From Theatre Topics 30.2 (July 2020) special issue on Queer Pedagogy in Theatre and Performance

Pedagogy Is a Ball

By Noe Montez and Kareem Khubchandani

School and the ball are not the same Junior Labeija seems to suggest as he calls the categories, "Going to school. School. Elementary, high school, college. Not here. School." Jennie Livingston's 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning stages the 1980s Harlem's Black and Latinx ball scene, where queer and trans folks organized into houses compete for titles and trophies in a variety of categories. "Looking like a girl going to school. Do she look like a girl going to school?" Even if school isn't here, minoritarian subjects can perform school, can look like a girl going to school. As if summoning Michel de Certeau's argument that place is practiced space, Labeija tells us that a school happens when we perform it, not where it is.1 Paris Is Burning is an overdetermined object of our disciplines (theatre, dance, performance), appearing on even the straightest and whitest syllabi insert shady snake rattle. It is a theoretically sound teaching text, one filled with critical ideas framed not just by the editing and direction of its white lesbian filmmaker, but staged in the exceptional ideations of power, performance, race, gender, and class that the ball children serve. Shortly after Labeija, Dorian Corey theorizes the systemic violence that denies minoritarian subjects educational opportunities, the need to perform learning when school is not available: "In real life, you can't get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. … Black people have a hard time getting anywhere. And those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom, you can be anything you want." Labeija and Corey, in their wit and play, undo the separation between school and ball, pedagogy and performance, even as they summon it: "Not here. School."

The FX TV show "Pose" heavily draws on the architecture, characters, clothing, and language of Paris Is Burning to tell its own version of the ball scene in the eighties and early nineties. New house mother Blanca takes under her wing Damon, who has been kicked out of his natal home. Seeing Damon's potential as a dancer, Blanca enrolls him in a dance academy. At first blush, the academy is the respectable site of pedagogy, and the entire House of Evangelista is responsible for supporting Damon's education. And yet, as the show unfolds, pedagogy seems to be happening everywhere in the lives of these queer and trans of colors characters. "Pose" insists on the value of kinship and pedagogy amidst the AIDS crisis and rampantly transphobic city: in flashbacks we see the lessons Elektra offers Blanca when she takes her into the House of Abundance; Blanca, who is HIV positive, sits Damon down to walk him (and us) through safer sex practices and condom use; and the ball's emcee Pray Tell takes Damon and his boyfriend Ricky to get tested, a moment in which pedagogy is a doing rather than a saying. The show offers viewers lessons in queer history as well, opening its second season with recreations of ACT UP's die-ins, and a dramatization of Hart Island where people who died of HIV-related illness and whose bodies were not claimed were mass-buried. Denison professor Hollis Griffin invokes the disposability of queer bodies at Hart Island when trying to make sense of the destruction of artwork by queer, Cuban, HIV-positive artist Félix González-Torres on his campus.2 Drawing on the memory of Hart Island, Griffin asks us to think about whose lives, bodies, and labor are disposable at the university.

The campus and the ball don't just come into proximity through representation. The University of Chicago, notorious for moating its ivory tower to distance itself from the working-class Black neighborhoods it sits among, hosts the annual Paragon Ball, a collaboration between the University's Center for HIV Elimination and the House of Balenciaga. Ball culture has found support and funding in HIV prevention projects, an innovative opportunity to reach young queer and trans people of color;3 the annual Paragon Balls features HIV testing, flu shots, mental health screenings, and doctor consultations. At the Fall 2013 Paragon Ball, several Midwestern Houses convened in competition, under heavy surveillance of campus security. One of the categories was "Black Greeks," inviting Houses to work the runway and impress judges in the style of Black fraternities and sororities. The children incorporated chants, step routines, and preppy outfits to conjure the collegiate lives that many of them did not have access to. The judges commended the accuracy of teams who learned the chants and steps of particular fraternities and sororities, and docked points from a team for not borrowing the signature colors of the fraternity they were simulating. This judging reminds us that dramaturgy is central to success at the ball, that meticulous research crafts accurate and exciting representation.

