Saturday, August 20, 2011

Talking with Rhodessa Jones, Holly Hughes, and Lenelle Moise

In May, I participated in the Feminist Performance Festival in Chicago, organized by E. Patrick Johnson and their Northwestern colleagues in performance studies and women's studies.  (See my blog post with a description and my remarks.)  I'm posting here the transcript of the conversation I moderated with performers Holly Hughes, Rhodessa Jones, and Lenelle Moise on May 20, 2011.  After this teaser, the conversation continues in the full transcript on

Jill Dolan:  Thank you so much. I’m very happy to be here. I want to thank Patrick, Ann and Ramón for the invitation and also for doing this work. It’s important to devote time to feminist performance in this day and age, so I’m really happy to be part of this whole project. . . . There are many different things we can talk about today. I thought we might start with the question of feminism. Do you call yourself a feminist? Is the label meaningful to you in terms of your practice? Are there other labels you prefer? I know a lot of artists prefer not to label their work at all, but I’m curious how you situate yourself around this issue. Anyone want to start?

Rhodessa Jones:  The piece I’m going to do Saturday night -- Big Butt Girls, Hardheaded Women -- I made it almost 20-22 years ago. I made the piece because I was inspired by my work with incarcerated women -- which was based on interviews and inspired by Anna Deavere Smith -- talking to women inside and making a piece. I was invited to the Women and Theater Program annual convention in Boston. They wanted to work with women who were working in institutions like jail. I made this piece for that particular event, and then when I returned home, it already had caused a big stir across the country. When I got back to the San Francisco county jails, they already were talking about this piece I had made. Some men from the jail came to me -- the educational facility -- and said, “Would you be willing to show this piece, Big Butt Girls, to the community as a way to introduce yourself in” something I had called “‘living on the outside’“? I was going to be working with men and women from the work-furlough program. I said, “You have to remember it’s a feminist theater piece.” They said, “We’ll remember.”


For my very first show, they brought me 70 men. 70 men watched Big Butt Girls in a public performance. I said “feminist” because I wanted it understood it was going to be from a woman’s perspective and a woman’s voice, so that was where “feminist” worked. Most of the time I think of myself as a womanist. When my daughter, who is 46, gets upset with me, she says, “Oh, mom, you’re a feminist.” It’s like, That’s supposed to make me understand how I’m a little kooked. “You’re a feminist.”

Holly Hughes:  I came to art marking, really, as a feminist. I went to an alternative feminist art school. I can’t believe 30-something years ago the women who ran the Heresies Collective in New York for quite a number of years -- who were artists and scholars and activists and made this amazing magazine -- felt education really was the link between our practice and our political beliefs and donated their time to start The New York Feminist Art Institute. Feminism had such cultural power The New York Feminist Art Institute was featured in all the papers and politicians came to the opening, even though we didn’t have any tables or chairs.


I was new to New York and I didn’t know the trash was very good. Who needed the store when you had the streets? But, probably, if you had asked me this 20 years ago, I would have been aware of all the problems of feminism, particularly around pornography and the sensorium. I would have been, “Yes,” but with an eye roll. Of course today -- the spectacular week of men behaving badly with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the head of the IMF [Dominique Strauss-Kahn], which I think stands for “I am fucked” --


and then the story in Psychology Today. Do people know about this story in Psychology Today? The story about some guy who got research funded to have his ratings system of women, so it’s already rating women and their attractiveness, but it’s all stacked to have the idea why, scientifically, African-American women are not as attractive, so that’s bad enough, but then it’s a cover story in Psychology Today. This week I am particularly a feminist.


Particularly after I got my first adult job at the age of 46 after being a waitress and a temp worker, and then a freelance artist, oddly enough, which allowed me to be a feminist queer person because nobody paid any more attention to me than a person with a real job. Then it was, like, “Oh yeah, this is still going on.”

JD:  Lenelle?

