‘Un-Tamed: Hair Body Attitude’ Celebrates Womanhood in New Black Fest

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Written by Rebecca Nichloson

Playwright/Screenwriter Keith Josef Adkins is 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 called Un-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 writers include Nikkole Salter, an Obie-award winning actress and Pulitzer- Prize nominee, and Playwrights Chisa Hutchinson, Corie Thomas, Lenelle Moise, and Jocelyn Bioh.

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Keith Josef Adkins, http://www.pswbportraiture.blogspot.com

Tell me more about Un-Tamed: Hair Body Attitude.

Adkins: In the tradition of Facing Our Truth and Hands 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.

To learn more visit newblackfest.org and broadwayblack.com.

Photography credit: womenintechchat.  Originally appeared on BlackEnterprise.com

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‘Robinson Crusoe’ by Daniel Defoe: Addressing Xenophobia

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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.

Photo credit: #womenintechchat

A Case for Medieval Astrology and Modern Genetics: Is There A Such Thing As Destiny?

The star cluster Westerlund 2
This image shows the sparkling centerpiece of Hubble’s 25th anniversary tribute. Westerlund 2 is a giant cluster of about 3000 stars located 20 000 light-years away in the constellation Carina. Hubble’s near-infrared imaging camera pierces through the dusty veil enshrouding the stellar nursery, giving astronomers a clear view of the dense concentration of stars in the central cluster.

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.

Authors and Writers: The Challenge of Reading Historical Texts

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?

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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.

Featured image photo credit: womenintechchat.com

 

 

 

 

Let’s Talk About Edward Albee’s Zoo Story: Exploring ‘Wildness’

the-zoo-storyWhat’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?

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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?

 

Celebrity Outrage Over Death of ‘Cecil the Lion’ Ignites Twitter and Facebook. The #CatLivesMatter Hashtag

A few months ago, the Internet was ablaze over the death surrounding ‘Cecil the Lion,’ a mainstay of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park and 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.

[Related: Police Brutality Also an Issue for Women of Color]

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

Meet Trey Ellis: ‘The Tuskegee Airmen’ Screenwriter and Educator

Emmy-nominated screenwriter and multi-genre author, Trey Ellis, has penned some of black America’s most-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 titled Fly, among others, as well as articles for The Huffington Post and The New York Times.

But Trey Ellis is more than just a multi-talented writer; he’s also an educator, having taught in the film program at Columbia University School of the Arts for eight years.

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.

To learn more about Trey Ellis, click here.

 Written by Rebecca Nichloson. Originally appeared on BlackEnterprise.com

Women of Color Are Ready to Lead. Xerox CEO, Ursula Burns, Shows Us How It’s Done.

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

www.ruminationgarden.com

Novelist Taiye Selasi Coins Dynamic Term “Afropolitan.”

Though the term “Afropolitan” is fairly controversial, arguments for and against it share similar qualities, espousing a mutual objective: an embrace of the cultural nuances and complexities of African culture and the individuals who define themselves as African.

In Bye-Bye Babar, Selasi emphasizes the ever-evolving landscape of African culture and the African experience while condemning generalizations.

Afropolitans are presented as a distinct group of individuals, a social class, differentiated from the rest of Africa by their eclectic cultural upbringing and relationship to the continent, education and wealth.

The narrative that surrounds Selasi’s notion of the Afropolitan is similar to that of many young professionals whose parents or grandparents emigrated from other countries and established themselves in America and Europe.

www.ruminationgarden.com
Taiye Selasi, http://www.mediadiversified.org

In reference to the term, she states:

“You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes. Some of us are ethnic mixes, e.g. Ghanaian and Canadian, Nigerian and Swiss; others merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos. Most of us are multilingual: in addition to English and a Romantic or two, we understand some indigenous tongue and speak a few urban vernaculars. There is at least one place on The African Continent to which we tie our sense of self: be it a nation-state (Ethiopia), a city (Ibadan), or an auntie’s kitchen. Then there’s the G8 city or two (or three) that we know like the backs of our hands, and the various institutions that know us for our famed focus. We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world” (Selasi, “Bye-Bye Babar”).

 

This is indicative of a reimagining of, perhaps, the characteristics, behaviors, economic and social statuses society deems to be African. However, the term is often viewed as problematic On one hand, Africa is one of the most stereotyped, overgeneralized continents on earth. It is habitually portrayed with narratives of extreme poverty, hunger, war, lack of education and disease. There is also an intrinsic belief that it is in need or of being saved and this, rescuing of sort, can only be achieved through action taken by the west.

