Speaking poetry as embodied empathy and as social justice.

In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, many of us have been left feeling helpless and hopeless– small and ineffectual against an overwhelming and oppressive system. Living in Seoul and seeing the events in my country unfold across Facebook and Twitter, I have felt especially isolated. To be clear, in no way am I seeking to equate my feelings with the violent and fearful experiences of my Black brothers and sisters or with the grief and rage of the families of these fallen young people; my frustration and anger are in solidarity with them.

After the Zimmerman acquittal, I came across the poem (above) titled “Father” by Matthew Kelty. I knew that I wanted to work on this poem and do a reading of it. Poems are meant to be spoken and heard, not only read silently to ourselves. Like esteemed verse reader Betty Mulcahy believed, enjoying poetry by looking at words is not unlike trying to appreciate music by looking at a score. As a voice and text coach, I teach people to experience words in their entire bodies, to allow full and free breaths in, and to be physically open to the powerful images such words create. Kristin Linklater writes,

“When words are mainly experienced in the head and the mouth they convey cerebral meaning … By indulging sensory, sensual, emotional and physical responses to vowels and consonants – the component parts of words – we begin to resurrect the life of language.”

What does teaching others how to speak poetry have to do with social justice? Having engaged with many people in a myriad of contexts about identity, race, oppression, White privilege, and hegemony, I have come to realize that intellectual debate (a somewhat Western idea in the first place) has its limitations when it comes to making social progress as a community. This is because oppression is, by nature, irrational. Debate, statistics, and logistics all have their valuable place when it comes to dialoguing about things like racism. I am an academic; I love these things. I love catching people in logical fallacies, I love finding a fact that flies in the face of some broad stroke, and I love seeing the impact I’ve had on others through calm and diplomatic reasoning. I just don’t think this is enough. Because I am not just an academic; I am an artist and a performer. Richard Shusterman writes that “rational arguments for multi-cultural tolerance always seem to fail … because the hatred is acquired not by rational means but by the captivating aesthetic power of images” – images from our TV, laptop, phones, movie screens. If this is true, then perhaps we can create movement from the other direction.

I believe the gap that keeps oppressed people silent and privileged people from listening is about empathy. I do not mean this as a platitude. I am talking about real, embodied, feel-it-in-your-bones-and-under-your-skin-and-through-your-breath empathy. David Granger has written a fantastic article about teaching and oppression called Somaesthetics and Racism: Toward an Embodied Pedagogy of Difference (2010), arguing that “…culture, with its complex of symbol systems, ideals, values, beliefs, and customs, has its roots in the lived body” (my emphasis). Therefore, just talking rationally about oppression is not sufficient for progress. We perpetuate unjust systems because of something deeper in us, our breath and chest tightening when we get defensive, our tension in our shoulders deepening when we see a Black male on the street, our jaw clenching when privilege is mentioned.

When we teach people to embody the images that spring up from powerful speeches, poetry or other types of text, we are seeking to breathe the way that speaker breathed, see what they saw, and feel what they felt. This is beyond rationalizing and intellectualizing. It is empathy and understanding in a physical sense, a gut sense, and a heart sense.

Kelty’s poem is well-written and powerful. He clearly uses the length of lines and punctuation to indicate to us how he imagined Trayvon Martin’s father’s breath patterns to be. He gives us long vowels to express his grief and sharp plosive sounds to convey scathing anger and energy. I have never known what it feels like to lose my own child or to have a Black body in a dominant White culture. But speaking this poem and honoring its soundscape and rhythms opens my body towards a greater capacity for connecting to Trayvon’s father’s pain. His stark images, his rage and grief, and his building breathlessness all create a physical experience in my body as I speak Kelty’s words. Therefore, I am able to feel a greater connectivity to others who have suffered from similar injustices and to my own pain for being a woman of color who has experienced oppression as well.

I am grateful and inspired by movements such as #BlackPoetsSpeakOut and I am honored they gave me their blessing to tag this piece.  There is a reason this movement started and that millions are physically gathering together in the US to show solidarity. It is because being with other bodies and allowing our voices to be a live, resonant chorus moves us in powerful ways.Black lives matter. Greatly. Until more of us get beyond only intellectualizing that and truly feel a sense of shared humanity in our bones and our breath, I fear we will continue to struggle.