Lenelle Moise:  I’m comfortable with the word “feminist.” I’m more comfortable with the word “womanist.” I am a poet, so I recognize these are words. I really get frustrated sometimes when I go to a feminist circle or conference and the discussion stops with whether or not young women in the room are calling themselves feminists and honoring the feminists who came before. It seems to be a generational conversation, but it stops there. It’s always, “Why aren’t you calling yourself a feminist?” That’s what makes me uncomfortable because it’s a stagnant point and feminism to me is about doing, so if we’re just talking, that’s a removed, easy, passive discussion. So yes, I’m comfortable with the words, but now what?

JD:  Right. That’s a very good point. I’m thinking too from all your remarks about how much this word and what it means has changed over time both for all of us and for the culture. I’m wondering, How at this point does or doesn’t feminism enhance or make possible your larger goals as an artist? What are your larger goals as an artist? How do politics in general inform your goals as an artist? Go ahead, Holly.

HH:  Um.


Yeah, get the solo. One quick thought is in 30 years it’s a lot easier -- in certain circumstances, although not necessarily in the place where I work -- to say, “I’m gay” or “I’m a lesbian” or whatever -- “a fucking dyke” -- whatever it is, depending on my mood ring


than it is to say, “I’m a feminist.” At the same time, queer politics has gotten bogged down to whether you’re LGBT or you’re gay or do we have enough letters? These are important -- we’re writers -- these are important, but everything stopped there. A political reading of situations is present in every moment of our lives. Like a visual reading -- like readings and interpretations and ways of understanding every other moment -- thinking about gender and sexuality and other political realities is present in our daily actions and to say not also is a political act, so that’s something that’s very present for me.

RJ:  I remember the meetings in San Francisco on Valencia Street -- feminist meetings -- and men (crazy, truck-driving, straight, basically white guys) who would hear about a meeting and attempt to disrupt a meeting. I am 62 years old, so I remember. I would say to women, “My brothers are going to come,” because my mother would say to my brothers, “You go in there and get your sister after ten o’clock,” and having women want to argue this was not political with me (my brothers coming to get me). My mother would say, “If them white people going crazy over there, you go in there and get your sister out of there.”


They said, “He’s your brother, he’s a man and he’s a male figure.” I said, “No, let my brother through,” and then I let my brother, Gus, come. Her is six-five and 300 pounds and nobody can stop him.


That was one of the first things that really dawned on me about where we were with feminism, who it’s for, who gets to wear it, its flavor, how it fits into my existence and being told there was something wrong with me because I still associated with my brothers. At the same time, Alice Walker introduced the word “womanist.” All women bleed. I remember being in London -- oh, this was 20-25 years ago -- and running through the airport trying to catch my plane. An English woman comes up to me -- an English rose -- and says, “Darling, you have a spot on your skirt.” “Oh, my God, a spot on my skirt.” Which was very feminist to me because she said, “Come, come, come, I’ll help you.” She escorts me into the restroom and I say, “Anybody got a Tampax?” Every woman in the bathroom --


Pakistani, African, everybody -- had sponge, cotton and twine.


I thought, This is feminist, this is feminist to me. Nobody said, “Oh, girl, please.” No, it was like, “Oh, darling,” and everybody was willing to help me get the stain out of my skirt, so it’s that basic to me. Even when I talk to incarcerated women, I go there because, as you pointed out, the word “feminist” has been diminished and even in a population like jail don’t nobody want to hear that. That’s slang.

I also remember Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. I’ve still gotten a lot of trouble by saying “vagina” in women’s prisons by other women who take an affront to it. I’m asked not to read “My Angry Vagina.” I remember the first time I read an article in which Eve Ensler was saying she was having trouble with her publicist about using the title The Vagina Monologues. She said, “What do we call it? The Cunt Chronicles?


The Pussy Papers?” All this stuff is a part of how I engage when I think about feminism, feminist theater and feminist approach, and then I’m right in it. I’m in it. I’m one of the gang.

