By Kathy A. Perkins, Randy Reinholz, Laurence Senelick, and Patricia Ybarra

 

Kathy A. Perkins, ATHE Career Achievement Award 2019 Acceptance Speech

Thank you ATHE for this outstanding award. I never intended to pursue a career in academia, but to work exclusively as a lighting designer. However, a higher power had other plans for me (fig. 1).

On my first day of graduate school at the University of Michigan in 1976, I asked a young white male for directions to the design orientation. He asked me why, and I told him I was a design major. He said he didn’t know black people did anything other than perform, and since he had a PhD in theatre he never read anything about black designers. I said, “We exist, because you’re talking to me.” I thanked him for his directions and went to my orientation.

Throughout the day, I was filled with anger by his comments, and as soon as orientation ended, I spent the next six hours in the library examining every theatre book available. My anger intensified when I discovered he was right—we didn’t exist in publications except for a paragraph on the Federal Theatre project and a section in Black Drama by Loften Mitchell. Later that night, I called my sister, Linda, who was completing her PhD in education, and shared my encounter with this young man. “You need to write a book,” she said. I explained I wasn’t a scholar and didn’t write well. She said, “If you don’t do it, who will?” I didn’t give the project much thought until years later.

One year out of graduate school I was successfully free-lancing as a designer in New York and Europe. On a visit home to Mobile, Alabama, my parents said they were proud of me but they weren’t sure where I worked. I explained that I free-lanced for a living and didn’t work for anyone. As far as they were concerned, I didn’t have a “real job.” My father despised the term free-lancing. He said it sounded like a loose woman. He kindly asked if I would find a teaching job for a few years and return to the free stuff later. Because I wanted to please my parents, I pursued a teaching position.

Several weeks later, my sister, who was now a college professor, called excited to inform me that Smith College in Massachusetts had an opening for a lighting instructor, and the announcement encouraged women and minorities to apply. “This is your job,” she said.

At Smith, I realized how much I enjoyed teaching, being a mentor and taking students to NYC to assist me on productions. During my second year at Smith, my sister called to inform me that the Ford Foundation would be awarding three post-doctoral fellowships to people with MFA degrees. “That’s you.” I panicked and said only three? I don’t have a chance. She said you only need one, so don’t worry about the other two!

It was the Ford fellowship that jumpstarted my career as a scholar. I became obsessed with interviewing artists and documenting their stories—first designers, then playwrights, African artists and now the diaspora! Along this journey, I have had tremendous support and encouragement. I realized that I didn’t have to give up my career as a designer to be a scholar. In fact, my design work has enriched my scholarship and vice versa. My sister and mentors also made me realize that I didn’t have to be a great writer, but just have a good editor.

Fig. 1. Kathy A. Perkins. (Source: Steven Miller.)
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Fig. 1.

Kathy A. Perkins. (Source: Steven Miller.)

I owe much to my family, particularly Linda, who never allowed me to make excuses. To Lonnie Bunch, the director and founder of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), and the recently appointed director of the entire Smithsonian Institution. As his curatorial assistant, over thirty years ago in Los Angeles, I learned how to take my research skills to a new height. Lonnie also made it possible for me to realize my dream by curating my first exhibition on Black Designers at Lincoln Center in 1995. Twenty years later I was honored to be part of his dream with the opening of NMAAHC in DC.

I am blessed to have had amazing academic mentors including Margaret Wilkerson, James Hatch, Winona Fletcher, and the late Helen Chinoy, all who have preceded me with this award. I stand proudly on their shoulders today. 

Finally, I want to thank that young man at Michigan for not only directing me to my orientation, but also directing me to a career in scholarship and research.

Thank you ATHE for honoring me. I am humbled by this award.

Fig. 2. Randy Reinholz. (Source: Steven Miller.)
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Fig. 2.

Randy Reinholz. (Source: Steven Miller.)

Randy Reinholz, Ellen Stewart Career Achievement Award 2019 Acceptance Speech

Tonight, we acknowledge these are the traditional lands of the Seminole people. While acknowledging the difficult history Native peoples have faced during the government’s attempted annihilation, we celebrate the resilience of the Seminole people who are important and revered cultural leaders in this region today. That’s resilience (fig. 2).

