Rebecca Nicholson is a journalist, editor, screenwriter, playwright, fiction writer, and poet. She holds an M.F.A from Columbia University, an M.A in English Literature, and has written numerous articles about literature and the humanities. She is the recipient of two Many Voices Fellowships (The Minneapolis Playwright's Center), a Liberace Award, a Matthew's Fellowship, a Howard Stein Fellowship, and a DRA Fellowship from Columbia University School of the Arts. She received an America-In-Play Fellowship and was the 2013 winner of the Jane Chambers Student Playwriting Award for her African American drama, "Hello, I'm Eve". Additionally, she was a 2015 finalist for an Atlantic Media Fellowship.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe centers on a character who, arguably, is the embodiment of The Colonist Mentality, as evidenced by his interactions with, and perception of, the native cannibals he encounters while visiting an ‘undiscovered’ island. The protagonist, Crusoe, initially plans to murder the natives, but decides against it, writing that its inhabitants do not “know” their acts are criminal.
In a strange land where one easily expects culture, social norms, and constructs of morality and immorality to differ, Crusoe still manages to view himself as an authority figure, and the natives as inferior.
The Colonist Mentality is exemplified by Crusoe’s relationship with Friday, whom he has named, and further espoused by Defoe’s depiction of Crusoe as an enlightened visitor whose mere presence benefits the island by imploring its inhabitants to cease engaging in acts of savagery.
Crusoe deems his culture as a superior force, one which, in order to be redeemed, the natives must assimilate into.
Defoe’s novel has had a tremendous impact on the narrative structure of fictional accounts of travel and exploration, and rightfully so. The novel takes on a autobiographical, cinematic format— unfolding in snapshots, if you will—of the main character’s experiences.
However, the work is worth revisiting because of its relevance to today’s instances of Xenophobia, the valuing and devaluing of particular cultures and norms, and the notion that one culture should reign over another. Crusoe’s Colonist Mentality lives on.
In medieval times, astrology was synonymous with science, viewed as an infallible knowledge source for insight into human nature, a compass of sorts for predicting human behavior and determining fate. Astrology’s prominence as a reference guide for humanity was, no doubt, a substitute for the absence of fields like neuroscience, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and biology. It was the means by which people in the Middle Ages examined socio-political factors and behavioral differences among rulers and citizens, and provided a framework for understanding variations in the customs, rites, and beliefs systems of different nations.
Although the view of astrology as a reliable, standard measurement of social issues and human activity has become archaic, its presence in medieval times is exemplary of advancements in human thought. During this era, human thinking patterns became increasingly analytical, exhibiting a new awareness of the relationships between past and present events, as well as past and present behaviors. Thought leaders of the period were particularly concerned with endowing behavior and events with meaning, and there was an increased effort to view such aspects as contributions to a larger, inevitable fate.
The connection between medieval subscription to astrological principles and contemporary debates over the role of genetics in human behavior is similar to the nature vs. nurture debate.
The central question being: are our fates dictated by the environments in which we are reared, our genetic history, or both?
Obviously, there are very clear distinctions between astrology and genetics; one is more in keeping with mythology and folklore and the other is based in science. But the view of genetics as a predictor of health and behavioral outcomes shares similarities with medieval reliance on Astrology.
For one, the notion poses the same questions, such as whether or not environment predetermines behavior: are human beings capable of making decisions independent of social environment or, in the end, do our genetics— a euphemism for fate— dictate who we are or who we become?
There are strong arguments for both, but the use of astrology as a thinking guide in the Middle Ages, and its relationship with current ideas about genetics, demonstrates that even primitive notions can be the first step on the journey of scientific discovery.
Many books, articles and academic discussions, have centered on reading: how and why it happens. Human beings are the only living creatures capable of reading, writing, and speaking. Exposure to language, both orally and in written form, plays a significant role in how we define ourselves, and each other.
In Narrative Structures and Literary History, translated by Rebecca West, the author explores the mechanisms that underlay the act of reading, and the interconnectedness between both reader and writer. In the text, the reader of a literary work (also known as the receiver) and the writer of the work (also known as the transmitter), are presented as engaged in a process that is inherently interactive.
Reading is presented as an exchange involving the transmission of information or a message.
According to the article, this transmission is more than linguistic; it involves the transfer of “states of mind, ideals, and judgments about the world.” The body of knowledge centered on reading, may be summed up as a collection of ideas focused on writer/reader competences, which, in the context that the author uses them, emphasizes the importance of the reader’s ability to accurately interpret written or transmitted messages. The reader’s role in the above exchange is, therefore, more than passive— he or she is a present figure in the construction of a text’s meaning.