“Someone complimented me on my English last summer. This was my response.”

This is a new performance piece I wrote for the VASTA Cabaret in London this summer at my alma mater, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. I workshopped it at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, which I am quite proud to say that I am now summer faculty there, teaching Voice and Speech.

This piece has lived in me for over a year now, as the actual incident that opens the performance happened during the summer of 2013 in Brooklyn. I felt like it was important to highlight the idea that oppression does not come in only explicit, hateful forms but from the educated and millennial peers that I hang out and work with in my progressive circles.

When microaggressions happen, I don’t always want to confront the person and give them some diatribe about social justice; sometimes, I just want to drink my fucking cocktail. Storytelling and performance allow me to express all the things I think and feel in that moment when I was made to feel small. And hopefully, I can share it with more people this way and they will be more open to seeing their own complicity in these structures because performance leads to a type of distanced perspective that gives us more space to reflect.

A number of people have asked me what my process is for creating this type of work. For this piece in particular, I allowed it to sit in me for many months, not putting anything on paper. A month or so before Perry-Mansfield, I made a basic Mind Map of major milestones that I wanted to cover. Then I began to look up songs and lyrics to see how I could weave them into my stories.

After over a year of blogging about voice and identity and culture and social justice and theatre, it is wonderful to create something that is exactly the thing I’d find online and want to post about anyway. I’m grateful to my Hofstra, Seoul, Perry-Mansfield, and VASTA families for all their support through this process.

Black vocal cadence: when our tone can mean life or death

The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis (do I need to say there have been many more?) has prompted some important discussion about the way we view these young men in public spaces and how we interpret the way they speak. John McWhorter recently examined the Black male vocal cadence in an article at The Root, in a piece titled, “Do White Folks Fear Violence When Black Folks Are Just Being Blunt?”

He writes,

“Yet in an honest, and perhaps more productive, discussion of this topic, we have to allow something uncomfortable— the possibility that language plays a part in the stereotype. To whites, I highly suspect that often, black boys and men have a way of sounding violent.”

And I would add to this: the stereotypes of Black women being thought of as confrontational, aggressive, loud, and angry. I experienced this directly during my undergraduate degree on Long Island. I was on a Peer Counselor team for a few of the summers. PCs were in charge of the incoming students during their 3-day overnight orientation for the school. It was the first time I was ever put on a staff that was roughly half Black and half White. The first year I did the job, it didn’t take very long for racial tensions to begin. The White women were complaining that the Black team members were too loud and aggressive during the staff meetings and they found it intimidating. The Black women responded with frustration and resistance as they were “just talking how they normally do and didn’t mean anything personal by it.” But others were interpreting it differently and taking offense. Despite the tensions, the upper management did a fairly decent job forcing us to talk this out openly and come to level of understanding that allowed us to work together and forge friendship with each other for the rest of the summer. But that experience taught me a valuable lesson about tone, communication signals, and assumption.

McWhorter writes,

“However, if outsiders hearing it don’t get the joke and wonder whether black people, especially boys, are feisty souls, then the problem is less racism than an intercultural misinterpretation.”

As someone who teaches accents, dialects, and EFL pronunciation, I try to engage my students and clients with this idea of intercultural misinterpretation. I talk about the prejudice of our listening and try to make explicit how our communication is heavy with cultural signals. To an American, Mandarin speakers can sound angry, British people sound posh, Eastern European speakers can sound serious. We make judgements based on people’s vocal tone all the time. I liken our use of language and tone as a type of computer program or a genre of music. When another person hits the notes or code in a different way, we misinterpret the emotional state, personality and/or intentions of the listener. If you add in a healthy dose of privilege, hegemony, and Standard Language Ideology, now you have a sense that an interpretation of how someone speaks is right or wrong, correct or incorrect, appropriate or inappropriate. Suddenly there is an authority, whether it is the justice system, teachers, businesses, or the media.