Performing/Queer/Pedagogy

Ball culture teaches us that queer pedagogy is not merely the provenance of the academy, but is rather a longstanding and ongoing project of knowledge making, creativity, intimate acts of transfer, and collective survival that precedes (and hopefully evades capture by) the academy. Queer spaces are rife with embodied pedagogy, what Marlon Bailey describes in his study of ball culture as "kin labor," which transmits intergenerational knowledge that is life-giving and life-saving for those alienated by racist cisheteropatriarchal systems. Performance is central to queer survival, whether through tacit negotiations of visibility,4 or choreographic mobilization in the face of a killer virus.5 Classrooms, colleges, campuses may not have been built to cultivate queerness,6 in fact they more likely turn us into "specimens"7 and conscript us to "discipline,"8 but they have in rare and beautiful occasions incubated queer performances, often through the risky pedagogies of women, queer, and trans people. Rather than ask how to queer pedagogy, or insist on how a queer pedagogy does things that other paradigms of education do not, here we triangulate queer, performance, and pedagogy to situate the themes that this special issue opens up.

In The Reorder of Things, Roderick Ferguson details the problem with administering sexuality at the university.9 Across the book, he maps the disturbing disciplining of interdisciplines and minoritarian knowledge as ethnic and queer studies become departmentalized in the neoliberal university. Robert Reid-Pharr too questions whether we really want to look to the academy to build something called "Black Queer and Trans Studies" when we can't trust the university to fund Black feminist knowledge, or defend black queer life.10 Why commit to a project of building minoritarian knowledge in the academy at all when, as E. Patrick Johnson suggests, "(almost) everything I know about queer studies I learned from my grandmother."11 Ferguson slyly reminds us that even as we celebrate the academy's embrace of queer studies or offering of partner benefits, that queer studies once imagined itself as anti-institutional, dangerous, and beyond capture. Theatre, dance, and performance studies, acknowledging the antitheatrical bias in rational thought, maps its relationship to the institution in similar spatial logics as queer studies.12 We are marginal, misunderstood, and yet still marketable.

Perhaps this parallel is not the most productive; the university will always find ways to make use of us and show us off, while always finding reasons not to allocate more resources to theatre, dance, performance studies (TDPS) or gender, women, sexuality (GWS) initiatives. What are other ways that our disciplines parallel each other? For one, they are both places that students and faculty dream together. As Catherine Cole describes, TDPS trains our students to not only articulate ideas, but manifest them.13 GWS curricula almost always include community-based learning, providing opportunities for students to work in scenarios that respond to the sociopolitical problems they write about. Further, the redirection of queer studies toward politics of hope and futurity imbue it with the task of dreaming, and dreaming particularly through performance.14 In both disciplines, the body is central to thinking.15 If in queer studies we ask "has the queer ever been human?"16 to destabilize embodiment and epistemology, in theatre warm-ups we put this question into practice as we neigh, buck, and sway our branches. Educators in both fields bring awareness to how our bodies work in class, processing the ways students cathect to us17 (a burden borne more heavily by women of color who are always expected to do the affective labor of the mother), and sustaining lifelong movement practices in order to teach technique-based classes (often TDPS's bread-and-butter courses).

Our departments are also where the freaks go to feel like they belong somewhere. The women with short-hair-dyed-green hanging lights for the department shows at 10:00 pm look a lot like nonbinary baby dykes in a 10:00 am queer studies seminar ready to talk "performativity." While those students might never end up in the same classroom, our departments create spaces for a different kind of embodied and intellectual labor for students who feel like they don't fit the professionalization model of university education. As we cultivate vulnerable and intimate spaces for sharing in our classrooms and studios,18 I marvel at the (sometimes frightening) collectivity that we produce. On the one hand the cliques that form, "the theatre kids" and "women's studies majors," sometimes engender toxic forms of exclusivity that keep other people, from non-majors to students of color, from joining in the freak fun. But also, the collectivity cultivated in our disciplines can be mobilized toward reforming the campus. Think for example of student activations responding to tenure denials of women of color teaching in ethnic and WGS studies on their campuses; the intimacy cultivated in these classrooms galvanizes students toward protest. Additionally, TDPS offers the aesthetic tools to do protest,19 as evidenced by the "teenage drama nerds" behind the "Never Again" protests that responded to the 2018 Parkland Florida school shooting.20

