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Course Spotlight

WINTER 2021 | Antiracism and Japanese Culture

with Professor Reginald Jackson

"Assembled Pictures of Commodore Perry’s Visit,” artist unknown, late 19th. cent. © Tokyo University Historiographical Institute.

Describe the inspiration for or the story behind the development of this course:

One of my main research interests is medieval Japanese performance, specifically Noh dance-drama. The form interests me for many reasons, but I’m  fascinated by the dramaturgical writings of Zeami Motokiyo (1363–1443). I’d argue he sought to use performance—in his capacities as a playwright, choreographer, and theorist—not merely to make great art, but also to compel audiences to reconsider their negative views of performers. In this vein I’ve been especially interested in Noh plays about slavery, which I contend open spaces to counter dehumanizing perceptions of performers. Analyses of these plays form the basis for a book project I’m revising on slavery, performance, and the shifting boundaries of personhood in pre-modern Japan. I’ve had this project brewing for some years but didn’t feel comfortable pursuing it in earnest until I’d earned tenure, partly because of the transdisciplinary nature of the research, and partly because it required extensive recourse to scholarship in Black studies and performance studies toward which some in my “home” field had seemed either dismissive or hostile. Despite an abiding interest in Black studies and transatlantic slavery, I’d not felt particularly inclined or prepared to teach a full-blown class on the material. However, with the recent spectacular rise of racist discourse in the U.S. and Japan, along with the protests this past summer against white supremacist violence, it felt important to historicize and interrogate how anti-Black racism operated jointly in both cultural contexts. Thus the course aims to provide a critical genealogy of racism in relation to Japanese culture, with the goal of considering anti-racist alternative modes of engaging it.   

How did you choose the texts / objects of analysis for this course? 

Many of the premodern texts, such as Noh dramaturgical theory on how to calibrate one’s comportment and energy expenditure onstage; racist Jesuit accounts of Japanese people as being “white”; and naval journals recounting blackface minstrel performances for Japanese diplomats aboard U.S. gunships; are all materials for the book I’m writing. They all lend insight into how racialization occurred, as shaped by discourses circulating within and outside Japan. Most fun and thought-provoking for me are the early-modern Jesuit accounts that toggle between lionizing and disparaging Japanese people, and the visual records of the 19th century mission to “open” Japan. The twentieth and twenty-first century material deals more with imperialism, colonialism, and topics such as the internment of Japanese Americans during WW2. All of the texts are interesting in their own ways, but I’m particularly excited about walking students through the long evolution of race as a concept in Europe, Asia, and the New World. A major goal is to productively disorient students and gradually wean them off of the presentist, superficial notions of race and racism they’ve encountered thus far.

Who should take this course?

Advanced undergraduates and graduate students interested in Japan, Asian studies, Black studies, performance, and/or social justice.

How does this course incorporate performance studies methods and theory? More generally, how can Performance Studies theory be relevant or useful to students from "non-performance" disciplines?

This course introduces students to a range of texts, theories, and methods from various historical periods and fields—without presuming the most contemporary anglophone ones to be most valuable or useful. For example, I insist on exploring medieval Japanese performance theories and early modern European ideas about race alongside more recent theories of racial formation, performativity, and embodiment. We’ll always historicize the theories we encounter to understand better their political stakes, utility, and implications—then and now—and question how the theory frames or is challenged by the demands of practice. Insofar as many of these theories deal with how bodies can and should move, we consider the ideologies at work in categorizing and regulating movement. One interesting confluence to note here is how similar some of the older Japanese writing on this topic is to contemporary black feminist critiques of constraint, exploitation, and social death.

I think exposure to performance studies’ recourse to a range of methods and theories can prove eye-opening to students working in various fields. What I’ve always appreciated about PS when done well is its ability to meet the object of analysis on its own terms, invested in letting that particular dance or gesture or phrasing or image or script dictate what types of conceptual or archival resources need to be tapped to generate the best analysis. Learning to approach these multifaceted objects from multiple vantages is fun and a fruitful intellectual challenge for students from any discipline or cultural orientation.

About the Instructor

Reginald Jackson is Associate Professor of Japanese literature and performance. Prior to earning tenure at the University of Michigan, he was faculty at the University of Chicago and Yale University, having earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University in East Asian Studies. In addition to having served as an elected member of the Executive Committee in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and as Faculty Ally for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, he has also been Director of the Accelerated Master’s Degree Program in Transcultural Studies and Director of Graduate Studies for the Center for Japanese Studies.

