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THE CORPSE WASHER

adapted for the stage by Ismail Khalidi and Naomi Wallace from the novel of the same
name by Sinan Antoon directed by Mark Brokaw

Mar. 1–Apr. 7, 2019

Jawad, a young man coming of age in Baghdad, has spent his entire existence under the
shadow of death. His father runs a Shi’ite Muslim mghaysil (or “wash house”), in which he
cleans the bodies of the deceased to prepare them for burial. (It’s believed in Islamic
culture that this ritual helps departed souls enter the afterlife.) While the men in Jawad’s
family have carried on this honored profession for six generations, Jawad has other
aspirations: he wants to be an artist. But in an Iraq beset by thirty years of military
violence, dreams aren’t achieved without cost. In The Corpse Washer, their adaptation of
Sinan Antoon’s award-winning novel of the same name, playwrights Ismail Khalidi and
Naomi Wallace bring Jawad’s story to the stage—creating a haunting portrait of a nation
in which the borders between life and death grow increasingly blurred.

The Corpse Washer moves back and forth in time through Jawad’s dreams and
recollections, pulling us into his experience with a fluidity that mimics the flow of
memory. We encounter him as an eager-to-please boy learning his father’s trade, a
rebellious adolescent discovering his passion for art, and a man struggling to channel his
feelings of anger and loss into sculpture as his country crumbles around him. All the
while, the harsh reality of war remains a constant. When teenaged Jawad recruits his
brother, Ammoury, to convince their father to let him attend the Academy of Fine Arts,
Ammoury’s enlisted in another conflict, too—the Iran-Iraq War that spanned the 1980s.
Jawad makes a new friend, Basim, at the Academy, and the two become close not only on
campus, but also in an army bunker as soldiers during the Gulf War’s aftermath. Jawad’s
relationship with his fiancée, Reem, unfolds amid the U.S.-imposed trade sanctions that
crippled Iraqis’ standard of living throughout the 1990s.

And, in the wake of 2003’s American invasion and subsequent occupation, Jawad faces an
impossible choice. Will he leave his devastated homeland to pursue his creative ambitions
abroad? Or, as the body count rises, is it his duty to take over the mghaysil?

For Khalidi and Wallace, retelling a story that chronicles the wars in Iraq from a civilian
point of view felt like a rare and valuable opportunity. Although author Sinan Antoon
emigrated from Iraq in 1991, he’s written about his native land to critical acclaim
throughout his career. Published in Arabic in 2010 and later translated into English by
Antoon, the novel of The Corpse Washer

“The Corpse Washer is about finding ways to maintain your dignity, your passion, and
your humanity, even in the most inhumane of circumstances.”

became a New York Times bestseller and has been lauded for its humanizing portrayal of
ordinary Iraqis’ lives. “Iraq is a complex, sophisticated country with a rich history,” says
Khalidi. “In the book, Sinan captures over three decades of that history, but in a very
personal and poignant way. There’s not enough work in the American theatre about Iraq,
especially not based in the perspectives of actual Iraqis. This story helps to fill that
vacuum, and we wanted to honor that by building a bridge to the stage.”

According to Wallace, delving into the world of The Corpse Washer was also an
investigation of the U.S.’s complicated legacy in the Middle East. “There’s an intimate
connection between the people of Iraq and who we are as Americans,” she reflects.
“When you invade a country and destroy its civilian infrastructure, you exert tremendous
force over that country’s history and future. We talk a lot about ‘American values.’ As a
writer, I’m interested in how those ‘American values’ unfold abroad.” In addition, the
viscerally poetic aspects of Jawad’s journey spoke to Wallace as a theatre artist. As the
years pass, Jawad’s consciousness is increasingly inhabited by the ghosts of loved ones lost
to the ongoing violence. For Wallace, this overlap between past and present, the realms of
the living and the dead, seemed ripe for dramatic exploration. She explains: “The stage is
a place where the past can be embodied; the dead can live, resurrected through the bodies
of actors. On stage we can even put the living and the dead side by side, making it hard to
tell sometimes who’s alive and who isn’t. Sinan does that beautifully in his book and this
story really wants to be on the stage.”

While the action of The Corpse Washer is grounded in Islamic custom and the landscape
of war-torn Baghdad, Khalidi and Wallace emphasize that their adaptation can resonate
with audiences of many backgrounds—and that fostering empathy for underrepresented
narratives is a vital part of what theatre can accomplish. “Imagine what it’s like to have
conflict with your father, because he wants you to do something other than what’s in your
heart,” says Wallace. “Or what it’s like to not get to do what you want creatively because of
war. Those are things a lot of us can connect to.” Khalidi declares: “The Corpse Washer is
about finding ways to maintain your dignity, your passion, and your humanity, even in
the most inhumane of circumstances. Arabs and Muslims are human beings. Sadly we live
in a country where that basic truth still needs to be pointed out (as does the fact that
black, brown, native, and immigrant lives matter). Theatre is a great vehicle for exploring
the depth of the underlying humanity of those folks whose histories (and futures) are
systematically erased, ignored, or simply misunderstood.”

—Hannah Rae Montgomery

Commissioned by Actors Theatre of Louisville

ISMAIL KHALIDI AND NAOMI WALLACE

Naomi Wallace

When Ismail Khalidi and Naomi Wallace teamed up to turn Sinan Antoon’s acclaimed
novel, The Corpse Washer, into a play, they were no strangers to working together.
Wallace was already collaborating with Khalidi on another project when she encountered
Antoon’s book. “When I read The Corpse Washer, I thought: this would be beautiful as a
play,” she recalls. “We were working on an adaptation of Palestinian writer Ghassan
Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa, and I said, ‘Do you want to read this novel? We should try
to adapt it.’” Khalidi shared Wallace’s enthusiasm. “I’ve long been an admirer of Sinan
Antoon’s work,” he says. “We both thought The Corpse Washer conjured this deeply
authentic and unique world, an important but non-stereotypical story that had potential
for the stage. Historically, politically, and visually, it felt theatrical to us, and it spoke to
our aesthetic vocabularies as writers.”