But perhaps more importantly, we need to share and teach this idea to those from a dominant White culture, so they can critically reflect a bit more about language, tone, and identity instead of interpreting things through their own privileged experience and lens.

When we work with the voices of actors of color or those from a pluralistic background, we must bear all of this in mind as educators. Hegemony and the privilege of our own interpretation do not stop at the door of our classrooms and rehearsal studios. And in trying to find our students’ “true” voices, we must acknowledge that this navigation may be complicated given the socio-political dynamics between classmates and faculty. And we must acknowledge that we may not always like what their “true” voice sounds like and are potentially prone to misinterpret it culturally.

Lastly, sometimes People of Color ARE actually angry. And that is totally okay too. Considering the severe inequity in our country, there is a lot to be upset about. McWhorter points out that “for a people whose history has been so confrontational, maybe it isn’t surprising that their speech reflects it.”

Our consistent diversity gap amongst the “liberal Hollywood elite”

Lee & Low

This infographic has gotten some great traffic and I thought I’d also share given the timeliness of the ceremony tonight.

This is about reminding the performing arts and entertainment community that we cannot just pat ourselves on the back for creating beautiful work. We need to be more inclusive of telling everyone’s stories and using a beautiful and diverse range of people to help tell them.

We still have much further to go on this.

 

“Isn’t it sad that I can’t use my real voice with White people?”

Someone asked me recently what strategies I propose or support in encouraging effective and progressive engagement about race and identity. One such way I often respond with is different types of comedy and performance. Some of the most interesting cultural criticism and reflection can come from comedians, particularly comedians of color or from pluralistic backgrounds like Aziz Ansari, W. Kamau Bell, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Hannibal Buress, etc (although it should never be a PoC’s responsibility to discuss or educate others about these issues and people like Louis CK are doing a great job talking about Whiteness).

Aamer Rahman is a stand-up comic of Bangladeshi descent who spent much of his life in Australia and a lot of his material deals with identity, race, and White privilege. I first heard of him through this brilliant bit debunking the myth of reverse racism, which is I think still one of the most concise ways of commenting on this idea thus far.

Rahman has another bit from his show, Fear of a Brown Planet, where he talks about what workshops he wants to create for White people. As a voice teacher, this part struck a particular chord.

You know, we actually have speak differently, to White women? If I’m in a bank or any kinda of job interview, any kind of professional setting, I have speak differently, to a White woman, just so she doesn’t get scared. I have to smile more, I have to appear less threatening. I don’t pull out a knife or a gun, suddenly I actually have to make my voice higher, this is not even my real voice, this is my White voice. Isn’t that sad I can’t use my real voice with White people?

I think a lot of PoCs have a “White people voice.” It can vary depending on our background. Women in general can often change their resonance or pitch to be taken more seriously by men as well. My “White people voice” is actually louder and more forceful and masculine to convince White people that I’m not a passive, subservient geisha-type of Asian person. I believe that as a result, accessing a more vulnerable-sounding head, face, and mouth resonance has been most challenging for me in my personal voicework journey and that I tend to push or create unnecessary tension in my throat.

Rahman’s point here is important as many voice teachers in the US/UK/Australia, etc still are nice White ladies. And acting students of color are often trying to assimilate and code-switch in order to successfully navigate the socio-cultural constructs that still continue to play out in our education systems. Given the goals of many voice teachers to free the voice and make it a reflection of who a person truly is, I would say that we must be aware of the power relationship our own identities create and how they impact our students, no matter how caring and well-meaning we may be. And this is not to say, of course, that ALL PoCs have a “White people voice” or that people from White, monocultural backgrounds don’t have socially induced vocal hang-ups. But I think what Rahman’s talking about is a very real phenomenon and we should be dialoguing and reflecting about it more.

Can Shakespeare be ‘timeless’ and hegemonic at the same time? …Let’s hope not?

I was fight coach for Julius Caesar and my BFF was Cassius. aaamaaazinggggg.

I was fight coach for Julius Caesar and my BFF was Cassius. aaamaaazinggggg.

