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Teaching in the First Three Weeks

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I really didn’t know how to start a semester like nothing had changed. It didn’t seem fair to my students either, and we were all dying to talk and to sort out what was happening with travel bans and protests and a country divided.

I decided to start with Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced. We read the play from two distinctly different perspectives. We used Charles Baxter’s book Burning Down the House to consider the question of deniability, examining his complaint about too many stories in our culture where there is no accountability, where no one takes responsibility for their actions, when in fact characters rarely act, but are rather victims of their own psychological profiles. Baxter begins by talking about RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon—how appropriate. It’s a book written in the passive voice of “mistakes were made” but no one is accountable for making them. Baxter is fretting that our literature is beginning to look too much like our politics. In fiction and the socio-political sphere, Baxter prefers flawed characters who own their actions and feel the consequences, where truths and lies can be distinguished and where actors in their own stories can’t cry victimhood. He believes fiction must stand in opposition to a political culture of deniability.

My students come to class traumatized by each day’s news. They are theatre students, astute at tracking stories and sorting truth and lies inside of character portrayals.

Amir, the protagonist in Disgraced, illustrates Baxter’s preferred kind of fictional character. He is an “I protagonist” who makes decisions, acts, and then experiences the consequences of those actions. He makes a terrible mistake, one that will cost him his family and his career. It’s not that he’s evil, it’s that he’s flawed, and there’s no deniability, there is no court of law to play out his guilt or innocence. He beats his wife, and he loses everything. This is a play of action and accountability, not a play of deniability where everyone claims victimhood.

This feels like a breath of fresh air in a political climate of gaslighting where everyone is doing exactly that, especially a lying administration that constantly denies their own lies and claims the press is victimizing them by misunderstanding them. This is a culture of crazy-making that neither I nor my students can comprehend. Our best hope of making sense of what’s happening is to sit together in the classroom and try to parse other stories to make sense of the one unfolding in our country. Amir seems human—smart, a good lover, ambitious, and angry. We can imagine all kinds of psychological profiles for Amir’s actions but it’s his actions that the play forces us to deal with. And it’s painful to watch and every character, not just Amir, seems woefully flawed, but it’s Amir who ultimately crosses the line of no return. These are the kinds of characters that make for good drama.

The other way we approached Disgraced was through the lens of how Muslims have been portrayed in our culture, most recently with an illegal ban targeting Muslims for their religious views. What does it mean for Disgraced to present a protagonist who disavows his Muslim identity in a political climate when so many Americans are clamoring for characters who do exactly that? HowlRound has published several articles on this phenomenon and the incredible frustration in the Muslim creative community over the success of this play as the play that stands in for representing a community woefully absent from our stages. Many argue that this is a play that harms the Muslim community and is primarily for white people who are comfortable with what they perceive as the play’s racism. We also read an interview with the playwright who talks about the play from his perspective.

My students and I didn’t resolve the tensions this play represents but we were able to read them inside the current political climate, both admiring the play and questioning it simultaneously—finding nuance in our discussions together as a kind of antidote to the impossible polarization that is absenting complex dialogue from our political milieu.

a university hall
Cobb Hall, University of Chicago. Photo by Tom Rossiter.

For those of us teaching theatre this semester, it’s an unresolvable conundrum to figure out how to proceed. Our students need to learn about the profession; we have spent countless hours preparing syllabi that we bring to the classroom with great confidence, but suddenly most of us are looking at our lesson plans and wondering do they actually matter in a historical moment when our country is upside down. Everything can feel mundane right now if it isn’t directly tied to action toward the current political moment. When the country is living with the reality of a White House and a country in complete disarray, how can our students not feel afraid and need the space of the classroom to make sense of that fear?

My students come to class traumatized by each day’s news. They are theatre students, astute at tracking stories and sorting truth and lies inside of character portrayals. Reading Disgraced together along with Baxter and Helen Cixous’s Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing gave us some breathing space in the impossible first three weeks of the Trump administration.

Cixous writes about our dream life, the space outside our conscious selves where we find our creative life, where the impossible is possible, where stories live.

Writing is not arriving; most of the time it’s not arriving, one must go on foot with the body …One must walk as far as the night. One’s own night. Walking through the self toward the dark.

And as a class we talked together about what it means to walk toward the dark as artists, how to live in that dark and not die of terror? How to survive that sense that we all feel targeted by the dark night of this political moment and yet we must not die of fright?

Yet, how does exploring our imaginations even matter right now? And is this enough? Alex Ross in his excellent New Yorker essay “Making Art in the Time of Rage” asks, “What is the point of making beautiful things, or of cherishing the beauty of the past when ugliness runs rampant?” In other words, how can we go on as artists and teachers of theatre in the classroom right now as though the world isn’t falling apart? Is it enough to go on?

To make possible a future that will never replicate this political present, we must all engage histories that don’t contain us, and this is particularly true for those of us sitting in primarily white classrooms.