Queer faculty, especially queer faculty of color, join the academy for different reasons, from class mobility to commitments to social change from within institutions.21 Some of us endure, despite invisible "second shifts,"22 blatant racism,23 and sexual violence.24 Often we endure under the care of "academic aunties" who protect us from service and from sexual predators.25 But when the academy is not enuf (apologies to Ntozake Shange), we must remember that the academy is not the only place to do queer thinking. For David Román, dancing in the nightclub taught him a queer ethic of being with others and with oneself.26 The drag queens at Club 801 in Key West teach Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor about gender performativity, even while the queens label Rupp and Taylor the "professors of lesbian love."27 Kareem Khubchandani not only has epiphanies about gender performativity by doing drag in nightclubs, but the stage recrafted his pedagogy.28 In New York City movie theatres, Sam Delany not only finds quotidian sexual pleasure, but learns how neoliberalism works to privatize public and cross-class intimacies.29

Queers learn so many lessons from performance: divas teach us to call out social and systemic violence30 and to study popular culture beyond its heteronormative limits;31 stagecraft and costume design give us tools to move in and out of visibility on our own terms; dance studios make clear that rehearsing new embodiments is slow and steady work.32 Performers learn so much from queers: camp queens show us that realism is an aesthetic33—and a boring one at that; leatherdyke daddy-boi relationships teach us new ways to manipulate objects and language;34 ball culture is an education in site-specific work; and drag kings teach us ways of embodying masculinity beyond putting our hands in our pockets. In these perhaps silly examples, queer, performance, and pedagogy come together, reminding us that play and imagination are central to redistributing power and knowledge; when the university tightens its hold on our disciplines, sometimes a fabulous night out or a sexy night in35 is just the place to remind us why we do the work we do, or simply to sustain us as we keep doing it.

Ben Buratta's "Dance-Floor Dramaturgy: Unlearning the Shame and Stigma of HIV through Theatre" opens our issue by taking us into the nightclub to see how pedagogy operates beyond the classroom. Buratta writes of his experience devising a new play designed to educated queer-clubgoers about HIV in present-day Britain. This essay proposes that by drawing upon queer theory in an embodied process, performance-making can be a critical pedagogical tool for HIV awareness and education. Making a collaborative performance centering both the lineages and contemporary stories of HIV proffered a form of resistance to the negative and often problematic positioning of the virus within the queer community. The performance is an example of how drawing upon the past can educate and inform future thinking around HIV and AIDS. Crucial to the pedagogy is the staging of the performance on the dance floor of a queer pub. Detailing rehearsal strategies and exemplar moments from the play, the essay illustrates how a vital exchange with queer people living with HIV and an LGBTQIA-identifying cast gives space for new dialogue and embodied learning.

Benjamin Gillespie and Bess Rowen also think through the lineages of queer history in their essay, "Against Chronology: Intergenerational Approaches to Queer Theatre and Performance Histories." The duo posit that chronological historical frameworks are often ineffective for teaching queer theatre history, suggesting that a chronological approach effaces significant intergenerational connections among queer artists and communities and creates a false linear-progress narrative. Instead, scholars should value the dynamic exchange of aesthetic ideas, activist values, and alternative communities embedded historically, which in turn have the potential to offer new perspectives and critiques of the present. Gillespie and Rowen instead provide examples from their own classrooms that unpack the potential for an intergenerational pedagogical approach to queer theatre and performance histories.

