(Photo of Collidescope by Dan Singleton. This post is part of Jacqueline E. Lawton’s Diversity & Inclusion blog salon.)
In response to the seemingly perpetual killings of young black men in America, internationally acclaimed auteur Ping Chong and noted director and dramaturg Talvin Wilks created Collidescope: Adventures in Pre- and Post-Racial America in collaboration with University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies’ graduate and undergraduate designers and performers. The show ran November 7-14 at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and was a world premiere performance.
Before the opening, Ping and Talvin responded to a few questions from Leigh Wilson Smiley, the director of TDPS.
LEIGH WILSON SMILEY: Was there a particular inspiration for this piece?
PING CHONG and TALVIN WILKS: With Collidescope: Adventures in Pre- and Post- racial America, we have delved deeply into the writings of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, the history of the Civil Rights Movement as well as innumerable stories of racialized violence and the sanctioned policies that support this historical violence. The piece itself is more about the history of black agency and the fight for rights and citizenship than a re-enactment of violent events, starting as early as the Revolutionary War to present day. But often the efforts at preventing one from enacting one’s rights are the sites of the most insidious violence. It has been both illuminating and inspiring.
LWS: Collidescope is a play that addresses the historical roots of race relations in the United States. Why do you feel this play is relevant to a modern audience?
PC/TW: As Faulkner said in another context, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Race is the central question of American history. How can it not be? Europeans came to this continent, took the land from the people who lived here, imported African people as labor and then enslaved them for 400 years. Europeans grew rich off this trade and the exploitation of Black men and women and later Asian and Latinos. Europeans became “Americans” while the rest of us became hyphenates, African-Americans or Asian Americans or whatever, but full citizenship was always challenged and withheld. Collidescope sheds light on this history and gives a fuller context for our racial discourse today.
LWS: Collidescope takes place on a spacecraft and from an alien perspective. Could you give insight into this choice?
PC/TW: The alien point of view is more objectified; it gives a new framework or context to view the challenges of a racialized discourse in America. It is a distancing technique to encourage the audience to examine the material freshly, objectively, literally from a different perspective. We are asking –what would another “species” think if they looked at the race history of America? It is an attempt to look at a subject that has been rehashed over and over again, an attempt to take a fresh and unexpected perspective. Built within that view are inherent misperceptions, ironies and contradictions, these are a part of the experience as well.
LWS: You collaborated with graduate designers and undergraduate performers from UMD’s School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies on this production. What has this experience been like?
PC/TW: The fascinating thing about this process is that the design world came first. Because of scheduling issues, the designs for Collidescope had to be developed before the script was complete. This could be intimidating to some designers but the UMD designers went with it. They have been great. We had a very specific idea of the “alien” environment, so the designers were our first collaborators; even before there was a script, there was a very original and unique concept for the “world” of the play. Their work has been phenomenal. We were fortunate to have five gifted and risk-taking designers, which is the way we like for our designers to be, not that old fuddy-duddy theatre design type. We found them to be daring and expressive, we worked with them from the very start. When we held auditions in April the designers were able to present their preliminary designs and that added a greater understanding of the world we were trying to create. It was a very impressive display and generated an added enthusiasm, enabling the cast members to get a sense of our aesthetic and style from the very start of the process. Everyone knew from the beginning that this was going to be an abstract and experimental world, not realistic. This gave the actors a way of understanding our aesthetic and the type of stylized process that we both utilize in creating work. Because we are both very visual directors, it was important to have an understanding of the design very early on. This even influenced the way we constructed the script. It has been an incredible process.
Working with undergraduates on this material has been educational for us as well. The cast has been very open and less fixed in their views, so they were willing to take risks and trust the material and our stylized approach. They were a very mature group of students and they responded to the challenges of the material very well. We demanded a great deal of them, especially to step into a racially charged experience. The history of race in America isn’t pretty. We are working with some harsh material – from slavery itself to the murder of Trayvon Martin and the killing of Michael Brown.