LM:  I notice they call our work “political” when we know we’re human beings. I notice that. So yes, my work is political because I know I’m a human being and I know the people I love and grew up with, and care about and see, are people.

JD:  You want to add anything, Holly?

HH:  No.

[Full transcript continues on page 6,]

The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ruminations for the Next Generation of Feminist Spectators

I had the pleasure of also receiving last week a lifetime achievement award from the Women and Theatre Program (WTP) of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE).  My membership in the WTP goes back to the early 1980s; I served as President in the late 80s/early 90s, following my friend and colleague Vicki Patraka.  I was thrilled to be acknowledged by an organization that was so formative to my own career and character.

This keynote is a draft of the new introduction to the reissue of The Feminist Spectator as Critic, my first book, originally published by UMI Research Press in 1988, then by the University of Michigan Press in 1991.  The book will be reissued in July 2012.  The new introduction-in-process tries to think through what it means to be a feminist spectator in the 21st century, reflecting on what's changed since I wrote the book in the mid- to late-80s, and what's sadly, infuriatingly the same.

I'm happy for comments on this draft, which I'm "teasing" here.  The full text is available on my new web site, where I'll archive longer documents that I'd like to share with readers.  Check out the full keynote address/intro draft at

I’m delighted to be giving this keynote address, and more honored and appreciative than I can say about receiving this Lifetime Achievement Award from WTP.  Fifty-four-years-old seems a little young for such an honor, but on the other hand, feminist generations and cycles move so quickly, even in our relatively small field of feminist theatre and performance studies, in many ways I do feel like an elder stateswoman.

I began coming to the WTP pre-conferences in 1982, at the end of my first year as a graduate student in performance studies at NYU.  The Women & Theatre Program was a formative site for my thinking then, and thirty years later, remains one of my “homes,” a place to which I return eagerly to see friends and colleagues and to meet new feminist scholars and hear their work.  I’m gratified that despite the vagaries of the feminist movement in the intervening years, the WTP continues to exist and to produce scholarship that represents the diversity of our field.

My talk today is drawn from the new introduction I’ve written to my first book, The Feminist Spectator as Critic, which the University of Michigan Press plans to reissue in July 2012.  I’m gratified that this book, which was written in the mid-1980s as my NYU dissertation, has what University of Michigan Press editor LeAnn Fields would call “legs,” since it’s remained in print for these last 23 years.  I hope the upcoming reissue will continue to make it a useful text for teachers, students, practitioners, critics, and scholars still interested in thinking about performance and theatre through a feminist lens.

I’m sharing this introduction draft with you today as a kind of rumination on the state of feminist criticism—as Heidi Holland said apocryphally in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, where have we been and where are we going?  I look forward to your responses, which I’m sure will influence the trajectory of my work—it always has and it always will.

Thinking back over these years since The Feminist Spectator as Critic was first published, I’m amazed at how much has changed in American theatre and performance, as well as in the American academy and in other aspects of culture.  In theatre, film, television, and the new media explosion wrought by the internet, even the most prescient feminist spectator couldn’t have foreseen how dramatically the forms and contents through which we imagine our lives might change.

Compared to the cultural landscape of the mid-80s, when women at best played second-banana to male leads on television, or sexy but irrelevant girlfriends in film, or predictable mothers, virgins, or whores in theatre, complicated, central female characters full of quirky agency have now become more and more common.  Examples of women’s advances in popular culture are happily too numerous to list.[i]   The last three decades’ watershed moments offer heartening signs that gender equity is at least progressing in entertainment and the arts.

Yet as I’ll detail in this talk, we still have a long way to go.  Women’s gains and losses in theatre and performance, in particular, are more complicated and perhaps, on the aggregate, less positive.  And all these culture changes have occurred within a historical moment that’s oscillated wildly across the political spectrum, from a more progressive pole at one end to a much more dangerously conservative one on the other.