Both Wallace and Khalidi incisively tackle political and social issues—“questions of
history, power, and privilege,” as Khalidi puts it—in their individual work. The daughter
of a photojournalist and a human rights worker, passion for social justice runs in
Wallace’s blood. Raised on a farm just outside Louisville, she’s known for bringing a
socially conscious sensibility to plays that reflect her roots. The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek
(1998 Humana Festival), which centers on two Kentucky teenagers coming of age during
the Great Depression, takes its title from a countryside location near where Wallace grew
up. 1996’s Slaughter City, which premiered at American Repertory Theater and focuses on
slaughterhouse employees struggling against deteriorating workplace conditions, was
partially inspired by a strike at a Louisville meatpacking plant. The Hard Weather Boating
Party (2009 Humana Festival) unfolds in a Louisville hotel room, as three men plot to
murder the CEO of a chemical company that’s polluted the historic neighborhood of
Rubbertown.

But Wallace isn’t afraid to move beyond familiar settings, either. For example, in One Flea
Spare (1996 Humana Festival), she transports audiences to 17 th -century the stage.
London, following a wealthy couple quarantined alongside two scrappy strangers as

Plague ravages the land. Nor is The Corpse Washer her first play to focus on the Middle
East. 1995’s In the Heart of America depicts the relationship between two gay Marines—
one Appalachian-born, one of Palestinian descent—during the Gulf War. 2008’s triptych of
one-acts, The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East, offers a dreamlike look at
ordinary people’s lives in the region, implicitly critiquing American and Israeli
imperialism. Of her work on the Middle East, Wallace states: “I’m very aware that I’m a
white woman from Kentucky, writing about a culture beyond my own. If we each only
wrote about

A Palestinian-American playwright born in Beirut, Khalidi shares this interest in
showcasing underrepresented Middle Eastern perspectives. “Being Palestinian in America
forces you to combat racism, stereotypes, and historical erasure,” he says. “I see my work
as a form of cultural resistance; a reclamation of memory and a counter to the falsehoods
of mainstream discourse.” His protagonists frequently grapple with the complicated
politics of existing in a culture besieged by outside forces. Truth Serum Blues, which
premiered at Minneapolis’s Pangea World Theater in 2005, follows Kareem, a young Arab-
American man stripped of his freedom and tortured in 9/11’s aftermath. Using mixed
media and a pastiche of genres to tell Kareem’s story, the oneman show is a searing
examination of the horrors of Guantánamo Bay. In Khalidi’s “tragipoliticomedy” Tennis in
Nablus (which premiered at the Alliance Theatre in 2010), a family struggles for survival
in the wake of 1939’s failed Palestinian revolt against British occupation. Sabra Falling
(Pangea World Theater, 2017), takes place just outside war-torn Beirut in 1982, in a
refugee camp where an infamous massacre looms on the horizon. Meanwhile, Returning
our own gender, class, and race, we’d have a very limited and exclusive theatre. That said,
it’s important to do one’s homework. When I’m writing about a culture that I’m outside of,
I do as much research as I can.”

“We both thought The Corpse Washer conjured this deeplyauthentic and unique world,
an  important but non-stereotypical story that had potential for the stage.”

A Palestinian-American playwright born in Beirut, Khalidi shares this interest in
showcasing underrepresented Middle Eastern perspectives. “Being Palestinian in America
forces you to combat racism, stereotypes, and historical erasure,” he says. “I see my work
as a form of cultural resistance; a reclamation of memory and a counter to the falsehoods
of mainstream discourse.” His protagonists frequently grapple with the complicated
politics of existing in a culture besieged by outside forces. Truth Serum Blues, which
premiered at Minneapolis’s Pangea World Theater in 2005, follows Kareem, a young Arab-
American man stripped of his freedom and tortured in 9/11’s aftermath. Using mixed
media and a pastiche of genres to tell Kareem’s story, the one man show is a searing
examination of the horrors of Guantánamo Bay. In Khalidi’s “tragipoliticomedy” Tennis in
Nablus (which premiered at the Alliance Theatre in 2010), a family struggles for survival
in the wake of 1939’s failed Palestinian revolt against British occupation. Sabra Falling
(Pangea World Theater, 2017), takes place just outside war-torn Beirut in 1982, in a
refugee camp where an infamous massacre looms on the horizon. Meanwhile, Returning
to Haifa (another co-adaptation with Wallace, which premiered at London’s Finborough
Theatre in 2018) chronicles a Palestinian couple’s 1967 search for the home and son they
lost 20 years ago, after Israeli forces evicted them from their city. Khalidi’s latest work,
Dead Are My People (a Noor Theatre commission produced at New York Theatre
Workshop’s Next Door this past fall), explores the experience of Syrian immigrants
coming to the American South during the Jim Crow era.

“There’s a cliché that you have to fight with your co-writer for things to turn out well, but
I don’t think so. You have to do your best work, but respect that the other playwright

might have a vision that goes beyond yours.”