In her recent article in The Guardian, ‘Did Shakespeare sell women short?’ Vanessa Thorpe examines the limitations of Shakespeare’s female characters and namely the RSC’s recent response to this concern. The RSC has announced that they will be producing three Jacobean dramas that feature major female roles. Brigid Larmour, has this to say:

“The impact of Shakespeare is still inspiring, of course, but it can also be limiting,” she said. “There are huge characters, such as Cleopatra or Beatrice, that we reference all the time in the rehearsal room. But the problem is that we have kept the same gender balance in today’s theatre because of the success and genius of his plays. It created a blueprint that means playwrights do not notice when they have written something for nine men and one woman.”

My emphasis. I can’t be sure how intentional, but it was great to see women’s opinions sought after for this piece (albeit they all appear to be White women, but I guess the scope of this article was made pretty clear). There is also some comprehensive summaries of some of Shakespeare’s ladies actual line counts vs. their male counterparts. And how did I not know that only Cleapatra had what is closest to an actual soliloquy!?!?! Jesus. I’m glad the article mentions Volumnia, Lady Macbeth, and Gertrude – all powerful women in their own right, but at the end of the day, how many of the Bard’s plays pass the Bechdal Test? Two sources, here and here, say that things look pretty grim. Orlando, the writer of that second examination of my link, has this to add:

The great strength of what Shakespeare does for women lies less in their number than in their complexity. At first glance they seem easily classifiable as ingénue, matron, villainess and so on, but always reveal themselves as much more when examined closely. In addition, one of the scenarios he returns to most often is of women supporting each other, even in the ranks of death, which belongs to that quirky category of things that happen all the time in life, but hardly ever in the movies.

Ok, I’d agree with that, and maybe even one could say that Shakespeare was one of the original, Western, writers to employ a sense of “Trojan Horse Television,” where “using characters and ideas with whom audiences think they’re familiar to lure viewers in, and then taking them to entirely unpredictable places.”

But so what? Why should we be applying modern social criticism to a White, male writer who died 397 years ago? Because a lot of people teaching Shakespeare’s text to both literature students and actors (and also our theatre industry but don’t get me started) tend to perpetuate that Shakespeare is a voice for timelessness and the scope of human nature.  Shakespeare Scholar Sarah Werner cautions:

This emphasis on individuals and common humanity distances the actor from any type political action or sense of history, and naturalizes the social order found in Shakespeare…

I would clarify here and say it has the potential to do that. And that it’s been done a lot. I’ve been co-teaching a Shakespeare text workshop over the past few weeks in Seoul to participants who have mostly had limited experience with the performance of his writing. In my enthusiasm to make his words less academic, more egalitarian, more accessible – I have found myself tempted to go into universalist overtures. The well-intentioned platitudes like “Shakespeare is for everyone!” “His stories and characters are timeless!” and “they speak for us all” allow us to efface Shakespeare’s identity locations of being White, male, and English and decontextualizes the society he lived in, which was patriarchal and colonialist. Thorpe writes in her Guardian piece,

In Shakespeare’s time, gender politics was a perilous subject, with Elizabeth I’s power waning at the end of her reign. Women were forbidden to appear on stage and this may well have dampened Shakespeare’s enthusiasm for female roles. Larmour suggests that had this dramatic genius been born later, British theatre would be different now. “If Shakespeare had been writing during the freer Restoration era, we would have far more women’s parts.”

Of course, the fact that women weren’t even allowed to play his characters onstage during his lifetime is going to have an impact on his writing. How could it not? I remember seeing Much Ado about nothing for the first time, and watching Hero choose to ultimately marry Claudio after all the humiliating bullshit he puts her through. I was filled with rage. Rage and disgust. Shakespeare was not speaking for ME in that moment. And of course, one could say that the theatre was staging this play or that we have our students play these parts in order to raise concern, discussion, debate, reaction. But that justification isn’t exactly going well for The Ordway in Minneapolis, who is referencing those very same things in defense of their upcoming production of the very racist musical, Miss Saigon.

Things are starting to become tangential (but important tangents nonetheless) so I will move forward. What are the implications, then, for our students?

