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.

title of your artist statement

photo by Axel Jenson

photo by Axel Jenson

I was recently asked to submit an artist statement to accompany a set of poems that were to be published in an anthology focusing on “art as soul-work,” inspired by bell hooks. I have since pulled the poems from the book as the black man compiling the anthology was condescending and antagonistic toward me after choosing his own title for my statement (but he has a “longstanding commitment to social justice and human rights,” so it’s okay right?). I have decided to share my statement here, untitled.


I am an artist. I am a writer, a performer, and a director. I am a poet, a playwright, and an essayist. I am a singer, a dancer, a presence that make any space a stage and fill a room with my voice. Embracing these titles as my truth has been a challenge as this world has conspired to let me live believing I cannot truly be these things. But I was born an artist, a maker, a creator.

Though I started journaling and writing fiction in elementary school at age 7 or 8, I drifted away from creative writing to focus on AP exams, theatre, and friends as I got older. By college, I had almost completely stopped writing anything but long papers and occasional journal entries when I had the time, usually only when I was off campus traveling or over breaks. Although the overwhelmingly white theatre was usually unwelcoming to me as a black person since I started performing in middle school, I stuck with it. In high school, I danced in a showchoir, performed in musicals, sang in talent shows, won awards in theatre competitions, directed plays, stage managed, and helped build sets. In college, I was president of a black theatre company and started a hip hop and R&B a capella group alongside directing, producing, stage managing, and performing. I was also the only black person on two national tours with my theatre company and had to consistently fight for space and funding, but bringing stories to life on stage felt something like home.

After graduating with my degree in Sociology, I worked for youth non-profits and stumbled upon opportunities to do perform and create on the side. I encountered more spaces that emphasized devising, creating, and presenting new work for and by black people. My passion for making spaces for marginalized people to share their stories and make their voices heard grew. I eventually enrolled in an MFA program focusing on theatre for youth and communities. However, after focusing so much on others, I realized I needed to come back to myself. I left my program to focus on forging my own path as a writer, performer, and educator creating work with and for my people.

Writing allows me to express myself, to exist, to take up space. Performing allows me to live in ways I often feel unable to as I am forced to navigate white straight spaces. While I’m a musical theatre kid who knows all the lyrics to many showtunes, I feel most connected to the shows that speak to my soul. The work I make as a writer, director, performer, collaborator, mover, and thinker is healing for myself and for the other artists involved. My focus as an artist is on collective and individual growth through sharing and building community. Theatre and writing allow me to tell the truth. As I move through life and through my roles as educator, organizer, entrepreneur, and researcher, I remain certain that I need to create art to breathe.

a letter to the princeton triangle club

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About a week before I graduated from Princeton University in 2013, I sent this email to the director, choreographer, and stage manager of the Princeton Triangle Show. After spending time on campus at Reunions this past weekend conversing with other alumni and current students of color involved in the arts, I felt it important to formally share more of my Princeton experience.

After sending this email, I did receive generally thoughtful responses from the director and choreographer. I sat down with the director and had a long conversation about how to enact change in the club. However, it has been five years since I’ve been a Princeton student and I cannot presently speak definitively to what has or has not changed in Triangle. It is my hope that by sharing this email, students of color, especially those involved with the arts at Princeton, will feel less alone and that others with societal and/or institutional power will be pushed to take concrete urgent action against systematic oppression.

Hello all,

I apologize for not sending this email earlier. It took some time and emotional energy to compose, and I haven’t had wifi access.

I am currently in Puerto Rico. When I booked the flight, I thought the reunions rehearsal schedule was different and that I would be able to make some brush ups earlier in the week. I chose to miss some rehearsals to go on the trip because even the prospect of spending a week on campus with only Triangle members (as the rest of my friends will be gone) was stressful, for a variety of reasons.

I wanted to send this email in order to better contextualize and clarify this situation. I do not want my decision to go on a dead week trip to be construed as me abandoning my commitment to the club just to have fun. I have been very conflicted about my involvement in Triangle this year, as I enjoy performing and many other aspects of being in the company, but find so many other facets of being part of the club problematic, offensive, and often enraging. Spending time exclusively with members of Triangle, surrounded by its songs and traditions (the majority of which are problematic and exclusive on many levels) has been frustrating in many ways.

