“Young, Gifted, Black and Matter!” Teaching and Performing Activism through a Black Lives Matter Aesthetic

Yunina Barbour-Payne

 

“We don’t just teach or study bodies. We teach and study as bodies and our bodies are, in turn, literally reshaped by the ‘hows’ and ‘wheres,’ material practices, of our pedagogy.”

–Hamera

“Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systemically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”

Garza

Like many instructors on the first day of class in any primary, secondary, or postsecondary education environment, I begin by introducing myself through my name: “Hello, my name is Ms. Barbour-Payne. You may call me Ms. B.P.” The dualism presented in my hyphenated name and my immediate abbreviation is linked to two acknowledgements. First, that I almost always use my name, what I allow students to call me, as a tactic to debunk and affirm assumptions around the teacher-student power dynamic within my classroom/rehearsal space. Second, that the inherent hyphenation of my name imitates my identity as -Affrilachian- Black-female-teacher-student-scholar-playwright-artist-activist. Both acknowledgements necessitate heedfulness to my own lived experiences at the intersections. In similar fashion, within the classroom I apply constructs of performance and pedagogy to mutually access the hyphenated identities of my student-audience as artists/activists. In this project I critically analyze the nature of teaching and embodying activism while investigating relational encounters among students of performance. Specifically, I look at collected data–descriptive scenes of classroom interactions and moments of articulated pedagogical reflexivity through competing dualism of performance art and activism. I focus on the relationships between myself, black female teachers, and young performers to argue for the centrality of the body in the production of a Black Lives Matter aesthetic.

Situating the Black Lives Matter Aesthetic in Performance Pedagogy

To define a Black Lives Matter aesthetic, one must begin with bodies. In her discussion of the pedagogical body, Judith Hamera posits that the “body is a site of knowing and… an object of practice in daily pedagogical lives”(63). Moreover, much literature has lent itself to the exploration of meaning making among bodies at work in society and the bodies’ role in race and gender performance. What is more, critical scholars like Bryant Keith Alexander have investigated the relationships between embodiment and cultural performances of solidarity and “shared history and struggle” (Alexander 325), among college-aged students in predominately white university settings. The ontology of the Black Lives Matter Movement, BLM, necessitates privileging the body over written or spoken word. The body is genesis, source of fortitude among movements, and resolve. BLM is often instigated by images of black bodies subjected to the crossfires of authority figures. In response to those images, BLM requires the bodies of surrogate activists prepared to advocate for similar issues across multiple locales in response. I freely adapt Alexander’s investigation toward an interest in how adolescent bodies, and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement particularly young bodies of color, are made into activists. I begin, end, and always reflect within and upon the body.

Lesson #1: Introducing Black Lives Matter through Embodiment: A Pantomime Exercise

Objective: Young Performers will be able to analyze individual and community associations to the Black Lives Matter Movement and produce a pantomime.

For this exercise, have students do a gallery walk of key words or phrases pertaining to the movement or offer local media for student reference. Preselect phrases that will evoke similarities in the classroom demographic and the movement. I used the following words: young, gifted, black, matter, Lorraine Hansberry. Give students 10 minutes to do a tour of the words and assign meaning designations by writing or drawing down the first thing that comes to mind when students observe each words or phrase.

Following the walk through, allow students an opportunity to reflect either aloud or through written processing, their experience of the gallery walk. Have them predict what connection they see between the words and phrases.

I randomly assigned students a poster in small groups of 4-5.  

In their groups, students were tasked with creating an improvised pantomime using the word associations produced by their peers.

Criteria for success:

-All pantomime scenes must have a clear beginning, middle, and end.

-Characterization must be evident in both physical and vocal performance.

-Scenes must not exceed five minutes in length.

