By EJ Westlake
[Editor's note: This was written before the murder of George Floyd]. I had written a completely different introduction to this issue in February. Then, as the novel coronavirus began to claim more and more lives, I threw it away. How do you write an introduction to a theatre journal at the beginning of a deadly global pandemic as everything that sustains us professionally shuts down? What do you say about our field as people in your home community, a city already ravaged by years of neglect, people who already have health conditions from dirty air and poverty, people who must continue to work and use public transit, are dying? How can you respond when hundreds of protesters carrying rifles march into your state capitol to demand an end to a lockdown that is meant to stem the growing tragedy? As you watch the weary healthcare workers head to the hospital blocks from your home, risking their own health and safety, how do you weigh the comments of people who call for "reopening the economy"? What is the value of a human life?
I look to the writing of David Román, who was editor of Theatre Journal when the attack of September 11th occurred. He was already curating a special issue on "Tragedy" when "history happened in an unexpected, all but unimaginable, way. Like most people, I found the senseless and terrible deaths of so many people and the immeasurable suffering of countless others on September 11th simply insurmountable in terms of sadness and grief."1 Román follows with his own set of questions about how to respond and takes measure of his own feelings of helplessness. He finds purpose through community and the national rally to support New York and the New York theatre scene: "The theatre was positioned both as a therapeutic antidote to the suffering of the city and as the symbolic core of the city's history and traditions."2
At this writing, Broadway has been closed for two months, and is due to remain closed for at least the summer. When it does open again, theatregoing will not be the same, at least for another year, maybe longer. We are still in this. The tragedy continues to unfold around us and stretch across the globe, stranding people apart and alone.
I was in my role as editor when I attended the Mid-America Theatre Conference (MATC) in early March. The United States had just confirmed twelve deaths and over 200 cases. No one knew what that would mean for us at the time. Hand sanitizer was everywhere, and we all took handwashing seriously. There were murmurs that the University of Washington might move courses online. We were grateful to get to meet in person. Days later, a wave of university and hotel closures would have made the conference impossible. And indeed, ATHE's leadership announced the difficult decision to cancel the in-person meeting in Detroit scheduled for this summer.
One thing I love about the work of editing is how I listen to conference presentations with new ears. And I have been energized by the work of emerging scholars and excited to be a part of bringing them into a broader conversation. I reflected back on the work I heard at MATC, much of it from graduate students and contingent faculty finding their footing in a precarious field. The assistant professors who have mentored them were rightly proud of the work they have done to provide emerging scholars with a home. I was looking forward to seeing the work continue at ATHE, here, in what I consider a second hometown.
The pandemic has upended our academic and arts communities in ways we could not have imagined, and it will continue to have far-reaching effects on how we research, teach, and make art. We must be especially mindful of the emerging scholars, graduate students, and contingent faculty who carry so much of the burden of teaching, those whose careers depend upon the decisions we make. We must advocate for them when we can.
When we emerge from the pandemic many months from now, there will no doubt be a difficult economy and an altered political landscape. Funding will be strained and face-to-face contact may not be the same. What will be the nature of the conference? Will we still have them? What kinds of venues will emerge for editors to hear new work? What will count for tenure and promotion? What is the future of a field that relies so much upon in-person collaboration and an audience?
Meanwhile, the continuing concerns of our planet and the citizens of the world press on. We begin with a provocation from Bethany Hughes with "Oka Apesvchi: Indigenous Feminism, Performance, and Protest." She invites us to consider Indigenous, feminist protest performance through an Indigenous-centered analysis. Using Melanie Yazzie and Cutcha Risling Baldy's concept of radical relationality and terms from her own Chahta language, Hughes builds an Indigenous theoretical frame of water protection through which she analyzes the music video "In the River," by Raye Zaragoza, Allyson Gear's act of resistance captured in Ossie Michelin's photograph "Drum Dancing," and Mary Kathryn Nagle's play Fairly Traceable. Each of these performances draw attention to and intervene in colonizing practices that threaten water at the heart of Indigenous life. Water becomes the site of decolonization in feminist acts of reclaiming sovereignty. Hughes notes that the performances are "are not only beautiful and persuasive as rhetorical tools, but are powerful and constructive as political praxis of relation-making, obligation-fulfilling, and action-taking."
