Campus Organizing, or How I Use Theatre to Resist
In the last few months, I’ve often wondered how I could use my faculty position in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Houston as a form of resistance. At times, I’ve felt that my teaching wasn’t enough. What could I do to respond to the issues facing our country? What could I do to bridge the university and local communities? What could I do to engage my students in live theatre as an act of resistance? In what follows, I consider the ways in which my university position grants me opportunities to produce live performance as political resistance and, thus, further cultural change through art.
For years I have followed the campus organizing of my colleague and mentor Marci R. McMahon at the University of Texas—Rio Grande Valley. She regularly uses her faculty position to bring Latin@ theatre artists and productions to campus to fill the gaps and produce culturally relevant work for the predominately Latin@ student body. McMahon has brought artists such as Teatro Luna, Virginia Grise, Monica Palacios, and Josh Inocéncio over the years to provide her students with opportunities to engage with Latin@ theatre and see themselves represented in ways that are not traditionally accessible at her university despite its geographic location and student body.
Inspired by McMahon’s work, I decided to discover resources I didn’t realize I had at my university. As a lecturer with neither a full-time nor a recurring contract, I often have felt powerless in terms of campus programming. Yet, as I learned, I was wrong. In September 2016, I began organizing what I called “Purple Eyes Week,” which saw Houston-based playwright/performer Josh Inocéncio perform his solo show Purple Eyes for an audience of over 200 people, lead a writing and performance workshop, and make five class visits to gender and sexuality courses. The entire experience was a crash-course in campus organizing as I collaborated primarily with the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and the LGBTQ Resource Center in addition to various academic departments to bring Inocéncio to campus in February/March 2017 for “Culture Connect Week.”
As Texas continues to be a battleground for Latin@ and LGBTQ issues, bringing stories such as Purple Eyes to college students is a necessary act. Weaving narratives of four generations of men in his family, Inocéncio’s Purple Eyes queers the cultural legacy of Mexican machismo while also portraying the performer’s journey to embrace both his queerness and Latinidad. The title refers to Inocéncio’s father’s notorious purple sunglasses that he wore as an undercover cop in gay adult video stores as well as the playwright’s framework through which he explains how the men in his family have queered machismo. To tell this story now, in the current sociopolitical climate, is an act of resistance.
During my Intro to LGBT Studies class following the performance, I asked my students to raise their hands so I could survey the room about their theatre-going experiences. While nearly every student had seen a play before, few had seen a solo show. More than half had never seen a queer play or a Latin@ play. And no student had ever seen a queer Latin@ play. While this was to be expected given the lack of queer and Latin@ stories on Houston stages in tandem with my students’ age ranges, their feedback spurred me to consider my role as a professor and organizer on my university campus. While the University of Houston is an LGBTQ friendly environment, a Hispanic-Serving Institution, and is notably one of the nation’s most diverse college campuses, outlets for queer Latin@ expression on campus are few and far between. In the same vein, the School of Theatre and Dance rarely produces this type of work.
What interested me most was understanding how the live performance affected the students in my LGBT Studies courses, the majority of which are either queer or people of color and oftentimes both. Many noted how they had never seen theatre portraying mixed-race queer identities; queer people of color receive less representation than Anglo and White queer people. Several compared Purple Eyes to the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight, discussing how both works fill gaps about queer identities that mainstream media has left out of the picture.
On our course blog, one of my students wrote:
“What made it great for me was the kind of story that was being told, because it’s a story I’ve never heard before despite it being really similar to my own personal story with my sexuality and heritage. As a half-Mexican half-white queer man living in Houston, Purple Eyes made me feel represented in a way that I never thought I needed to be. I think that it really speaks to a lot of mixed race queer people, which is sort of a newer identity, who are struggling to navigate this weird intersection. When I was watching it I thought, ‘Wow, I have literally never seen something like this before.’ In media, especially queer media, we’re really only given stories from the point of view of white people, and because of that, non-white people, especially queer people, are made to feel that we don’t really have stories to tell. I actually watched Moonlight the night before I watched Purple Eyes so these past few days I’ve really been thinking about the intersection of race and sexuality and how everyone has a different story that we never get to hear. Purple Eyes made me really examine my story in terms of how my heritage has affected my sexuality, which is something I had never considered before.”
While my experience of bringing Josh Inocéncio to engage with my students can’t be replicated everywhere, I encourage university faculty to seek out artists doing work that explores varies aspects of identity. Now, perhaps more than ever, university students need to be exposed to stories outside of their identities and experiences. Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. For theatre to become a tool of resistance, audiences must step out of their comfort zones and learn about other experiences. Theatre doesn’t need to be “relatable” to have value. As organizers and producers, we must seek out live performances that represent identity markers that lie beyond the mainstream. As my student above attests, seeing oneself represented in art is a powerful experience. We need more of this.
In playwright Christina Quintana’s “Stages of Resistance” blog installment, “The Conversation of Resistance,” she notes that as artists, “we resist by declaring that every voice has value. (…) We resist by bridging communities.” I take Quintana’s call, offering my on ways of resisting. As a professor, as an arts advocate and leader, I resist by introducing my students to socially conscious theatre. I resist by organizing from a place of abundance, by collaborating across campus, by building networks. I resist by supporting independent artists. I resist by forging a space for queer Latin@ voices to thrive. And finally, I resist by empowering the next generation.