Erin Kaplan accounts for performance and its failures as rituals of learning about oneself, one's practice, and audiences in her study of Xandra Ibarra, who performs as La Chica Boom. Ibarra has worked at the intersections of performance, film, video, burlesque, sex work, photography, and beyond for nearly two decades. Throughout her multiple works, she teeters between abjection and joy and problematizes the borders between proper and improper racial, gender, and queer subjects. One of Ibarra's central goals as La Chica Boom was to debase the presuppositions and racist/gendered stereotypes of Latinx women, presenting a kind of hyper-exaggerated and sexualized Latinidad that her performance might poke holes in these very stereotypes. Her vehicle for attempting these deconstructions of gendered raciality were what she called Spictacles. Kaplan argues that through a Confrontational Model of Explicit Body Performance, Ibarra's self-perceived failures to communicate and critically engage her audiences offer a pointed and articulate critique of white audiences as spectators.

The essays section concludes with Cody Allyn Page's "Dear Pen Pal: The Queer Peanuts of Dog Sees God," which asks how queer theory might come to bear upon production? Utilizing a production of Dog Sees God as his locus of study, Page explores theories of queer scholarship in his directing process. He begins by charting queer world-making and nostalgic memory through discussion of this production. Page considers how movement and choreography offers the body as a site of queer identification, and relates these movements to Sara Ahmed's notion of the line. Finally, he places these conversations among one another to show how his production of Dog Sees God functioned as theatre for social change and queer utopia vis-à-vis Jill Dolan.

The issue includes Notes from the Field by K. Woodzick, Alyson Campbell, and Sidney Monroe Williams. Woodzick's note gives an overview of inclusive practices theatre practitioners and training programs can use to create safe and brave spaces for nonbinary performers. From the perspective of a nonbinary performer, Woodzick also offers resources to nonbinary people as well as advice on how to advocate for themselves in rehearsal and audition processes. Campbell draws from her experiences as a queer-identifying teacher, artist, and activist operating both within and beyond the disciplinary confines of a university theatre department to propose that queering pedagogies requires a two-way set of strategies based on what we can do inside the academic institution (specifically, within theatre/drama/performance disciplines) and what we need to take outside the institution. Williams reflects on their time as Youth Programs manager for Boston's acclaimed Theatre Offensive and the multiple arts programs for LGBTQA youth that they navigated during their time at the theatre. The open access portion of the journal, found via Project Muse and the Theatre Topicssite hosted by Johns Hopkins University Press (https://www.jhuptheatre.org/theatre-topics) features additional materials that supplement the essays and notes found in this issue.

As always, Theatre Topics is created as a team effort, but this time around it is particularly true as Kareem Khubchandani serves as Guest Editor. Kareem is largely responsible for shaping the essays in this issue, and I could not have successfully brought this to press without his keen insight, eye for detail, and his willingness to work with authors for nearly six months. Former Theatre Topics Editor Lisa S. Brenner was a valuable resource for this special issue from the moments when I initially drafted the Call for Papers (CFP) through the submission of articles. Current Coeditor John Fletcher is doing fantastic work developing ideas for the year's final issue, and in drafting the CFP for his own special issue on essentials that will be published in July 2021. Margherita Laera also deserves acknowledgment for all of the work she does as our Online Editor and the ways that she envisions taking on projects of a larger and more ambitious scope, recently creating space for short videos on our webpage. Jessica Del Vecchio is in her first year curating our book reviews and is compiling an impressive collection of texts and reviewers. I am grateful that Tufts University's Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies funds two editorial assistants and that Louisiana State University funds a third. Thanks to Jenny Herron, Katie Morris, and Jessica Pearson-Bleyer for their close reading, detailed notetaking, and careful proofing. Thanks also to Bob Kowkabany for his work as our Managing Editor. D.J. Hopkins's advocacy on behalf of the journal as ATHE Vice President for Research and Publications makes all of our work easier. Finally, thanks to you, our readers, for your engagement and the ways that you incorporate ideas from the journal into your teaching and syllabi. If you have questions or comments, please contact me at noe.montez@gmail.com.