With that context in mind, I’ll do six things in this talk today:  I’ll offer a rethinking of “the feminisms” and how I use them in the book; I’ll think again about the question of experience as a narrative of feminism and performance; I’ll discuss liberal feminism in the context of “popular” or mainstream theatre and its possibilities; I’ll revisit the feminist critique of form, content, and context; I’ll check in on “the ideal spectator,” to see how he’s doing; and finally, I’ll end with an argument for feminist performance criticism as a tool of advocacy and activism.  Ready?

One of The Feminist Spectator as Critic’s primary original contributions was Chapter One’s explanation of the “discourse of feminisms,” and the book’s insistence that rather than offering a monolithic approach to politics or culture, feminism should be parsed into various sub-strands.  I structure the book’s argument, in fact, according to the three different strains of feminism that predominated at the time.  This taxonomy gave me a much more precise way to discuss the work accomplished differently by feminist theatre and performance artists and critics who approached gender (as well as sexuality, race, class, and other identity vectors) from diverse and often diverging ideological perspectives.

The distinct strands of liberal, cultural, and materialist feminism were meant to be descriptive and explanatory.  And they did, at first, lend precision to the political implications of performance.  The feminisms helpfully extended the performance critique, providing language that probed deeply into the apparatus of representation, its modes of production, and how it generated meaning.  But over time, the feminisms hardened into prescriptive and judgmental, rather than critically generative, categories.   The critique of cultural feminism, especially, became hegemonic, along with post-structuralism’s insistent (and persuasive) analysis of its attendant gender essentialism.[ii]

Cultural feminist values also began to align with a vociferous anti-pornography activism, which some commentators saw as entirely anti-sex and censorious.  The division between anti-porn and “pro-sex” feminism helped demonize cultural feminism, especially in the academy, where materialist feminist theorizing was on the rise.  As a result, the pleasures of women’s culture became associated with the dogmatism of cultural feminism and were derided as exclusive, predominately white, and politically and aesthetically old-fashioned.  “Cultural feminist” became a derogatory label, applied most often by materialist feminists touting sexier, more radical social interventions.

Cultural feminism takes some hard knocks in The Feminist Spectator as Critic.  While I stand by my critique of essentialism, my deliberate rejection of cultural feminist theatre and performance came from the historical context in which I wrote.  Describing and analyzing work by the Women’s Experimental Theatre and At the Foot of the Mountain, for instance, I accused them of legislating that all women respond to their productions with the same affective and political investments.  This might have been a fair assessment of how some cultural feminist theatre exchanges happened.

But much of what I called the works’ “constraining ritual systems” came from an historic need for affirmation and community against the harsh reality of a culture that made no room for women and their histories outside of patriarchal rule.   When I wrote this book, “patriarchy” itself was an old-fashioned word, which had been replaced by the more gender-neutral phrase “dominant culture” to mark the axis of social power and ideological control.  (It strikes me that now, even that language is a bit quaint.)

The Women’s Experimental Theatre and At the Foot of the Mountain, however, were two of the first feminist theatres to use performance to counter the claims of a society that was openly and arrogantly run by white men.  The cultural feminist theatre work of the moment wanted to reach a community of women, to find a common theme within the politics of gender that might provide a site of recognition and further political agitation.  The ritual “sacraments” to which I objected in this theatre practice came from a place of real need, it seems to me now, and a desire to honor women and their connections underneath a deeply felt, daily, material oppression.  That the differences among and between women were soft-pedaled to privilege gender was a sign of the times, rather than a malicious, intentional white-washing or exclusion.

The critique I launched also came partly from my own experiences feeling excluded by some of these performances’ rigidity.  I was then honing my proudly post-structuralist critical perspective and was younger by at least 10 years from many of the women whose cultural feminist theatre work I engaged.  I held myself separate from what I perceived as a rather presumptuous bid for community, attaching myself instead to the materialist feminist and post-structuralist instabilities of unknowingness and refusing cultural feminism’s forceful master narrative.

