On December 12, 2017, students in Assistant Professor of Directing, History, and Theory Eunice S. Ferreira’s Black Theater course presented “Black Theater Poppin’ at the Tang,” an evening of performances in the museum. Students created original works and staged interpretations of plays in conversation with artworks on view. Performers invited the audience to follow them as they moved through various galleries.
The Tang elevator doors open to a crowded bar scene.
An interracial couple is arrested in the gallery.
A DJ spins records and schools the crowd on the history of hip hop.
Chessboard pieces come to life in an improvised dance.
Each time I teach the course Black Theater, the students and I build a unique and dynamic learning community. In fall 2017, seventeen students from different majors took intellectual, personal, and artistic risks—the highlight of which was “Black Theater Poppin’ at the Tang,” their final creative project and the course’s culminating experience. Although Black Theater is not a performance course, I employ “performance as research” strategies in and outside of the classroom. The course focuses on theater history, theory, and dramatic literature and embraces intersections with sociology and other fields related to black studies. During the semester, students discuss and analyze the centrality of image in the creation, function, and reception of plays by African American playwrights.
The Tang enriched our exploration of these ideas with three exhibitions that prominently featured the work of artists of the African diaspora: If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day: Collections of Claude Simard; Opener 30: Njideka Akunyili Crosby—Predecessors; Tel_; and Other Side: Art, Object, Self. A semester-long collaboration with the Tang challenged students to consider not only what they were looking at but also how their own looking may have changed since the beginning of the course. Students critically examined their relationships to art and how art related to their own intersectional identities. After two sessions at the Tang, students wrote reflection essays, posted responses to social media as part of the museum’s #tangcollectivecatalog initiative, and imagined performative responses to the exhibitions.
In the Tang’s exhibitions, students recognized tropes from early African American plays and discovered ways in which different artworks evoked transnational black identities. They analyzed how museum spaces “frame” racial representation. How do the qualities often attributed to museums contribute to the framing of works by or about black lives? What matters?
In redesigning my syllabus to collaborate with the Tang, I remembered my own undergraduate experience of going to an art museum for the first time when a professor required that we visit Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The assignment granted me permission to enter a space I previously considered irrelevant or inaccessible. The white neoclassical building sits like an Olympian temple on Huntington Avenue. I felt literally and figuratively small as I entered its historic foyer and moved through the antiquities wing to halls of European paintings. My friend and I posed for photographs, making interventions with sculptures, paintings, and other objects. I like to imagine that what we were doing was not merely playful engagement, but that, as women of color, we understood that we needed to point the camera toward our culturally marginalized bodies in order to create our own visual narratives.
The students in Black Theater were invited to reflect on their own museum experiences. They identified economic, class, and cultural factors that positively or negatively impacted their relationship with art museums. As a scholar-artist, I wanted to challenge the students to transform their personal responses into critical interventions. How can we move beyond the customary object-spectator model of museum viewing to a more dynamic exchange of object and spect-actor? I borrow the term “spect-actor” from Augusto Boal (1931–2009), visionary Brazilian theater artist, political activist, and founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, an international movement that promotes theater as a tool for social change. Boal believed that audiences should not be passive observers but active participants in drama in order to be equipped and compelled to act in “real life.” Can we thus become museum spect-actors? During our visits to the Tang, students selected artworks on view and brainstormed how they might use other forms—poetry, film, music, dance, drama—to imagine a performative response.