I am so moved to receive the Ellen Stewart Career Achievement in Professional Theatre Award from ATHE. I had the great pleasure to speak on a panel with Ellen Stewart in 1998 at New World Theatre at U Mass Amherst. Roberta Uno (thanks Roberta) brought us together. When our panel concluded, Ellen Stewart turned to me and said, “Now it is your turn, your time to be like those fantastic Native theatre artists who worked with me before, like Spiderwoman Theatre and Hanay Geiogamah.”

She went on to compliment me personally and what I had to say during our time together. It felt wonderful to be seen by her, to be recognized by such a luminary. I have tried to live up to her expectations. I am happy to say that you can still see work created by Spiderwoman Theatre at La MaMa. Now that is an artistic home.

I have to say that ATHE has been beacon of inclusion for Native theatre artists for a long time. During the 1996 National Conference in New York, ATHE gave Native Voices two slots to present panels about Native theatre. We presented “The Final Frontier of Collaboration? The University as the Last/Best Place for New Play Development Programs” and “Strategies for Collaboration: The Success of Native Voices: A Festival of Native Plays.” Donna Aronson (thanks Donna) made that happen and Native artists have made regular presentations at ATHE for the past three decades.

Earlier this year, Native Voices at the Autry was presented with The Gordon Davidson Award for distinguished contribution to the Los Angeles theatrical community. When Jean Bruce Scott, my partner in life, work and all I do, AND also the co-founder of Native Voices, accepted the award, we had a simple message. We reminded those dignitaries gathered, that We (NATIVE THEATRE ARTISTS) have banded together to tell the stories of Americans who have been traditionally unwelcomed in our own country.

Today we have a government belittling US citizens across the nation. Today I remind you that theatre artists have often banded together to tell authentic stories of the disenfranchised. That’s resilience.

I want to invite the Native theatre artists in the room to stand. And I ask ALL OUR ALLIES to stand with us to receive this award. Congratulations to us for expanding the stories in American theatre.

To quote Robert Schenkkan, “Native Voices has changed the face of American Theater, or perhaps more accurately, helped make an American theater which looks more like itself.”

For those of us in this room, that is the charge I give to us. Let’s make American theatre more of what it can be. That’s resilience.

Thank you.

 

Laurence Senelick, Oscar Brockett Outstanding Teacher of Theatre in Higher Education 2019 Acceptance Speech

Most of us have been in a classroom from the age of five (fig. 3). Little by little, our biological clock morphed into the academic calendar. Imperceptibly, our way of telling time changed to accommodate this. We no longer calculate years by months, but by semesters; we no longer reckon months by days, but by deadlines, exam periods, matriculations and commencements; we no longer measure days by hours but by classes, labs, meetings, and rehearsals.

All this time at a desk has made us connoisseurs of teaching. We have suffered a wide range of instructors and know good teaching from bad. I am sure that each of you settled on at least one professor as your model of professional conduct. I am lucky in being able to count one remarkable individual in each stage of my education, from grammar school to graduate school. Last year I was amazed to get a phone call from my favorite elementary school teacher. He was in his late ’90s, living in Florida, and had come across my name in a magazine. It was a welcome and touching reunion with someone who had helped cultivate my mind and interests at a formative stage.

Fig. 3. Dassia Posner and Laurence Senelick. (Source: Steven Miller.)
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Fig. 3.

Dassia Posner and Laurence Senelick. (Source: Steven Miller.)

A recent Harvard study identified four fundamental factors in education:

Purpose: A clear goal in motivating students, which can be concrete or intellectual. My take: Remember that you are not only trying to stimulate students to be excited by your interests, but that you must encourage and nurture their interests.

Mastery: Developing knowledge or skill in a domain. My take: The wider and deeper your knowledge the more you can impart to others. The new math is polymath.

Identity: Thinking of oneself as someone who does that sort of work. My take: I recall my shock and that of my classmates in the Comparative Literature pro-seminar at Harvard when Harry Levin offhandedly said, “Now that you’re professionals . . .” 