I wasn’t alone in feeling the constraints of a feminism that saw itself as righteous and “true,” or of performances that blindly assumed everyone would feel only positively about their mothers, for example.  Cultural feminism at the time tolerated little debate or disagreement, and tended to chastise those incredulous enough to want to argue with its values.

When I criticized those aspects of the work, I neglected to describe its consistent emotional appeal.  In fact, I’ve been working on and off for years now on a project called From Flannel to Fleece, which details my own experiences in women’s music production and other aspects of lesbian feminist women’s culture in the mid-1970s.  In all the recent academic work on memory, I’m surprised that we haven’t been authorized to remember, fondly, the affective import of women’s culture, which did indeed stem from a kind of cultural feminist impulse.

I still viscerally remember attending my first Holly Near concert on the Harvard campus in Cambridge in the late 70s, and how utterly stirring emotionally and inspiring politically that event was for me.  I was hailed by her voice, by her politics, by the community I felt grow around me in the auditorium where she performed.  So much of cultural feminist production prompted these affective revelations, which led many of us to fashion politically, sexually, and intellectually progressive identities.

It was only five or so years later that I would learn the critique of a culture in which I had participated so happily.  Now, when I’ve presented work-in-progress from this project, I’ve sometimes been accused of valorizing an exclusively white, middle-class, college-educated moment in U.S. lesbian feminism.[iii]   This false claim promotes the continual misrecognition of cultural feminism’s contributions to feminist and American progressive culture.  Women’s culture in Boston was diverse and a site of continual struggle rather than one of sameness and happy agreement.

In fact, I’m interested, again, in the intersection of experience and politics, art and ideology, in a way that was once also verboten in feminist critical theory.  Post-structuralism taught us to be suspicious of claims to authentic experience, but in the process, helped shut down an important aspect of how we understand subject formation and perpetuate our own interventions in knowledge.  I’m certainly not interested in returning to some notion of experience as fully “true,” but I am eager to return to a way of narrating the events of our lives that allows us to respect their meanings in our histories.

I’m interested in retelling, for instance, my own early experiences with materialist feminist performances at the WOW Café in New York, as well as my women’s culture days in Boston, in part because these are histories that need to be continually retold.  As culture changes and history moves on, we forget that even the tenuous strides we’ve made weren’t always in place.  Doesn’t it help to rehearse how it felt not to have numerous cultural avenues for seeing our lives reflected, in however partial and refracted a way?

Or doesn’t it help?  Or does it only help, well, me?  I dread becoming the finger-wagging lesbian feminist who tells her younger colleagues, “You have no idea what it was like then!”  But isn’t the point that if we don’t recall, and learn, and remember then, we can’t truly appreciate or expand or push further with the now?  Why is it that every year, gay pride celebrations across the country commemorate the events of Stonewall, but so few public, national, annual events celebrate specifically lesbian or women’s historical watersheds?  Is it because this history continues to be quotidian instead of cataclysmic?  Isn’t it in the very stuff of the everyday that history also lives?

[Continues on the middle of page 6 at . . .]

[i] In television, for only two examples, Edie Falco plays a drug-addicted but supremely competent and empathetic ER nurse on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie; Kyra Sedgwick plays the southern-bred chief of a major Los Angeles police crimes squad on The Closer, a TNT network show she also produces.  The proliferation of cable channels—including Showtime, HBO, TNT, the CW, and others— in addition to the three traditional television networks means a broader array of outlets with producers looking for fresh ideas.  Showtime, in fact, sponsored producer Ilene Chaiken’s lesbian soap opera, The L Word (2004-2009), which broke ground as the first show on television to feature mainly lesbian characters in its on-going storyline.  In film, although “rom coms” and buddy movies still dominate the American box office, women filmmakers’ inroads have at least been acknowledged over the last two decades.  For only one example, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director Academy Award for The Hurt Locker (2008), a war film that barely featured women at all.  Among the 21 women who’ve won Academy Awards for screenwriting since 1929, Diablo Cody won for Juno (2007), Diana Ossana won for Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Sofia Coppola won for Lost in Translation (2003).
[ii] See Echols, Born to be Bad and Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking:  Feminism, Nature, and Difference (New York:  Routledge, 1989).
[iii] See my From Flannel to Fleece:  Lesbian Cultural Production from 1970-1990 for a recuperation of the project of women’s culture (forthcoming).