The lesson above can be considered an icebreaker to the Black Lives Matter Movement for young performers. I gave this lesson on the very first day of the performance program. Students, eager to perform for one another, interpreted the data produced by their peers and critically interpreted ways to use only their bodies as modes for presenting the associations. The theater classroom is often the ideal space for encouraging exploration of the body. In this young performers’ classroom, the first week is grounded in an audition process. Students are to use their experiences in the first week to prepare them for the main stage production at the program’s end. As performers, students are aware of my hyphenated status as teacher-director the moment they enter the classroom. They are always already auditioning. During the lesson, intentional young performers act as disciplined bodies in space. Appealing to my teacher-self, they convey characteristics of well-mannered children. Appealing to my director-self, students seeking a principal casting at the week’s end utilize their creative bodies to convey challenging scenarios and witty improvisations. Within this context of competition and creativity the above lesson revealed the virtuosity in student performers. Student-artists devised scenes of homeless guitarists seeking work in the “Big Apple.” They also pantomimed historical Black Panther Olympian tableaus to convey word associations to the word “Black.” Repeatedly, students produced work that chronicled the development from unfamiliar competitors to familial co- creators.

One exemplary site for understanding the Black Lives Matter Aesthetic

Lesson #2: Finding Connections to Black Lives Matter Through Meaningful Discussion

Objective: Young performers will be able to explain BLM and connections to individuals and communities.

An integral part of the success of Time and Time Again was deeply understanding the historical context of national and local race/relations in America. Begin with a script. Your script may be an image, a news article clipping, or a social media post.

Guiding Questions:

-What sticks out to you the most as individuals?

-Who are the characters in this piece?

-According to this script, who are the victims? Who are the wrong-doers?

-What is missing?

-From whose Point of View is the story being told? What would happen if the point of view shifted to another character?

– What similarities do you have between the characters in this script?

-If this article were a story, how would you tell it? Would you rewrite the story’s end?

Invite a range of options and offer a talking piece to share the power within the classroom. Encourage active listening through question strategies that force the audience to reference one another. Allow the discussion to move in a manner that is true to what is being shared in that moment regarding the people in authority.

One week later, students were well on their way to studying their parts and mastering scene and character development. My positionality as director-teacher-playwright-activist met me at the end of the second week. This next example can be considered a case study in the performative role of activism in pedagogy. My notion of activism and pedagogy is grounded here in Alexander’s notion that pedagogy situates concerns in relations of power by “revealing, interrogating, and challenging legitimated social forms of teaching, learning and knowing while working toward transforming social systems to liberate human spirit” (Alexander 253). In the following scene, I write about the classroom episodes I observed while rehearsing the finale  number with the case. To discuss these episodes, I label them as a through d. These episodes throughout the rehearsal process of Time and Time Again ultimately led to a call for performance as activism.

  1. Once seated I asked that Cast A sit together in the first and second rows of the theater. Cast B sat tighter in the third and fourth rows. “It is important that I share with you all the significance of this piece in this specific time and place,”  I said. “How do you all feel about today?” All but one of the students was at a five. I started the conversation, not realizing that I only had the older students. “So I am going to begin by introducing concepts to you that are imperative to understand the subject matter of our show. The first is the Black Lives Matter Movement. Can anyone tell me what is a movement?”

-“A movement is when people get together to try to change the way society thinks about something.”

-“Right, and in this case, Black Lives Matter seeks to change the way society views people of color, male, women, and transsexual.” I turned to the next page. This first person is Sandra Bland. Repeat her name.”

“Sandra Bland.”

-“Sandra was pulled over by a police officer and wrongfully lost her life. While it was not said to have been an accident. What we know is that there is a real fear-that as Witness #2 says in our script never should I be pulled over and begin to wonder about anything more than a fine or what I did to get pulled over if I was in fact in the wrong. Turn and tell your partner who is Sandra Bland. Next, we have Tamir Rice. Say his name.”

-“Tamir Rice.”

-“Tamir Rice is one of two people who influenced the writing of the character Trey. How many of you like playing with water guns?” More than half of them raised their hands.

-“Well so did Tamir. It has been said that he was either playing with a water gun or a toy gun when someone in the community called the police because they felt threatened, and not knowing if it was a real gun or not, he lost his life. Turn and tell your partner who is Tamir Rice.” The next page had an image of Alton Sterling.  

