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Three new faculty books explore issues of race and art

Five years ago, through the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, an initiative called “Global Encounters” was established and among its goals were three book projects, all centered around theatrical performance. The books made their debut last month, compliments of Northwestern University Press, and while it’s fair to call them page-turners, page-burners might be a more accurate description.

Why? Because the fire and energy of actual performance springs from them in ways that transcend the normal, everyday reading experience.

Solo/Black/Woman, co-edited by the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies E. Patrick Johnson and Ramón Rivera-Servera, associate professor of performance studies, is “to our knowledge,” Johnson said, “the only book of its kind to contain a script, essay, and interview with an artist, as well as a DVD with clips from the show. It will be an invaluable teaching tool.” The collection features seven solo performances by emerging and established artists who include Robbie McCauley, Rhodessa Jones, and Misty DeBerry. “Ramón and I have hosted so many of these artists on campus and taught their work in our classes,” Johnson said. “To see them celebrated in this book for the creative geniuses they are has just been wonderful.”

Rivera-Servera also served as a co-editor on The Goodman Theatre’s Festival Latino: Six Plays, along with Henry Godinez, associate professor of theatre. The Goodman Theatre’s biennial Latino Theatre Festival (which Godinez directs) serves as a muse for the book; Godinez planned workshops and community forums around the featured plays. “I felt that the book would be best served if it included the work of the artists themselves, rather than just a collection of essays,” Godinez said. The project was inspired, he said, by the generosity of the Mellon Foundation and the Goodman Theatre’s consistent support of Latino theatre. “I’m hoping the book will help advance awareness of the beautiful and important work being done in the Latino theatre field,” he said.

The equally vital creative work being done by Chicago’s African American performing artists is the subject of Black Theatre is Black Life: An Oral History of Chicago Theater and Dance, 1970-2010, by Harvey Young, associate professor of theatre, performance studies, African American studies, and radio/television/film, and Queen Meccasia Zabriskie, assistant professor of sociology at the New College of Florida. “Our job,” Young said, “was to listen as the artists mined their memories, shared their experiences, and helped write a history that had never before been written.” The result is a collection of interviews that Young hopes will offer a “strong alternative narrative” to the reputation of Chicago’s Black neighborhoods as being solely places of crime and violence. He also hopes the youth who live in these neighborhoods could benefit from the spirit that’s channeled in the book. “As one of our subjects, Geraldine Williams, notes,” Young said, “‘My little gangbanging boys, you want to hit something, play the drums.’”