And creativity: How to play with ideas and shape knowledge. My take: Stimulate the imagination by maintaining a skeptical attitude to received wisdom and the academic party line.

But don’t get me started. I wish to thank the students who nominated and supported me for this award. One of the benefits of having taught for nearly fifty years is that I can indulge my imperialistic (uh-oh) ambitions. I can cast my eye not only across the map of the United States, but across the globe, and see how my students have colonialized (dear oh dear) the field, broadcasting what I hope are the best things they learned from me, but also perpetuating a few of my eccentricities.

With them in mind, I should like to end by reading a poem by Doris Abramson, for many years a beloved professor at U. Mass Amherst. It’s called “The Old Teacher’s Plea”:

Would the pupils come back, please,to tell who I am by telling me who I wasto them once. Please. If only a few wouldbear witness to a moment in their lives whenI reached them in a way that has lasted. You see,I doubt my memory. Please, pupils, come back to me.And make it soon. Time erases time itself in time.

Thank you.

 

Patricia Ybarra, A Response to ATHE 2019 Award Winners’ Speeches

I have seen enough award ceremonies and read enough book acknowledgments to have often heard a soft lament about the solitary nature of writing coupled with gratitude for those who have made it less so—usually a combination of friends, family and colleagues. At the award ceremony for ATHE 2019, I was happy to see this familiar paean turned on its head by Michelle Liu Carriger. Carriger thanked the audience for the many conversations about her work at ASTR and ATHE, forming, in my mind at least, an admission that the solo-authored articles and monographs are, in some sense, always a mode of collaborative thinking.

Most of us in theatre and performances studies scholarship and practice know that collaborations are not represented or fully contained by citations, bibliographies or playbills. Certainly, accountability to citation is important as many of our fellow travelers remind us. I invoke here Koritha Mitchell’s social media invocation: Have you cited a woman of color today?, and the late José Muñoz’ practices of acknowledgment of both the women of color theorists who came before him and the many queer artists who work in the present helped him to imagine queer futures. But I want to move beyond citation, credit and acknowledgment to speak about something else that emerged from the acceptance speeches at ATHE: a radical rethinking of the presumption that achievement is every individual, and that influence and mentorship were ever or should ever be unidirectional or transactional. That many of the award winners identify as members of minoritarian groups, for whom the practice of “taking credit” asks for a wider set of acknowledgments for personal or cultural reasons, deserves note.

Randy Reinholz, who has done so much to support Native theatre artists, hailed all Native theatre-makers in as a “we,” but also asked allies to Native theatre to rise during his acceptance speech, focusing attention away from himself as an individual to a larger group of those in attendance. He effectively instantiated an ecosystem of theatre with his words.

Although the ceremony largely celebrated those who opened doors, almost all of the artists and scholars embodied a critical engagement with gatekeeping within the academy and the theatre. These moments of critique underscored implicitly and explicitly how gatekeeping replicates the very structures of colonialism, racism, and imperialism endemic to the liberal capitalist regimes we live within. Randy Reinholz began his speech where we always need to, with an acknowledgment of Indigenous survivance in the face of violence. As he stated: “Tonight, we acknowledge these are the traditional lands of the Seminole people. While acknowledging the difficult history Native peoples have faced during the government’s attempted annihilation, we celebrate the resilience of the Seminole people who are important and revered cultural leaders in this region today. That’s resilience.”

Bill Rausch spoke to how this violence remains within us, reminding us that “our field—as well as our entire nation, of course––is built on the pernicious foundation of white supremacy. Any attempt to deny that or to cloak white supremacy in other terms, including tradition or excellence, is actually setting our field backward and doing real damage to the young people whose budding spirits we are entrusted to nurture.” His thoughts echoed some of the more critical statements that Quiara Alegría Hudes alerted us to in last year’s keynote address. Hudes’s choice to collaborate and co-write the talk with her sister Gabriela Sanchez, it should be noted, questioned the ideology of individual achievement attached to Hudes’s commercial success by bringing her sisters’ community work with the Power Street Theatre onstage.

