Bethany Hughes is a 20-21 Hunting Family Faculty Fellow at the Institute for the Humanities and an assistant professor of American culture. She teaches courses on performance and Native American studies. A performance scholar and cultural historian, her research interests include the representation of Native Americans in U.S. theatre, Native American/Indigenous plays and playwrights, the relationship between law and performance, and musical theatre. She is currently working on a monograph interrogating redface in 19th and 20th century U.S. theatre. Her work has appeared in Theatre Journal, Theatre Survey, Theatre Topics, and on HowlRound.com.
Bethany Hughes was interviewed by Nathan Liebetreu, a marketing and media intern at the Institute for the Humanities.
N.L.: Good afternoon Bethany, thank you very much for this interview. To get us started, what are you reading this week?
B.H.: Happy to answer your questions Nathan. I've just submitted my third-year review dossier recently so have only been revisiting things to finalize parts of my submission. But that's been Phil Deloria's Playing Indian and Jodi Byrd's The Transit of Empire. The first is a foundational work to my own project that interrogates how acting like an Indian has been central to American identity formation for centuries. The second has been helpful to me as I think about the fluidity and malleability of the Indian on the American stage. My book on redface as a theatrical practice works between theatre studies and Indigenous studies to try to understand why American performance keeps enacting Native American characters in stereotypical and reductive ways and how those enactments impact the lived reality for Native peoples.
Other things I'm reading for articles and my own thinking: Genevieve Carpio's Collisions at the Crossroads and Robin Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass, James Scott's Seeing Like a State, Dylan Robinson's Hungry Listening, and Alisdair MacIntyre's After Virtue.
N.L.: I wonder if there's a common theme in your book selections. Do you gravitate to any kind of book genre, and if so what? And why is that?
B.H.: All the books I mentioned are books for work. So I'm less specifically looking for genre, more looking at the questions authors are asking. For example, Seeing Like the State was recommended to me by a professor of organizational studies. It's about how governments shape materiality in order to govern more efficiently and the byproducts of those choices. (Or at least that's what I'm getting out of it thus far!) That's fascinating to me because I see the racial construction of Native American peoples as a kind of order-making, too. And the tools of theatre are what I study to see how the specific materiality is ordered.
If we're talking about books I read for pleasure then genre is more important to me. I don't have much time to read for pleasure, so when I do, I typically choose something I know I will like. Most recently that's been revisiting Jane Austen novels, Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, and some contemporary Native American authors like Tommy Orange and Terese Mailhot. As a mother of three, the most reading for pleasure I typically do though is bedtime stories and my kindergartener's library books, which are usually about animals. Right now I'm reading through the Wingfeather Saga with my two youngest before they go to bed.
N.L.: What author or book had an influence on you personally or professionally that you would love to share or recommend? And why so?
B.H.: The books that have been most impactful on me professionally are Deloria's Playing Indian and Catherine Cole's Performing South Africa's Truth Commission. Deloria’s for the reasons I said already. Cole's work I read my first semester in graduate school, and I've never forgotten it. It's a carefully constructed book using multiple methods of performance research and analysis to uncover what exactly was going on during South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Cole is so precise but also so human in her writing. She's detailing horrific events and ideologies and explicating them with care for both history and people. It's the kind of work I want to do. Deeply meaningful, clearly impactful, and done with exemplary skill.
N.L.: Can you touch a bit on the project you are working on and why it is a matter of interest to you?
B.H.: I'm working on redface in theatrical performance because I am invested in understanding why depictions of Native Americans were and continue to be so powerful in American culture. I'm really interested in what happens when bodies are categorized by other bodies as belonging to particular races. As a member of a racialized group (as we all are), I see the transparency of the theatrical process and product as a space to really look at the ongoing processes and impacts of racialization. There is a lot of scholarly work out there on blackface minstrelsy but I couldn't find any on redface. As a Native woman, it is clear to me that there isn't a one-to-one relationship between blackface and any other kind of racial impersonation in performance. And I wanted to know what makes redface different than blackface. I wanted to be able to articulate to someone what redface actually accomplishes culturally, politically, and nationally in order to draw attention to lived experience. I also want to be able to explain how theatre as an entertainment form is not to be discarded as a vital location of cultural and political work. It isn't an escape from reality. It is a method through which we make and understand the reality in which we live.
N.L.: Is there a theme in your professional or personal life that compels you to seek out certain kinds of books, authors, entertainment, or passion?
B.H.: I love theatre and musical theatre, so I'm always drawn to things in theatrical form. In part of my dissertation, I looked at histories of federal Indian law and read transcripts of Senate floor debates like a theatrical script. They are so dramatic! And if something has music attached to theatre, I'm there. I'm just really taken by how performance, narrative, embodiment, music, and dance work together. And how pleasurable they are. So easy to like, so easy to experience.
N.L.: As my departing and last question to end this interview, I wanted to ask a question we end our fellow interviews by. If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would be the one book you would want to have with you and why?
B.H.: A blank book. At first, I was going to say a kindle so I could read anything, but I don't really like reading on screens. But I would like a place to write. So a blank book, or maybe a stack of empty notebooks or something. That'd be nice, to be able to record my thoughts and to create. But not draw, because I'm terrible at drawing.