VK Preston also centers Indigenous knowledge in their essay "Queer and Indigenous Art: Performing Ice Times in Climate Crisis." Preston contemplates the particular challenges facing the people of the circum-polar north, beginning by acknowledging loss of traditional lifeways and the violence of climate change. The author examines the work of Buddies in Bad Times, particularly Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools (2017), the Qaggiavuut Society, Ikumagialiit, and the Isuma Collective. Preston puts forward the concept of cryotemporalities, or "ice times," which are "assemblages of climate feeling and measurement (of past, present, and future), including speculation regarding timelines, that scrutinize the material process of ecological warming and cultural crisis" in order to understand collective creations at the intersection of Inuit and queer dramaturgies.
We follow Hughes and Preston with "Performing 'Aume': Artaud's Body Art" by French scholar Maxime Philippe. Responding to the release and publication of Artaud's final notebooks in 2011, he analyzes Artaud's drafts of a play on the Tower of Babel and his final radio play To Have Done with the Judgment of God. Philippe reads the texts as a kind of "embodied practice of writing," both because the texts reflected Artaud's own physical experiences of pain and because he performed the texts himself. According to Philippe, the "choreography of linguistic and bodily transformations challenges the characterization of Artaud's theatrical experimentations in the second half of the twentieth century either as an impossible or a failed theatre." His late work, Philippe argues, more than his earlier work, was instrumental in the transition from the modernist avant-garde to the later "body art" of time-based and performance art.
Next, Eunha Na writes about representations of North and South Korea in "Freedom in the Marketplace: Staging Defector Narratives in Mia Chung's You for Me for You and Kim Eunsung's Sister Mokrahn." Na presents us with two recent plays that defy the common narrative that casts defection as a triumph and journey to what will ultimately be freedom and opportunity. Looking at these texts together, she notes, "offers a comparative perspective on the ambivalent nature of imagined communities that often conceals the larger structure of global capitalism." While You for Me for You seems on the surface to embrace the fantasy of American paternalistic liberation and the portrayal of the defector as transformed to model citizen and, by extension, model consumer, it highlights the physical and emotional toll demanded of the immigrant. Sister Mokrahn, on the other hand, calls attention to the ways in which North Koreans seek to be active agents in a global economy, choosing to cross and then re-cross, in order to survive. The crossing and re-crossing of the play's protagonist, Na posits, point to the liminal status of the defectors, who find hardship on either end of the peninsula.
Taking her cue from D.J. Hopkins and Kim Solga in the introduction to their book Performance and the Global City (2013), Joanna Mansbridge examines Hong Kong as a "global city" in "Architecture, Infrastructure, and Urban Performance in Hong Kong." In considering the performance of Hong Kong, Mansbridge notes that "the global city emerges not simply as an alternative to nationalist identities, but as a channel through which such identities are both revived and interrupted." First, she examines the development of Hong Kong from colonial port to a modern city economically dependent on China. Then she analyzes two performances, The Architecture of the City (2017) by Zuni Icosahedron and Remote Hong Kong (2018) by Rimini Protokoll. Both performances, she suggests, show how the city acts on the people living in and moving through it, through both its architecture and infrastructure. Ultimately, theatre can be the forum through which the collective questions and affirms the nature of the urban community, and for us to rehearse the relationships we maintain with both the city and one another.
As always, I am humbled by the quality of the work of the scholars who write for us. As I rotate into the role of editor and Jen Parker-Starbuck rotates off, I am grateful for her intelligent and dynamic guidance. Hers was a truly inspired term as editor, in which Theatre Journal became ever more inclusive in both the breadth of scholarship and the global nature of the work. I am also very glad to be joined by Sean Metzger as coeditor, whose diligence and focus have made my work so easy and whose scholarly interests will ensure that the journal will continue to open new frontiers. I am also grateful to our group of editorial assistants, particularly Lauren Ericks Cline, who worked with me during my time as coeditor, and Kyle Frisina, who will also now be rotating off. Let us acknowledge the important labor they perform.
We face challenges we could not have imagined even a half a year ago. We will face hardship—financial, emotional, and even physical. Many of us will lose friends or colleagues. But we are a resilient community of scholars and artists, and it is a resilience based on collaboration and creative acts of solidarity and kindness.
1 David Román, "Introduction: Tragedy," Theatre Journal 54, no. 1 (2002): 3.
2 Ibid., 5–6.