The ability to interpret the message in a literary work, whatever it may be, is reliant on codes and codices—language, customs, societal conceptions of the world, and mutual and non-mutual knowledge.
But does the process of transmission that takes place during reading, differ when reading works written in the past? When common knowledge becomes less common, does the reader become passive?
Today’s mutual knowledge is greatly impacted by social media and technology, with each of us carrying our own personal catalogue of political and social ideas, associations in reference to objects, people, places, and concepts.
When an author refers to these elements in a work, whether directly or indirectly, that author is building upon our subjective knowledge of these subjects, resulting in a mental merging of sorts— the author’s sensibilities with our own.
However, mutual knowledge, as it relates to reading a Zora Neale Hurston or Faulkner novel, versus a contemporary one, differs, the language, the references, the codes and codices. etc. When reading literary works of the past, we grasp only that which resonates with our present; everything else, we simply imagine. As a text ages, so does its interactive quality.
What’s unique about Zoo Story is not simply that Albee employs symbolism and naturalism, but the manner in which he utilizes these elements to fully realize his theme: Isolation.
The title of the play, Zoo Story, suggests that human beings aren’t just isolated from each other, but also from themselves— our own animal instincts.
Albee conveys the notion that the world, itself, is a kind of zoo, a confining force that can lead human beings to take violent action; similar to the one at the end of Albee’s play, where one character murders the other after what seemed to be an amicable interaction. Isolation, as presented by Albee, is a human configuration: we as human beings build our isolation, emerging from man made elements like greed, prejudice, racism, sexism, and the like. These aspects, collectively, comprise our captivity; they are the bars of our cages.
Isolation, therefore, is indelibly human.
The location in which Albee sets his drama—a park— is also an expression of his mastery of symbolism. To the untrained eye his utilization of a seemingly natural environment might suggest an effort to convey wildness or a lack of cultivation. However, he achieves the opposite. The contrast between nature and the very suppressed condition in which the play’s central characters function, provide the perfect juxtapositional framework for Albee’s drama.
The physical appearance of the characters and the occupations they hold, lacking distinction, make them ideal symbols of the masses and further emphasize Albee’s zoo theme. At best, Peter, the story’s central character, can best be described as “spiritually sedated.” A state, perhaps, brought on by his seemingly enviable attainment of the American Dream. For, after having achieved that mythological objective— the inherent goal of all our citizens— what is there left to pursue?
But are we free as human beings, even when we think we are? Is the price of living in a civilized world inhibition, limitation, the suppression of our most primal instincts?
Given the volatile climate of the world, one where violence is a regular occurrence, the conclusion that our animal instincts are freer than they’ve ever been— our propensity for murder and other harmful actions—comes easily. However, could the opposite be true, that our spiritual confinement, or lack of true freedom, leads us to create the chaos in which we reside?
Playwright/ScreenwriterKeith Josef Adkinsis committed to providing a space for African American artists to explore and express the nuances of the black experience. In addition to writing about black life in his own theatrical and film projects, Adkins created The New Black Fest, an annual festival which brings together black playwrights from around the world to present works with an African American focus, such as Hands Up, a series of plays written by black men in response to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, as well as institutionalized racism.
This Fall, at the Martin Segal Theater at CUNY Graduate Center, five dynamic playwrights will present a series of dramatic works calledUn-Tamed: Hair Body Attitude: Short Plays By Black Women, which will center on the black female experience and it’s relationship to black culture and social justice issues facing the African American community.
Featured writersinclude Nikkole Salter, an Obie-award winning actress and Pulitzer- Prize nominee, and Playwrights Chisa Hutchinson, Corie Thomas, Lenelle Moise, and Jocelyn Bioh.
Tell me more about Un-Tamed: Hair Body Attitude.
Adkins: In the tradition of Facing Our Truth andHands Up, I commissioned five black women playwrights to write short plays on things that resonate around hair, body, and attitude in relation to the trending conversations about women parody.
With Hands Up, where I commissioned six black male playwrights, the conversation was ‘who [are] the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement?’ Which was two or three black women.
There have been conversations about the representation of the presence of female voices in [discussions] about social justice, policing, and profiling. During the time I commissioned these playwrights, I was under the impression that the profiling issue was a black male issue, that it was predominant among black men. I still believe that to be true, statistically. But there has to be a more integrated conversation around profiling. It can’t just be about black men. There are women — Sandra Bland, the young woman at the Texas swimming pool party that was slammed [down]— so, obviously, this is a major issue and a concern.