We had initially planned to do an extended residency at UMD to develop the show with the students and build an ensemble cast from that process. When we were not able to do that, we conducted a three-day workshop in April with everyone who was interested in the show. We used some of the preliminary material that we knew we would be working with, a Civil War Ball Scene, a James Baldwin Speech (Baldwin’s Nigger), the Clarence Darrow closing argument from the Dr. Ossian Sweet Trial… We were always looking for a multiracial cast and knew that we would be doing some cross-racial and cross-gender casting which would be very sensitive. Our goal was to look at the material through many different lenses. Some roles would be racially and culturally specific and some would purposely cross those lines. We were always thinking about ways to reflect this idea of an “alien” sensibility. So, in the long run, we wanted a multi-talented cast of actors who could play multiple roles and transform from one character to another. Since we didn’t have a script when we were auditioning, we chose a diverse group of people knowing that some would have primary roles like Paul Robeson, Clarence Darrow, Fannie Lou Hamer, and James Baldwin, along with character roles that were less specific. We feel that they have all risen to the challenge of some very complex material.
LWS: In working with the performers were you surprised by any of their perspectives on race or their personal experiences?
PC/TW: We always knew that the piece would be challenging and in some cases this would be the first time that some of the performers had the opportunity to discuss Race in public. The material has engendered many different responses and reactions. Some students are carrying very difficult roles, whether that be by playing a racist, or depicting acts of abuse and violence, but the cast understands the importance of portraying these characters with honesty or a commitment to a satirical aesthetic, in order to reflect something truthful about our history. Some of the cast members have had trouble dealing with it at times, there have been triggering experiences and we’ve had to address sensitivity issues, but we have worked our way through it as a group with some great support from faculty and individuals courageous enough to speak out. I think we are all better for it.
LWS: How do you think Collidescope contributes to the national conversation about race relations?
PC/TW: We are always interested in getting the audience to learn something about social justice and history. Because we have done an essentialized bird’s eye view of the history of race and injustice in America, we have attempted to seal the routes of denial to prevent one from escaping from the subject, dismissing the past or isolating the present. Our goal has been to reveal the long-term impact of racialized violence and injustice in America to inspire a deeper understanding of the things that are happening today. The racial discourse of today is built on a foundation of pioneering fighters of all races, battling against all odds for a greater understanding of citizenship in this country. When one looks at Stand Your Ground and Stop and Frisk laws within the context of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, you begin to understand the legacy of black oppression. America has an African American president and People of Color have made some hard-earned progress toward racial and economic equality but these gains are on the margins really. True equality remains elusive. Collidescope attempts to shed some light on this ongoing disparity.
(Photo of Collidescope by Dan Singleton. Below are the program notes.)
NOTE FORM THE DIRECTORS
COLLIDESCOPE: AN ADVENTURE IN PRE- AND POST- RACIAL AMERICA
By Ping Chong and Talvin Wilks
In response to the recent killings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown and the seemingly endless killings of black men and boys for unarmed offenses, we have designed Collidescope to be a collision course view of the legacy and psyche behind this history of racial violence, racism and social injustice in America. Taking an “alien” view of this aspect of “human” behavior, the gaze of Collidescope places theses issues under a microscope. The world is an anthropological space, a vitrine in which to observe a “species” from a seemingly rational, scientific view.
The investigation of this peculiar “nature” moves back and forth in historical time, specifically with a focus on the American psyche represented by contemplations of noted historical and contemporary writers and political figures. Utilizing original source texts, fictional and non-fictional, that represent a reflective voice from specific periods in time, Collidescope seeks to open up a discourse, interrogating the motives and justifications behind this history.
The proceedings on stage form an anthropological POV. All scenes are associative, not linear, connecting thematically – creating an impression of free association, a virtual “space” ride. Traveling from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, exploring the pre-Revolutionary War era when freedmen and slaves were contemplating their rights in a soon to be independent nation, then back to present day, the work creates a cubistic frame, revealing different angles from which to observe the often tragic history of Black and White race relations in America. The landscape is purposely poetic, a litany of questions, considerations, ponderings in the face of actual events, viewing the past to reflect on the present. The conclusion of which inevitably must lead to a litany of tragedies and triumphs. This kaleidoscopic overview creates a poetic shorthand of the injustices perpetuated against African Americans across time in these United States and the pioneers involved in fighting against them.