To elaborate on the issues I have with Triangle as a 122 year old club that encompasses trustees, professionals, students, writers, musicians, performers, technicians, and more, I feel it is important to view the group as an institution. It reflects not only norms and hierarchies on campus, but those present in society in general. Triangle cannot be viewed as just a club or as just a group that produces shows, because that obscures the ways it impacts individuals, campus culture, and society in general. When I first joined Triangle my sophomore year, I finally felt like I was part of something “quintessentially” Princeton. Triangle’s traditions, connections, and community helped me feel like I was a part of something. However, over this past year, I have gotten to see (more) the other side of this Princeton-ness. The racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and non-prioritization of diversity present on this campus more generally have become increasingly present to me in Triangle.

It became clear to me my freshman year that Triangle had an issue with diversity. As a sophomore newbie, it became even more obvious that the people in charge of making recruitment decisions (including professionals and students) were apathetic and did not see it as their job to actively recruit racially and ethnically diverse talent the club. “Triangle is America” became a joke because everyone seemed to know it wasn’t true, but no one seemed to really take issue with it, nor the initiative to fix it. This combined with many club members’ casual or ironic racism, left me feeling isolated. Last year, I found the show to be incredibly problematic. The representation of the “Mayans,” the racist and classist “Ghettoverit” Detroit song, and the sole black girl in the cast singing the Cool Runnings-style Apacalypso song all highlighted Triangle‘s collective privilege and its ignorance of the effects it has.

This year, I tolerated people’s questionable racial/racist comments during fall show and was enjoying my time with Triangle until the afro wig incident. While I was glad that the wigs did not end up in the show, the reasoning was still latent with privilege and entitlement (again, the “it’s okay if its art and educated people do it” argument emerged). I became highly disillusioned with the club, its members, and its leaders. It became apparent that the club (or at least those making decisions within it) lacked a consciousness about oppression and marginalization, especially regarding race. It was up to me as the sole black person, and as one of the few people of color, to police the racial elements of the production. I became more than just the token black (girl), but also the token angry black woman who wouldn’t let things slide for the sake of musical comedy. People seem to dismiss Triangle‘s race problem (and other problems) by claiming its just the nature of comedy and art. I find this invalidation of my experiences to be very concerning.

I have a very trying semester regarding race, etc. on this campus, including an incident with a professor which resulted in my meeting with several administrators. Triangle has not been a safe space for me this year. In my meetings with members of the administration over the past few months regarding my experiences as a black person on this campus and how the experiences of people of color more generally can be improved, my experiences with Triangle have certainly been significant. Racist (or otherwise insensitive) comments have come not only from my peers in Triangle, but from professionals in the club and other people on this campus.

Basically, I feel that Triangle does not take seriously the ways in which it perpetuates the marginalization of certain groups (namely on the basis of race, class, sexuality, and gender). This has become apparent to me at the various levels of the club, through my interpersonal relationships with other student members and professionals, and through my interactions with the content of the productions and the club’s traditions. While other people of color (or women, or queer people, etc.) may not feel personally offended or disagree with the types of jokes made by club members, on or off stage, it does not change the fact that some do (myself included) and that such trends continue the same types of oppression that permeate every level of society.

Recently, black friend of mine asked if they should try out for Triangle. I was very conflicted about what answer to give. While I think it is great for people to branch out and join groups where they are not otherwise represented, I have experienced firsthand the frustrations, emotional, mental, and otherwise, that come with being a person of color, and particularly a queer black woman, in an overwhelmingly white, male-dominated, hetero/cisnormative organization. It’s up to me and others like me to bring up such issues, and even when we do, they are not always taken seriously. It is emotionally, mentally, and ideologically draining and enraging in many other ways as well.

Given my experiences during fall show, on tour, and this year in general both with Triangle and without, for my personal well-being, it was definitely best for me to not spend a week on campus immersed in all things Triangle. It was not my intention to drop out of the show, but I could not prioritize Triangle over my well-being when Triangle does not prioritize my concerns (which are incredibly important and relevant to everyone). While financial restraints prevent me from changing my travel plans in order to come back to campus sooner, I would be willing to do so if money were not a concern. I would indeed like to be a part of the show to whatever extent possible. I care enough about the club to share my experiences and seriously suggest that everyone involved does a lot better when it comes to diversity, race, inclusion, privilege, etc.

Please feel free to respond with any further questions and I will do my best to respond as soon as possible. Also, apologies for any typos. I wrote the majority of this email on my cell phone.

With greatest sincerity,

Briyana

Friday, May 24th, 2013

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