Last weekend, I saw the Yale Dramatic Association’s production of “We are Proud to Present,” written by Jackie Sibblies Drury and directed by Shariffa Ali. Simply put, the plot centered on the genocide of the Herero people of Namibia, although this description cannot do the play justice. The production was a whirlwind of hidden biases and historical reckoning, which culminated in a tense, climatic ending.
Performance often enables us to convey thoughts that cannot be expressed on a page or in a lecture. We are besieged by speeches and readings about loose concepts like “oppression,” “black bodies” and “agency.” Yet these are terms that do not easily roll off the tongue or capture the visceral reaction to oppression. It is too common for white students to skim readings about emotional labor in relation to feminism and racism, although they still ask their black friends to tell them about The Black Experience. For years, scholars in academies like Yale have attempted to theorize, rationalize and explain away racism. However, it seems that a purely academic approach will always be inadequate for dismantling our structural biases. Even though students and professors will always read and write papers about oppression, these words may not provide the experiential context needed to grapple with these issues.
This is why art like “We are Proud to Present” is so essential. You cannot help but experience the racism, sexism and oppression woven through the performance. It forces its audience to bear witness to simulations of rape, genocide and murder — an emotional reality that skimming through an essay about colonialism 20 minutes before section can’t quite achieve.
Showcasing racial issues through art forces the spectator to directly confront oppression — and is a direct response to the many visual and musical facets of black communities. As a result, text alone is insufficient. For us to fully appreciate the gravity of the social issues we face, we must convey these problems in a variety of ways. In an article called “On The Importance Of Creating Black Art In The Time Of Trump,” choreographer Rashida Bumbray writes: “African people developed [art] in the new world as an alternative to insanity. And these forms acted as a pathway to levity and freedom.”
Bumbray’s argument points to another important aspect of art and performance: healing. In historically white spaces (such as the Dramat), any deviation is expected to culturally conform. We dress, talk and act in certain ways to conform to respectability politics. We often denounce certain aspects of black culture — such as rap and R&B — without a nuanced analysis. This only does us a disservice because it prevents us from embracing blackness in academic environments where black students are often disregarded and disrespected. Even though Calhoun College was renamed, we mustn’t forget that the legacy of Yale remains grounded in the slave trade. Nor can we forget that much of the funding we receive is the result of the exploitation of black and brown communities. Although performance is insufficient for resolving these issues, it can be a useful method for students to express their discontent. And, perhaps more importantly, it can serve as an impetus for change.
However, I must offer one caveat. When creating art, we should avoid essentializing experience. “We are Proud to Present” grapples with issue of representation, in addition to other issues concerning race. Talking about these issues in a way that conveys information and highlights discontent is crucial, although it must be done in a way that does not attempt to speak for all people. In the article, “Black art and the burden of representation,” Yale professor Kobena Mercer argues that “artists positioned in the margins of the institutional spaces of cultural production are burdened with the impossible role of speaking as ‘representatives’ in the sense that they are expected to ‘speak for’ the black communities from which they come.” Representations of black figures — in cinema, music and visual art — can often tell a singular narrative. Even during the civil rights movement, the black, male figure was often privileged above all else. Art must do more than tell a single narrative. It must allow for many different people to tell their stories and inspire them to live.
Performance can be the beginning of resistance. We have seen this in many historical instances, from the creation of capoeira to the use of slave songs on plantations. We perform and make art to survive. It is not a desire, but a necessity.
Isis Davis-Marks is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .