Dorinne Kondo on Reparative Creativity
About the episode
What role can performance play in racial justice struggles? How can theater help us remake the world?
The past several months have made even more urgent the centuries-long fight to dismantle the antiblackness and Orientalism that are baked into our social institutions.
Such transformations are at the heart of the pedagogy, scholarship, and dramaturgy produced by today’s guest, playwright Dorinne Kondo. Dorinne’s work traces what she calls “reparative creativity,” or the ways artists make, unmake, and remake race through their creative work.
In episode 114 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Dorinne Kondo about how Asian American theater companies are reshaping liveness in the context of COVID-19, the powerful role of performance in protests against the state-sponsored killing of Black people, how norms of ability and disability are built into the structure of theater, and why theorizing a new relationship to vulnerability is how Dorinne imagines otherwise.
Guest: Dorinne Kondo
Scholar, playwright and dramaturg Dorinne Kondo is a professor of American Studies and Anthropology and former director of Asian American studies at the University of Southern California.
She served as dramaturg for the world premieres of three plays by Anna Deavere Smith: Twilight; Los Angeles 1992 (Mark Taper Forum), House Arrest (Arena Stage), and Let Me Down Easy (Long Wharf Theatre).
Dorinne’s plays include Dis)graceful(l) Conduct, But Can He Dance?, and Seamless.
Kondo’s books include the award-winning Crafting Selves: Power, Gender and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese and About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater.
Her latest book Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity, based on twenty years of participation in theater as dramaturg, scholar, and playwright, pulls the auratic back to earth by analyzing backstage creative labor as theory and as race-making practice.
- Recasting live performance during COVID-19
- Affective violence, microaggresions, and racial affect in the theater
- Making theater and performance events accessible
- How theater and performance can contribute to ending police violence and racism
“Nothing is going to be able to overturn centuries of brutality and colonialism in one production. But we can make small inroads. It is what I call acts of reparative creativity. We can’t make it whole. But we can start to redress structural violences and inequalities.”
— Dorinne Kondo, Imagine Otherwise
- Black Lives Matter
- George Floyd
- Theater Mu
- “Four Black Artists on How Racism Corrodes the Theater World”
- “The Spreadsheet that Shook the Theater World: Marie Cisco’s ‘Not Speaking Out’ List”
- Freddie Gray
- Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as vulnerability to premature death comes from her book Golden Gulag
- Ken Wissoker
- Anna Deavere Smith
- Anna Deavere Smith’s documentary theater
- Anna Deavere Smith’s play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992
- Los Angeles Rebellion (1992)
- Anna Deavere Smith’s play Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education
- Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror
- Chester M. Pierce
- Peggy Phelan
Cathy Hannabach (00:03):
Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects, bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach (00:23):
What role can performance play in racial justice struggles? How can theater help us remake the world?
The past several months have made even more urgent, the centuries-long fight to dismantle the anti-blackness and orientalism that are baked into our social institutions. Such transformations are at the heart of the pedagogy, scholarship, and dramaturgy produced by today’s guest: playwright Dorinne Kondo.
Dorinne’s work traces what she calls reparative creativity, or the way that artists make, remake, and unmake race through their creative work.
In our interview, Dorinne and I talk about how Asian American theater companies are reshaping what liveliness means in the context of COVID-19, the powerful role of performance in recent protests against the state-sponsored killing of Black people, how norms of ability and disability are built into the very structure of theater, and why theorizing a new relationship to vulnerability is key to how Dorinne imagines otherwise.
Cathy Hannabach (01:22):
Thank you so much for being with us today.
Dorinne Kondo (01:25):
I’m delighted. Thank you for having me.
Cathy Hannabach (01:28):
Live performance is one of the very many creative industries that have been pretty powerfully changed these days by COVID-19. I’d love to start off our conversation today by talking about how as a playwright, you have been adapting your theater and performance work in this time, or maybe the way that you approach theater and performance work as a playwright at this moment.
Dorinne Kondo (01:49):
I’m just finishing up the semester. But I will say that different theaters around the country are adopting different kinds of strategies to cope with these new circumstances.
For example, East West Players, the oldest continuously running theater of color in the country (I emphasize continuously running), which sponsors the David Henry Hwang Playwriting Institute, where I first studied playwriting, now holds East West Wednesdays, which comprise discussions of performances, a showcase called Crazy Talented Asians, and various online performances.
Dorinne Kondo (02:28):
They just held their gala online because theater is highly affected of course. And all the artists are, frankly, in a state of financial precarity now, not that they weren’t before, but even worse. That was not compromised by the aftermath of the George Floyd death and protests.
