? How does the company’s improvisatory style allow the individual dancer to work it? Taking a cue from her subject, George-Graves adopts a spirit of exploration to work through the group’s process, products, and reception.

The author begins by introducing the company’s development process and style before isolating in chapters five guiding elements of their work: “The Body,” “The Word,” “The World,” “The Soul,” and “The Community.” Although these divisions at first seem an odd organizational choice for a book about a company known for its fluid incorporation of disparate elements, it allows for a forensic approach to a complex aesthetic. George-Graves identifies character motifs that reverberate across every chapter: “finding the strength to survive adversity; calling upon the spirits and ancestors; overcoming violence and pain; reclaiming heritage, history, legacy, and memory; claiming agency and authenticity over the female identity (voice, body, and spirit); using the personal to connect with the universal; connecting to everyday life; and connecting to others” (35). Using dance as a mechanism to address these issues, Urban Bush Women activate their audiences by changing what it means to watch certain bodies perform. George-Graves argues throughout that this strategy challenges notions of fixed identities, renouncing and reimagining old visions of society and of blackness.

Ritual, range, and improvisation have remained key elements throughout the nearly twenty-eight-year performance history of Urban Bush Women. In Chapter 1, “Development: Core Values, Process, and Style,” George-Graves addresses Zollar’s embrace of dancers with body types that deviate from the norm of professional dance aesthetics. The company’s commitment to expression over “selling” manifests itself in a radically democratic approach to the body types, ages, and athletic abilities represented. This simultaneously alters the understanding of dance held by both audience members and performers. In Chapter 2, “The Body: Divided and Conquered,” George-Graves notes that by resisting, commenting on, and referencing representations of oversexualized women of color, Zollar “redivides and reconquers the black body through dance” in a postcolonial project that “reaffirms African Americans’ sovereignty over their own bodies” (42).

In Chapter 3, “The Word: Black Magic Realism,” the company’s use of linear and circular narratives is revealed to be a crucial aspect of Zollar’s departure from the tenets of postmodern dance. In Chapter 4, “The World: Shelter from the Heat,” George-Graves highlights the company’s engagement with “the lives of women in a violent and misogynistic world, the relationships they foster, their survival strategies, and their strategies for negotiating through systems that devalue them” (105). While these are engaging and thoroughly researched sections, the most significant contributions can be found in the final two chapters of the book. George-Graves marshals previous scholarship on the arts and community engagement to analyze the company’s extraperformance work. Chapter 5, “The Soul: The Spirit Moves,” looks at Zollar’s embrace of the church and transcendence as George-Graves examines the liturgical dance workshop, a dance ministry that engages “those who want to use movement to proclaim their faith” (136). In Chapter 6, “The Community: In Theory and Practice,” her analysis of the company’s projects in Tallahassee, Florida and Flint, Michigan supports her claim that the troupe perfected “a mechanism to do things with bodies that move spectators to reconsider movement, activism in the arts, and the role of dance in projects of social healing, awareness, and change” (35).

There is, however, one level of understanding of the “work” of Urban Bush Women that is not addressed in this text: work as labor, placed within the larger contexts of cultural production. How did Zollar steer the company away from the minefields of “selling” in order to flourish artistically while surviving financially for more than a quarter century? Did conflicts arise among the group’s core values, community goals, and material realities? This line of inquiry would not diminish the aesthetic, spiritual, and political successes of the company; on the contrary, it would augment our knowledge of Zollar as a dynamic impresario. It seems indisputable that the company cultivated organizational strengths that worked in tandem with its philosophy, techniques, and artistic approaches. Including this information would have illuminated the myriad innovations that sustained its long trajectory and allowed the company to persevere amid the arts-funding landscape.

George-Graves carefully showcases the complexity of messages emanating from this female-driven ensemble whose work is often pigeonholed or mischaracterized as radical, as angry, or as “lesbian” theatre (a mislabel George-Graves confronts in an early chapter). She demonstrates how Zollar successfully meshed the basic building blocks of choreography—music, emotions, and rhythm—with movement, genre, collaboration, and content. The result “creates an aesthetic that pushes dance past a cool disinterest and unabashedly into social discourse” (5). In George-Graves’s formulation, community is not an abstract concept for Urban Bush Women, nor is it an afterthought to their performance work; rather, it motivates the very foundations of the company’s ethics and aesthetics. This is a markedly different approach from the outreach initiatives of many companies, for whom community engagement is a means to a financial end. George-Graves deserves extensive praise for adeptly balancing the politically activist and resistive elements of the troupe with its spiritual dimensions, womanist philosophy, and innovative community engagement.