What kind of discussions are being had in relation to black women, patriarchy, and racial profiling?
Patriarchy often makes us blind to the issues facing women. I wanted to commission five black women to write plays that give them a platform and a space to explore and expose their complexity around any issue that they feel is important for them to discuss. It was important to me that I didn’t do this on my own, but that I brought in a woman to help curate, to kind of educate me about what’s really important. So I brought in Dominique Morisseau to co-curate this particular commission. We have all our five playwrights and they’ve turned in their first drafts. It’s just really exciting. It’s going to be some really strong work. It already has a slated presentation for October at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City at the Martin Segal Theatre.
How have the events in Ferguson, and the wave of discussions on race and police brutality, impacted your work as a playwright and your perspective on The New Black Fest?
I’ve always been interested and dedicated to diversity within the black experience. I feel like the conversation around race, racism, and privilege; particularly within the theater community, is prompting many people to reconsider how they’ve been thinking about blackness. They are paying closer attention to blackness. These conversations have given black theater practitioners license to discuss and build art around things that have always mattered to them, that they often felt they were silenced around.
Because of Black Lives Matter and other social justice concerns, there seems to be an un-silencing.
A few months ago, the Internet was ablaze over the death surrounding ‘Cecil the Lion,’ a mainstay of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Parkand part of a research project at Oxford University.
According to CNN, Theo Bronchorst and Honest Trymore Ndlovu, both Zimbabweans, are believed to have illegally hunted and killed 13-year-old Cecil during a time span of 40 hours. CNN also reports that Walter J. Palmer, an American dentist from Minnesota, allegedly paid $50,000 for the hunt, which has unleashed a storm of criticism against him from the online community; particularly Facebook and Twitter, with retweets of hashtags like #CatLivesMatter, a wordplay on #BlackLives Matter, and “WE ARE CECIL,” according to The New York Times.
The unanimous outrage over Cecil’s death and celebrity support of movements against animal cruelty, includingJimmy Kimmel— who fought back tears talking about Cecil— Ricky Gervais, Sharon Osborne and others, is leaving some people wondering why more public, high-profile figures aren’t expressing the same degree of concern for the unlawful arrests and racism directed toward African American men and women.
Why are celebrities more eager to speak out against animal mistreatment than they are about issues of racial and social injustice?
Howard Bergman, CEO of Fifteen Minutes Public Relations, told USA Today that “Animal activism has always been a staple of Hollywood activism, it’s really in the DNA.” Adding,
“Celebrities have found when they step into some of the race issues, they’ve gotten their hands slapped for perceived insensitivity, even when they were trying to do and say the right thing. They realize that animal activism is a win-win. In most cases, nobody objects and particularly in this specific case.”
Is it easier to care about animals than human beings?
Share your thoughts in the comments section.
Written by Rebecca Nichloson. Article originally appeared on BlackEnterprise.com
Emmy-nominated screenwriter and multi-genre author, Trey Ellis, has penned some of black America’smost-loved films, such as The Inkwell (1994), Good Fences (1993), and HBO’s The Tuskegee Airmen (1995), which starred Laurence Fishburne and was based on the true story of a group of African American pilots in World War II.
The Stanford University alum is the recipient of a Peabody Award, multiple NAACP Awards, and is also a novelist, journalist and playwright; having written the novel Platitudes,a play titledFly, among others, as well as articles for The Huffington Postand The New York Times.
Tell me more about your role as an educator and your strategies for balancing your multiple interests.
Ellis: I always wanted to be a writer since elementary school. About eight years ago, the opportunity came to teach screenwriting at Columbia University. I don’t think it’s so much a challenge, but a privilege. I can make a living writing all of the different things I like to write.
The balancing act is more: if I have something to express I decide, ‘Is this a book? Is this a novel? If it’s a book—is it fiction or nonfiction? Is it journalism? Is it a screenplay, a play or a television show?
I teach [my students] that storytelling is storytelling, [it’s] expressing human behavior in some sort of way that’s interesting. What I’m trying to do is ‘pull’ out from my students what’s already inside of them. I like to talk to them and guide them to tell the stories they want to tell, the way they want to tell them.
What are your thoughts on the exceptionally high costs of M.F.A. programs and the increase in their popularity?
That certainly is the number one issue that we at the school wrestle with—working to bring the cost down and [bring in] more financial aid for everybody who needs it; which is most people.
