Discourse

Theatre professor intent on destroying art in the name of 'antiracist' pedagogy

Less important than creating art, or graduating students who can work in their fields, is to make them into antiracist activists in their personal lives, academic lives, and in their art.
Libby Emmons
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY
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A group of arts professors got together on a Zoom call to talk at Texas A&M in a discussion called "Race Talks: Antiracist Pedagogy Panel," and it turns out that these arts professors care far less about art than they do about about making sure that white students feel uncomfortable as the profs use their courses to indoctrinate students in antiracism.

Less important than creating art, than learning about art, or than graduating students who can work professionally in their fields, is to make them into activists in their personal lives, academic lives, and in their art, both in practice and in product.

Theatre prof. Narda E. Alcorn, Stage Management Chair at Yale School of Drama, spoke on the panel about her practice and pedagogy. If you don't know what a stage manager does, this position is effectively the manager of the show during rehearsal and performance. The stage manager makes sure the rules are being followed so that actors get breaks when they are meant to, makes sure all the tech elements are happening the way they are supposed to, and keeps the master notes for the show.

Stage management was not always an academic discipline, but was something a person learned first as an assistant or apprentice, before climbing the ranks to becoming a stage manager. Stage managers are union employees and are covered under the Actors Equity Association.

Alcorn talked about what it's like to teach future managers of the theatre at the nation's top dramatic school. And yes, Yale, along with a handful of others including NYU, and Columbia University, are the top drama programs in the country. They even have price tags to match.

For Alcorn, who chairs a discipline within the theatre department, the primary goal in teaching white students is to make them uncomfortable.

"The discomfort can absolutely be dangerous to some of us, life danger to some of us," Alcorn said, discussing how hard it is as a professor to take her life in her hands by teaching white students to be uncomfortable in their own skin.

"I would say this is just the wording used, but I very much—it's certainly not on our BIPOC faculty, in my opinion, to be responsible for the comfort or discomfort of any of my white colleagues." The one white guy on the call nodded vociferously. "So that's, I just want to be clear, that we're not responsible," she continued.

"And in fact, I actually believe it is my white colleagues who actually have this work to do," she said. "Specifically in regards to, of course, being comfortable with being uncomfortable and examining their own whiteness, and of course what that means given their, the space that is taken up in the classroom in America as we do this work."

The white guy really made sure to nod hard so everyone knew he understood, that he knew that it was he, and not the people on the Zoom call he was moderating, who needed to "do the work." He nodded throughout.

"I so want to, I just want to amplify, Allan," she said to the visual arts prof, "what you said, that's a so critical question, if we're not antiracist teachers what kind of teachers are we? I think we are racist teachers, if we are not intentionally antiracist. And I so appreciate that question."

In this, she has embraced Ibram X. Kendi's supposition that there are two kinds of people, those who are racist and those who are antiracist, and that if someone is not making their life an activist enterprise in antiracist ideology and practice then they are by definition racist. This way of thinking creates a binary. Apparently, gender and sex are both a spectrum, but feelings of othering, difference, and the other components of racism, are a binary. There can be only two modes: racist and antiracist.

"In regards to this work needs to be in all of the classrooms, it needs to be everywhere, and so not just in my classroom am I going to deliver antiracist pedagogy but I need for my faculty to be on board, and I need for my white faculty to y'know to make a conscious commitment to antiracism. I have found, I have found the discomfort and the fragility to be great."

To that end, Yale has created a new theatre course "Towards antiracist theatre practice." Alcorn says that "there will come at time at the Yale School of Drama where it was always there… this course will always be a part of the school."

"I have students specifically now, because I think there is the feeling in my lovely little small world of the theatre where folks who are white who are feeling displaced, they are going to, they've 'been doing this forever,' but y'know, somebody who's BIPOC is gonna just get the job simply because they're BIPOC," Alcorn said.

It is essential to note that many of the opportunities now available in theatre are specifically and intentionally not for white theatre artists. A quick scroll through a recent list of granting  opportunities that theatre artists can apply to shows a "program designs to nurture a Black playwright" for a playwright in residency program; a mentoring program with a major television studio for "emerging diverse writers;" another television writing opportunity for which "writers of diverse backgrounds" are "encouraged" to apply.

When race is not specifically mentioned, application requirements include that the work being submitted is political in nature, such as the fellowship for "a writer working on a project designed to bring awareness to a contemporary issue having to do with peace, social justice, education, or the environment." Those are four out of the first six listed opportunities in an email of opportunities for writers. It is indicative of how things have been in theatre for over a decade.

