Transforming Through Performing: Oral History, African-American Women’s Voices and the Power of Theater
From: University of Michigan | By: Glenda Dickerson
http://www.fathom.com/feature/122665/index.html EDITOR’S INTRODUCTION | What role does theater play in the larger discourses of politics, gender, race and history? In this interview, writer/director Glenda Dickerson (right), director of the Center for World Performance Studies at the University of Michigan, discusses the power of performance to transform the way we see, understand, think and respond. In Kitchen Prayers, her evolving series of dramatic performances, Dickerson privileges the actual words of women, accumulated from contemporaneous newspapers, magazines, broadcast media and other sources from across the world. This performance dialogue–acted by an entirely African-American female cast–weaves together strands of myth, song, painful reality and uplifting realizations. The result is a unique theatrical experience that draws its power from oral history and gives voice to those who would otherwise remain silent.
Fathom: How do you envision the social responsibility of theater?
Glenda Dickerson: I stopped directing, for the most part, traditional plays a long time ago. I got interested back in the early 1980s in making drama from oral history. I did a project called Eel Catching in Setauket, and it was built on the African-American community in Setauket, Long Island. They had been there since before the American Revolution, an early-nineteenth-century free black settlement. The people at Stony Brook, where I was teaching, did not know anything about this group of people, so I became interested in documenting the community and I made a piece from that. Ever since then, working with oral history had a resonance for me. I saw how it transformed people when they could sit and witness the dignity of their own lives, how transformatory that was for them and for other people in the audience. For me, this began to be the most important work that I could do: to try to capture a different reality than traditional drama.
I think the arts are important and I think the arts have a place; they have a task to perform in bringing about social justice or commenting upon society. Particularly since September 11, a lot of artists have responded very quickly. Usually art takes time to cogitate, to ruminate and reflect, and then it begins to speak on the issue. But I think September 11 brought about a number of immediate responses from the arts community. So I think the arts do play a part always in transforming society, and I think since September 11, the whole way we think about making art has changed.
Fathom:Kitchen Prayers appears to be a tapestry of different types of dramatic elements: spirituals, Greek drama and myth, oral history. How do you weave together strands from history and classical drama to respond to current events?
Dickerson: “Transforming thru Performing, Re/placing Black Womanly Images”–this is the larger project out of which Kitchen Prayers emanates–is premised on a couple of ideas. One is that we want to add the performer’s voice to the scholarly discourse surrounding identity because the question of identity and the intersection of race, class and gender has traditionally been a scholarly discussion. The voice of the artist and the performer, if included at all, is typically brought in as punctuation for stodgy academic proceedings: academics read scholarly papers, and then the artist performs. You do not see the artist sitting down at the table and speaking as an equal. That was one of the thoughts that I had: something magical could happen if you included the performer–not the performing voice, but the performer’s voice–speaking as a scholar.
The other idea I had is that the ordinary woman, whose life is a dissertation, has a lesson to teach us in this scholarly discourse on identity because that woman knows who she is. She does not need academic books to tell her who she is or to validate her life.
Fathom: Implicit in the title Kitchen Prayers is a reference to spirituality. How does spirituality inform your work?
Dickerson: I worked with a wonderful Chinese scholar in performance studies named Haiping Yan. She asked a mutual friend, “Does Glenda believe in God?” Haiping had been raised by radical communists as part of the revolution in China, and while she admires and is moved by Kitchen Prayers, it was confusing to her because I call the actors “saints” and “prayerful performers.” That is very important because I do not want this work to be facile or perfunctory, and I do not want the actors to be approaching a traditional dramatic character where they might construct a background, discover the conflict, and identify the obstacles. We do all of these things to develop the characters, of course, but that is not enough. With this work, I am asking these women to stand in with honor and respect for the real woman. Sometimes that real woman can witness the act and she can say, “Amen,” if it is acceptable.
That is the spiritual part of it, and it is not a Christian spirituality even though we sing, for example, “We are Soldiers in the Army.” We sing those old songs, but we sing them out of tradition, not dogma. We sing them to acknowledge the shoulders we stand on. It is about the honor and respect we pay our ancestors.
Fathom: How do you assemble the voices that you are honoring?
Dickerson: This year, since we were doing Kitchen Prayers as a response to September 11, it took a little different turn.