There’s been an explosion of arts M.F.A. programs but I think, in general, graduate school is much more the norm.
During the recession they’re weren’t any jobs and a lot of people went into M.F.A. programs. There is this kind of culture these days that says everything can be taught. In the past, a lot of things just worked under, sort of, an apprentice [like] program.
As a writer who has written in multiple genres, what most inspires you?
To have an audience respond. The idea that I can express something and hold their attention; especially these days when there’s so many different choices, feels really good.
Kenya Barris’ mark on Hollywood extends well beyond the creation of his hit series Black-ish on ABC or his writing for America’s Next Top Model, the producer/writer will pen the film adaptation of the 1970s African American sitcom Good Timesfor Sony Entertainment; along with veteran producers Scott Rudin and Eli Bush.
Barris is also collaborating with Tracy Oliver for a female-driven ‘Girls Trip Project‘ for Universal Studios, and was recently signed by New Line Cinemato write the screenplay for the new Shaftremake. Although many of Barris’ projects have been comedies, he describes his Good Times adaptation as a dramaedy — the best of both worlds.
What attracted you to Good Times? What do you see as the ‘tone’ for the movie?
Barris:Good Times was so iconic, in terms of that family and the struggles they were going through were so honest and real. [The writers] didn’t ignore that this was a ‘slice of life’ that a huge amount of Americans were living. The chance to have a voice and to say something as a writer is the ultimate blessing. To have something to say that affects people and makes people want to change their life or be inspired— to hear words come alive—for me that’s the ultimate blessing.
When you think of Good times as an actual show, as much as it was a comedy there was some serious stuff going on. So, I feel like [the film will be] more of dramaedy, to do it any other way would be a disservice to the poverty. The movie is actually a look back. Michael has grown up. He’s in politics and he’s looking back on his life, at something in his life that has affected him and the decision he’s making currently. I was not going to do a spoof of Good times, I felt like it was too important of a [show] to support that.
Tell me about your friendship with Tyra, your upbringing and its impact on your writing.
Tyra Banks is one of my best friends. We grew up together. Watching her—when I was in high school and college—watching her career take off was a big inspiration for me, to know that [success] was possible; coming from where we came from.
I feel like that’s what put me in a different place, where if I wanted to make people laugh there was a way to do it and it wasn’t necessarily just a dream scenario.
It was something that could actually happen, that I had seen happen. I’m from Inglewood. We were broke growing up, [but] you didn’t know you were broke because everyone else around you was broke.
My father got into a chemical accident at General Motors, where he was employed, when I was ten or eleven.
We got a big settlement and moved from, basically, ‘ashy to classy.’ We moved out of the hood and I started at a different school. I remember realizing for the first time, ‘Oh. We were broke.’
My mom worked really hard, got me through school and college and when I had my kids I looked around and the world they were growing up in was a completely different world than the one I remember growing up in. That was the inspiration for [Black-ish]. We’re taught that you want to give your kids more than you had, but in doing that I started wondering; with the added things in their life, what were the things that were being subtracted.
Many of the popular shows on television today with lead African American characters don’t deal explicitly with race. For instance,ScandalandHow To Get Away with Murder. What motivated you to write a show that, thematically, openly discusses race and black culture?
For all the amazing things that I felt from The Cosby Show growing up, the one thing I looked at was that they sort of [looked over the fact that they were black].
I felt like every day as an African American; as a black person, you’re never not aware of [race]. It’s part of who you are. It’s part of the people who deal with you. So why would you do a show in a time when we have a black president and choose to ignore [race]?
That doesn’t mean it has to be a black show, but it is about a black family. It’s not done in an ostracizing way. To me, the idea of talking about it makes it more inclusive.
Conversation is part of what makes America work at its best, and that’s what we were trying to do: start the conversation.
Written by Rebecca Nichloson. Originally appeared on BlackEnterprise.com
Ron Simons, founder and CEO of SimonSays Entertainment, is a force to be reckoned with in the world of film and theater. His critically-acclaimed roster of produced films include Night Catches Us (starring Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie) Gun Hill Road, Blue Caprice, and Mother of George; all of which premiered at The Sundance Festival. He’s produced numerous successful Broadway productions, such as the Tony-award winning revival of Porgy and Bess, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; which won the Tony award for Best New Play.
In addition to producing, Simons is also an actor, having performed in theatrical works, film, and television. The multi-talented creative and businessman started his career as a software engineer at companies like Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Microsoft, and holds an M.B.A. from Columbia Business School and an M.F.A. in acting from the University of Washington’s Professional Actor Training Program.
