Theatre of Color for colored girls

In 2013, I taught a seminar entitled “Theatre of Color” at Baruch College that focused on race, racism, and representation but also addressed gender, class, and sexuality. This intersectional approach stemmed in part from my understanding of feminist pedagogy as collective struggle, yet in truth this emerged more because my students asked intersectional questions. When we teach about axes of oppression, we must take care to avoid prioritizing one axis over another and to implicate ourselves by remaining radically open to our students’ critical inventions. Inspired by bell hooks, I sought to create community, provide critical affirmation of feelings and experiences, and provoke critiques of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist hetero-patriarchy through education as liberation. Almost all of the students were of color and worked part-time jobs, many of them had been born outside of the United States, most of them were women, and some of them identified as queer. My students responded enthusiastically to the recognition of power structures—and themselves—in the texts that we engaged. In turn, they challenged my colonized assumptions about the potential of the class.

To exemplify this point, I remember teaching for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange and pairing up the students to punctuate and perform monologues. I realize now that asking students to punctuate Shange’s choreopoems arguably re-colonized her feminist, antiracist writing to fit a westernized order, but at the time I had thought this exercise would help students who had trouble understanding the play. In addition, I had figured with my heteronormative outlook that in the mixed gender pairs, the man would be reluctant to perform the piece due to patriarchal discomfort with performing femininity. I was very wrong. For all of the man-woman pairs, both students shared the monologue. The pair that chose Lady in Blue’s piece on abortion staged the monologue by having the male student recite most of the lines directly to the audience, while the female student turned away from our gaze, raising questions about power over voice and bodies. The pair that took up Lady in Purple’s monologue about two women friends who unknowingly date the same man made the story their own by queering it and embodying it with their own dialogue and dance. The students performed intersectional, thoughtful interpretations of Shange’s work and pushed me to imagine new possibilities for feminist pedagogy and practice.

4 thoughts on “Theatre of Color for colored girls

  1. Donatella, Thanks for getting the ball rolling with this outstanding post. It sounds like you created a student-centered classroom in which students were able to actively devise ways to embody, negotiate, or even disidentify with Shange’s text. Either here or at ATHE, I hope you can talk more about why you think that by asking students to interpret this Tony-nominated work you were “asking students to punctuate Shange’s choreopoems arguably re-colonized her feminist, antiracist writing to fit a westernized order.” As you present them, the students’ informal performances sound like outstanding examples of the kind of epistemological shifts we hope to see in feminist classrooms.

  2. I love this idea of punctuating a text as a way to better know it, understand it, re-make it. A grammatician’s dream! (Have you tried this same approach to any other plays? Suzan-Lori Parks and Jennifer Haley come to mind…) Did that student-designed punctuation come across in the pairs’ performances? Did it inform their physicality, or their choices about the “choreo” part of the choreopoem? I suppose you’re right about the assignment having a colonizing element, but I think it would be a loss to write it off on that fact alone. So much of what we do in the classroom could be read that way–even putting a play into your syllabus, into the canon, has that effect. So, I think as long as we narrate those choices we are enacting (and modeling) some of that “collective struggle” that you reference in your opening paragraph. Looking forward to hearing more!

  3. This is a fascinating assignment, Donatella. I love that the students thwarted your expectations about the gender dynamics of the performances, but I am also interested in your assumption that the men would be reluctant to perform femininity called for by the play. Did you have thoughts about the kind of conversation you would facilitate if, in fact, that had happened? Did you see it as a potential teachable moment? After the performances, did the students in the mixed-gender groups speak about their casting choices—how they arrived at them, and how they hoped gender functioned in the performances? Clearly the group that performed the Lady in Blue’s monologue cast their piece purposefully, in order to make a point about how it is so often men who become the authorities on women’s experiences in debates over abortion. But did the other groups highlight gender in a similar way?

  4. Donatella, this sounds like an excellent assignment for challenging students to experiment with embodying the ideas Shange (and others you read) explore. Having staged a number of Gertrude Stein’s plays, I am sympathetic to your concern about punctuation as intervention. On the one hand, performers and directors are always colonizing the texts they stage. On the other hand, certain texts demand unconventional approaches to this colonization. I am curious whether you considered or might consider opening up the idea of what punctuation in staging can be. That is, what if students could stage the story by using objects in place of a line, a word, or as a way of adding punctuation? What if they staged the text using a series of images or musical tracks? I wonder if opening up the assignment to a multi media context would allow for a wider range of non-traditional/non-patriarchal opportunities for interpreting the text. I look forward to hearing more about your class!

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