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 isis.davis-marks@yale.edu .

  • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

    “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.”

    A few key substitutions would otherwise certainly draw the dreaded screech of “raaaaaay-cis,” but here, of course, identity politics draws a pass.

    My sadness is such that I don’t even feel like analyzing this piece further; I fear a lost cause. Once one has bought into the “emotional labor” trope, I think a switch to STEM unlikely. “Diversity coordinator” (superfluous, rents-seeking sinecure) — or Lefty lawyer for the intellectually endowed — becomes one of the likelier outcomes.

    “Because a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Sub “opportunity” for “a mind” and there you have it.

  • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

    In the “What Might Have Been” Dept.: What scientific/entrepreneurial/independent heights might the author have scaled amid a less patriarchal white heterocisnormative milieu, e..g, an HBCU?

    And just how did the likes of G.W. Carver, Mae Jemison, Thomas Sowell, Ben Carson,Patricia Bath, Clarence Thomas and, heck, Jimi Hendrix overcome so much in so much more overtly racist times? It boggles the mind…

  • ShadrachSmith

    Art is important. Performance art is my favorite form. White guilt is not my favorite topic, but that’s not important. Art is important.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Her Opponent was performed at the Provincetown Playhouse in the West Village in New York City in January, it was scripts from ’16 presidential debates with the genders reversed. A man played Hillary and a woman played Trump.

    Now that is exploring the role of gender in politics.

    • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

      Did you see the analysis showing that, with genders reversed, Clinton came across even *less* sympathetic (if you can imagine that?). NYTimes reviewed the NYU production in “He Said, She Said: Gender-Bending the Presidential Debates.” Video on NYU website.

  • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

    YDN “editorial” note: “The production was a whirlwind of hidden biases and historical reckoning, which culminated in a tense, climatic ending.”

    Climatic? Har har. I suppose a whirlwind is indeed “climatic,” kinda. Maybe not “Blow winds and crack your cheeks” kinda stuff, though. (Apologies if the author was being clever and it rained on stage or something… Wittier — or obscurer — might have been “climb-attic” re: say, a resurrected SM performance space, but few on campus will get *that* firetrap of a ref…)

    Tried again to read this but could not maintain sufficient focus past the second ‘graph. Picked a few phrases to read aloud; the audience expressed sympathy for the author.

  • 100wattlightbulb

    Here is an idea: everyone speak for themselves. Period.

    • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

      “The jig is up. Bigotry exists, but it is far down on the list of problems that minorities now face. I grew up black in segregated America, where it was hard to find an open door. It’s harder now for young blacks to find a closed one.”
      –Shelby Steele, WSJ

  • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

    “The most powerful antidote to disrespect is not protest but performance,” says Robert Woodson, Sr., in an interesting and on-point review in today’s WSJ:
    ‘Hidden Figures’ Is a Powerful Story of Black Achievement

    “Hidden Figures” chronicles how NASA mathematicians Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan overcame legal segregation and racial discrimination to play a critical role in astronaut John Glenn’s 1962 orbital mission.

    Writes Mr. Woodson, “The dominant racial message today attributes black failure—academic, occupational and even moral—to an all-purpose invisible villain: INSTITUTIONAL RACISM [emphasis mine] … The debilitating effects of this attitude are exacerbated by liberals’ ‘white guilt.'” Since the 1960s, “liberals have approached the black community with a combination of pity, patronage and pandering.”

    “Today the affirmative-action mentality permeates elite universities, where the arguments of black ‘experts’ are rarely challenged or debated by their white counterparts …. It’s an academic environment in which every minority gets a trophy. My heart goes out to those black students who may never be confident that their degrees and accolades were the result of merit.”

    “Black Americans must refuse to surrender to incompetence, self-devaluation and self-marginalization.”

  • veryneat

    What a windbag! pretentious, meaningless claptrap.

  • Formosa

    You really do need to take an inventory of your life, your surroundings, and decide if this is really the place for you? If things are this bad all around, everywhere you look, then why do you remain at Yale? Heck, why remain in America? I really do think it’s a legitimate question given your endless list of grievances and complaints. I guess we could all do that, we could all complain that we weren’t treated fairly, and whatever we achieved just wasn’t enough, was never enough. And we could never move beyond any past wrong, any change would never be enough. Every person in America could carry their list of grievances. The skinny kid complained he never could be a NFL football player, the girl never made it into med school. If only my dad had went to college, he’d have had money to send me to college… and I wouldn’t be a plumber. if my parents had money I wouldn’t have had to join the military and get sent overseas and my legs shot off… the list goes on and on and is truly endless. Write an article on what your future will be after you are graduated from one of the most prestigious institutions in America. You will have an advantage that 99.9% of American’s regardless of any identity will have. I find this lack of perspective to be alarming.