-“Next is Alton Sterling.” I stopped, knowing one of them had already shown me the video of Alton being murdered yesterday morning from an Instagram post.

–“Now why would we go from dancing and singing the first half of the day to me bringing you in here and showing you these? “

-“Because you want us to understand about the characters we are portraying as people.”

-“And what about the people in here who aren’t those characters?”

-“We need to understand the community?”

-“ And what about you playing clowns?”

-“We need to understand the life of the play.”

-“What is my goal?” I held Alton’s picture back up for them to see. “Alton Sterling. How many of you have heard this name in the past week? Raise your hand.” Half of them raised their hands. Keep your hand raised if you feel comfortable sharing your witness account of his story.”

In the days prior to episode (a), student performers in both Cast A and B had struggled to master their scenes and a successful off-book run of the show finale. The high from the excitement of completing their first run-through, was born out of a narrative of failure from artistic directors, myself included, and fellow performers. In the moments immediately before episode (a), students had successfully performed the closing number of “We Are Here,” the denouement for Time and Time Again. Young performers had also achieved their very first moment of shared communitas as co-creators. Victor Turner’s concept of spontaneous communitas observes strong feelings of close attachment among groups of people that extended beyond distinctions in class and other social barriers (1969). The feeling of communitas among young performers was precipitated by the safe space of the theater stage during increasingly daunting moments. That very week was shadowed by the deaths of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling. Singing R& B singer Alicia Key’s Black Lives Matter tribute song “We Are Here” had evoked a jubilance that resonated throughout the entire building. In earlier field notes I recalled people “stepping away” from their desk to come witness their rehearsal performance. The morning of episode (a), I challenged a fourteen-year-old male student aide to provide a sketch of BLM victims’ lives, as well as an image to place them at the center of the life of our play. He had spent the entire morning finding the information, and had brought it to me in sections. I asked him to find as much as he could about them as people, not victims or deceased persons. The very lesson itself would serve as a memorial, and a source for character building as we expanded the rehearsal process and student resources.

As our student-performers gathered in a 300-seat theater, it was important to me that their bodies were close together for the activity. Their physical closeness was a necessary component of the process and their physical closeness facilitated an opportunity to act as each other’s witnesses. With a responsibility to create a space for their individual truth, and the truths in the experiences of the victims they sought to portray, as teacher-activist I used this lesson to challenge their perceptions of Black Lives Matter. Oftentimes within that week, I had personally experienced media framing that robbed victims of police gunfire of their innocence through language intended to criminalize and perhaps even justify their deaths. As playwright, I sought to re-imagine the victims as their youthful selves. As teacher, I had intentionally used the very preparation of the work to teach and expand young minds. Tasking a fourteen-year-old with the responsibility of Googling Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown and Sandra Bland.

Say their names: Call and(activist) response for the young performer

In the era of social media activism, the Black Lives Matter Movement was advanced through repetitive social sharing. At the onset of the movement, the circulation of news surrounding black death ignited reactions of social injustice from widespread audiences. Akin to the reaction of Americans following open casket viewing of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin’s phantom hooded profile, Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe,” and Ferguson protesters call for “hands up-don’t shoot,” permeated social, political, and educational platforms. While there are multiple schools of thought regarding the deleterious effects of re-viewing violence, one cannot ignore the benefits closely tied to the practice of sharing across mediums. The highly mediated nature of social sharing does require further investigation. Peggy Phelan argues that “performance implicates the real through the presence of living bodies” (Phelan 148).  In the spirit of Phelan’s liveness, what the social media platform can not produce is the immediate experience of witnesses in the moments of realization of injustice in black violence. Fortunately, what the mediatized space of social media could not supply for us, the theater afforded us in its literal and creative space.

