Updated: Mar 28, 2020
When we think about trauma we often think about it in its physical term. Particularly when we think about the trauma of black and brown bodies. We think about it in its relationship to gun violence, The Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter, slavery and police brutality, But what about its relationship to Art and Art’s Education? Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, a black American actress and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, talks about her experience auditioning for, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange, “The exploration and/or discovery of a pluralistic and inclusive methodology. This imposition renders the non-white student/ artist deficient and underserved by the very training that is supposed to equip and prepare them for not only a highly competitive industry …but, one might argue, more importantly the ability to be fully grounded in the sense of self-identity and self-knowledge.” (Black Acting Methods, pg. 107) Even though Wates spent countless hours and years studying the theatre pedagogy canon, most of all were men and all were white, she was not prepared to play herself a black woman and was lost within a pedagogy that never saw her or valued her individuality in the context of race, ethnicity and gender. Theatre practices that are not inclusive of black and brown identities are pedagogies that perpetuate trauma. That is why I want to create and workshop a theatre method called S.O.F.T (Soul Operation for Theatre) that uses cultural awareness as a tool when crafting, establishes a direct path to lost identity, dismantles and decenters patriarchal rule over Arts Education, but most importantly addresses and works through trauma on a physical and mental level allowing POC students & artists to work from a open and vulnerable place.
Driven by Emotion: Black Drama is often times not driven by a particular plot, although not absent of plot. European structure values time and event in order to achieve a climax. Behavior in European structure is concerned and connected to the reality established while Black Drama is concerned with a form and driven by emotion. Carlton Molette states in his writing about ritual drama and black theatre, “Euro-American assumption that all behavior is either rationally motivated (resulting in good behavior) or emotionally motivated (resulting in base behavior). The Afro- American aesthetic places a very high value upon emotionally motivated or spiritually motivated behavior.” (“Ritual Drama in The Contemporary Black Theatre” pg. 26) By the very description of emotion as “base” you can see where an actor is forced to stop/kill their emotional impulses. In black culture emotions are so closely related to Spirit which is why often times the word Soul is used to describe the black aesthetic. These things considered, you can see where one can actually sale their soul for the approval or to fit into the Euro-American theatre aesthetic. How is Soft more inclusive? The soul, emotion or energetic release is not concerned with the rational ideals of intellect which encompasses race and ethnicity but is rather driven by an individual’s impulses. It transcends race which is why often times black art is spiritual in nature.
Kinetically Unbound: When we think about the images created or associated with freedom we often think about motion in space- birds flying, horses running, flags waving. we think about things in relationship to air or the unseen, Soul/ Spirit. The black aesthetic/ritual is often concern with this particular form and therefore it is necessary that pedagogy supports actors looking to train in said aesthetic. The movement practices we (institutionalized training actors) learn are particular and rational according to behavior. Movement from the center and torso are often imperative to achieving in Euro-American theatre pedagogy. Afro-American ritual drama is the use of the extremities of the body as to the use of the torso. The ideal of grace in European dance movement generally places a very high aesthetic value upon certain specific kinds of movement of arms and legs: five specific movements and, no more, are permitted.” (“Ritual Drama in The Contemporary Black Theatre”, pg. 27) The biggest difference between the trainings is the fact that black movement is not specific for the sake of being rational but expressive of emotion. The walls that POC and other marginalized individuals build to maneuver throughout the world, largely because of trauma, is very much different than the perspective from the cis gendered white men who continue to dominate theatre education. They are constantly asked to drop those layers and be vulnerable by individuals who do not understand the complexities of their identity. Memory is stored on a cellular level so these physical extremities will put the actor in a vulnerable state necessary for training without having to use emotional recall. The extremities are big enough to hold any expression.
Character work through repetition : The use of repetition is often associated with memory because in Euro-American styles of theatre it is purely done verbally but within Black drama it is done with a whole embodiment of the work, a physicality that when repeated impulsively allows the actor to enter a semiconscious state often associated with soul possession (owning or controlling something). You see this style of transcendence from repetition in a lot of other black art forms, music (Hymns/Negro Spirituals, dance (Alvin Ailey), and visual art (Carrie Mae Weems). Dr. Katrina Hazzard-Donald, a dance researcher and professor of sociology at Rutgers explains how repetition to spirit possession can change your physical characteristics and the way you move throughout the imaginary world, “During the journey through possession, the devotee loses full consciousness and slips into a semiconscious state in which the physical appearance is transformed, the individual becomes the temporary vessel for spiritual entity, sometimes the possessed both experiences and demonstrates fantastic effects of personality, physical strength, endurance and pain tolerance.” Now, obviously in an educational setting we are not imposing religious or spiritual beliefs but I propose the practice as a cultural one verses a spiritual one similar to that of Yoga and Suzuki. Euro-American Theatre founding fathers have often been fascinated with Asian cultural and spiritual art forms but have rejected the essence of blackness. By not having access to this style of training you are killing the expression of the many theatre practitioner.
Individuality valued: “As with a soloist in a jazz quartet, quintet, or band, individuality is promoted in the order to sustain and increase the creative tension with the group- a tension that yields higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project.” (“SoulWork”, pg. 2) one of the biggest things that I am seeing in Euro-American approach to ensemble work is this idea of erasing one’s identity and assuming a position of neutrality. This position of neutrality is also at the core of colorblind casting. Black ritual/ drama understands the role of the individual even within a group. Title is given based on individual’s talents but talents are not hierarchal. Simple acknowledgement of race, ethnicity, and gender starts the process of creating an intentional rehearsal space that is not only about putting up a play or training but rather opening dialogue about identity and the politics that comes with said identity. Without acknowledgement of an individual in their wholeness you erase their presence and the significance of the space they hold.
One aspect of training within a Euro-American institution is this idea of having to be performance ready. This idea is actually not useful for an actor but more importantly a training actor because it creates a space unsafe for making mistake. SOFT is saying the stage is a communal space or sanctuary and within this space you are allowed, better yet encouraged to try new things. SOFT creates a space is grace to evolve. This is not only a more ethical way to develop as an artist but it births innovative ideas. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates talks about this idea of “Sankofa” within ritual drama stating, “A primary and guiding principle in our creative process is the west African word Sankofa. Literally it means to go back and fetch it. Concisely, if a man goes on a journey and he gets down the road only to discover he has forgotten something- Sankofa, go back and fetch it. There is no shame and forgetting” This idea of Sankofa within training is important because it extends past the rehearsal space and the immediacy of the text and movement itself but also going back and fetching what you lost within a cultural reference. If you do not know the roots of your trauma, family or how your race or ethnic group contributed to art it is easy to feel misunderstood and become hard. -Kezia Waters