It was perhaps a bit contrarian of her to question the value of theatre at an ATHE keynote or for Bill Rausch to question excellence directly after an award ceremony, but it was necessary. Perhaps this was less jarring because so many of the winners deferred from talking about their scholarship as individual achievement, instead drawing attention to ecosystems of support that made their work possible. Kathy Perkins thanked “Margaret Wilkerson, James Hatch, Winona Fletcher, and the late Helen Chinoy, all who have preceded me with this award. I stand proudly on their shoulders today.” Reinholz thanked a previous winner of his own award, Ellen Stewart. Joshua Chambers-Letson thanked the family members who were prevented from being educated the way he was because of various manifestations of US racism, including Japanese internment camps. His book After the Party, meanwhile, palpably demonstrates how we carry our predecessors, mentors, and ancestors with us, including the aforementioned José Muñoz, as we remain and work to make the world safe for a wider community of people. While thanking mentors is almost always part of these ceremonies, the speakers’ attention to intergenerational and horizontal forms of support as mentorship was the most pronounced and expansive version of embodied gratitude I remember in recent years, and this practice was extended in some surprising ways. Perkins, it should be noted, thanked not only those who opened doors with generosity, but those who could have potentially closed them, through dismissal and denial. As Perkins narrates, “on my first day of graduate school at the University of Michigan in 1976, I asked a young white male for directions to the design orientation. He asked me why, and I told him I was a design major. He said he didn’t know black people did anything other than perform, and since he had a PhD in theatre he never read anything about black designers. I said, ‘We exist, because you’re talking to me.’ I thanked him for his directions and went to my orientation.” At the end of the speech she returned to this unnamed young white man when she closed by stating, “I want to thank that young man at Michigan for not only directing me to my orientation, but also directing me to a career in scholarship and research.” Delivered with a touch of irony but a lack of rancor, Perkins demonstrated humor in the face of ignorance. That’s resilience, in the sense of Reinholz’s refrain.

Humor is of course sometimes hard to translate, and I admit here a bit of my own rancor at hearing a joke about imperialism and colonialism part of another acceptance speech. I had to gather myself outside for a moment in the face of it, given the state of emergency in the nation. This moment though opened up a moment of reflection for me that I need to own fully. It felt odd, if not wrong, to be in that room at that moment no matter how much I wanted to honor and be present with our colleagues. The conference came as the US nation continued its practice of supporting concentration camps for migrant children at the US–Mexico border and a week after a massacre in El Paso aimed at the destruction of Latinx people by a white supremacist obsessed with replacement theory, the idea that the white population is being replaced by an invasion of immigrants. (To engage this absurd idea critically is beyond the scope of this essay.) How in the world could we fight these movements with what we do? Bill Rausch seemed to read many of our minds when he stated in his keynote, “Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge how hard it is to talk about racism this week in particular. When our leaders for their own political gain encourage more ‘othering’ in our already bitterly divided society, when people of color are being randomly murdered based on the color of their skin, we tear at the fabric of national unity and human decency. It’s tempting to let despair and rage distract us from our essential work as practitioners and educators, or to even doubt the value of our work.” (I write this on the day of the climate strike with ambivalence about the fact that I am in fact not in the streets at this very moment. Thank you to those who were.)

That said, I believe the keynote and award speeches helped us question a premise that needs to be undone alongside all of the critical, pedagogical, and activist work that we do: the idea that individual achievement is at the bedrock of social betterment, progress, or justice in the world, including in our small corner of that world––theatre and performance scholarship and creative practice. I want to open up the possibility that part of our work, ATHE’s work, is thinking about mentorship, scholarship, and craft outside of the paradigm of influence or mastery, the latter of which threatens to replicate the colonial paradigm that make the violence we all decry possible. What would it mean to conceive of intellectual and creative production as horizontal, intergenerational, and longitudinal collaborations? What would it mean to avoid our own forms of replacement theory, our fear of losing influence as the community of scholars grows different or potentially less “like us” and open our hearts and minds to the changes in the field? What would this mean for the future of awards and even award ceremonies? I look forward to finding out.