Given their overlapping interests, it’s no surprise that Wallace and Khalidi’s collaboration
on The Corpse Washer has proved smooth and eminently rewarding. “We’re on the same
page politically, in the deepest sense, and that goes a long way when you’re writing,” says
Khalidi. He also cites their nearly 15-year friendship as an asset, naming Wallace as a
seminal influence on his career. “Naomi’s work is one of the reasons I got into theatre,” he
reflects. “I first collaborated with Naomi as an actor. But as early as 2005, she was also
reading my writing, and she became a mentor and advocate for my work. After I finished
my M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing at New York University, we began working together. It has
felt like a very natural progression.” Wallace agrees. Of their process in bringing The
Corpse Washer to life, as well as co-adapting Returning to Haifa and coediting the 2015
collection Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora, she says:

“It’s pretty seamless between us. There’s a cliché that you have to fight with your co-writer
for things to turn out well, but I don’t think so. You have to do your best work, but respect
that the other playwright might have a vision that goes beyond yours. They might do
something to the script that you didn’t anticipate and that’s better than what you could’ve
imagined.” Both authors joke that when they look at scripts they’ve created together, they
can’t distinguish between one another’s writing. “It all kind of blends,” explains Khalidi.
“That’s something we’re proud of. Neither of us has much ego. We trust each other.”

Both Humana Festival alumni (Khalidi served as co-dramaturg on Mona Mansour’s The
Hour of Feeling in the 2012 Festival), Wallace and Khalidi are thrilled to return with The
Corpse Washer, especially with director Mark Brokaw at the helm. “I’ve always wanted to
work with Mark,” Wallace says. “With a script adapted from a novel, you have the
challenge of making the story feel active on its feet. Mark has been crucial to the play’s
development, helping to infuse the narrative with fresh agency.” The playwrights
emphasize, too, that a story like The Corpse Washer transcends cultural differences, even
as it reflects them. Wallace asserts: “We’re all the same family. Those are our brothers and
sisters—in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria—and the U.S. is still bombing them on a daily basis.
Storytelling isn’t just about imagining ourselves anew, it’s about imagining other worlds,
people who may be far from us geographically, but with whom we have so much in
common. We all love, hope, and dream. When we allow these brutal wars to continue,
we’re damaging our capacity to be human.”

—Hannah Rae Montgomery

NOVELIST SINAN ANTOONS

Sinan Antoon

Sinan Antoon is an Iraqi-born novelist, poet, and literary translator who’s been lauded
internationally for crafting visceral stories that haunt and inspire. The Argentinian writer
Alberto Manguel called him “one of the great fiction writers of our time,” and Al-Ahram
Weekly described him as “one of the most acclaimed authors of the Arab world.” His
works, translated into fourteen languages, provide an insightful glimpse into the
perspectives of his home country’s often-overlooked civilians—revealing the devastating
effects of life amid thirty years of ongoing violence.

Antoon is best known for 2010’s The Corpse Washer, which earned him accolades across
the world and topped The Guardian’s list for best books on the Iraq War. In an interview
about the novel with NPR, Antoon stated, “We live in such a militarized society now that
valorizes the violence carried out by armies; we never see the world from the point of
view of the civilians who are on the receiving end of tanks and drones.” The Corpse
Washer isn’t Antoon’s only work depicting the suffering and resilience of ordinary
citizens trying to survive oppressive regimes. In his 2007 novel, I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody,
he chronicles the horrors of life under Saddam Hussein’s reign through a fictional
memoir, written by a student placed in solitary confinement for ridiculing the dictator.
The Baghdad Eucharist (2012) follows a Christian family attempting to survive the
sectarian violence unleashed in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion. Set during a
single day, it captures the contrasting perspectives of an old man who dreams of the
peaceful Iraq he knew in his childhood, and his niece—who’s only ever known war. In
addition to his written work, in 2003 Antoon returned to Iraq after over a decade in the
U.S. to co-direct and co-produce a documentary, About Baghdad. The film daringly
showcases Iraqi citizens sharing their experiences of life under Saddam and expressing
their views on the recent American occupation.

More stories on Issuu:

Currently, Antoon teaches classes on Arabic culture, literature, and politics at New York
University, where he’s an associate professor. His fourth novel, The Book of Collateral
Damage, will be published in its English translation in 2019, and his academic writing and
opinion pieces can be found in major journals throughout the Arab world and
publications like The New York Times and The Guardian. Across this diverse body of
work, Antoon never fails to plunge deeply into the grit of the human experience, telling
stories that boldly confront the darker sides of life, while illustrating the vivacity of the
human spirit.

—Alonna Ray

More stories from this publisher:

This story is from:

2019 Humana Festival
Limelight
by Actors Theatre of Louisville

from ‘2019 Humana Festival Limelight’

The Thin Place

from ‘2019 Humana Festival Limelight’

How to Defend
Yourself

from ‘2019 Humana Festival Limelight’

Everybody Black

f

W

from ‘Southern Theatre, Vol. 60, Issue 3’ from ‘The Glossary Summer 2019’ from ‘A Magazine, Issue 94’ f

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Theatre as Cultural Exchange: Stages and Studios of Learning

Article  in  Theatre Symposium · January 2017

DOI: 10.1353/tsy.2017.0001

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Anita Gonzalez

University of Michigan

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Theatre as Cultural Exchange: Stages and Studios of Learning
Anita Gonzalez

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12 G O N Z A L E Z

Theatre as Cultural Exchange

Stages and Studios of Learning

Anita Gonzalez

It was a pleasure presenting for “Theatre Symposium: Cross-Cultural Dialogue on the Global Stage” in April 2016. The symposium of-
fered a unique opportunity to dialogue with colleagues about how global
perspectives influence our practice. Whether we work in performance,
technical production, or theatre studies, our artistry and scholarship ex-
pand when we take time to learn about other cultures and consider how
our production seasons, classrooms, and professional work might change
by introducing world perspectives. Global travel begins in our minds.
We must first imagine a broad context for what we consider to be the-
atre; then we can engage with new paradigms that will define the future
of our artistic forms. Even though we work in diverse contexts, each of
our areas of expertise can benefit from engaging with literature and prac-
tices that take us away from our comfort zones. Intercultural experiences,
coupled with meaningful interactions with people who differ from us, ex-
pand our minds. As the head of the Global Theatre and Ethnic Studies
minor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I advocate for the-
atre practices that foreground diverse cultures and promote engagement
with intercultural communities. “Going global” enhances our ability to
absorb multiple perspectives that can broaden our understandings about
theatrical practice.

Often I hear that we are all humans under the skin, but through my
travels and classroom experiences I have learned that while we share com-
mon emotions and physiques, ideologies and belief systems can be really
different. And that is the beautiful thing about the theatre. It provides
an opportunity to physically, viscerally experience another perspective of
human existence. As a scholar and practitioner I find performance to be
an ideal way of crossing borders. When I think about stages and studios
of learning I wonder, how do we teach for a global future? Most theatre
programs offer a combination of literature and studio courses coupled

TS25_2017.indd 12 6/13/17 1:49 PM

Theatre as a Cultural Exchange 13

with a production season. In general, we remain committed to teaching
a canon of plays that reflect the history of Euro-American, English-lan-
guage theatre. Global and multicultural theatre appears as the spice to en-
rich our experience of a progressive historical evolution of Western drama.

Escaping this approach to theatrical training is a challenge because, as
faculty members, often this has been our training, our experience, or our
area of expertise. It is intimidating to approach learning about the cul-
tures of the entire world. In addition to a plethora of plays, there are lan-
guage barriers. And if each cultural drama represents a distinct ideology
and cultural context, then how can we immerse ourselves in all of these
deep histories and experiences?

We can begin to connect to other cultural positions just by consid-
ering our own background and heritage. Each of us brings experiences
gleaned from a lifetime of immersion in a unique cultural context. Too
often, we underestimate the impact of our learned cultural behaviors on
our daily arts practice. Faculty members and students in American class-
rooms tend to think of themselves as part of an assimilated, hegemonic
middle class. If we consider our ancestral heritage, each of us actually car-
ries distinct cultural knowledges or understandings. For example, we tend
to forget that our grandparents may have come from Ireland or that we
might have been raised on a farm or an island rather than within a sub-
urban community. Our heritage connections travel across generations and
impact our worldview.1

One of the exercises I introduce in class to help students begin to
think about global identities is to have them “perform their identity”
as an opening activity. When I start this exercise, at first there is confu-
sion. White students tell me they do not know what to perform. African
American students ask me if they can perform any identity. I encourage all
students to select a song, dance, or poem that is about who they are and to
perform it. Within this exercise I have seen poignant theatrical acts. One
performance that stands out for me is the work of a student of Swedish
descent who performed a ritual of stuffing Christmas sausages. He stood
in front of the class and began to demonstrate how to grind and stuff the
meat. Then he spoke about his brother joining him in filling the casings,
and as he worked he recalled how this activity connected him with family
and heritage. He cried while performing this memory, remembering an
almost-forgotten ethnic heritage. This performance of identity is just one
of many that students have presented that point to our global environ-
ment. What is interesting about doing this exercise over time is the vast
regional differences that emerge from the same assignment.

In New York, students tend to perform hyphenated identities—Italian

TS25_2017.indd 13 6/13/17 1:49 PM

14 G O N Z A L E Z

American, Irish American, Jewish American. In Florida, people performed
geographic locales—being northern redneck or being from Miami or
Georgia. When I teach in Michigan today, students often perform De-
troit, a city—and for the first time last semester I observed students per-
forming their identities as test-tube babies. The world is changing and it is
hard to keep up. There are real challenges in thinking about how to relate
theatre training to all of these identities. How do we incorporate a glob-
alized world into our research and theatre-training programs? I propose
we think about three modes of bringing global consciousness to theatre:
collaboration, exchange, and finding the global in the local.

Collaboration

Since each of us is most familiar with our own cultural contexts, it is
easiest to learn about other cultures through collaboration. Working with
someone from a different background allows both partners to experience
new ideas. In collaborations, we tend to carry a lot of unexamined as-
sumptions with us. Studies document first-world or upper-middle-class
tendencies to approach cultural exchange with a “savior” mentality. This
means that we enter any cultural exchange believing that our own expe-
riences, when shared, will enhance and improve the culture we are visit-
ing. Inherent in this approach is an assumption that our partnering cul-
tural community needs or wants to be assimilated into our behavioral
modes. Even when we try to accommodate other cultural modes, we can
lose sight of our own myopic visions.

Here is an example from graduate school. When I was working on my
PhD at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I was charged with direct-
ing a play called El Guitarron by Lynn Alvarez in collaboration with the
university’s Latino students. For this production, the department made a
strong effort to recruit and involve Latino students. It was assumed that
theatre students would contribute knowledge of theatre practice while the
Latinos would contribute cultural knowledge to make the show a success.

Yet hidden in this plan were a lot of assumptions about how theatre
should be done. We presumed that time would work the same across cul-
tures, with everyone showing up ten minutes before rehearsals ready to
work. That didn’t happen. We presumed that our priorities would be the
same and that the play’s needs would take precedence over other activities,
like family gatherings. That didn’t happen. Things really came to a head
when we presumed that Latino audiences would adjust to our theatrical
ticket-buying rituals—that people who wanted to see the show would
come to the box office to buy tickets. Our Latino collaborators told us
that in their community, people sell tickets by holding a block of tickets,

TS25_2017.indd 14 6/13/17 1:49 PM

Theatre as a Cultural Exchange 15

selling off individual tickets to family and friends, and then returning the
unsold tickets and the money to the sponsor. The department was un-
able to accommodate this procedure, so we ended up with primarily uni-
versity audience members.

My point here is that a successful collaboration needs dialogue and dis-
cussion. At the University of Wisconsin, and in many institutions, it is as-
sumed that non-institutional communities will assimilate and adapt to the
institution’s norms. This creates an unbalanced circumstance in which the
non-institutional is devalued. Offering a collaborative opportunity ideally
means that both sides are willing and able to make adjustments. The La-
tino students’ approach to selling tickets to the production was not in-
correct or in need of improvement; it was merely a different solution to
the play’s outreach and promotion needs.

Currently, I am involved in another theatre project called the Story-
telling Incubator, a collaboration with the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa
Tribe.2 When I moved to Michigan to form the Global Theatre and Eth-
nic Studies minor, I immediately looked for local partners. I was intro-
duced to the Upper Peninsula and the Chippewa community of Michigan
through Dana Sitzler, a colleague from our Government Relations office.
Our exchange activities with the Sault Ste. Marie community have taken
about a year to develop and we are still exploring the twists and turns.
As I began the process of working in this very rural community, I under-
stood that notions of what theatre is might be distinct.

We began by meeting with two sectors of the community, historians
from the town and members of the Chippewa tribe’s cultural education
department. Each had a very different idea about the purpose of our proj-
ect and about how the town’s history might be told. After discussions,
we decided to first immerse our students in teachings about Anishina-
bek Chippewa traditions, and then to develop a workshop and perfor-
mance program that might unite both sectors of the community in com-
mon activities. During the first part of the project, students stayed at the
Mary Murray Culture Camp on Sugar Island, where they participated in
sunrise ceremonies and teachings about corn and fire.3 They were able to
meet and share stories with both elders and youth of the community. In
the process, they learned about themselves and came to question the way
they were educated in their school programs about Native American pres-
ence in the United States. The experience of cultural exchange allowed
students to think about who they were and what they knew from a dif-
ferent perspective. In the process, they gained self-awareness about their
own cultural beliefs.

The second part of the Storytelling Incubator expanded our collabo-
ration to include the town as well as the tribal community. While our

TS25_2017.indd 15 6/13/17 1:49 PM

16 G O N Z A L E Z

goal was to unite the two communities, in practice we worked separately
with two organizations: the Soo Theatre and the Chippewa Tribe. We
found that these two cultural institutions operated within very different
aesthetic traditions. Ultimately the project was best served by organizing
distinct exchange activities. The main objective of our second phase was
to present a staged reading of a play about domestic violence, Sliver of a
Full Moon, by Oklahoma Cherokee Nation author Mary Katherine Na-
gle.4 We were able to utilize tribal facilities for housing students and for
rehearsals. For the performances, tribal administrators also gave us access
to The Dream Catchers Theatre, a state-of-the art facility located within
the Kewadin Casino complex. The space offers lights, catering services,
and a stage with a dance floor.

Cultural differences in this collaboration emerged once again around
production mechanisms. Because the play directly addresses sensitive is-
sues of violence against women, our partners suggested we consult with

Figure 1. Students participating in the Storytelling Incubator project remove ker-
nels from hard Indian corn as they learn how to prepare corn soup. The Sault
Ste. Marie Chippewa Tribe education department invited elders to teach the uni-
versity students cultural traditions as part of the theatre exchange project. Pho-
tograph by Anita Gonzalez.

TS25_2017.indd 16 6/13/17 1:49 PM

Theatre as a Cultural Exchange 17

three local organizations: the Chippewa Advocacy Resource Center,
the Diane Peppler Center, and Uniting Three Fires against Violence, a
statewide advocacy organization. In this collaboration, we did not want
to make decisions without considering tribal perspectives about how a
public event should be handled. We incorporated honoring and heal-
ing songs into the presentation because the Native American commu-
nity wanted to honor the women for their bravery in telling their stories.
The healing songs provided support and helped to ease any emotional
trauma the women might have felt as they relived their traumatic experi-
ences. Throughout the process we adapted our theatrical practice to ac-
commodate an alternative approach to storytelling through performance
that would heal the community by making public the stories of women
who had been harmed by violence.

Outside of the reservation, we conducted workshops with community
members. Students and faculty members interacted with the Soo Theatre,
the town’s European cultural community theatre, by offering workshops

Figure 2. University of Michigan student Mia Massimino listens as a docent ex-
plains settler history of the Sault Ste. Marie region during a tour of one of the
historic houses. An engaged learning exchange project educated students about
history and culture of European settlers and Native Americans in this Canadian
border town. Photograph by John R. Diehl Jr.

TS25_2017.indd 17 6/13/17 1:49 PM

18 G O N Z A L E Z

in theatre games as well as musical theatre and opera practice. Collen Ar-
bic, president of the Soo Theatre, supported our residency by introduc-
ing us to her theatre’s membership. We held informational meetings with
local, nontribal theatre practitioners, but they did not participate in pro-
duction activities for staging the Native American play.

Each community, even within the same town, approached the business
of theatre-making differently. Ultimately I do not know that we were
able to bridge cultural differences across the two Sault Ste. Marie com-
munities. Even though some of the tribal facilities were directly across
the street from the local Soo Theatre, it was hard to bring the two con-
stituencies, the white European descendant community and the Native
American community, into the same space. One group was invested in
the Eurocentric arts of opera and ballet, while the other valued Native
American cultural events such as powwows and bingo. Our performance
brought a few members of the non-native community into the Kewadin
casino performance space, but most of our audience members were also
tribal members. Nevertheless, by collaborating on a project that crossed
cultural lines, students were able to experience how different processes of
performance can be. They could see the limits of collaboration, and we
all learned that sometimes bridges cannot be realized.

International Exchange

International exchange, like any collaboration, brings artists together to
swap ideas. Most international exchange programs emphasize summer-
or semester-long study at a foreign university. Some schools offer fac-
ulty-led programs. For American theatre folk, the most common desti-
nation is London. While I have led programs in Mexico and Costa Rica,
I am going to focus on four different UK projects because each project
engaged with British culture differently. Some involved observation and
tourist experiences, while others immersed students in one-on-one dia-
logic exchange with local partners.

It seems natural to travel to England to study theatre because the lan-
guage is the same as in the United States and we have heard so much
about Shakespeare. We want to immerse our students in the history and
culture of the Bard. Still, I would like to point out that there are many
other global sites for English-language theatre—Nigeria, the Caribbean,
South Africa, Toronto—but here I will focus on England, describing four
international exchange programs that I have led. My first UK project was
simply attending plays. The State University of New York at New Paltz
has an annual program where students spend two weeks seeing about ten
plays in London. The program introduces students to styles of British

TS25_2017.indd 18 6/13/17 1:49 PM

Theatre as a Cultural Exchange 19

professional theatre and allows them to experience such historical London
sites as the reconstructed Globe Theatre. With this program, I most ap-
preciated the way that the students’ eyes lit up as they discovered life in
a country where theatre has been supported and nurtured for centuries.
Because my students at that time were New Yorkers, they were less im-
pressed with the vibrancy of the city and more impressed with the multiple
aesthetics and culturally diverse plays they were able to see in London.

After two years of leading this type of excursion, I proposed a more
immersive experience in which students would be able to devise new
work and learn with British practitioners. For this second, three-week
experience, the students were housed at Kingston University. In addi-
tion to classes in British culture, they also participated in six workshops
with British artists—producers, scholars, choreographers, directors—to
learn how they might develop new work within the British landscape.
The workshops increased student immersion in cross-cultural dialogue.

Figure 3. University students from Michigan sit on a mountaintop outside of Oax-
aca, Mexico. One among many study abroad offerings led by Anita Gonzalez, the
international exchange program took students out of their comfort zones and ex-
posed them to new ways of thinking about art and culture. Photograph by Omar
Alonso.

TS25_2017.indd 19 6/13/17 1:49 PM

20 G O N Z A L E Z

After completing the workshops, the class participated in a devising proj-
ect, which involved reimagining scenes from The Tempest while think-
ing about gender-specific and postcolonial responses to the play. While
the students could have studied the play at home in their classrooms and
learned about Caliban as a postcolonial subject, or about how the open-
ing shipwreck scene connects with the history of Jamestown, the proj-
ect allowed the students to connect with local artists. They learned more
about British perspectives on the play and made professional connections
with British directors and scholars.

My third UK exchange was supported by the Global Intercultural
Experience for Undergraduates (GIEU) program at the University of
Michigan. This exchange program offered an opportunity to travel with
students to Liverpool and engage with the black communities of this
northern port town.5 We spent one month interacting with local partners
and arts organizations. After learning about Liverpool, students worked in
small teams to volunteer with local not-for-profit agencies, including Af-
rica Oye, The Brouhaha Carnival, The Green House Project, The Somali
Women’s Project, and the Black E performance space. Our coordinating
community partner and sponsoring agency was the Merseyside Dance Ini-
tiative (MDI).6 In addition to helping us to connect with the agencies,
MDI arranged housing and located a theatre for us to perform in. Because
the students collaborated closely with local artists, they were able to really
see differences and similarities between British and American cultures.

The students learned about black identity and how it works differently
on the other side of the water. For example, African American female stu-
dents noticed that white British men found them attractive and compli-
mented them, something that seldom happened in their hometown of
Detroit. They also recognized that US historical events, such as the civil
rights movement and the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had
limited impact on the British community. Most of all, the student trav-
elers learned about themselves. When British people asked the American
students where they were from, most could offer no response other than
the name of their hometowns. Recognizing this lack of heritage, the stu-
dents began to reconsider their identities and how to describe their point
of origin. At the end of the project we developed and performed a de-
vised show for our community partners.7 The play incorporated student
perspectives about their experiences and allowed them to verbalize their
feelings about their identities and those of their British collaborators. In
one section of the play, they performed what surprised them about Brit-
ish customs: tea, small cars, politeness, and language differences. Later
in the play, they talked about their newly gained understandings of class,
their concerns about social justice, and the challenges that America offers

TS25_2017.indd 20 6/13/17 1:49 PM

Theatre as a Cultural Exchange 21

for social mobility. This project was particularly satisfying because it was
both educational and community-based, allowing students to use theatre
to learn about another culture through engaged and interactive activities.

The current UK project I am working on has allowed students to col-
laborate as performers in a professional international theatrical produc-
tion. Building upon my own academic research about African American
transatlantic voyaging, I am collaboratively writing a new musical called
Liverpool Trading with the black British composer Errollyn Wallen.8 The
project has been developed in both New York City and Liverpool, and
each stage of the process has tested me as an artist and administrator.
The story follows an Afro-Caribbean woman named Ayanna, who goes
to Liverpool in search of her father. After she lands, an Irish pub owner
named Monroe leads her on a time-traveling journey. As Ayanna searches
for her ancestors, she discovers musical worlds of Ceilli, trip hop, tea gar-
dens, and the Mersey beat.9 Eventually, she finds her father and learns to
accept love. Once again, the challenge of this project has been in cross-
cultural notions about how theatre is ideally produced. Should work be
developed in resident theatres? On university campuses? The UK has a
strong system of “research and development,” but how does that com-
plement our US context of private funding? In the United States, mu-
sical theatre composers usually write lyrics; that is not the norm in the
UK. And artistically, how do you tell two sides of a transnational story in
a way that works for both sets of audiences? These are some of the chal-
lenges, and I do not yet have answers, but the learning curve has been a
wonderful journey.