Our poets are helpful now. They use art to exhort us to answer these questions of art versus action through their very acts of creation.

what would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope?
you yourself must change it.
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing?
you yourself must change it.
although your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?
“Dreams Before Waking,” Adrienne Rich

Rich makes me think that we are responsible for cultivating the imaginations of our poets right now. There’s a single line in Teju Cole’s brilliant essay “Black Body” where he takes momentary issue with James Baldwin when he says, “I can oppose white supremacy, and still rejoice in Gothic Architecture.” I’m taking it out of context, as he means to say to Baldwin that he can appreciate art that does not contain his history as a black man. But there is something that struck me in reading that essay over and over about the incredible necessity for our students right now to be steeped in histories and stories that are not their own; that to make possible a future that will never replicate this political present, we must all engage histories that don’t contain us, and this is particularly true for those of us sitting in primarily white classrooms. Cixous says, “But the most difficult thing for human beings to do is to think ahead, to put ourselves in the shoes of those we have not yet been.” This seems like the work of teaching right now, to find every size of shoe in our classroom and find ways for our students to walk in them with discomfort and unknowing and curiosity—for our students to create in those very shoes that do not fit.

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The question this piece asks is one that we will ask ourselves forever—where does art belong? Art is constantly painted as being aluxury, on the outskirts of society rather than a need, a centrality. Andduring politically turbulent times, its need is even further questioned,leaving those of us who are artists insecure. You describe so beautifully thehope that art gives. That in order to create solutions we must imagine themfirst. Spending time in other people’s shoes may be the most necessary, radical action one can take right now. I love the idea that taking steps in these shoes that don’t fit will help create the possibility of such a divisive environment not being created again.

Your discussion of Disgraced also interested me. I read and discussed Disgraced for a directing class I am taking, and am currently preparingto analyze and perform a scene from it. Reading Amir as a character who makes mistakes, takes responsibility, and faces consequences as well as reading him with the lens of real and biting anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States today is important in order to understand Disgraced more deeply. In both your piece and my experience in the class, grappling with the complexity of the play is all you can do as a reader. You make a good point—the outrageousness of the events in the play allow you as readers and artists to converse theoretically in a way that is not perhaps possible in this time of divided politics and pointing fingers.

I had a similar experience the morning after the election. I am a film and theatre student, and as you can imagine, most of my peers were not supportive of Trump being elected as president. I entered the class at 9 am, and my teacher showed up a few minutes later in tears. Instead of discussing the topic of “media in theatre” that day, we discussed what our futures what look like as art students under the Trump administration. We decided that we would use our art as an outlet to stand up for what we believe in, and not let anyone take away our rights to be creative.

Thank you for sharing your experiences. I teach theatre to elementary students and the new reality has turned our world and my teaching upside down. A significant portion of my students are immigrants, refugees, black and brown. The fear they are living with brings out behaviors, brings up conversations and creates a divisiveness I am unsure how to tackle. I have always tackled my job to teach theatre in an integrated fashion by tackling social studies content---but looking at civil rights leaders for Black History month suddenly seems to be doing more harm then good as 8-year-olds try to process how far we have not yet come. The characteristics of good citizens aren't present in many of our modern day leaders (Truthfulness, Respect for Self and Others, Justice and Equality, Responsibility, Participation in Government and Society). Young students get their 'political views' through the adults around them causing strong feelings both for and against things and people they don't truly understand. What I am coming to settle on is that right now is a time for stories of hope, resilence, kindness, friendship and perhaps even a bit of magic. I am can only hope that giving them this is enough.

Thank you P. Carl for this article. The day after the election I entered a classroom that had the lights out and all the students on the floor exhausted, depressed, scared and overwhelmed (to use their words). The class was Using Ensemble As A Tool For Community-Engagement On Social Issues and the subject we were exploring was the immigration and refugee crisis. So they had actually been putting themselves in the shoes of others they had not thought about before for several weeks at that time. And the reality of that day hit them both personally and with the knowledge of what might come to the people they had begun to experience real empathy for. I love this age of young person. Because they are just on the edge of adulthood. And this generation is entering adulthood at a perilous time in human history. As those who witness and reflect both the horrors and beauty of being human beings, the journey is a difficult one through which to guide young artists. At the same time I think it is imperative now to help them understand now all art is political, is social, is a tool for either waking our fellow citizens up or keeping them asleep. I think there are basically two ways to do that and, personally, I think both of them need to be approached simultaneously. One is to strive for the greatest heights of artistic expression and creation and the second is to reflect the realities of mankind today with the question of 'is this the best we can be.' The first, and the process of theatre itself, demonstrates what we are capable of in society. And we must assist, engage, and equip our young artists to - after their moments of 'exhaustion, depression, fear and overwhelm' - to take the tools of their art in hand and move into that dark night.... as shining Lights for all of us. Again, thank you for this article. This conversation now is vital.