Ordinarily, I go here and there and I record narratives. My colleague Jacqueline Mattis and I started working on a project called “Speaking Exile.” We went to Tanzania to interview women from other countries such as Rwanda who have come to Tanzania seeking safe harbor. We wanted to talk to them about how they define home and how they passed on their culture to their children when they are not living at home. That was going to be the Kitchen Prayers for this year.
I had collected these narratives and then was going to transcribe them, look at them to see what themes emerge, and make the drama. But then September 11 happened and so we put this on hold. On September 11, I could not locate my daughter in New York until two o’clock. That was just so horrible. After talking about this, a colleague asked me to consider whether there was a way to extend that moment when I could not find my daughter to other women and their children and talk about a sense of global loss?
This idea intrigued me, and so that is how this Kitchen Prayers was born. To find new narratives, we read the papers and listened to NPR and went on the Internet. I started looking for stories of women and their children living under war, famine, all kinds of terror, and we accumulated many tales: that became one section. Another section was called “Patriotism, The Splendid Experiment.” The actors and I talked together about what it means to be patriotic in this time: that became part of the play. Aeschylus became part of the play, as did the story of Niobe. Many years ago, I did a production of The Trojan Women and I set it in Africa. I felt, even back then, that the language of oppression is the same the world over. This is a Greek tale, but it is also an African tale, and it becomes the story of slavery. They are always real, those old Greek myths; they contain all of the elements of modern day suffering and anguish. You can always find one that speaks to the moment.
Fathom: You collect different women’s voices from different cultures, and perform them by an entirely African-American female cast. What does the black woman’s performing voice bring to your project?
Dickerson: We enter the black woman’s voice as a metaphor for all women and for all oppressed people. We do this for a couple of reasons. We do this because we believe that the universal is found in the particular, but it is usually the white particular that stands for universality. So we are saying, quite controversially, that the black woman’s particular experience is particular enough to be as universal as, say, Death of a Salesman. We say that because, in the American place, there is no American history without black history. It does not exist. You have to have black to define white. America has to have an oppressed person, a caste or class to define itself against, better than or liberator of. We are saying, No. We define ourselves and we define America for you through ourselves. It is a controversial stance that I take deliberately.
Fathom: How would you characterize your inclusion of female voices in the typically male-dominated dialogue of war and politics that emerged out of September 11?
Dickerson: When we are talking about war and retribution in this world, on this planet, it is always a male dialogue. When you look at CNN, ABC, NBC, you primarily find men talking, arguing, pontificating. It is their story.
In this context, the woman’s voice is not deemed valuable and is not present, and therefore, a large part of the story gets left untold. In Kitchen Prayers, I try not to worry myself with how many bombs did they drop? How many caves did they look in? Will they ever find Bin Laden? I want to tell this other side of the story, the side of the story that cannot be told because the woman’s voice is left out. And that story is not only the story of suffering and oppression. That is a large part of the story, because while we are focusing on these caves trying to locate Bin Laden, women are being raped and killed in Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone. Women are starving themselves to death in Turkey. All these other stories that are happening just do not come to the surface.
Some have reported that in Pakistan the rape of women has become so common that it has another name: it’s called “lying down”–implying that you just lie down and take it. Another quotation is, “Rape is so common; it is more common than the bite of a mosquito.” Those are the stories that I have to tell no matter what. I want to tell those stories, but I also want to include the voice of women who are working and fighting against these kinds of oppression, because you never hear about them either. This is happening all over the world.
Fathom: Where did you find your own voice as an actress and a writer?
Dickerson: I wrote actually about my coming to voice in an essay called “Wearing Red: How a Rowdy Band of Charismatics Learned to Say NO.” It is about a production of an idea I directed based on the poetry of Alexis DeVeaux. This was in the 1980s in New York. We made this play and we produced it ourselves. I had been making my living as a professional director, but often you wait for the phone to ring, for somebody to call and offer you a job, then you go do it. You get your paycheck and you go home.
But these women at the One World Café in New York, in the Village, they were so independent. They said, we can go look for a theater and just do it ourselves. This notion of directing and producing something ourselves, that was life transforming for me. And in the process of working on this show and producing it ourselves, that was my coming to voice.
