Some thoughts on the Mid-America Theatre Conference, Kansas City, 2015

I fumbled, I shifted, I repeatedly ran my fingers over the scars made by boxknife blades on the back of my hands, I touched the raised flesh hidden under the hair of my head, a reminder of those who tried to squash the queer materiality of the punkified presence I had imposed upon the quaint rural community of pre-internet Sand Springs, Oklahoma; I recalled the hunger pangs and acrid smells of the Los Angeles streets. As I sat listening to the keynote address from Dr. Irma Mayorga of Dartmouth, I could not help but run over the past traumas of my body, desperately searching for evidence of suffering. Why?

Mayorga’s speech was a blend of biography and social analysis that made visible markers of race (a predominantly externally regulated category) and ethnicity (a more agential category in its uptake) central. She is the first Latina to receive a doctorate from Stanford’s Drama Department, and her personal exploration of the techniques of policing the raced body was inscribed in her phenotype as much as her words. None of the stories and representations she encountered in the dramatic canon resembled her world, those colored bodies who looked like her and populated that world, or the stories attached to and circulating around those colored bodies. She has continually sought to rectify this.

Opposed to the brown, marginalized body is of course the neutral (yet masculine) gleam of whiteness, a historically and ontologically (through discursive reinforcement) disembodied positionality in all its hegemonic force and appeal. Whiteness is concerned with white history, the great man theory—as long as those great men are white with a few tokenistic gestures to the Frederick Douglasses and Luis Valdezes thrown into the mix. Whiteness is not a body, certainly not my body, though I benefit from its categorical deployment. Whiteness is a way of looking, of appraising, of rising above the body. It too has its phenotypic markers that must be filled in with history, rhetoric, and the deflation of affect. It is not my body, or at least my embodied experience in total, but I bear its marks and benefits.

At these conferences we are all about the embodied experience, embodied epistemologies, affective ways of knowing, phenomenological bodies (a term Harvey Young prefers), and the body as a political site of resistance, containment, and surveillance. But as I looked around the conference room I saw many souls uncomfortable in their fair skinned bodies: a spasm, a fidget, a twitch, a look down, a forced smile. In sum, consciousness was reversing Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological schema, knowledge was attempting to de-situate, to transcend the material and the flux of subject-object, and leave behind only the trace of a mechanical nod of the head.

Yes, we white theatre scholars were fulfilling the mandate of whiteness to rise above our bodies, but realizing the impossibility of doing so. Why? Because in some ways to agree with Dr. Mayorga was to reject those benefits of Caucasian phenotype, to possibly deny oneself a job, publication, or field of study. No one of course mentioned this, but that potential move from imaginary to actuality was nonetheless there. No one wanted his or her body to plunge itself back into debates on affirmative action, especially to find that body on the “wrong” side, that side that centers the self as it partakes of fruits of domination. (And unfortunately, sometimes affirmative action only affirms systemic racism if its actions do not go deep and wide enough).

So I (unconsciously at the time) searched my body for its history, its marks of travail, poverty, homelessness, hunger, violence, those typically un-white varieties of experience—no doubt to make myself feel better because I agreed with Mayorga in many of her assessments. But also I considered my bodily exploration an act of theorizing, of connecting, of perhaps destabilizing categories, of potentially empathizing and connecting with other embodied agents. The body is a repository of memory and this could be where we start.

At the University of Washington many of our students share an East Asian heritage (of course, a multi-sited heritage or heritages), but the curriculum centers upon Anglophone or European traditions of performance. Some lament that there is no common base of analysis in the classroom: Haven’t any of these students read Hamlet? Don’t they know Oedipus? But rather than seeing this problematic as an insuperable obstacle, I take it as an opportunity. John Dewey writes of publics as formed around and by problems, and this “problem” of no Hamlet, no Oedipus, can force open (if an instructor is receptive) a dialogic encounter rather than a unidirectional lecture–the continual dialectic of wrestling with the ostensibly incommensurable clutter of objects between cultures.

I carry no utopian visions that a comprehensive shared language is developed, but rather that common terms are learned or created together in order to deal with new problems; the canon is shifted, adjusted, refracted, enlarged etc. In short, we theorize through the body, through co-presence, through expanding the frame of critique to include entities of association usually excluded–to realize anew the network of agents. Treating histories as bodies treated as repositories of clashes, trauma, failures, problems and yes, affects, jouissance, hopes and alliances. Let us ask considerate questions: considerate because they consider the presence of individuals, of interests, of difference. To deny this is to deny a situatedness that extends beyond the self. I study animals and other life forms, and argue with them for better treatment and an adjustment and extension of certain rights, so I am always willing to look beyond the flat ontology of whiteness, but its push and pull is always there, circumscribing possibilities of imagination if one is not vigilant or diligent in his or her resistance.

So as I mentally return to that MATC luncheon, I again think about my embodied history, but what about all those bodies marked in various ways that got me there: human bodies, animal bodies, plant bodies, rock bodies? I think of what has been de-emphasized from political belonging to become my resource, my means to an end, and I again, feeling uncomfortable and guilty, “reach for the scars.” But let me not stop there. Let me gesture towards another’s scars and inquire. Let us notice our scars. Let us think beyond sight to embodied histories rich with sounds, smells, tastes and the tactile. Let us be truly theatrical in our sharing—cordoning off time and space to listen, see, and experience the other. Students should never be considered an obstacle or a means to an end. Differences, gaps in understanding, blank stares are all opportunities for reflection both on the self and what we consider external to the self. Perhaps I receive blank stares (which I sometimes do) because I am not asking interesting questions about interesting things because I am not being expansive enough in my definition of interests. So where I land after this impromptu foray into memory is in a place where I am no longer just looking at my scars or reflecting upon myself, but I am looking at the other—I am looking at you and exulting in where our differences can take us.

Scott Venters is a Doctoral Student in Theatre History, Theory, and Criticism in the School of Drama, University of Washington.

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