SimonSays Entertainment values artistic integrity, as well as commercial viability. Can you talk a little about that?
Simons: My first project, Night Catches Us, was a film about two former Black Panthers who reunite in 1970s Philadelphia. It was a period piece. I’m very proud of that film. It was a labor of love for everyone. But there are some things that I might have been able to do differently, had I been more savvy and in the industry longer, that could have made that film commercially viable.
All of my projects have, so far, creative integrity, but they haven’t all been commercially viable. I’ve learned a lot of lessons between my first film and my more recent film.
What motivated you to get an M.B.A in addition to an M.F.A. in Acting?
Before I got my M.B.A., I was in corporate America as a software engineer. I developed knowledge-based systems, or artificial intelligence systems, for fortune 500 companies. I was encouraged by my current employer to get a Ph.D. in computer science, which they would pay for, and then come back to work for the company because it was a small AI company and most of the staff there had Ph.D.’s from Stanford.
So I reached a crossroad where I had to decide if I wanted to go deeper into the technology side or more into the business side.
I decided that business would be more in tune with my goals of leadership, so I ended up going to Columbia Business School. When I graduated from Columbia I started working at Microsoft and was there for a number of years. Then I reached a crossroads in my career when I was offered a promotion with the company.
This little voice in my head had been quietly murmuring—I refer to it as the dream deferred—about acting. So, I thought that was a good time to get my head out of the sand and decide that leadership and entrepreneurship was going to be my goal or whether I wanted to move into the arts.
How has your corporate experience impacted your role as a producer?
SimonSays Entertainment, as a producing entity, is the nexis where all the paths of my life meet; where I can leverage my storytelling skills as an actor, my business skills as a business man, everything I’ve ever learned in corporate America and my analytical studies in computer science. In my job as a producer, I have to touch upon so many different areas. I’m a creative producer, so for me it’s all about story. My acting has helped me tremendously in that regard.
Alot of producers don’t know story because not all producers come from the arts, in terms of writing or acting or directing. So they have the technical side perhaps, but maybe don’t have the artistic side. Also, there’s times when it’s important for me to understand the technology. When I deliver a film, it has to be in various formats and these formats are fairly technical. Producing uses all that I’ve ever learned, ever done in my life.
There has been a decline in movie-going, along with what some are calling ‘the golden age’ of television. Has the audience shift from film to television influenced your business?
From a percentage standpoint, the answer is yes. I’m not abandoning film. I’m developing content for film, as well as television, as well as the web. I’m a content provider.
My goal is to create content for the variety of platforms that are emerging.
I have developed content for film. I’m now developing content for television [and] for the web. I’m developing educational content that is going to be delivered through CDs. I’m expanding and highly diversifying my content. One of the things you learn in business school is that if you diversify you lower your risk.
Black women are infamously known for strength, admirable audaciousness, and a seemingly unending capacity for love and personal sacrifice. But in addition to this, we also dream big.
According to Black Women Ready to Lead, published by the Center for Talent Innovation, a private-sector consortium that helps organizations leverage their talent across the divides of gender, generation, geography, and culture, African American women are 2.8 times as likely as white women to aspire to powerful positions with prestigious titles.
The study also showed that black women who hold positions that enable them to exhibit strong leadership skills and a certain level of authority are more likely to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in their professional lives. In other words: power matters, and black women are intrinsically attracted to it.
But what steps are necessary for uncovering your inner ‘Woman of Power?’ Is it merely receiving a promotion, salary upgrade, or extended responsibilities?
Dynamic leaders develop and sustain environments that encourage high-performance. They don’t just ambiguously hold power, they use it to inspire others to achieve greatness. Here’s a wisdom-jewel from Ursula Burns,Chairman and CEO of Xerox: Leaders empower.
“Greatness is growing a customer base. Greatness is distinguishing ourselves by innovation. Greatness is hitting a certain EPS or revenue growth target or cash target. But there’s a whole bunch of other stuff around it that helps you do that,” said Burns in a 2012 interview with Triple Crown Leadership.
Effective leaders ‘empower.’ After selecting correctly, they have to empower [their team] to actually do the job.”
So, as we ascend to positions of authority and obtain more responsibilities in our professional lives, let’s remember that at the heart of strong leadership is the ability to inspire those around us: to lead is to empower.
Written by Rebecca Nichloson. Originally appeared on BlackEnterprise.com