‘What postcolonial actors need to develop is a theory and practice of actorly agency – a way of achieving interpretive and performative autonomy – by means of, within, through,and finally, outside of, clearly separate(d) from the will to power represented by the Shakespearean text’

– Denis Salter, ‘Acting Shakespeare in Postcolonial Space’

Shockingly, I keep returning to the idea of context and the rejection of lazy binaries that Shakespeare is either universal or an ignorant misogynist. I like to think that all of our voice, text, acting work is an invitation. We invite and the students have every right to engage or not. And as teachers, we hope to empower them through their choice of engagement. We are also responsible for finding other texts that offer us more diverse and powerful woman characters. That, and playing with more cross-gender casting, in both productions and class scene work. Let’s honor the shifting of gender identity locations and how they can shift in both Shakespeare’s work and in the literal bodies of our students.

“You give voice to your grief”

This week I am in Cape Cod, MA exploring voice and movement through Archetypal Journeys with Janet B. Rodgers (formally of VCU) and Frankie Armstrong.

We started with the Archetype of the “Spiritual and Temporal Leader” (think of Mandela, Gandhi, Dalai Lama) and this part always resonates with me.

Now you round the corner, and for the first time in such a long time you see the habitation. You see the destruction that has happened. Many buildings have been destroyed. Many people walk thin and hungry. You give voice to your grief as you lament for the people and your community.

Especially given the devastating Zimmerman verdict yesterday, I always feel like I have so many communities to grieve for. And I am hyper-aware of how I am publicly perceived in that I am not allowed to appear as angry, hurt, or frustrated as I really am.

So yesterday, I had permission to grieve. And I grieved. I grieved through the Archetype and its narrative journey. I made sounds that are not acceptable or appropriate for a young woman of color in a Western society. I grieved for Trayvon’s family, I grieved for young black men in America, I grieved for my birthmother, I grieved for all 200,000 adoptees whose lives were manipulated from the moment of their birth.

The Archetypal mantra for the Spiritual and Temporal Leader is:

I have the right to be here./ And I have nothing to prove./ I am who I am.

I will keep saying this and believing it. Some days I’ll believe it more than others. I hope you are saying it too.

“But Britain was not a multicultural country in 1920.”

Full disclosure: I do not watch Downtown Abbey. But I feel that this should still be discussed. If you feel like the show itself might nuance my argument, I would love to hear from you.

Downtown Abbey has announced (through a press release) that it has added its first Black British cast member, Gary Carr. In an interview with the NY Times, one of the show’s executive producers, Gareth Neame, said,

A few people have said, ‘Why isn’t there more diversity? … And the argument would be, we would depict it if were true and accurate. It’s a bit like saying, ‘I don’t approve of the class system, at all, that existed on the show.’ It did exist, and we should depict it in the way that existed. It doesn’t mean I approve of it. But Britain was not a multicultural country in 1920.

My emphasis. As an American, I know very little about Black British history (although I would posit that a lot of Brits don’t know much about it either) but last year my brief encounter with Black British theatre historian, Leon Robinson, was enough to warrant some serious concern over what I believe was a seriously effacing statement by Mr. Neame. Neame did not say that Yorkshire Estates were not multicultural, he said that Britain was not multicultural in 1920. Thanks to Robinson, I had already learned about the contributions of artists like Ira Aldridge (who was actually American) and Les Ballet Negre, but I thought of Aldridge as more of an outlier example and Les Ballet Negre didn’t really begin until the 1930s. This didn’t seem like it would be enough to consider the country “multicultural.”
So I started to dig a bit and quickly found some diasporic patterns of both Black and Asian communities and their influential presence in the UK during the time period which Downtown Abbey is set. In her article for “History Today,” Barbara Bush writes,

But during the First World War the influx of coloured colonial seamen, munitions workers and others substantially increased the numbers of the British ‘coloured’ population. In the aftermath of the war, British white liberals – the section of the community with a broad sympathy towards the problems of blacks which stretched back in the liberal, humanitarian tradition to the abolitionists – were confronted for the first time with a sizeable domestic ‘race problem’. From this time an embryonic form of the modern concept of race relations began to emerge.