This experience taught me that you can do it yourself, but it also taught me that you can say it yourself because I was never satisfied. I started out making plays even as a young woman teaching at Howard University. I was always making things. I was adapting The Trojan Women to an African setting. When I was making plays, I was happiest. When I went to New York, I realized I could make it myself, say it myself, and do it myself. It really changed my life. It was not too long after that when I directed a play on Broadway, only the second African-American woman to do so.
After this, I also realized that I do not need to do this. I went back to teaching. Ever since then, I have been moving toward where I am now: making plays from real people’s lives, interacting with scholars–reading what they write and thinking about what they think. I finally feel like I can answer the question, Does Glenda believe in God? I can answer it with many pages of talk. It is definitely not a Yes, but it is definitely not a No. Everything in between: that is what my life has come to.
"Director, folklorist, adaptor, writer, choreographer, actor, black theatre organizer, and educator Glenda Dickerson was born on this date in 1945.
A native of Houston, Glenda Dickerson was known throughout the American Theater as a consummate promoter of a "womanist" direction in the theater and her work focused on folklore, myths, black legends, and classical works reinterpreted. She worked in venues including the Biltmore Theatre] (Broadway), Circle in the Square (New York City), Lorraine Hansberry Theatre (San Francisco), Ford's Theatre and the Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.). In 1971, she received an Emmy nomination and in 1972 a Peabody Award.
Ms. Dickerson conceived and/or adapted numerous vehicles for the stage from various dramatic and non-dramatic sources, including the "miracle play:" Jesus Christ, Lawd Today; Owen's Song; The Unfinished Song; Rashomn; Torture of Mothers; Jump at the Sun; Aunt Jemima and the Traveling Menstrual Show and Every Step I Take. She conceived and directed Eel Catching in Setauket: A Living Portrait of a Community, an oral history, creative performance project which documented the lives of the African-American Christian Avenue community in Setauket, Long Island.
She performed in her one-woman shows, Saffron Persephone Brown: The Flower-storm of a Brown Woman; Spreading Lies; and in the Trojan Women: A Tale of Devastation for Two Voices. She was author of African American Theater: A Cultural Companion. She also completed a 2-disk DVD, "What's Cookin' in the Kitchen? A Planetary Portrait 9/11/01 - 9/11/04," which documented her "Kitchen Prayers" series. Until 2007, Kitchen Prayers Performance Dialogues on 9/11 and global loss were performed annually under the auspices of The Project for Transforming thru Performing: re/placing Black Womanly Images.
At the University of Michigan she was Head of the African American Theater Minor and served as Director of the Center for World Performance Studies. Before Michigan, she was head of the Department of Drama and Dance at Spelman College and she taught at Rutgers University both, the New Brunswick and Newark campuses. Professor Dickerson also was an Assistant Professor of Directing in the Department of Theater at Howard University and Chair of the Theater Department at The Duke Ellington School of the Arts (formerly, The School of the Arts at Western).
She held the distinction, along with Vinnette Carroll, of being one of the few African-American women to have directed on Broadway and she has directed such actors as Debbie Allen, Lynn Whitfield, Charles Brown, Phillip Michael Thomas, Robert Townsend, Clifton Powell, and many others.
Ms. Glenda Dickerson received the inaugural Shirley Verrett Award in November 2011, which was established to honor the legacy of the late internationally acclaimed opera singer, Shirley Verrett, who was also the James Earl Jones Distinguished University Professor of Voice at the University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. The award celebrates Dickerson's dedication to promoting the success of women of color students and faculty in the creative arts in and for her commitment to diversity as part of the University's mission.
Glenda Dickerson died in Ypsilanti, Michigan, aged 66, on January 12, 2012."
ARCHIVIST and HISTORIAN
Dale Shields is a professor of theatre, director, and actor (Broadway, Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway and Regional).
The 2017 winner of The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award®, 2017 and 2015 Tony® award nominee for the Excellence in Theatre Education Award, and the winner of the 2017 AUDELCO/"VIV" Special Achievement Award. On the web, he is the archivist and historian of Iforcolor.org and Black Theatre/African American Voices [Facebook] (theatre, music, and art). He has taught classes and workshops at Susquehanna University, Denison University, Randolph-Macon College, Macalester College, The College of Wooster, Ohio University, Wayne State University, The University of Akron and the Joseph Papp Public Theatre (NYSF).
B.F.A. and M.F.A. degree from Ohio University.