Artists and scholars talk about navigating structural racism in the performing arts

On Tuesday, the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America hosted “Race & Performance in America,” its final event in the 2021-22 “Race & in America” series. This event followed five other virtual events this semester and in the fall, including “Race & Inequality” and “Race & Poetry”.

Speakers at the event discussed structural racism in the performing arts and explored how they navigated performing as women of color.

Provost Richard Locke P’18 delivered a keynote address emphasizing the importance of addressing systemic racism in the United States and in particular at Brown. “We can and must be agents of change,” he said.

Locke also introduced the speakers for the event: Assistant Professor of Visual Arts Helina Metaferia, Associate Professor of Art at Wellesley College Nikki Greene, and Professor of Theater Arts and Performance Studies Patricia Ybarra. The event was moderated by the Brown Arts Initiative’s inaugural Artistic Director and Professor of Arts Practice and Classics Avery Willis Hoffman.

Hoffman echoed Locke, emphasizing the importance of discussing performance and racing. She said it was an important time to “address and address race and structural racism that we see in the performing arts and other artistic entities,” adding that these structural factors can affect how society perceives art.

Ybarra took the floor first and discussed his work as part of an editorial collective that examines the history of theatre. Her presentation entitled “Canonizing the History of Race as/and Performance” explained how she reworked a new edition of the “Theater Histories” manual.

According to Ybarra, the new edition of the manual will discuss how violence and racial impersonation, or when actors claim to be someone of a different race, are at the heart of the performance story, a a fact which, according to her, has been ignored before. . Additionally, she said she wanted to accept the requests she heard from students for greater inclusion in the performance.

Ybarra inserted various sections into the manual intended to correct the lack of recognition of racism in the performing arts, including sections on the place of BIPOC-led rebellions in the Americas and racial impersonation as white supremacy. She added that these additions will cause readers to reconsider what they know about artists of color, whose historical significance is often overlooked, she said.

Following Ybarra, Metaferia shared a presentation from her exhibit “By Way of Revolution,” in which she sought to build a project that “creates space for powerful dialogue and communion among BIPOC women identifying people (cis, trans, gender nonconforming), who have historically served as overlooked but vital assets in caregiving policy and activist work,” according to its website.

Metaferia explained that her process began by compiling documents and stories that show “what activism looks like across generations.”

As part of the exhibition, students working with Metaferia had the opportunity to be photographed. These photographs were displayed alongside photos of activists who the students believed represented them, she said. The exhibit also contained a collection of signs and buttons formatted to appear as a protest, she said.

The exhibits “can actually be used in the world as instruments of change,” Metaferia said. After the project was shown at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, striking union members printed copies of the exhibit panels, she added.

Metaferia also shared videos from its “The Call” project, which features performances by descendants of prominent civil rights activists. She said the film was made to “report the oral history” of these activists.

The final speaker was Greene, whose presentation “When We Gather: María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Women’s Collective Creativity” discussed the film “When We Gather,” a collaboration of seven women artists of color curated by Campos-Pons.

Greene followed Cuban-born artist Campos-Pons to his art shows in Cuba, New York and Germany and witnessed the making of “When We Gather”. For the film, which was inspired by the 2020 election of Vice President Kamala Harris, Campos-Pons asked artists of color to create a performance of “movement, prose and soundscape,” Greene said.

Greene said it was transformative to see Campos-Pons working virtually alongside the other female artists after covering previous works by Campos-Pons.

The goal of “When We Gather” was to create a project of healing, unity and creation, Greene said. “‘When we come together’…continues to be an invitation…to collective renewal” to care for one another, she added.

The end of the event featured a question and answer session with the speakers. One question Hoffman asked was about post-pandemic performance experiences.

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Greene said the pandemic has affected how people can access performances due to restrictions such as collection limits and mask requirements.

She also touched on the idea that the pandemic has forced us to rethink who we want to share our space with.

Ybarra said symbolic acts such as “sharing the breath,” which are present in many performances, have become difficult with the pandemic. As a result, she said many performances felt like risk management.

In response to another question regarding performance history, Ybarra said that over the course of her career, she has seen an expansion of inclusivity in theater.

In reference to performers of color, she said “theatrical spaces weren’t built for us, but we’re still here.”