During December 2015 and January 2016 my two collaborators, novel-
ist Richard Aellen and composer Errollyn Wallen, came to the University
of Michigan to work with students on developing and recording songs
for the show. Two weeks later we traveled to New York City to work with
professional actors on a staged reading of the script. Performers in both
locations became more culturally aware as they discovered how African
cultures, in diaspora, contributed to both American and British histories.
The play is written in multiple dialects: Irish, Afro-Caribbean, Jamaican,
Liverpudlian, London British, and New York (Brooklyn). As the actors
struggled to understand the context for the dialects, they participated in
dramaturgical discussions about transatlantic travel, the Windrush gen-
eration,10 and British anti-slavery activism. The creative team talked about
black and Irish relationships focusing on how neighboring, multilingual
communities supported cultural encounters and racial mixing. Our artis-
tic process of having discussions about the script revealed the diverse cul-
tural heritages of each of the artists in the room. Often, we talked about
the actor’s migration stories and discussed relatives who could have been

TS25_2017.indd 21 6/13/17 1:49 PM

22 G O N Z A L E Z

Page 22

affected by these cross-cultural exchanges. Learning about black and Irish
experiences in London, New York, Liverpool, and Jamaica reminded all
of

35

A N A P P R E C I AT I O N

Chadwick Boseman knew how to breathe
and live ‘Howard forever’
Boseman was more than an actor. He was a griot among thespians.

Chadwick Boseman was Howard University’s commencement speaker May, 12, 2018, in Washington.
Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

BY S O R AYA N A D I A M C D O N A L D
@ S O R AYA M C D O N A L D

September 1, 2020

Chadwick Boseman was a griot among thespians.

That is why it’s di�cult to face the reality of saying goodbye to

Boseman, a South Carolina-born son of Howard University who

soared to vertiginous heights on the wings of his love for Black

people. His doesn’t represent the loss of a single book, but an entire library.

Boseman’s seemingly never-ending capacity for excellence shone through

his roles in biopics, depicting Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood

Marshall. But when I look at Boseman through the eyes of a critic who

graduated, like Boseman, from Howard, I see an embodiment of lineage and

legacy. That is what makes the pain of his death from colon cancer at age 43

radiate through my bones, because his work feels like the apotheosis of a

project that began decades before his birth.

What Boseman accomplished in his too-short career as an actor came from

an earnest embrace of Black theatrical tradition as cultivated at the home of

the Howard Players, the student acting company founded at the university

in 1919 (Boseman was a former president of the group). Within Boseman,

the spirits of Howard’s dramatic luminaries converged — the rigor and

dignity of Ossie Davis, the radical defiance of Amiri Baraka, the homespun

egalitarianism of Pearl Cleage, the self-possessed elegance of his teacher and

mentor, Phylicia Rashad. He was the idyllic apex of what an actor molded

from Howard’s conservatory could be, an old soul in a modern man’s body,

always willing to take chances and expand the Black imagination, whether it

be through his

, his

easy, toothy grin, the glint in his eye or the humanity he unspooled on

screen as he inhabited one singular, history-making Black man after

another.

exuberant red carpet style

(https://tomandlorenzo.com/2020/08/chadwick-boseman-redefined-

celebrity-male-style-in-the-space-of-a-few-years/#.X00uZZ5KhTY)

That is what made Boseman so special — he carried the legacy of a people

and an institution as though it weighed no more than a feather, allowing his

adoration of Black people and Blackness at large to be the cloud on which

he floated, the element that propelled his work into something that could

never be contained within an Oscar statuette, a reward he never received.

ADVERTISEMENT

Boseman’s seemingly never-ending capacity
for excellence shone through his roles in

biopics, depicting Jackie Robinson, James
Brown, and Thurgood Marshall. But when I

look at Boseman through the eyes of a critic
who graduated, like Boseman, from Howard, I

see an embodiment of lineage and legacy.

It felt as though we were just witnessing a small sampling of Boseman’s

obvious and sprawling artistic capacity. His breakout film role was

portraying Robinson in (2013), but his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from

Howard was in directing. He was a playwright. Boseman penned

, which was inspired by the Sept. 1, 2000, killing of

, a fellow Howard University student slain

by a Prince George’s County police o�cer who shot him in the arm and

back.

in 2005. When it did,

theater critic Chris Jones found the work so impressive that he suggested

Boseman could become Congo Square’s “grand young muse.”

42

Deep

Azure Prince Jones

(https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/article/13020801/black-

victim-black-cop-black-county)

Deep Azure debuted as a production of Congo Square Theatre

Company in Chicago (https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2005-

09-22-0509220274-story.html) Chicago Tribune

Boseman was the sort of movie star one could imagine returning to New

York for a triumphant and credible starring turn on Broadway, following in

the footsteps of his

. And it wouldn’t have

been a situation where audiences

to see a splashy actor pad his resume with some gravitas, but

rather a homecoming, because the stage is where Boseman’s career began.

British American Drama Academy benefactor Denzel

Washington (https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/31/entertainment/denzel-

washington-chadwick-boseman-tribute/index.html)

paid Broadway ticket prices

(https://theundefeated.com/features/how-to-get-more-black-on-

broadway/)

It’s just one of the possibilities for Boseman’s future that will never be

realized, along with the opportunity to see him marshal his many talents —

for leadership, empathy and acting — to direct a film of his own. I have not

seen it yet, but I suspect Boseman’s turn in the Netflix adaptation of August

Wilson’s (directed by theater veteran George C.