Winter 2021 | Hip Hop Africa, AAS 358.007

Muthoni Drummer Queen

Hip Hop in Africa is a survey of artistic expressions that represent youth culture, agency and empowerment since the 1990s. 

Describe the inspiration for or the story behind the development of this course:

I have been teaching a course since Winter 2012 titled: Performing Arts and Power in Africa, where we explore both traditional and modern performing art forms and investigate how their performance and production are intimately related to power relations. After the second year, it dawned on me that most of the contemporary genres that I select for the class are infused with American Hip Hop culture and Rap, that are mostly performed and consumed by the youth, and based on local issues so I decided to design a new course that will focus on Hip Hop in Sub-Saharan Africa. I did a test run last Spring and based on the positive response and critiques from students, I'm now able to offer Hip Hop Africa as a full-blown class this Winter semester. 

How did you choose the texts / objects of analysis for this course? (or, what is a text you are especially excited to teach?)

There is no single text for the class and that means we have a variety of book chapters and journal articles to read. Some of the topics include: youth culture, agency and empowerment in Ghana's Hiplife; resisting presidential power in Uganda; Afrobeats infused hip hop in Nigeria; rappin' griots, hip hop and democracy, and female collectives in Senegal; Matatus, cypher, and necessary noise in Kenya; and the looming legacy of Fela Kuti in Africa and the United States.

Who should take this course?

All undergraduates who are interested in cultural interactions and intersections between Africa and the African Diaspora to emerge at the end of the twentieth century. There are also questions related to stylistic authenticities and how unique styles in different African countries represent counter-hegemonic narratives by hop hop artists in Africa as alternatives to globalization.

How does this course incorporate performance studies methods/theory? More generally, how can performance studies / performance theory be relevant or useful to students from "non-performance" disciplines?

Students realize they don't have to be music majors in order to comprehend the methods/theories since they have been involved in or experienced protests where most of the actions qualify as performance. For instance, all Black Lives Matter protests involve various aspects of performance. Hip Hop in Africa embodies performance as a strategy to resist or contest socio-political and economic issues. For instance, stylistic authenticities is a form of identity construction using hip hop or rap as a reaction to globalization. The recent #ENDSARS protest in Nigeria used musical performances to mobilize the youth and to highlight police brutality. 

Professor Kwasi Ampene is a scholar and practitioner of ethnomusicology. He specializes in the rich musical traditions of the Akan people of West Africa. His research interests include the performing arts as individually and collectively created and experienced, the performance of historical and social memory, politics, ideologies, values, and religious philosophy in Akan court music. He has disseminated his research in conferences, workshops, and speaking engagements at major universities in the United States and around the world. He has also provided expert advice for public engagement projects on West African culture and music to institutions such as the British Library, Tufts University, and Princeton University. Professor Ampene is the author of journal articles and books including, Engaging Modernity: Asante in the Twenty-First Century (Michigan, 2016); Discourses in African Musicology: J.H. Kwabena Nketia Festschrift (Michigan, 2015); and Female Song Tradition and the Akan of Ghana: The Creative Process in Nnwonkorɔ (Ashgate, 2005).

Spring 2020 | Contemporary American Theatre & Drama, THTREMUS 325

In this online course, students will read, view and analyze ten contemporary American plays drawing from the list of recent Pulitzer Prize winning plays and their runner ups, while considering how theatre promotes social change and reveals diverse cultural perspectives.

Describe the inspiration for or the story behind the development of this course:

Contemporary American Drama can be storytelling for Social Change. Plays capture social aspirations and thought processes. This course is a part of the Global Theatre and Ethnic Studies curriculum because it encourages students to think about the many multicultural communities which form the tapestry of American culture. 

How did you choose the plays for this course?

I chose to examine Pulitzer Prize winning plays because even though they are prestigious awards, the plays are produced infrequently. The plays usually address controversial topics in controversial ways. They win because they question the status quo of American society and offer diverse perspectives about human rights and social justice. Mr. Pulitzer was a Hungarian Jewish journalist and plays supported by the porize reflect a journalist's perspective on storytelling. 

Who should take this course?

Anyone interested in performance or storytelling or literature. We will begin the course by looking at videos from my Storytelling for Social Change MOOC where we consider how stories create empathy and watch video interviews with artists such as Ashley Lucas, Jose Casas and Holly Hughes. We then consider these notions of storytelling within the context of the plays. 

How can performance studies and performance theory be relevant or useful to students from "non-performance" disciplines?

Because stories influence perspectives and a good story can promote social change as viewers/readers/listeners consider the lived realities of other people. Performance considers how gesture, emotion and voice contributes to the communication of ideas. 