These narratives are portrayed in all forms of media and overshadow the cultural, political and societal nuances of Africa and its many countries.

In A Deep Humaness, a Deep Grace: Interview with Chris Abani by Yogita Goyal, the author introduces his readers to Abani’s stance on creative writing and the notion of the “African” writer. Abani is a noted Nigerian novelist, author of several books, most of which have achieved critical acclaim, as well as poetry, plays, screenplays and critical essays. In reference to his own work, he states that it is “post- national and global not in its reach, but in its attempts to locate a very specific African sensibility . . .” Abani refers to African writers as “curators of the continent’s humanity”.

This is a particularly poignant statement. It, inevitably, gives way to examination of whether or not African authors or authors who identify as such, should be deemed “curators” at all, or if a handful of writers, with varying relationships to the continent, should be given the task of curating its humanity, deciding what subjects, cultural and social aspects are relevant, worthy topics of literary exploration.

The central question becomes: should authors like Selasi be deemed as representative of the collective voice of Africa?

Given the vast, landscape of African culture, can a collective “African” voice exist? Abani goes on to state: “women dominate the new global placement of African literature” whereas “men dominated the first generation.” Thus, authors like Selasi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and others are a part of this new generation of writers, shaping and expanding narratives related to Africa and the African experience but, also, a multicultural experience influenced by other parts of the world yet still, inherently, African.

In Selasi’s writing, positive and negative dimensions of the terms Afropolitan and Afropolitanism can be fully realized.

In Sex Life of African Girls, there exists a wonderful distillation of language and a rhythmic quality that is international but never deviates from African roots.

The inherent poetry of the language in Ghana Must Go and her approach, choosing not to treat the reader as though he or she is a stranger in a foreign environment, but rather an entity welcomed into a world full of familiar sentiments, characters, circumstances; all the workings of that which is universal, distinguishes Selasi from other novelists.

www.ruminationgarden.com

The ‘Transracial’ Phenomenon Rocking the Nation

Race and cultural identity differ; the same is true for biological sex and gender identity. People who describe President of the Spokane NAACP chapter, Rachel Dolezal’s, misrepresentation of herself as black, as indicative of being “transracial,” are really talking about cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is, often, an expression of the value an individual places on a particular culture, so much so, that his or her own identity is significantly informed by it.

The argument that Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner are the same, that transgender and the term, “transracial” share similar qualities, or that, because Dolezal identifies with black culture, she should be considered black, is problematic. For one, such arguments fail to recognize differences between biological sex, race, gender identity, and cultural identity. Biological sex and race are static, which isn’t the case for cultural and gender identity.

Being transgender isn’t about denial of biological sex, it’s about accepting that one’s gender identity cannot subscribe to norms espoused by society; it’s about allowing one’s own instincts and natural tendencies to determine how one chooses to live and, socially, identify.  Biologically speaking, Caitlyn Jenner keeps the sex she was born with. But, in all other ways—behaviorally and otherwise, the label of “man” is no longer appropriate.

Racism isn’t about culture.

Racism is discrimination, inequality, and social stigma directed towards a group of people based solely on the fact that they were born of a certain race and have, often times, its physical traits, ect.

Being on the receiving end of racism, as we have seen, brings with it a host of experiences unique to those who are members of that race, or another oppressed racial group. The implications of Dolezal’s actions are connected to a long history involving the topic of race and culture in this country, just as the comparison to Caitlyn Jenner relates to much research, scholarly and otherwise, concerning gender and sexuality.

With that being said, here are two transgender people of color ‘making waves’

Janet Mock: The New York Times bestselling author of Redefining Realness and the host of  So POPular! — a weekly MSNBC digital series about culture. She is a sought-afterspeaker and the founder of #GirlsLikeUs, a social media project that empowers trans women. Her book recounts her journey towards womanhood and serves as a inspiration for transgender people of color everywhere.

“Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power – not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.” – Janet Mock

Laverne Cox  is an activist and actress on Netflix’s hit series Orange is the New Black. She was born in Mobile, Alabama, and was the first openly transgender person in history to receive and Emmy nomination.

“My third grade teacher called my mother and said, ‘Ms. Cox, your son is going to end up in New Orleans in a dress if we don’t get him into therapy.’ And wouldn’t you know, just last week I spoke at Tulane University, and I wore a lovely green and black dress.” – Laverne Cox.

Share your stories in the comments section.

This article originally appeared in BlackEnterprise.com