Ultimately, Collidescope is a vessel containing an investigation of this legacy of injustice and terror. There is a resonance and a reckoning of historical violence perpetuated on one race by another, the pathological and vitriolic objectification of the other, ending as a memorial to the named and the forgotten. We are left with many questions, but, hopefully, with a deeper, richer collective understanding of what we have witnessed and what we must change.
(Photo of Ping Chong and Talvin Wilks by Adam Nadel.)
Ping Chong is an internationally acclaimed theatre artist and pioneer in the use of media in the theatre. He founded Ping Chong + Company in 1975 to create works of theatre and art that explore the intersections of race, culture, history, art, media and technology in the modern world. Today, Ping Chong + Company produces original works by a close-knit ensemble of affiliated artists.
Since 1992, Ping Chong has created more than 90 works for the stage that have been presented at major festivals and theatres worldwide. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a USA Artist Fellowship, two Bessie Awards, two Obie Awards and the 2013 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, among many others. In 1992, he created the first work in the Undesirable Elements series of community-based oral history projects of which there have now been more than 50 productions. Theatre Communications Group has published two volumes of his plays, The East West Quartet and Undesirable Elements: Real People, Real Lives, Real Theater. He is currently working on Beyond Sacred, an interview-based work exploring the diverse experiences of Muslim communities in New York, which will premiere at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in April 2015, and PUSH about the experiences of disabled athletes for the 2015 Pan Am Games Festival in Toronto. For further information, visit www.pingchong.org.
Talvin Wilks is a playwright, director and dramaturg. His plays include Tod, The Boy, Tod; The Trial of Uncle S&M; Bread of Heaven; and An American Triptych. Directorial projects include the world-premiere productions of UDU by Sekou Sundiata (651Arts/BAM), The Love Space Demands by Ntozake Shange (Crossroads), No Black Male Show/Pagan Operetta by Carl Hancock Rux (Joe’s Pub/The Kitchen),Banana Beer Bath by Lynn Nottage (Going to the River Festival), the Obie Award/AUDELCOAward-winningThe Shaneequa Chronicles by Stephanie Berry (Ensemble Studio Theatre), Relativity by Cassandra Medley (Ensemble Studio Theatre – AUDELCO nomination for Best Director 2006) and The Ballad of Emmett Till, by Ifa Bayeza (Penumbra Theatre Company). He has served as co-writer/co-director/dramaturg for ten productions in Ping Chong’s ongoing series of Undesirable Elements, and dramaturg for five collaborations with the Bebe Miller Company and won a 2005 Bessie Award for Going to the Wall. He is currently writing a book on black theatre, Testament: 40 Years of Black Theatre History in the Making, 1964-2004.
Leigh Wilson Smiley has been the Director of the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS) since 2013. Smiley is the Producing Director for nine Main Stage dance and theater shows and five Second Season shows. Prior to assuming leadership of TDPS, Smiley served as a professor in the School, Head of the first MFA in Performance cohort at TDPS, and Associate Director of Theatre for the School.
Smiley was twice nominated as a Philip Merrill Presidential Scholar Faculty Mentor. She has received two Creative and Performing Arts Awards for her research on the extended voice and the Visual Accent Dialect Archive, a Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities Fellowship and the Foxworth Creative Enterprise Initiative Fellowship.
Smiley works as a Dialect and Voice Director for institutions such as Ford’s Theatre, Center Stage in Baltimore and Round House Theatre. She continues to develop and present the Visual Accent and Dialect Archive. She is a member of Actors Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Association for Theatre in Higher Education, and the Voice and Speech Trainers Association. (Photo by Mike Ciesielski.)