Year In Review: Art as social change

by Cathleen Cusachs / Beacon Staff and Mark Gartsbeyn / Beacon Staff • April 30, 2015

Emerson’s motto, “Expression necessary for evolution”, reminds us of the value that art plays in promoting social justice and distributing diverse perspectives on campus. From feminist plays and drag shows to coming out memoirs and spoken word poetry on race, this year has seen a profusion of creative and socially just declarations and celebrations. 

 

Feminism and nonconformity

At a college that uses text boxes instead of multiple choice options to identify genders, traditional gender roles are constantly under examination. Naturally, the gender binary debate has been the focus of several performances and written works this year.

The last two semesters have included an Emerson Stage production on women, several student drag shows, and a Q&A with a feminist author. Overall, student art has reflected a campuswide fight against the dominant societal views on self-identification.

From Dragtoberfest to the Roaring Twenties Drag Show, Emerson’s drag community uses its love for makeup, costumes, and the female form to tear down stereotypes. All events were endorsed by Emerson’s Alliance for Gays, Lesbians, and Everyone, or EBONI, but drag itself is not inherently about sexuality or transgender tolerance. The artistry behind the shows centers instead on the questioning of gender norms.

“Drag to me is like gender as a performance art,” Duncan Gelder, a junior performing arts major and drag participant, told the Beacon in February. “You see people like Kim Kardashian—well, they have super contoured cheekbones and big lips, so what if I turn that up all the way? Am I still just as pretty?” 

The subject of the female body and gender stigmas also brings feminism into the conversation. Feminism, a widely discussed movement on campus and throughout the world, was placed in the spotlight with Emerson Stage’s production of Wendy Wasserstein’s Uncommon Women, and Others in February and with author Roxane Gay’s packed Q&A and reading in March. Gay and Wasserstein each used their work to start public conversations on female anxieties in the workplace, the importance of identifying as a feminist, and other topics relating to gender equality.

In an era when the word “feminist” was listed as one of Time magazine’s phrases to ban for 2015 and when the gender binary is so vastly debated, art is often the only outlet to discuss such nuanced and controversial topics. It has certainly been a prevalent one this year.

— Cathleen Cusachs / Beacon Staff

 

Conflicting accounts of homosexuality

Two disparate perspectives on homosexuality arrived at the Emerson community in the last year. 

One is a coming out story published by alumnus Jon Derek Croteau in September. His memoir, My Thinning Years: Starving the Gay Within, recounts his struggle with overcoming his internalized homophobia and recognizing his true sexual identity. In the book, he says his denial stemmed from his relationship with his abusive father, and that as a result he struggled with an eating disorder throughout his adolescence. 

The other is a “reverse” coming out story written by current Emerson professor Benoit Denizet-Lewis. It’s about his old friend and co-worker Michael Glatze, a former managing editor of the gay publication XY Magazine and the founder of the periodical Young Gay America, who later became a born-again Christian and renounced his homosexuality. A film based on Denizet-Lewis’ profile of Glatze, I Am Michael, was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

The contrast between the two pieces highlights a debate on the nature of sexuality. Croteau’s memoir cites Emerson as a guiding point in his personal path of self-identification, portraying his journey as a linear progression. Glatze’s sudden aversion to his former sexual orientation reminds viewers that the evolution of one’s identity isn’t necessarily smooth.

“The film doesn’t attack him, but it shows him in all his complexities,” Denizet-Lewis told the Beacon in February. “It’s a mystery.”

Though some audiences at Emerson may find it more difficult to sympathize with Glatze than Croteau, thinking about Glatze’s story and reasoning is necessary to facilitate an open discussion on sexuality.

“It might be a bit surprising for some Emerson students,” said Denizet-Lewis. “It might challenge some people.”

— Cathleen Cusachs and Mark Gartsbeyn, Beacon Staff

 

The rise of Flawless Brown

Among undergraduates at Emerson, nearly 67 percent are white. To promote a diverse discourse, the college needs platforms where people of color can have their voices heard. 

And so, last spring, came Flawless Brown, the first troupe for women of color on campus. The self-funded group, founded by performing arts major Nyla Wissa, has expanded at a notable rate in the last year. Flawless Brown kickstarted its work this year with a show in November, which featured a variety of original monologues and poems. The performers later took their act off the stage and onto the streets, attracting a crowd as they portrayed a scene about the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in front of the State House.

Flawless Brown’s success has only increased this semester. Two pieces from its November show were nominated for EVVY Awards for poetry. Taylor Jett and Chemdiya Reed created Flawless Brown VMA, a division focused on media production; for their first film, they are working on a student-written short called Full Card, described as a dark comedy about four women of color attending a mainly white college. And on the same day the theater troupe performed For Colored Girls, a series of musical and poetry performances, to a packed audience in the Cabaret, Wissa received the individual 2015 Spirit of Emerson Award, given to those who “increase the radiance, reputation, accomplishments, and overall spirit of Emerson College,” according to the website.

It’s not the only organization on campus to deal with issues of race, but Flawless Brown is perhaps the first to directly provide opportunities for artistic expression to the students who need it most. Its approach is unique at Emerson; its rapid growth and recognition this year show that Emerson students are demanding more of their creative outlets in the name of social justice.

— Mark Gartsbeyn / Beacon Staff