What are the challenges of teaching theater studies online? How will this online course be structured to overcome those challenges?

I actually love online learning because it allows students to engage reflectively with course materials for longer periods of time and then bring their ideas to the forum through written, audio or video contributions. Discussion boards and student projects are shared and peer reviewed. This class is asynchronous, meaning students engage with the course material as their schedule allows, and respond when they can. At the same time, we will be viewing a lot of videos and online materials about each of the plays, and conversing, virtually and asynchronously, about what we discover about the plays, their socio-politcal contexts and the artists who have created them. 

Works examined will include:

  • Fairview by Jaqueline Sibbles-Drury
  • What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck
  • Cost of Living by Martyna Majok
  • Sweat by Lynn Nottage
  • Father Comes Home from the Wars by Suzan-Lori Parks
  • Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis
  • Dance Nation by Clare Barron
  • The Humans by Stephen Karam
  • The Minutes by Tracy Letts

Spring/Summer tuition fees will apply if you register for this 3-credit course. Students can find that information about course costs on the Registrar's tuition and fees page.


About the Instructor

Anita Gonzalez (Ph.D. University of Wisconsin, 1997) is Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs, Chair of Dance, and a Professor of Theatre and Drama. Over twenty years, she has developed programming and curricula in higher education to promote internationalism in the arts, engaged learning, and interdisciplinary research. Gonzalez’ research interests are in performance and cultural studies, particularly dialogic performance – the way in which communities perform one another. Her teaching passion for introducing students to world cultures through artistic exchanges has led to student exchanges in Mexico, U.K., South Africa, Canada, and Costa Rica.

Winter 2018 | Dance in Modern Asia: History, Identity, Politics | ASIAN 408

Describe the inspiration for or the story behind the development of this course:
I have been wanting to create a class on dance in Asia since I came to UM five years ago. Although all of the courses I teach are on fascinating subjects, dance is my true passion, so I am thrilled to be finally offering a class on this topic. Since Asia has one of the most vibrant and diverse dance scenes in the world, the most difficult part of designing this course has been narrowing down the material. It's just not possible to cover everything interesting about dance in Asia in one semester! In the end, I decided to focus on a topic that especially interested me as a researcher: the role that individual choreographers have played in transforming and re-imagining traditional Asian dance forms for the modern concert stage. In their creative processes, artists often engage complex issues of politics and identity, ranging from religious ethics and gender norms to class inequalities and colonial violences. My goal was to develop a class in which students place themselves in the position of these artists, to understand why they made the choices they did, and how their decisions ultimately changed the course of Asian dance history.

What are the learning objectives in this course?
This course explores the history of concert dance in Asia since the early twentieth century. Focusing on the contributions of influential individual Asian dancers and choreographers, it provides students a broad introduction to dance in the Asian region, asking how artists in different places dealt with similar social issues and global historical and political changes. Considering Asian artists as an integral component of modern dance history, this class shifts understandings of dance innovation and change away from Eurocentric narratives and assumptions. The following regions will be covered: South Asia (India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka); East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan); Southeast Asia (Thailand, Indonesia); Central Asia (Uzbekistan); and Asian diasporas. 

Who should take this course?
There are no prerequisites for this course. While I especially welcome students with a background in dance or Asian studies in some form, neither is required. Students who have strong a background in an Asian dance form will have an opportunity to teach a dance workshop as a course assignment. However, this is not a requirement and students without this background will be able to contribute equally in different ways. Assignments will include a mixture of readings, viewings, writing exercises, and a research project in a format of the student's choice. 

More generally, how is performance studies / performance theory relevant or useful to students from "non-performance" disciplines?
Performance is one of the most integrative forms of human expression, blending narrative, music, visual design, movement, and material culture. By experiencing and learning about performance, students can master new analytical skills, while gaining synthetic knowledge about the entire social and cultural world in which the performance takes place. Because performance is such an important part of Asian culture, learning about Asian performance opens the door to broader knowledge and understanding about this important part of the world.  


About the Instructor

Emily Wilcox is an Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a member of the Center for World Performance Studies Advisory Board. She is a specialist in Chinese dance and performance culture, with broader interests in twentieth-century history, transnationalism, gender, and social movements.

She started studying dance at five years old-- first ballet, then in college competitive ballroom dance. While in graduate school completing her PhD in anthropology, she began studying Chinese dance and had the opportunity to spend three semesters at the Beijing Dance Academy as a visiting student. Although her primary focus is Chinese dance, she researches many other dance communities in Asia. She is currently working on several books about dance in Asia, the newest of which examines Asian women dancers who crossed borders and shaped global dance history during the early twentieth century.