 

Notes

1. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life.

2. Hollis Griffin, "Letter to the Campus."

3. Marlon M. Bailey, Butch Queens up in Pumps.

4. Carlos Ulises Decena, Tacit Subjects.

5. Susan Leigh Foster, "Choreographies of Protest"; Patrick McKelvey, "Choreographing the Chronic."

6. Jay Dolmage, Academic Ableism.

7. Amber Musser, "Specimen Days."

8. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish.

9. Roderick A. Ferguson, The Reorder of Things.

10. Robert Reid-Pharr, GCWS Feminisms Unbound.

11. E. Patrick Johnson, "'Quare' Studies."

12. Jill Dolan, Geographies of Learning.

13. Catherine M. Cole, "The Theatre and the University."

14. Jafari Sinclaire Allen, "For 'the Children' Dancing the Beloved Community"; José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia; Jill Dolan, Utopia in Performance; Juana María Rodríguez, Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings.

15. Tan Hoang Nguyen, "The Opening of Kobena, Cecilia, Robert, Linda, Juana, Hoang, and the Others."

16. Dana Luciano and Mel Chen, "Introduction."

17. Joseph Litvak, "Discipline, Spectacle, and Melancholia in and around the Gay Studies Classroom"; Ed Brockenbrough, "'You Ain't My Daddy!'"

18. Dominique C. Hill, "What Happened When I Invited Students to See Me?"; Judith Hamera, Dancing Communities.

19. Foster, "Choreographies of Protest."

20. Stephen Sachs, "Surprised That 'Never Again' Leaders Are Theatre Kids?"

21. Matt Brim, "Poor Queer Studies"; bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress; E. Patrick Johnson, "In the Merry Old Land of Oz."

22. Musser, "Specimen Days," 8.

23. Johnson, "In the Merry Old Land of Oz."

24. Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor, "Becoming the 'Professors of Lesbian Love.'"

25. Erica Violet Lee, "I'm Concerned for Your Academic Career If You Talk about This Publicity"; Sara Ahmed, "Feminist Aunties."

26. David Román, "Dance Liberation."

27. Rupp and Taylor, "Becoming the 'Professors of Lesbian Love'"; Verta Taylor and Leila J. Rupp, "Learning from Drag Queens."

28. Kareem Khubchandani, "Lessons in Drag."

29. Samuel R. Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.

30. Deborah Paredez, "Lena Horne and Judy Garland."

31. Brett Farmer, "Julie Andrews Made Me Gay."

32. Hamera, Dancing Communities.

33. Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic.

34. C. Jacob Hale, "Leatherdyke Boys and Their Daddies."

35. Summer Kim Lee, "Staying In."

 

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. "Feminist Aunties." feministkilljoys. 12 Feb. 2016. Web.

Allen, Jafari Sinclaire. "For 'the Children' Dancing the Beloved Community." Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society 11.3 (2009): 311–26. Print.

Bailey, Marlon M. Butch Queens up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2013. Print.

Brim, Matt. "Poor Queer Studies: Class, Race, and the Field." Journal of Homosexuality 67.3 (2020): 398–416. Print.

Brockenbrough, Ed. "'You Ain't My Daddy!': Black Male Teachers and the Politics of Surrogate Fatherhood." International Journal of Inclusive Education 16.4 (2012): 357–72. Print.

Cole, Catherine M. "The Theatre and the University: Two 'Last' (and Lasting) Human Venues." Theatre Topics 25.1 (2015): 7–12. Print.

Decena, Carlos Ulises. Tacit Subjects: Belonging and Same-Sex Desire among Dominican Immigrant Men. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. Print.

Delany, Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: NYU P, 1999. Print.

Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research P, 1988. Print.

———. Geographies of Learning: Theory and Practice, Activism and Performance. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2001. Print.

———. Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2008. Print.

Dolmage, Jay. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2018. Print.

Farmer, Brett. "Julie Andrews Made Me Gay." Camera Obscura 65 (2007): 144. Print.

Ferguson, Roderick A. The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012. Print.

Foster, Susan Leigh. "Choreographies of Protest." Theatre Journal 55.3 (2003): 395–412. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1977. Print.

Griffin, Hollis. "Letter to the Campus: Denison, Hart Island and Félix González-Torres." The Denisonian. 10 Dec. 2019. Web.

Hale, C. Jacob. "Leatherdyke Boys and Their Daddies: How to Have Sex without Women or Men." Social Text 52/53 (1997): 223–36. Print.

Hamera, Judith. Dancing Communities: Performance, Difference, and Connection in the Global City. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillian, 2007. Print.

Hill, Dominique C. "What Happened When I Invited Students to See Me? A Black Queer Professor's Reflections on Practicing Embodied Vulnerability in the Classroom." Journal of Lesbian Studies 21.4 (2017): 432–42. Print.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Johnson, E. Patrick. "In the Merry Old Land of Oz: Rac(E)Ing and Quee(R)Ing the Academy." The Queer Community: Continuing the Struggle for Social Justice. Ed. Richard Johnson. San Diego: Birkdale, 2009. 85–104. Print.

———. "'Quare' Studies, or (Almost) Everything I Know about Queer Studies I Learned from My Grandmother." Text and Performance Quarterly 21.1 (2001): 1–25. Print.

Khubchandani, Kareem. "Lessons in Drag: An Interview with Lawhore Vagistan." Theatre Topics 25.3 (2015): 285–94. Print.

Lee, Erica Violet. "I'm Concerned for Your Academic Career If You Talk about This Publicity." Moontime Warrior. 5 Feb. 2016. Web.

Lee, Summer Kim. "Staying In." Social Text 37.1 (2019): 27–50. Print.

Litvak, Joseph. "Discipline, Spectacle, and Melancholia in and around the Gay Studies Classroom." Pedagogy: The Question of Impersonation. Ed. Jane Gallop. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 19–27. Print.

Luciano, Dana, and Mel Chen. "Introduction: Has the Queer Ever Been Human?" GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21.2–3 (2015): iv. Print.

McKelvey, Patrick. "Choreographing the Chronic." Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings. Ed. Clare Croft. New York: Oxford UP, 2017. 263–79. Print.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYU P, 2009. Print.

Musser, Amber. "Specimen Days: Diversity, Labor, and the University." Feminist Formations 27.3 (2015): 1–20. Print.

Nguyen, Tan Hoang. "The Opening of Kobena, Cecilia, Robert, Linda, Juana, Hoang, and the Others." Porn Archives. Ed. David D. Squires, Steven Ruszczycky, and Tim Dean. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2014. 61–77. Print.

Paredez, Deborah. "Lena Horne and Judy Garland: Divas, Desire, and Discipline in the Civil Rights Era." TDR: The Drama Review 58.4 (2014): 105–19. Print.

Reid-Pharr, Robert. GCWS Feminisms Unbound: "Quare Are We Now? The Time and Place of Black Queer and Trans Studies." 3 Apr. 2019. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. Roundtable.

Rodríguez, Juana María. Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings. New York: NYU P, 2014. Print.

Román, David. "Dance Liberation." Theatre Journal 55.3 (2003): vii–xxiv. Print.

Rupp, Leila J., and Verta Taylor. "Becoming the 'Professors of Lesbian Love.'" Journal of Lesbian Studies 9.4 (2005): 25–39. Print.

Sachs, Stephen. "Surprised That 'Never Again' Leaders Are Theatre Kids? I'm Not." American Theatre. 23 Feb. 2018. Web.

Taylor, Verta, and Leila J. Rupp. "Learning from Drag Queens." Contexts 5.3 (2006): 12–17. Print.