As student-performers sat in front of me during episode (a), I treated the lesson as though it were every young performer’s first time encountering the Black Lives Matter Movement. During this lesson, I sat among them, hoping to position myself as a fellow student rather than teacher-director-activist with dominant knowledge. A space of shared knowledge and individual subjective knowledge is essential in a Black Lives Matter aesthetic. The idea of a shared understanding or point of entry of “what matters” was sometimes framed by student stories of injustice and witness accounts of violence on social media platforms. In addition to reestablishing power dynamics within the classroom space through the physical placement of my body among theirs, I also sought to embody a redressive call to remember. In May of 2016, a colleague-poet and sorority sister to Sandra Bland wrote and performed a piece during a school assembly entitled “Sandy.” In the piece, the poet spoke about her personal experiences with her sorority sister and supplied the unknown truths absent from police and news reports. Within the poem she repeatedly called for the audience to “say her name.” Her call intimates the tradition   in Black Arts Movements that acknowledges an “unbreakable link between artistic production and revolutionary politics” (hooks 6). Her spoken word performance spoke directly against an ideology that historically silenced the victims and those closely connected to the now dearly deceased. By crafting her version of who “Sandy” was against ever present narrative biographies provided by local media, she presented a Black Lives Matter aesthetic of retelling her personal history with Sandra. In protest to the silence that followed Sandra Bland’s death, she called for Bland’s injustice to be remembered through her name. As a class, we said each of the deceased’s names as a ritual, moving from one victim to the next.

Following our walk through of the victims/characters, I then posed the question: “How many of you can find some kind of connection to one or more of the people you just heard about?” In that moment about 30 % of the cast raised their hands. Like popcorn, they shared what they felt was a shared experience between themselves and the names from the lesson.

(b) That is where the real work began. One by one they shared and the need for tissues grew. The room began to swell. It began with one younger female student talking about how she and her brother play with toy guns all the time and that could have been her. A young male shared the time his mother had repeatedly been wrongfully pulled over. Another girl shared how she felt she is like Sandra because she is a woman. An older female student in the group expressed her connections as a black woman and as a big sister with a little brother like Tamir and Trayvon. A different student expressed her feelings of unsafety as a person of color, not necessarily black but “different.” Another student spoke of her Latin and Black heritage and the tendencies for her family members to be loud that could be confused with threatening behavior. I took a pause. As each person shared another hand came up. The room had grown darker. I took another temperature check. Over half of the student had tears falling down their faces. “Hold up a five if the emotion you’re feeling right now is fear. Hold up a 3 if it is sadness and disappointment, 0 if you are numb and neutral, and a 1 if you are ok.” When it was time to move, only 3 people were in the numb and neutral. The rest were split between being fearful, sad or disappointed.

Like popcorn, one comment sparked another and the affect in the room shifted. As more tears started to fall, I noticed the shift in my own discomfort and could not ignore it. I had a responsibility to keep this space safe and in that very moment students were regurgitating moments in which they had felt unsafe. The affective shift in the theater at this moment sparked a “me among we” and/or the “we among me” dynamic. This dynamic or relational manifestation is necessary for the Black Lives Matter aesthetic. It precipitates social healing through bearing witness and sharing of identity through connections in storytelling.  Once students were able to share their stories, self-identify their levels of emotional comfort and discomfort, they then divided into families.

To my surprise, as they moved, the emotional response, particularly in the fear and anger sections, grew more vocal. As activist, the perceptions of their powerlessness became my priority. I reminded them that while they may feel afraid, that we were in a space that is culturally ours protected by our ancestors. In this pedagogical moment I evoke BLM as I draw their attention the contribution of people who look like them. The very theater where we sat was the only African American professional theater company to this day, founded by young artists and graced by the brilliance of August Wilson. I encourage them to find solace in the space that embodies the strength in black life and its obligation to survive, to persist – even in the midst of continued hurts.

(c)We then took a moment to take care of each other. “I give you permission to feel whatever you are feeling. We  need to take care of each other. Tap the leg of the person next to you if you need them to hold your hand. Or put your arm around them or raise your hand if you need a bigger presence if you need wider arms and the adults in the room will come around. We will take care of each other, we are safe.” We took a moment to console. Then we broke up again in an effort to make sure everyone got a chance to share what was on their hearts and minds. I broke them up into smaller groups counting off by five. The kids in the 0 category had joined groups to share and to listen some of the students who were previously ok were now crying.

