By James Peck
“I know most of you were one or two years old when this happened, but I was living in New York then and I remember...”
In March of this year, a few minutes into my morning section of THR 212 Performance Studies I heard myself speaking in an unfamiliar persona: a member of an elder generation talking to a younger one about events they couldn’t possibly remember. I was sharing some of what I recall about the 1992 riots in Los Angeles - where I was when I learned that four L.A. police officers had been acquitted of assault charges in the beating of Rodney King, the increasingly awful news reports coming from Los Angeles that week, things I did to try to respond to my stupefied dismay at the outcome of the trial and its vertiginous aftermath.
I chose a semi-personal approach to this material in part because my own memories of that week are inextricably pinned to Anna Deveare Smith. As it happens, I was working at the time at the Public Theatre as the assistant director for the premiere of Smith’s previous piece Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities. This performance about riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, similarly shot through with differences of ethnicity, race, and class, was headed into previews. I felt I should acknowledge my modest connection to Smith, if only in a spirit of full disclosure. I talked briefly about ways the images and reports from Los Angeles had shaped the process of Fires in the Mirror. Though immersed in rehearsal, Smith was keen to see and hear the news and to speak to people about what was happening. Doing so became part of the activity of researching, interviewing for, and building the show. Looking back now from the span of nearly twenty years, I wonder whether she intuited that events on the other coast would shape the reception of Fires in the Mirror, as indeed they did. Or maybe she just knew that history was taking place in her former city of residence and in the spirit of citizenship that characterizes her way of being in the world wanted to know all she could about it. By the end of the week, I suspected Smith would next make a piece about Los Angeles - that she would provide her own witness to that eruption in the ethnic, racial, and class history of the United States.
My classroom recollection of witnessing Smith and her principal collaborators develop Fires in the Mirror was a small moment in the flow of my semester, but it crystallized something about the syllabus. For my Performance Studies class, rather than try to cover or even gesture toward the full breadth of this always expanding, always exfoliating inter-discipline, I privilege epistemology. We start with Richard Schechner’s Performance Studies: An Introduction and then work through three or four books that demonstrate with particular boldness the new and unique ways of knowing performance studies makes available. I pair each text with a performance video that sustains repeated viewings and invites analysis from a range of theoretical perspectives. We read other articles and watch other performances, but these couplings constitute the spine of the course. With the exception of Schechner, the books and performances change from year to year.
This last spring, in addition to Schechner and Pollock, we read Guillermo Gomez-Peña’s Ethno-techno: Writings on Performance, Activism, and Pedagogy and David Gere’s How to Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS. Along with Twilight, we watched (with Schechner) DV-8’s The Cost of Living, the film of Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco’s The Couple in the Cage, and with the Gere book Bill Moyers’ documentary about the making of Bill T. Jones’ Still/Here. In thinking retrospectively about these selections, I have come to realize that my syllabus for this iteration of Performance Studies was largely about performance and politics in North America in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the years of my early adulthood. And teaching these materials, I had several moments like that one with Twilight. More than once I heard myself talking about things like The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or Reagan era federal AIDS policy or the protests and celebrations that marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of America or the unfurling of the AIDS quilt on the Washington mall as connected to a personal past, and then awakened mid-sentence to the fact that my students necessarily have a different temporal relationship to those events.
These classroom experiences mark a shift I’ve been noticing in my life as a teacher. In large part, of course, this just follows from getting older. I’m 46, solidly middle-aged. According to the standard metric, I was born in the final year of the Baby Boom, though if pressed to identify usually claim membership in Generation X. My peers and elders, I suspect, will recognize the transition I’m describing, and I’ve seen it coming for some time. But finding myself in such a moment in the context of a class about performing oral history provoked some new thoughts about how to respond to this inevitable stage of my journey.
Pollock and her co-authors linger in the generative possibilities of the gaps in oral history performance. She most admires performances like Fires in the Mirror and Twilight that embrace the distance between the performers and the historical subjects they’re enacting. She exhibits little interest in the sort of heritage theatre that strives to conjure the illusion that “you are there!” Instead, she lauds work that does something productive with the differences between the lives of the performers, the people they embody, and the audience members gathered to witness that embodiment. Pollock frames such fissures as zones of possibility – opportunities to exercise the historical imagination not as a process that categorizes and files the past, but as a conceptual and affective dynamo. She writes: “In all of its gaps, ‘betweenesses,’ or liminality, oral history-based performance offers less an alternative recording of the past than an ethical imaginary of a future – a future that now feels so close ‘we’ find ourselves almost at home in it, except that we must examine who ‘we’ are before we can cross its threshold” (7). The promise of oral history performance, for her, is not its capacity to revive the past, but rather its potential to elicit visions of a different social order that destabilizes or exceeds the trajectory that past seemed to establish.
I have been contemplating how it might look to adapt this perspective to teaching material from and about the recent past, performances and events now crossing the always fungible border into the category of history. How do I best take advantage of the generative gaps between me and my students, between us and the topic? I realize, looking back on this semester, that in addition to introducing the students to the field of performance studies, I (largely unconsciously) revisited a phase of my life. I don’t think I did so in a way that diverted too much attention from either the putative subject matter signaled by the course title or diminished the gravity of the public traumas of the 1980s and early 90s to which so many of our case studies referred. But going forward, if and when I teach this material again, I’d like to be more conscious about the historical frames I invoke and how I place myself within them. For starters, I will aim to better engage the 1990s as a moment of disciplinary formation for Performance Studies and pursue the extent to which the epistemological vistas the field created might be rooted in historical developments of that decade. But more vitally, I’d like to harness the power of the twenty-five years that separate me and my students – to do something affecting with this inevitable reminder that time passes and things change.
Della Pollock and her co-authors are helping me think about this. They remind me that it is important to return to events such as the Los Angeles riots, the early years of the AIDS epidemic, or the passage of NAFTA not only so that these watershed moments of recent history and the people engrossed in them take hold in public memory; this matters, but it’s not the only imperative. Equally, these events and the performances they engendered remain vital because history has not yet answered their claims. Racism persists, as does police brutality, and disparities of class in the US have only accelerated. AIDS can now be treated if not cured, but only for those with access to medical resources, and the oppression of queers, though slowly abating, continues. Neo-liberal economic policies imposed by the global North still create and exacerbate the crushing poverty of the global South. I want to remember to introduce my students to work from the 1990s by such exemplary artistic citizens as Anna Deveare Smith, Guillermo Gomez- Peña and Coco Fusco, and Bill T. Jones not only because this work is of such import to me personally that in a very real way it provides one measure of my life, though that is true, or because I feel some sense of urgency that the civic catastrophes of my young adulthood become a part of my students’ historical consciousness, though that is also true, or even because performance studies as a way of knowing coalesced during that era and so the essential performances of the time are a fundamental cornerstone of the discipline, though that is emphatically true. Pollock reminds me that performances from and about the past, perhaps especially the recent past, often bring us powerfully into contact with the present as a moment itself charged with historical possibility. Performance, Pollock reminds me, often remembers a past that isn’t over yet, and that might yet be redeemed.
About the Author
James Peck is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at Muhlenberg College. He is the editor of Theatre Topics.