Transatlantic Conversations: Dramaturgy as Public Humanities

January 25, 2016

Transatlantic Conversations, hosted by the Pomona College Department of Theatre and Dance was a collaborative class and devised theatre project that looked at the ways people of Africa, the African Diaspora and the west engage with each other.

Lead artist and award winning playwright Asiimwe Deborah of Uganda, theatre artist and Pomona College professor Joyce Lu and I worked to imagine and implement the shape and content of this class and process throughout 2015. We decided that our work would look at the global imaginary of Africa while radically centering both the lived experiences of the students and intercultural exchange and dialogues amongst people of Africa and the African Diaspora.

Our class included a wide range of content including texts and plays about the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and the partition of Africa, transatlantic approaches to political organizing, the white savior complex in Africa, current relations between Africans and African Americans, decolonial approaches in Black American theatre and theatre in Africa and so much more.  We had guest lectures from various artists and scholars in the theatre as well as performance practitioners who have looked at some of these topics in their work.  

The sixteen students, a very ethnically and socio-economically diverse group from around the Claremont colleges, considered this content and built a collaborative work together. Asiimwe composed and directed the performance, writing a central play that centered on an exchange between two Black women trying to recover their point of connection, their center, after it had been stolen. The rest of the collaborators on stage contribute to this process of seeking through work as a chorus, considering colonialism, imperialism, racism, microaggressions, western depictions and thoughts of Africa, alongside personal moments, name stories that built a bridge between institutional structures, nationalisms and personal identity. The play closes with a series of performances that the students devised in small groups investigating otherness both in their relationships with their collaborators and in themselves. Audience members over the course of the play were asked to write down a story that they had inherited that was no longer serving them. At the close of the performance the students led the audience outside where they burned their stories in a bonfire ceremony.

On this project I worked as a co-director and a dramaturg.  In considering previous models of dramaturgy, I stumbled upon performance scholar and dramaturg David William’s article Geographies of Requiredness: Notes on the Dramaturg in Collaborative Devising.

Dramaturgy is about the rhythmed assemblage of settings, people, texts and things. It is concerned with the composing and orchestration of events for and in particular contexts, tracking the implications of and connective relations between materials, and shaping them to find effective forms (2).

As dramaturg for this piece, I reviewed and gave structural and content feedback for the play as Asiimwe was developing it. I also managed a collectively curated tumblr that featured related content around class topics. For the final performances, I was also responsible for developing an exhibition that pulled together some of the content from the class.

Explaining and unpacking this project for the public proved consistently challenging. I immediately likended these questions to core public humanities queries. The pragmatic issues of how to effectively communicate the spirit of the performance was a collaborative process, one that helped us as collaborators to reaffirm the political pulse of our play. But there were also questions of translation. How might we as artists that had been siting with this work for the last three months share the original content that had brought us to the epistemologies that shape this performance?

I decided to design a dramaturgical archival wall and asked each of the students to submit images as representations of content that significantly impacted their learning in the class. I also asked that they attach notes to the images denoting their historical and personal significance.

Next, I considered the degree to which I was interested in interpreting these images for audience members, bearing in mind the value of provocative questioning. I sought to make the wall aesthetically overwhelming, cluttered and unorganized. This structurally was the most honest interpretation of how we all encountered and navigated the topics and materials for this project. I was also interested in the aesthetics of archiving, not to have this wall stand in as a comprehensive archive of the content we had covered (this would be impossible) but rather to allow the visitor to experience searching through an under-structured archive. This alluded to the holes, spaces and general unkemptness of the historical archives we navigated through in our class and devising process.

In building the wall this way, I understood that it functioned both as a work of art itself and also as a tool for furthering knowledge. I decided to create labels for each image that identified it by “name”, “search values” and “date”. The idea behind these labels is that they gave an audience member just enough information to google the image they are seeing without interpreting the image in a way that gives them a gratifying feeling of having grasped or understood the significance of what they are seeing. Further research of the image is required to effectively understand it.

During performances, I watched intently as the audiences were ushered through the foyer where the wall was installed and into the theatre. Some people engaged with the exhibition, some did not notice it, most passed by it slowly and curiously.

I still have many questions about the legibility of the work as well as the response-ability of the audience to this installation and the process it encourages. I wonder what would have happened if there was a participatory element at the entrance of theatre that invited the public as a researcher and collaborative intellectual in the project. I have yet to find out but I am excited for how this investigation has influenced my personal framework and ethos for dramaturgical work.

For more information and content about this project, visit our blog at

Arielle Julia Brown M.A. ‘17 is a social and civic practice theatre practitioner and cultural producer. She is a graduate fellow for the study of the Public History of Slavery.