As employee, I felt overwhelmed by the emotional response in the room and so I left. There were only twenty minutes remaining until dismissal and as an employee I had an obligation to notify the administration of the potential effects of the lesson. Plainly put, I needed to explain why there were so many kids crying. So, I left for 15 minutes to find someone. When I returned to the theater, a 47-year-old seasoned artist was in the center of the student-audience space sharing her experience of hardship. She lectured of her experiences living amidst stereotypes and suggested acceptance of violence as a means to cope the with harsh realities of black life. As she emphasized a necessary acceptance, I interrupted her mid-sentence asking, “What if our performance had the power to change society?”

(d) I then took the dance and music instructors outside to reset. Collectively as artistic directors we decided to tap into the healing power of music and against the pressures to finish the remaining blocking for the day. “We are here,” was our unanimous decision. We would sing the finale again and allow the song to do whatever work it needed to do.

Everyone took a restroom break.  I went to sit beside a male student who had his hands in his shirt and separated himself at the top of the theater from the rest of the group. I posed the question again “What if our performance had the power to change things?”

I posed the question in the absence of a clear resolution. At the day’s end I was instructed to send a letter home to the parent of every student in the room to:

  • Ease any concerns regarding the probable emotional change or abnormal emotional state of their student.
  • Educate families on topics discussed pertaining to the killing of youth and people of color.
  • Promote families to continue the conversation with young performers.  
  • Confirm that the frequency of these sort of conversations would be continued throughout the rehearsal process.

Our lesson ended with a call to ACT-ors. As a scholar/artist I felt confident that the resolution would come in the form of the play. Singing “We Are Here” offered a space to individual and communally console one another. As the songs were sung, unlike the earlier rehearsal, the intention of the song moved from performance to proclamation. The utterance of “We are Here” enacted our collective presence.  Like popcorn, just as when students had shared their stories of discomfort, now they shared their songs. Each song sparked a request for another, and it wasn’t long before joy returned to the room as we collectively danced the “Macarena.” I lean on pedagogical interactions as templates for activism and healing. My shift to returning to my director-self to the forefront of my identity utilizes space of the theater for and as healing.

Conclusion

In the following week, young performers would daily share additional personal experiences of injustices one-on-one and within whole group settings. They brought videos to show recent violence within their community and trending on their media accounts. They also wrote journal reflections of their discomforts. During rehearsal, I returned to this moment as a point of reference for truth, motivation, and source of correction for adolescent exploration and maturity. The limits of my hyphenated identity did not equip me to heal young performers’ hurts of injustice. However, as an artist I felt confident that we would use the moment to move this activist work beyond front page stories to more tangible stories on the stage. Most importantly, the Black Lives Matter aesthetic requires the constant shifts in power to the witnesses to assume multiple identities.

Works Cited

Alexander, Bryant Keith. “Performing culture in the classroom: An instructional (auto) ethnography.” Text and Performance Quarterly 19.4 (1999): 307-331.

Alexander, Bryant Keith. “(Re) Visioning the ethnographic site: Interpretive ethnography as a method of pedagogical reflexivity and scholarly production.” Qualitative Inquiry 9.3 (2003): 416-441.

Alexander, Bryant K. “Critically analyzing pedagogical interactions as performance.” Performance Theories in Education: Power, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Identity (2005): 41-62.

Alexander, Bryant Keith. “Performance and pedagogy.” The Sage Handbook of Performance Studies (2006): 253-260.

Barbour-Payne, Yunina. Field notes. July 2016.

Garza, Alicia. “A herstory of the# blacklivesmatter movement.” (2014).

Hamera, Judith. “Exposing the pedagogical body: Protocols and tactics.” Performance Theories in Education: Power, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Identity (2005): 63-81.

Hooks, Bell. “Postmodern blackness.” Postmodern Culture 1.1 (1990).

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. Routledge, 2003.

Turner, Victor. “Liminality and communitas.” The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure 94 (1969): 130.

Young, Harvey. Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2010.