They are located in the police headquarters in Los Angeles, not the place for conducting tactical maneuvers outside. So the artistic director had no access to the theater where they’d originally planned the gala. People had to improvise some of those planned segments from home.
Dorinne Kondo (03:08):
The one thing that I think is great about the new situation, or the adaptations and creative responses to COVID, is that I think streaming allows a national global audience, so that people from all over the world could in theory view or participate in a reading or discussion. It’s not limited to people in the room.
So for example, Theater Mu in Minneapolis, an Asian American theater, brought together current and former Bay Area artists to talk about the early days of Asian American theater. That’s close to my heart because that’s where I was first introduced to the possibilities of Asian American theater as an undergrad at Stanford.
So imagine like going to see something where you saw someone who looks like you, close enough to touch, and so on.
Dorinne Kondo (04:00):
So that was wonderful. And they brought together artists from all over the country. They couldn’t have done it that, I think, on a shoestring budget, except virtually. So that part is great.
And there have been interesting adaptations, like a few Zoom-based plays, I think of the public, imagining a family having Zoom conversations. Or there was a production at the Geffen Playhouse where apparently the audience received… It was called The Present, I believe, and audiences received a little box in the mail. So they were participating.
Dorinne Kondo (04:42):
That’s very creative and I’m all for it. I’ve also seen calls for socially-distanced plays. So that’s another thought: How would you space people on stage? And imagine an audience that was also practicing physical distancing.
However, I have to say that nothing is like live performance. So for me, the most satisfying theatrical experience, not surprisingly, has been seeing some of The National’s archives. The National Theater Live has been releasing a play for a week for free consumption online.
I watched Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Miller as Frankenstein and the monster, respectively. I feel like this is great, on the one hand, because it at least gives you a sense, but it’s partially because The National has money and they can afford the production value to film theater in a way that conveys some of the metaphoricity of theater.
And yet, of course, it’s a film, so it can capitalize on that as well. So the shot of the chandelier and panning over the audience to get that sense of anticipation, that a smaller theater could never afford.
Dorinne Kondo (06:06):
I think inequalities amongst theaters can be perpetuated in this moment. So that’s definitely an issue. In California, FYI, the financial precarity is exacerbated by AB-5, a bill designed for the gig economy, Uber and Lyft drivers, to make them employees so that they will have benefits. For theaters, this would mean that they would have to pay creative staff, all the actors, a third more or something. For East West Players, I’ve heard just informally that this might mean $150,000 extra, which they do not have.
I worry about the continuing existence of performance, to be honest, in this environment. So while there have been creative responses overall, I would say I’m more in the postponement of wide performance. And it makes me appreciate it even more.
Cathy Hannabach (07:07):
It is just a very different experience, both for…
Dorinne Kondo (07:11):
Cathy Hannabach (07:11):
… performers and audiences. Yeah.
Dorinne Kondo (07:14):
Completely. I believe in medium specificity, so now we have Zoom plays or the Zoom experience. I’m frankly getting really tired of looking at my screen.
I think we all are.
And so I’m alone for the day, actually. Going to the theater and “breathing the same air” is so dangerous in this moment. I look forward to the day when we can do that again [safely].
Cathy Hannabach (07:46):
There also seems to be a lot of theater studies and performance studies scholarship written about this, quite a lot, this liveliness. Part of what’s so interesting about live theater is putting bodies in physical proximity to each other, sitting them in the same space, because they interact in unpredictable ways.
Dorinne Kondo (08:07):
Absolutely. So that, that we live for. There’s nothing like it. And it’s so unlike watching film or TV. The audience can affect the actors. And so it’s that exchange and who’s around you can affect your experience of a performance as well. So yes, I miss that.
Theater is the domain of metaphor as well. So I miss that too. In theater, as opposed to the more fly-on-the-wall quality of film or TV, just a change of lighting can signal a different period in history, or a stick can be all kinds of different things: sword, broom, horse, whatever. You use your imagination. It’s the playful, childlike qualities that we all sort of bury. They come to the fore once again, I think in live performance.
Cathy Hannabach (09:08):
You talked quite a lot about this power of liveness in your book World Making, which I’d love to turn to because it’s such a fantastic and compelling analysis of embodied theater. You talk specifically about the way that race is embodied in the theater world in terms of economy, in terms of contracts, in terms of labor, in terms of the pleasure of performance, and the pain of performance, perhaps as well.