Book Review: Performance and Activism

When all of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers charged in the brutal beating of Rodney King were exonerated with a “not guilty” verdict in April 1992, protests enveloped the city, leaving behind a toll of fifty dead, 2,000 injured, and damages nearing $1 billion (4). In Performance and Activism, Kamran Afary explores the performative aspects of these protests, emphasizing the voices of activists who struggled to transform unrest into social change. As a reporter for a local radio station in Los Angeles during the 1990s, Afary saw firsthand how their calls for justice and revolutionary, democratic social change dissipated behind the mainstream media’s coverage of interethnic violence. Making extensive use of interviews and other archival materials, Afary recovers the “rhetorical arsenals” of these activists to illustrate the methods by which they developed new counter-public spaces and counter-narratives (161).

In his introduction, Afary provides the rationale for his distinctly interdisciplinary methodology, which employs critical race theory, cultural studies, media studies, urban studies, and performance studies. This variety of theoretical lenses adds depth and texture to the frozen, still-life tableaux of the riots that have dominated the narratives of this period in Los Angeles’s history. He reviews literature related to the uprising, as well as theories of postmodernism and the global city, acknowledging prominent sociologists who have taken this sprawling city as their subject (for example, Theodor Adorno, Mike Davis, and Saskia Sassen). Using the lens of performance to examine multiple public spheres, Afary argues that grassroots organizations, such as gang truce collectives and court-watch groups, developed new forms of cultural expression that created what political theorist Nancy Fraser refers to as “subaltern counterpublics,” in contrast to the notion of a single public sphere. In these spaces, Afary explains, people from subaltern groups can “enact their identities and speak in their own voices relatively (but never totally) freely from forces of domination” (28).

His second chapter, “Toward a Historical Political Economy of Los Angeles,” tethers theories of cultural production to political economy, reading the rebellion in terms of both its ideological function in public discourse and its relation to the larger criminal-justice system. It also lends specificity to his profile of the city—particularly its shifting demographics, mass immigration, and economic growth—and lays the foundation for his later shift to the “local” (specifically, the Watts and Compton areas).

After providing his theoretical grounding and sociological framework, Afary focuses on the gang truce movement in chapters 3 and 4. Although it was often misinterpreted by members of the LAPD as threatening, the gang truce movement offered what Afary, following anthropologist Victor Turner, refers to as “healing rituals.” One example was the organization of “gang truce parties,” a new form of urban festivity “comprised of a series of rich improvisatory rituals and ceremonies that symbolized a community’s willingness to deal with rapidly changing political situations” (73). Gang truce negotiations “grew into a multifaceted movement throughout the 1990s, where performances and creative presentations of the self became even more pronounced” (89). These “creative presentations of the self” included the public telling of stories by former gang members, the emergence of new graffiti celebrating the truce, the wearing of clothing that symbolized friendship among gangs, and the playing of music once identified with rival gangs.

Mural by Man One at the Southern California Library. Representing Mothers Reclaiming Our Children is Annette “Auntie” McKinley. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

In chapter 5, Afary focuses on organizations like the LA4+ Committee and Mothers Reclaiming Our Children (orMothers ROC), composed of mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, and their supporters. These women monitored the judicial system in order to “build a movement that would offer their sons a chance for exoneration or a more equitable sentence” (122). Members educated themselves about the legal process, attended court sessions, and mentored friends and relatives of the men on trial. Afary claims that, in their seemingly simple acts of watching trials and collaborating with lawyers, they established a counter-public space, creating “one of the most successful grassroots responses to the injustices of the court system” (122). Women who had “learned to be quiet about their grief in public arenas, such as their place of employment,” had new outlets where they could voice previously private concerns in public (124). [End Page 666]

Chapter 6 uses Anna Deavere Smith’s performance piece Twilight: Los Angeles to address divergent perspectives, including those of Korean Americans, public officials, officers, and the Hollywood elite. Afary’s reading of Smith’s text highlights themes related to inequities of gender, class, and race and the diverse structures of interpretation embedded in her performance. In a fresh reading of the 1999 video version of Twilight: Los Angeles, Afary analyzes the layers of additional meaning that were produced by the technical elements of video production, the alterations Smith made to her text, and the addition of documentary footage that was incorporated into the video.

Afary provides a fascinating model for theatre scholars working at the nexus of urban studies and performance, particularly for those interested in the broader relationship between the city and spaces of performance. Interrupting the media narratives that fed a cycle of fear after the Los Angeles rebellion, Afary focuses on grassroots organizations working for social change, emphasizing the agency of activists and their use of performance to shape their own cultural identities. In doing so, Afary demonstrates the applicability of performance studies to understanding the spaces and rituals of grassroots activism in the twentieth-century urban landscape.