Teaching Water by the Spoonful Now
Last year, I approached my first Texts and Contexts in Western Theatre course with a contemporary play, Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, set up as a sort of workshop text. I’m doing the same thing this semester, this time with Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes. “Contemporary” is a flexible term, but a play that is ten years old and written with enough current references tends to fit most definitions, at least at first blush. Interestingly, Water by the Spoonful is a play that feels very “now” and yet very “ten years old” at the same time. A lot of it takes place in a chatroom for recovering cocaine addicts – no named platform, just a chatroom – and on the one hand, that makes it strikingly appropriate for students who have spent the bulk of the past two years learning online. On the other hand, when a character references signing in from an internet café, it hits a little differently (my friend Tara taught this play last semester and clued me in to that time-capsule treat). It’s a reminder that a lot has changed since the proliferation of smartphones and conferencing technology; there’s less need to find a settled spot to plug in from, or a silly screen name to cloak your identity (unless you really want one). In short, the internet isn’t quite the same place it used to be. Interestingly, Hudes pushes against the actors typing or otherwise engaging with a “computer” onstage, allowing the actors simply to speak. That’s actually quite appropriate for the Zoom era. To what degree all of this changes how students approach the play remains to be seen.
In addition to facing the internet of yesteryear, there’s also the small matter of war. In Water by the Spoonful, Eliot, one of the main characters, has returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and brought with him the ghost of an Iraqi citizen. Throughout the play, the Ghost begs Eliot to return his passport, eventually pleading so intensely that it forces a physical confrontation. We also learn that Eliot suffers from an addiction to painkillers, the after-effects of an injury sustained in the line of duty. With the United States pulling (chaotically) out of Afghanistan, it seems like the ideal time to redirect attention toward the country’s Middle East escapades and their traumatic results. I say “redirect” because, up until very recently, America’s wars in the Middle East had faded into the background for so many of us during this time of domestic upheaval. Like internet cafes, they almost seem to call from another era, even if, in the case of Afghanistan, they have been going on this whole time. So while the play still feels very “now” in redirecting our attention to the trauma brought home by soldiers and the harm inflicted on Afghanis, it also feels strangely distant. My hope is that we’ll get to explore more of that dissonance as we work further back into the canon, asking ourselves what still resonates, what doesn’t resonate, and what we can get out of holding those two things in tension with another. Lord knows there will be plenty more dissonance when Antigone comes around.
Sitting with The Chair (and Spoilers!)
Sandra Oh has been a favorite of mine ever since the early, halcyon days Grey’s Anatomy, so it’s immensely gratifying not only to live in the age of Killing Eve but to get a show like The Chair. Oh is the perfect person to lead a series that shifts from satirical to heartfelt to prescient, all while skewering many of academia’s ailments, among them the slights suffered by women, and women of color in particular. There is so much I love about The Chair – and so much that has already been written about it, including this excellent review from real-life Chair Dr. Karen Tongson – that it seems almost churlish to bring up two criticisms that I think limit it somewhat. Before I begin, it’s worth mentioning here that the whole discourse (as the kids are calling it) around verisimilitude in The Chair has been quite a merry-go-round, so much so that it has come in for some criticism of its own. As Dr. Koritha Mitchell points out in her op-ed for CNN, Oh’s Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim is a character, not a real person, and the encounters she has are designed to explicate who she is the protagonist in this story, not to present a documentary account. She also argues that an inability or unwillingness to accept Ji-Yoon as the protagonist is tied to the marginalization of women of color and other historically excluded groups. In other words, it is not enough to praise diversity in storytelling without being willing to acknowledge protagonists who don’t fit the hegemonic mold. While this is a crucial insight, I worry that, on a structural level, The Chair itself doesn’t always live up to Ji-Yoon’s status as protagonist. For a show about the lack of opportunities and the flush of additional labor put on women of color in academia, The Chair spends an awful lot of time asking Ji-Yoon, and the audience, to pick up after Dr. Bill Dobson, her messy White male colleague. Make no mistake, I largely enjoy Bill’s story and appreciate what the show does to undermine the cocksure, “inspirational” tropes he is meant to embody, and the fact that he becomes such a problem child is part of the point. But we spend a lot of time with Bill and his problems (some of them admittedly serious), so much so that he is essentially a second lead, even if his time onscreen is often unremarkable and repetitive (we only need so many wandering misadventures, cute bonding scenes with Ji-Yoon’s daughter, or hurried, illicit meetings with undergraduates before we get the point). So while I appreciated Bill’s story arc, I wonder if the show risks perpetuating the same problems it meant to combat by constantly centering him beyond the purpose of explicating the challenge he poses. It’s worth remembering that assessing what a show values sometimes comes down to just counting how much screen time it gives to each of its characters.