Cathy Hannabach (09:35):
One of the things that strikes me about this book is it a book about and deeply produced through collaboration. It’s not just you. So first of all, what got you interested in studying theater through collaboration?
Dorinne Kondo (09:52):
Well, theater is in itself a collaborative art. Lisa Peterson, the director, said, “It’s not theater if you can do it by yourself.” I think that there’s something…So part of it has to do with representation of theater as a zone of what I call public existence and living as a minoritarian subject, never being mirrored, never imagining that theater or anything like it would be possible for those such as I in the academy.
I’m someone who came very late to theater. After tenure, actually. So I hope that your listeners can take heart and not be afraid to experiment.
Dorinne Kondo (10:33):
But going to see productions that had Asian American actors and written by Asian American playwrights, Oh my god, a different vision of possibility that I had never…What can I say? It just never even occurred to me. So that was part of it.
Obviously theater as a collaborative art makes you realize how many people are involved in putting their artistry together to create something. I would say that anthropology itself is also premised on a certain collaboratively produced knowledge through what I call corporeal epistemologies and what’s known as participant observation.
In my case, it became what I study. Ken Wissoker, editor at Duke [University Press] called it participatory observation.
Dorinne Kondo (11:28):
I think that there was something, particularly for scholars who don’t often collaborate, unlike in the sciences, for example, there was something alluring to me about being part of a production and seeing the ways in which people could contribute their artistry and make something more wonderful and more exciting than you, the playwright, could ever imagine.
For me, also, there was the pleasure of being among creative people and discovering that, “Oh perhaps I could do this. Perhaps I could write drama.”
So the collaborative aspect of theater has always been a draw, and been exciting and thrilling. It can also be frustrating. I write about that in the book as well I think that this perhaps speaks to our particular historical moment when people are talking about racial injustice and how difficult that may be.
Dorinne Kondo (12:33):
When I worked on Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles in the wake of the 1992 uprisings, backstage the dramaturgical interactions were highly fraught. I mean, not even a year after the initial uprisings, LA was still in ashes. There were all kinds of racial tensions. Trying to negotiate those tensions and to create a production together while also trying to represent our communities and think about issues of racial representation as being incredibly important to representing life on stage. It was a fraught, wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience in a way. I always say that I’ve never cried so much or been so happy than when I worked on Twilight.
Dorinne Kondo (13:36):
Those aspects of collaboration, I think also have to be marked.
Also in this particular time there are calls for a conversation, and so on and so forth. We can’t think that those conversations are going to be power-free. Those are some of the reasons that I think collaboration is incredibly important.
How are we going to effect social justice? That, I think, can only come from collective action. The theater also in its collaborative impulse becomes a metaphor for other kinds of social action.
Cathy Hannabach (14:19):
Interesting. I mean, it seems so apt in our current moment. We’re recording this in early June, after many days of global protests and uprisings in response to police continuing to kill Black people with impunity. And in many ways it feels like déjà vu.
As someone who thinks through these questions from the lens of theater and performance, I’d love to hear what role do you see performance playing in either responding to, resisting, or hopefully helping to end police violence and racism? What can theater and performance do?
Dorinne Kondo (15:07):
Well, I think there are several levels to that question. First, let’s address a conventional notion as politics as collective action. The concept demonstrations that what we’re seeing are incredibly important in effecting social change.
I want to draw attention to the theatricality of what is also happening—taking a knee or lying on the ground and saying, “I can’t breathe.” Those kinds of tactics can be incredibly effective. Or just the mass of people in live performance going out to demonstrate their concern and their outrage at injustice. So there’s that level.
Dorinne Kondo (15:49):
I think that theater and the arts generally are incredibly important in terms of representing a zone of public existence and of dealing with these kinds of issues in a way that moves people. Here I want to link political movements and the affective. For example, in Anna Deavere Smith’s work, her documentary theater has centered prominently on different kinds of uprisings, from Crown Heights to the Los Angeles uprisings in 1992. Her latest piece called Notes From the Field that was just rebroadcast on HBO, in a timely way, deals with the school-to-prison pipeline and the criminalization and pathologizing of Black, Brown, and Indigenous youth. They don’t get to have “mischief.” They’re immediately put it in institutions or incarcerated. So it’s important.
Her plays also dealt with Freddie Gray and the Charleston shootings.
Dorinne Kondo (17:15):
It’s like, when will it end? I mean, it’s sad that we’re still…It’s just all too familiar. But I think it is important for the arts to deal with these issues head on. So that’s one way to offer an opportunity for us to reflect and to be moved to deal with these issues.