She goes on to detail legislation that the UK government drafted and eventually passed as a response to such riots in 1920 and 1925. I don’t know exactly what Neame’s definition of multiculturalism is, but I think once your government starts making legislative responses to race relations in your country, we’re pretty much there. You might be tempted to clarify on behalf of Neame that of course he meant that Yorkshire country estates were not multicultural in 1920. But he didn’t. And in one, sweeping, justifying excuse of a statement, he effaced centuries of pluralistic communities in the UK, despite the fact that the UK government hired its first Black British employee in 1786, that interracial marriage was happening about that time as well, and that Black and White communities were actually coming together in poverty in the 1800s.

It might seem that I’m banging on about a small thing that Mr. Neame somewhat carelessly (at least I hope) said. By discussing his comment in more length, I am hoping to raise awareness for a number of points:

  1.  Mr. Neame and those in his industry continue to be incredibly influential in our artistic communities and entertainment industries and have enormous power when it comes to crafting and depicting narratives. Their choice on what to focus, highlight, efface, or ignore has a profound impact on society at large – which includes young people who may or may not choose to pursue acting and teachers who are teaching in conservatoires.
  2. Whoever was interviewing Neame should have either called him on his overarching statement or later fact-checked and posed a critical response in the article as a reflection. That’s just good journalism. I fear that most readers, especially Americans who know very little about British history, would not question his quote.
  3. I’m concerned with show creator’s Julian Fellow’s statement that he wants to introduce actors of color in a way that is “historically believable,” particularly in light of the scrutiny that the writing on the show is full of linguistic anachronisms. Plenty of people are still watching the show, despite this criticism.

I look forward to the day where producers are not issuing press releases for their first new, ‘vibrant’ Black Character. Audiences can handle it. And if they don’t know that there were non-White people in the UK before 1920, don’t cater to, confirm, or encourage their ignorance.

“There is not a single role in any one of my plays that must be played by a physically intact white person.”

I know this is the longest blog title ever, but I don’t care because it is awesome. It is taken from a casting note by American playwright Chuck Mee. The full note is here:

In my plays, as in life itself, the female romantic lead can be played by a woman in a wheelchair. The male romantic lead can be played by an Indian man. And that is not the subject of the play. There is not a single role in any one of my plays that must be played by a physically intact white person. And directors should go very far out of their way to avoid creating the bizarre, artificial world of all intact white people, a world that no longer exists where I live, in casting my plays.

My emphasis. I really like the mention that simply casting someone outside of dominant culture does not necessarily need to make some sort or directorial or dramaturgical statement. Audiences are far more intelligent than the theatre industry gives them credit for.

Mee’s note opened a recent Jezebel article about antiquated but still very prominent casting issues for actors of color. Writer Laura Beck cites some of the more recent examples at large venues such as La Jolla Playhouse and The Royal Shakespeare Company. I’ve talked about these incidences ad nauseam with my colleagues and friends so I won’t detail them here but please, please follow the link and read about them if you haven’t already. Most theatres state that they have a color blind casting policy. However, as Beck argues, it’s not really color blind casting if you are willing to cast White people in plays about Asian people, but are not just as willing to cast Asians in roles that are presumed for White people.

I really love this part, where she calls out the casting teams on their privilege and their relationship to universality and dominant culture.

The white men casting these three shows have never had to place themselves in other people’s shoes. Because most stories are catered to them, it’s possible they never had to develop the same imaginative flexibility the rest of us are continually practicing. You might assume that when an Asian man or woman walks in to audition for the lead, the casting people think “other”. They could wonder, “How will the audience access this story since they’re not a Chinese woman?” But in reality, many of us have been doing that our entire lives. It’s possible that this might come into play in casting, with the end result almost always being: You want it to be universal, you gotta cast white.

I’m more focused on pedagogical research than I am on the industry itself, but I will continue to highlight these articles because I feel the need to remind all of us who work in or are preparing students for this industry that we are kidding ourselves if we think that simply because we are artistic, creative, and progressive, that we are not affected by dominant culture and are not capable of disempowering others through our choices.