Speaking of Bill’s story, the other facet that left me a bit cold was, unfortunately, the ending. (Spoilers Ahead) Early on, Bill becomes embroiled in a “cancel culture” situation when an ironic fascist salute in his modernism class is captured on camera and turned into a meme. Some students quickly latch onto it as evidence that Bill may be harboring Nazi sympathies or, at the very least, is completely oblivious to how his actions might resonate. Bill stages an ill-fated town hall with the students that devolves into an argument, triggers further protests, and leaves most of the faculty scrambling. Throughout the remainder of the show, Ji-Yoon is forced to chart the best path forward, which may include terminating Bill if he is unwilling to apologize unreservedly, which he is not. In the end, she chooses not to vote for his removal and instead argues in front of the disciplinary committee that getting rid of Bill is unfair to the students; not only will they see right through their face-saving maneuver, they’ll be left without proper instruction on how to handle complex situations like this one. The problem with this move is that the students have largely been marginalized up to this point. Apart from a handful of (somewhat underwritten) characters, most students pushing for Bill to be punished are faces in the crowd, many of them barely more than “woke” mouthpieces with axes to grind. To be fair, the show demonstrates a certain wry insight by focusing on academic politics rather than what is good for the students, and the constant fear the professors have of appearing to be doing something inappropriate, even in fairly innocuous situations, speaks to how much universities are governed by concerns over liability, something Tongson discusses in her piece. Yet that only makes the sudden about-face to a sincere, inspirational plea all the harder to take. As Alessa Dominguez’s piece in Buzzfeed argues, the show may not be quite the satire it aims to be (it’s worth arguing here that many of the criticisms Mitchell confronts are brought up by Dominguez). While that could be blamed on a certain conservatism within the structures of universities, it could also be the result of trying to balance too many tones at once. In any case, while The Chair makes the right move in re-centering students, it only does so after giving those students relatively short shrift, sacrificing the very nuance it claims to argue for. It’s an ending that could be good, but I’m not sure the show earns it.
You may notice that I’ve equivocated a bit on my criticisms of The Chair. That’s partly because 1) it’s a TV show that I thoroughly enjoyed, 2) I don’t want to be one of the people trying to read it like a documentary, and 3) they’re fine points that I hope to look at closely in a second viewing. More importantly, I believe in the value of multiple perspectives, and many of the features I critique might look different when viewed from another lens. That’s something the show does quite well, actually; even the crusty old White men clinging to their relevance get their moment. And heck, if scholars the caliber of Mitchell and others are seeing what The Chair wants to show them, then what do I know?
After ATHE 2021
Last month, I chaired and presented on a panel at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) conference, one of our field’s biggest annual gatherings. Apart from enjoying a successful discussion on performance, power, and activism in contemporary sport, featuring the brilliant trio of Sean Bartley, Noe Montez, and Leticia Ridley, I got to attend several insightful sessions that not only got me excited for the school year but also helped me tweak my approach for future conferences. With all sessions recorded for later viewing, I decided to only attend those sessions where I might have something worth asking during the Q&A. In addition to actually engaging in some conversation, my question would be recorded for posterity (for better or for worse). This was initially meant to be an online-only tactic, but I realized it’s a great way to approach conferences in general. When faced with a long menu of sessions, why not select those that might offer you an opportunity to participate? It’s certainly a lot better than hearing a raft of papers on a topic you thought might be interesting but soon realize is anything but. It also allows me to pull some of what I’m learning back to the classroom. In the “re: PERFORMATIVE” session, for example, I asked the panelists and other attendees, many of us involved in the #PerformativeX special section of the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, how we can teach students about the many flexible powers of performance and “performativity.” It was a tall order, to be sure, but it also made for a great talk that will help me develop my own plans to teach performance more effectively.
Speaking of online conferences, it seems like keeping conferences virtual or at least hybrid is a no-brainer going forward. Yes, there are practical considerations to bear in mind, including contracts, and there is always something special about being there, at least for me. But keeping hybrid and virtual options on the table goes some way to expanding accessibility, and I’m hardly the first one to point this out. Not only does it open the conference up to people who may be unable to travel for a variety of reasons, it makes a number of tools – closed captioning, slides and documents, chat functions, etc. – available at the touch of a button. Assuming recording is set up, it also ensures that some amount of the work is housed for later use like a Netflix for real theatre nerds. Granted, Zoom fatigue is always a factor to consider (I certainly did not attend all the sessions I planned to) and there is no real substitute for the impromptu conversation or hastily arranged coffee chat after a panel. But for all their social benefits, conferences should ultimately be about sharing knowledge, and there’s no reason to limit that capacity by refusing to make online engagement available to attendees. Over to you, American Society for Theatre Research and other organizations looking to the future..