"The narrative is horrible in how we talk about hiring in this country because we have never named whiteness as a factor and whiteness has always been a factor," Alcorn said. "And yet we always name other ethnicities as a factor, and that again, it just, it's such a charged issue. And I have amongst some of my white students a lot of anti-blackness. And a lot of students who are openly hostile in the classroom."

"And I have needed to use my white allies and my white faculty to honestly, to talk to those students, because those students are not going to listen to me. And that's okay, the point is to get through to the students, I always want to center the student. And that's been invaluable, to have white colleagues step up and say 'I will actually do that, let me do that for you,'" she said.

"The work of antiracism is ongoing, it is of value it should be integrated into everything. For some of us, this is our personal liberation. This is not just something that we can put aside. So to have a colleague who is willing to intervene, especially a white colleague, can be quite meaningful," she said.

The white guy asked some more questions, like: is it the job of people of color to fix white racism, "could you possibly elaborate for us on the role of allyship... what do you see as the role of whites in antiracist pedagogy," and finally a question from a white prof who had tuned into the Zoom call to ask how they could instruct their entirely white class in antiracism while acknowledging their whiteness and white privilege.

The BIPOC profs took issue with the questions themselves as being racist and showing clearly that the asker had not done the work. One of the profs said that these questions show that the white person who is asking "is encountering some kind of incipient consciousness… a feeling of horrible shame and guilt."

This same prof said that "the question presumes a kind of redemption, almost like people of color can offer to white people that is an impossible ask, y'know like it's not really about that particular black or brown person or red person or Asian person affirming that you're a good white person, y'know. Like it has to go sort of beyond that need to have some kind of speech act liberate or confirm the goodness of the white person."

Alcorn went back to the need to be "decentering whiteness from some of the antiracist work." And she spoke about "white supremacy characteristics," and what that means in her role teaching stage management.

"I teach managers in the theater, and so, management, supervisors, they carry a lot of the tenets of, the sense of urgency and individualism and the perfectionism, and all of these white supremacy tenets, which show up in every, every hue of body, which show up in all folks, and I think it's important as we center antiracism and decenter whiteness to realize that especially for those of us socialized here in the States, our interpersonal relationships, how we are in relationships with each other is problematic and can be changed honestly by intentionality and awareness.

"And so awareness of perfectionism, awareness of what is the sense of urgency doing to us, awareness of what is this binary thinking, y'know. So there are ways to, I think, do the work that can help to again go beyond the black white binary that we often find ourselves in, and I think that is extremely important," she said.

A circumstance that she felt needs correcting is that "white people don't regularly speak about race unless they're forced to. And I think that in the academy we can scale that up, we can actually teach students, teach our fellow colleagues, to talk about race regularly. And I think that would go a long way to start promoting a fluency and to honestly to raise our tolerance of discomfort as again as we try to promote equity in all of our spaces."

For Alcorn, the most important thing in theatre is promoting antiracism, even to the detriment of the show. When asked "Does antiracist education take away from rehearsal time," she smiled knowingly, before responding that yes, it does, and it should.

"I think, I think, yes, but again, if this is an antiracist production, we're actually, we're centering the people. We're actually decentering the production, or meeting a particular timeline, or even opening the show," Alcorn said.

A stage manager's job is to keep the show on schedule.

"Because the focus is now having a company of individuals who can authentically, ideally be in an amazing relationship with each other and tell this wonderful story in a area where harm is able to be addressed and they can be their own authentic selves. So sometimes that does mean you have to stop and talk it out or to try a different way, and therefore adjust the timelines," she said.

"Again it's interesting how the question is framed, and we are so, we are literally right in the middle of these discussions at the Yale School of Drama, it's not about taking away," Alcorn said, while the others nodded their assent. "And that's why I think it's so important, again we live in a scarcity model in the States, and it's detrimental. It's abundance! We are actually bringing more abundance to the project because we're actually able to stop and have these conversations."

"It means a shifting of priorities," she went on, "because what becomes so specifically, let's say we get to a point where, the technical rehearsals, we don't have time to finish. And so maybe the last 30 minutes of the play has to be performed with music stands and lights. And that's okay, because we have prioritized something different, and the relationships of the people involved. That's how radical, it's pretty radical, that's how radical we're thinking now."

The academization, activistization, and politicization of art is anathema to creation, creativity, and collaboration. These narcissistic tendencies to, at every turn, center one’s identity group as the primary driver of discourse and curiosity leads to bad art. And it turns out that the profs at America’s top schools are perfectly okay with that. In fact, it’s what they want. Don’t go to school for art. Learn it on your own. Make it yourself.

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