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Outstanding Teacher Award Remarks

I was honored to receive the 2011 Outstanding Teacher in Higher Education award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) last week at the conference in Chicago.  How moved I was to see so many former students and colleagues in the audience, and to be on the podium with so many other wonderful honorees (including Doug Paterson, who won the 2011 ATHE Award for Leadership in Community-Based Theatre and Civic Engagement, and Bonnie Marranca, who won the Excellence in Editing--Sustained Achievement award).  I was incredibly honored to accept the award.  My brief remarks are posted below.--jd

I honestly can’t thank you enough for this honor.  I’m not a deeply religious person, but it strikes me that teaching is one of the most sacred professions.  We’re entrusted with minds, and lives, and bodies; people turn their faces to ours, expectantly.  That trust demands reciprocity.  Being a teacher, as a result, is also one of the most vulnerable professions, because if you’re really going to reciprocate, you have to bare a bit of your own soul.  I’m so grateful for all the students who’ve helped my soul grow over these last 25 years.

One of the most meaningful aspects of teaching, for me, like performance itself, is how fleeting it is.  On the best days, I leave a classroom on a high I rarely find elsewhere, already wishing I could recapture the heady nuances of the discoveries we just made in our fragile, hopeful, temporary learning community.  But teaching is about speech, which disappears just as it’s uttered.  Even those of us who take notes during class—myself included—in our efforts to archive and remember, can’t do justice to the timbre and tone, to the burning underpinnings of how we speak in our most urgent classroom conversations.  That we can’t recreate them makes them that much more precious, and makes me that much more eager to try.

It’s been an unexpected pleasure, this career.  But teaching is not without precedent in my family.  My Uncle Mel—who’s here today—taught me the “word for the day” every day when I was a kid; I think he’s astonished at how many I’ve learned since.  My mother spent her career as a kindergarten teacher.  I’d visit her classroom and absorb the model of her patience and magnanimity, her hope that she could in some way open her kids’ futures as she taught them to tie their shoes.  My father taught me, among other things, how to play tennis.  I learned from him a generous, happy sportsmanship that I like to think is part of my own teaching.

And Stacy Wolf, my partner, entered my life as my student, but has for 22 years also been my teacher.  Now, when we teach courses together, I’m so grateful for how much I continue to learn from her—about teaching, about theatre, and about the pleasure of so intensely living your life.

My classrooms structure my kinship networks.  Let me thank my former student, and my friend, Ramón Rivera-Servera, who I understand organized my nomination for this award, as well as all the graduate and undergrad students I’ve taught, and all the colleagues with whom I’ve worked—at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; the CUNY Graduate Center; the University of Texas at Austin; and now at Princeton.  You all mean the world to me.

Let me end by saying I wish more people really understood what happens in our classrooms.  I rue how the Right disparages progressive pedagogy like ours, especially when it’s grounded in art forms they also seem to despise.  If they could only appreciate how passionately we feel and how rigorously we think about the theatre and performance we see and do and study.  If they could only realize how cataclysmic are our new understandings, and how transformative our experiences, in our prosaic, everyday classrooms and on the magical classroom of the stage.  In our teaching and our learning, we shape the possibilities of our culture.

We theatre people work in the medium of love; we rely on our hearts as well as our minds and our souls.  To also love what you do and to be honored for it seems a great gift indeed.  Thanks so much.