Wolfe and written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a frequent interpreter of

Wilson’s work) will leave us heartbroken anew for what could have been.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

And yet he was never so saintly that he wasn’t real.

When Boseman was promoting his cop thriller , the film’s press

tour took him to London, where

with Helena Bonham

Carter, Olivia Colman and Richard Ayoade. Over and over in ABC’s tribute to

Boseman, which aired Sunday night after , Boseman’s co-

stars praised his skill and generosity as a scene partner, his ability to elevate

the game of everyone around him because of his sheer dedication to the

craft. Seated beside Ayoade on the set, the two men

provided a study in contrasts. Boseman was in full control of a confident and

easygoing American brand of cool, dapping up Norton on his way to the

host’s famous red sofa while sporting a textured black leather trench coat

and a patterned black-and-white tunic. Ayoade, best known for his role in

, was quintessentially British — a bit halting and shrinking,

nebbish and self-deprecating. And yet the two men got along so famously

21 Bridges

he appeared on the Graham Norton Show

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_stafNyL1Q8)

Black Panther

Graham Norton

The IT Crowd

and with such ease that I found myself wishing for a buddy comedy starring

the two of them. Boseman possessed an innate magnanimity that would not

allow him to upstage someone else, a skill he put on full display in

as he played big brother to Letitia Wright’s Shuri.

Black

Panther

Boseman seemed to take the best of Sidney Poitier — his regality, the intellect

he poured into every performance — and have fun with it. When he hosted

, Boseman turned in a

that surpasses

in its

ability to both distill something true about race in America while also

delivering something lasting in a medium intended as pop culture

ephemera. Sometimes, he didn’t need minutes, but a mere moment —

at the 2019 Oscars when

Saturday Night Live sketchBlack Jeopardy

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzMzFGgmQOc) Tom

Hanks’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7VaXlMvAvk&t=6s)

a

smirk he shared with co-star Michael B. JordanBlack Panther

(https://shadowandact.com/chadwick-bosemans-reaction-to-green-book-

winning-best-picture-is-all-of-us) Green Book

RELATED STORIES

Chadwick Boseman knew his voice had power and used it to challenge Hollywood
(https://theundefeated.com/features/chadwick-boseman-knew-his-voice-had-
power-and-used-to-it-challenge-hollywood/)

‘Black Panther’ director Ryan Coogler on Chadwick Boseman
(https://theundefeated.com/features/black-panther-director-ryan-coogler-on-
chadwick-boseman/)

Chadwick Boseman embodied the glory in his characters
(https://theundefeated.com/features/chadwick-boseman-embodied-the-glory-in-
his-characters/)

Watch: Remembering Chadwick Boseman
(https://theundefeated.com/videos/remembering-chadwick-boseman/)

won best picture was enough to sum up the amused, unsurprised

resignation of every person who’s ever witnessed Black excellence lose out

to white mediocrity. That too, endeared him to us.

As

, Boseman is preserved on celluloid

as “our Malcolm our Martin,” forever young, guiding his Black

countrymen from the grave. Though his portrayal of T’Challa made him an

icon, it’s Stormin’ Norman who comes the closest to immortalizing who

Boseman was in real life — a man who remained a wellspring of compassion,

purpose, inspiration and divine grace even when submerged in a terrifying

miasma of American violence, chaos and anti-Black contempt. A youngster

who could o�er the genuine solace of an elder, even if he never actually got

to become one.

Stormin’ NormanDa 5 Bloods’

(https://theundefeated.com/features/from-apocalypse-now-to-da-5-

bloods-a-war-that-never-really-ended/)

and

Boseman is gone, joining his

as another prematurely and cruelly called to the fraternity of ancestry. So we

say goodbye, knowing that a future generation will spawn a talent they’re

bound to describe as their Chadwick Boseman.

co-star Nelsan EllisGet On Up

(https://theundefeated.com/features/true-blood-nelsan-ellis-rest-in-peace/)

Rest well to a king who showed us, through his life and work, what it truly

meant to be, to breathe, to live “

.”

Howard forever

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIHZypMyQ2s)

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes
about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the
George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer
Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for
outstanding reporting on black life.

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35

HomeWork 1:

Reflection 1:

After watching the 3 videos and 1 reading named Chadwick Boseman knew how to breathe and live ‘Howard forever’ Attached.

Video 1:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcRREvQyl54

Video 2:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgG21oUndcI

Video 3:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPnSeo0ur7M

I want you to reflect on the use of Theatre (or really any art form) as an empowerment tool. How are these stories empowering? Spend a little time reflecting on the general empowerment of these stories and why they are important and why empowering people thru artistic works has a valuable and important purpose in society.

250 to 300 words needed.

HomeWork 2:

Reflection 2:

After reading the PDF attached named

1. Theatre as Cultural Exchange

2. The Corpse Washer – Issuu

on Theatre as a Cultural Exchange, I want you to reflect on the use of Theatre (or really any art form) as a way to explore a culture or an aspect of culture. Why is it important to explore and understand other cultures and how is art a great way to do this?

250 to 300 words needed.

HomeWork 3:

Writing:

1. I would like you to talk a little bit about any specific theatre, film or music artist, group or production/film that you personally find empowering and talk a little bit about why you find them empowering. Is it something in their personal story? Is it what they represent? Spend a little time talking about this person/s and give us an idea of why you find them empowering.

2. Next, i want you to think about an artist or a work of art (film, tv, theatre, music etc.) and think of an example that you find is good at exploring culture thru their art. Is there someone, or a play, film, tv show that you think does a good job of exploring a specific culture (remember culture can be anything, video gamers are a “culture”) 

200 to 250 words needed.

Do not forget to site and citation all the doc’s attached plus any out side sources.