I think the arts have a really important role in terms of we could say legitimation, as a zone of public existence: who counts as human, who is allowed the [inaudible] expression of the human spirit? This is like PBS language of the arts and it is directly linked to notions of who counts as human in everyday life and who is worthy of respect.
I think people should take on everything, including opera, for example. It’s like, “Hey, go to the opera.” There you expect the usual New York-centricity. But must I see this orientalist buffoonery, for example, or whatever?
Dorinne Kondo (18:27):
So they’re acts of what I call affective violence. It isn’t physical violence. So there is a qualitative difference. Chester Pierce at Harvard was a mentor of mine who coined the term microaggression. It’s these small things. Sometimes it’s full frontal aggression. But it leaches life. It can take days or weeks to recover in some sense from that. It’s really over a lifetime, it builds over a lifetime. It leaches energy.
What enlivens and what leaches energy from people, and diminishes them? So I think this diminishing becomes part of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as vulnerability to premature death. That shows up in the prison system, obviously, and in terms of police violence. But it’s linked very much to who counts as most fully human and what happens in opera and theater, so on and so forth. And it’s still relatively unchallenged.
Dorinne Kondo (19:29):
Euro-centricity is directly linked to what’s happening in the streets of Minneapolis or Trump and his designation of “shithole countries” and whose lives really matter. That includes on stage, on the page, and in the realms of the theory as well. They’re all linked in different ways.
When we think about the public sphere and going to the theater, there’s the aspect of violence that can be experienced by minoritarian subjects. But there’s also what I call racial affect that can also consolidate the dominant’s (whoever the dominant might be in that particular setting) pleasure and enjoyment. I’ve been at all too many performances where it’s like, “What is the white audience laughing at?” Or it’s like, I just want to get it out of here. I write about that in my book.
Dorinne Kondo (20:36):
So yeah, I think the arts are absolutely of a piece with or implicated in the reproduction of these kinds of systems. Nothing is perfect, of course. Nothing is going to be able to overturn centuries of brutality and colonialism and so on in one production. But we can make small inroads. Thematizing these issues, by giving work to minoritarian actors and playwrights to put their visions on stage, to provide alternatives, I think it’s incredibly important and can result in what I call in the book acts of reparative creativity. There’s no such thing as a whole. We can’t make it whole. But we can start to redress some of these structural violences and inequalities.
Cathy Hannabach (21:38):
One of the things that strikes me about using performance and theater and approaching them in this way is how they make these issues accessible to different audiences. Different audiences will read a news story versus go to a play versus watch a film versus checking on social media. So these different kinds of media forms can be used differently to get similar messages to different people in ways that they can connect with or that are going to be accessible to them where they are.
Cathy Hannabach (22:13):
I know accessibility is something that you’ve thought quite a lot about in terms of your theater work but also in terms of your scholarship and how you approach teaching and your other kinds of work. I’d love to push a little bit on this notion of accessibility and maybe ponder together how some of these creative approaches to theater, or approaches to highlighting the performative or performance aspects of racial justice work, how they fit with accessibility in terms of disability, in terms of class, in terms of all kinds of forms of difference.
Cathy Hannabach (22:53):
So that was a very roundabout, not-quite-question! But it’s making me think.
Dorinne Kondo (23:01):
So let me just begin by saying that I consider myself to be disabled in a certain way. I had heart surgery. I’ve never really recovered. The number of my vertical hours is highly truncated. I am not normal. I think when I am vertical. I usually seem normal to people. So it’s invisible. What that means for me as a theater-goer, and also as a playwright or someone involved in theater is that I can’t see a lot of plays. It’s like an 8:00 pm curtain. If it goes to 11:00, that is really, really late for me. I have to go into sleep training. Ditto for the usual matinees at 2 pm. I can’t. I’m still sleeping. You know what I mean? And my mid-day fatigue period. So that’s difficult for me.
Dorinne Kondo (23:56):
That’s just in terms of the hours of accessibility to different audiences. People laugh about matinees as being for the blue-haired senior citizens. I guess I’m with them now, except that I can’t even go to the 2:00 pm performance. So when I add a staged reading, it seems like years ago, but it was in February stage reading with my play Seamless. I asked that the performance be changed to 4:00 pm so I could actually attend my own reading
And it also means that as a playwright and as an anthropologist, someone involved in theater. Part of it is the all-consuming aspect of it. You’re there from morning ‘till night and watching the process. I even love watching tech. People laugh at me but that’s part of the collaboration that you were talking about before. Just watching people do what they do so well and so precisely. So just for me, that’s part of it.
