The Theory Behind Black Performance
Once again the MIT campus has been enlightened by the artistic community. A collection of artists and scholars met this past weekend for a conference entitled Black Performance Theory: Performativity and Narratives on Race.
Organized by Thomas Defrantz, Assistant Professor in Music and Theater Arts, the two-day event assembled a group from around the country to discuss the issues surrounding black art. The panelists included social critics, anthropologists, poets, dancers, and filmmakers, all concerned with this crossroads of race and art. And of course, you couldn’t pull this many artists together without putting on a show.
“We gathered to explore black performativity,” Defrantz said, referring to the emergence of a theory which questions the connection between performance and racial identity. “We wanted to articulate how it was manifested, and engage the dissonance and dissidence it could create.”
After participating in a similar conference at Duke University, Defrantz brought this event to MIT “to continue the conversation.” He stressed the importance of “a dialogue across disciplines and academic settings.”
The conference was divided into four workshops, focusing on music, the spoken word, film, and dance. The workshops followed a roundtable format, each panelist addressing the work of his peers while presenting his own area of expertise.
One topic that often surfaced was the theme of racial authenticity. In a society where hip hop culture has seen a proliferation across races, where’s the dividing line for what it means to be black?
Jason King, a playwright, performer, and doctoral candidate at New York University, stated “There’s a fluidity of available social definitions of blackness.” King emphasized how race repeatedly becomes a commodity with “the buying and selling of blackness as dissipated by the market.”
And this being MIT, it’s difficult to escape a somewhat scientific explanation for these issues. “Race has an ascribed characteristic,” said anthropologist and filmmaker, John Jackson, Jr. “Racial identity is predicated by behavior, not by biology.”
The conference took a more entertaining aspect Friday night for the Scratch-n-Mix Performance Jam in Kresge Little Theater. With the spinning of DJ Aron Qasba ’00, the jam featured spoken word artists and dancers. Several actresses performed monologues from last year’s production of For Colored Girls. Poet/performer Carl Hancock Rux read from his book, Pagan Operetta (Fly by Night Press). And Defrantz performed a selection from his repertoire Monk’s Mood, about the life of jazz musician Thelonious Monk.
The conference was a step towards articulating how the “black aesthetic” has evolved. These performances and debates explained why, as Defrantz stated, “black theater has strived and thrived in an often hostile American landscape.”