briyana d. clarel

writer. performer. educator.

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Looking Back and Looking In: Politics, Climate, and Theatre at UT Austin

impromptu wardrobe change after being drenched in the nola rain. august 2017.

impromptu wardrobe change after being drenched in the nola rain. august 2017.

I presented this short talk at the 2017 American Alliance for Theatre and Education conference in New Orleans. I was invited to represent the University of Texas at Austin last minute in a session titled “Politics, Cultures, Campus Climates, and Us.” The description of the session and my remarks are below.

Description: This roundtable will bring together faculty and graduate students from three theatre for youth programs in the United States: the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Arizona State University, and the University of Texas at Austin to discuss divisions, collisons, and coalitions on our respective campuses and the place and space of theatre for youth in mediating and/or interrupting this in theory and practice. The focus of the roundtable will be how current politics and culture affects our respective campuses's climate, and what role we as theatre and drama advocates, theorists, and practitioners could and should play in this.

My name is Briyana Clarel and I am a rising second year MFA Candidate in Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities at the University of Texas at Austin. My work involves using theatre as a tool for healing, learning, and community building, particularly with black folks, youth of color, and queer and trans people of color. I build healing arts spaces for my people that center anti-oppression practices. I also study black women and violence, the experiences of youth of color in theatre for youth programs, and unapologetic black queerness in pedagogy and performance.

While I’m from the Northeast, I spent the last school year in what people call “a blue oasis in a red state.” While people tend to laud Austin for being liberal and progressive, the number of vegan restaurants and Whole Foods grocery stores does not erase the pushing out of the black population, rapid gentrification, violence against trans people, and police brutality. We are blocks away from the Capitol of Texas, a tall looming building where white men regularly debate legislation limiting the lives of many. Texas has been in the news for the transphobic bathroom bill that aims to deny trans people, including children, access to public space, anti-sanctuary city legislation that puts immigrants and people who may look like immigrants at increased risk, and an ongoing battle with reproductive rights. This political drama impacts our campus, and for many of us, our work.

When considering this topic of politics, cultures, campus climates, and us, the theatre people, two thoughts stand out:

Firstly, this is nothing new. While the packaging of this space and time in amerikkka may look a little different, a little more orange, amerikkka’s brand has not changed. It is important that we continue to remember this reality as we hold space for certain people when space was not held before. Did you give your students the option to miss class when Trump was elected, but not when Trayvon, Mike, Eric, or Philando were murdered? What about Aiyana, Korryn, Sandra, or Charleena? Have we held space for Tee Tee Dangerfield at this conference? She was a 32 year old black trans woman murdered on Monday in Georgia. She was the 16th known trans person to be murdered in 2017. Trump is not to blame for these numbers. According to GLAAD, 21 transgender women were killed in the US, and in 2016, 27 were. For some communities, Trump’s amerikkka is just amerikkka. We as artists must not forget that. To forget what we have endured is to ignore history and focus only on the moments that make monied white folks the most uncomfortable and fearful.

Secondly, people tend to have the impulse to look out during times like these, which of course, are not any new or different to many of us. People, especially artists and educators who work with people and are to whatever extent invested in the wellbeing of people, tend to look out to see what they can do. They look to see what new populations or communities they can work with, what buzzwords they can bring up in meetings, what issues they can debate and discuss. They often look beyond their organizations, beyond their families, and beyond their partnerships. This work is great and necessary. However, as theatre people, as humans, we also need to look in. The impetus to create work around what’s happening now is understandable and necessary, but “the work” does not only exist in theatrical productions and non-profit to non-profit partnerships.

The work also needs to happen internally within theatre companies, graduate programs, and classrooms. It needs to happen with college friends, colleagues, and around the thanksgiving dinner table, if you still commemorate the genocide and forced displacement of native americans. The work involves being transparent and accountable. It means being willing to step aside, to give up power, and to share capital. It means taking responsibility for your racist neighbors, friends, and uncles. It means following the leadership of those most affected, but not leaving them to do all of the work. It means asking yourself--why am i talking, and am i the best person to be doing this work?

Over the past year at UT, I have seen many people doing this type of work. I have also had to do much of this work. I have had to challenge how white our curriculum is and how white our faculty is. I have had to intervene in classes, create theatre with very little support, and navigate a theatre department with only five black graduate students. The Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities program at UT has zero faculty of color, meaning that I as a black person need to take time and energy to find mentors.

As theatre and drama advocates, theorists, and practitioners, we need to recognize and acknowledge the work and labor that has been done around justice and liberation. In my research around black queerness as pedagogical practice, I lay out ways any educator can from learn from how black queer educators teach. The five key ideas I focus on are centering blackness, queerness, emotion, autonomy, and transparent communication. These are areas I focus on in my practice as an educator, artist, and organizer, and ones I feel we all must remember as we make work and continue to resist, truly resist, in this current political climate.

*This piece was lightly edited for clarity.

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