Dorinne Kondo (24:59):
The hours of the theater, certainly in terms of live performance, restricts things to who’s in the room or who’s at that particular production of that particular moment. For those of us who are aficionados of theater, it means that if you’ve missed it, you’ve missed it.
[Peggy] Phelan talks about theater as loss and processes of mourning, and there’ve been nuanced revisions of that. There is repertoire, there are remains, and so on and so forth, ephemera that outlast a particular performance. And yet, there is something to the fact that if you missed a production, for example, the film of the production is not the same thing.
Dorinne Kondo (25:51):
It’s limited in terms of audience and scope. Arguably, in that sense, at least a film of the productions that are now available can give audiences access. However, I think that’s a pretty much a temporary thing because it’s illegal to film theater really, except for an archival copy. So there’s that.
Dorinne Kondo (26:20):
Class is definitely another thing—and the urban. How many theaters are in rural areas? I grew up in a rural area. Did we have a theater? No. So there’s that issue.
Theater is expensive, although as I wrote about the Chicano/Latino culture clash and Ric Salinas once said that Latino families may spend a lot of money to go to a sports event, for example, and theater may not cost that much. But it’s still expensive, relatively speaking, and it doesn’t have the audience say of a sports event. So that’s definitely an issue as well.
Dorinne Kondo (27:03):
When I’ve brought students to the theater, especially those who’ve never seen theater, for many it’s been, revelatory, not always in a good way. It’s like, “Oh, it’s so small.”
Cathy Hannabach (27:20):
Maybe they’re used to thinking of sports stadiums. [laughs]
Dorinne Kondo (27:24):
Yeah, absolutely. I think so or thinking like the helicopter is going to come down from the sky. I can miss [inaudible], unfortunately. But sometimes it’s like, “Oh, they’re right there.” It’s like, “Oh, the right there-ness,” I think is what I want for them to appreciate.
Theaters almost always have an educational arm that goes to schools trying to cultivate audiences in all communities, having readings in the public library. I’m just thinking of things that are happening in LA or have happened in public halls, libraries, and all different communities, different kinds of outreach. Rush tickets that are $10 to $15 make it more accessible. But theater itself, I think is obviously less than what distribution has done in television or YouTube, or other things.
Dorinne Kondo (28:28):
That’s something that theater people talk about a lot. How do we continue to exist? It’s a one-of-a-kind experience, really. How do we promote that excitement and the allure of theater given smaller audiences, given the lack of funding? Particularly now with COVID-19, that’s an even more acutely urgent issue.
Cathy Hannabach (29:02):
I think this actually dovetails really nicely into my next question, which is about the future and about what you want for that future—what future you’re helping to build. Obviously this podcast is called Imagined Otherwise and with guests we get to do just that: imagine the worlds that we’re all working toward and collaboratively building. So I will ask you this giant question—I know it is. It’s huge. But I like ending with it because I don’t think we get enough opportunities to talk about it. What’s the world that you want? What’s the world that you’re working toward?
Dorinne Kondo (29:42):
I’d like a world in which the boundaries among the disciplines and among the arts, humanities, and sciences could be softened. Where we could integrate different parts of ourselves and different modes of knowing.
In my work, I’ve been trying to organize a research cluster around creativity, theory, and politics to integrate these supposedly different domains to create serious play and rigorous fun. And in my own written work, I’ve been trying to integrate those voices. So while making my latest book, it was also a genre bender. Genre bending has been part of my mission from my first book. It’s shaped like a three-act play. It contains a full length play.
Dorinne Kondo (30:42):
What should I say? I think it’s a more accessible and fun read. But I think it’s also a theoretically rigorous read. So I put those things together. How can we integrate our lives in our work?
I want a world in which we have changed the air, where we’re not stuck in our institutional stuffy settings where we can’t breathe, where we can bring in emotions from joy and delight and pleasure to pain and rage. Where these could all be part of it and these would not be considered forms of weakness, but as part of being a “vulnerable” subject.
Dorinne Kondo (31:38):
I’d like to mobilize the capacity of the arts to move people in all aspects of our life—politically, intellectually, and emotionally.
Cathy Hannabach (31:53):
Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of these ways that you imagine and create otherwise.
Dorinne Kondo (32:01):
Thank you so much, Cathy. What a pleasure.
Cathy Hannabach (32:08):
Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas On Fire. And this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions. You can check out the show notes and transcript for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guests, and find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.