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Faculty Spotlight: “Hair and Other Stories” in U-M Classrooms

This post was written by UMS 21st Century Intern Grace Bydalek.

On January 12th, 2018, UMS rang in the new year with a performance of Urban Bush Women’s Hair and Other Stories in the Power Center for the Performing Arts. Urban Bush Women’s work focuses on text with the history, culture, and spiritual traditions of African Americans and the African diaspora. Artistic Director Jawole Zollar weaves together the boundary-pushing non-linear stories through dance, music, and spoken word.

Hair and Other Stories was crafted through interviews and other personal narratives, highlighting the struggles and complexities of our current world and times ahead. Original compositions by The Illustrious Blacks underscore dynamic movement and storytelling about gender identity, economic inequalities, body concept, race, freedom, liberation, and release in this extraordinary time.

Faculty across a variety of schools at the University of Michigan chose to integrate this engaging performance into their syllabi, exposing their students to the world of performance art and modern dance. Below, some of these faculty discuss the impact of Hair and Other Stories on their courses and students.

Photo: Urban Bush Women. Courtesy of artist.

            Clare Croft brought the students in her course Dancing Women/Dancing Queer to the performance of Hair and Other Stories. The students had been prepared for the performance over the duration of the semester. Croft explains, “The students read portions of dance scholar Nadine George-Graves book on Urban Bush Women, did class exercises focused on movement description, and then attended the performance as their first step in their performance analysis paper. For the paper, students had to take notes on the physical, material details of the performance; and then write a paper in which they described a significant moment in the performance, contextualize that moment in the performance as a whole, and then discuss how that moment raised questions about gender and sexuality.”

Croft observed her students’ curiosity and increased engagement in the course after the performance. They were, as she describes it, “struck by the overt discussion of race and gender, which some thought was moving and some thought demonstrated a lack of trust in dance’s ability to make meaning.”

            Petra Kuppers exposed her undergraduate students in Health, Gender and Performance, a course run as a collaboration between LSA’s Women’s Studies and the Theatre Department. In the class following the performance, Kuppers and her students created their own movement material from their “body histories,” inspired by Urban Bush Women’s physical movements.
“We used the theme of ‘everyday rituals,’ and students wove performances of worship and communal meals together with moments of private movement, abstract patterns that held memories for them, and that they shared with and taught to their co-performers,” Kuppers explains.  She immediately observed a change in the way that her students, many of them pre-medical, engaged in the course material. “As it was early on in our course, this was the first time the students performed for each other, and it was a pleasure to see the energy and delight unlocked by seeing and then engaging dance work together,” Kuppers states.

urban bush women

Photo: Urban Bush Women. Courtesy of artist.

Joel Howell’s Medical Arts Program focuses on the benefit of the arts on medical practice, and is done in cooperation with the medical school Office for Health Equity and Inclusion. Given the nature of the program at hand, Howell did not do any specific preparation for the performance in his course, save for a lively discussion with Jawole Zollar. They discussed the piece at large, and about racial disparities in medical treatments and outcomes. “I think the conversation with Jawole Zollar before the show was the most valuable part of the evening,” a medical student stated. “Not only did it help contextualize the show and highlight some of the intent behind the pieces, but it also helped draw connections between art, especially dance, and how we as physicians move through the world.”

After each performance, he asks his students to provide him with feedback. The connections between Hair and Other Stories and the medical world abounded. “We talked a lot about being truly present in a moment when communicating with someone and ways to consent to and properly end a shared experience no matter how big or small,” one student observed. “We also discussed the concept of autonomy and asking for permission to enter a shared, intimate space with another person. Both of these things are essential components to a positive patient encounter.”


Propeller: Was There a Doctor in the House?

You bet. In fact, there were no fewer than 35 of them at Friday night’s performance of Richard III—med students and house officers, all part of the UM Medical Arts Program, a joint UMS–UM Medical School initiative designed to enrich physician training through exposure to the arts and humanities. Funded by the Doris Duke Foundation, the program gives UM medical students and house officers (aka residents) an inside take on concerts, plays, art exhibitions, poetry readings, and so on—all in an effort to deepen their understanding of the human beings they’ll be caring for as physicians.

Joel Howell, professor of internal medicine at UM and co-director of the program, sent this report on the group’s involvement with Propeller:

Last Wednesday evening some 35 medical students and house officers gathered at A2’s Blue Nile Restaurant to enjoy food, drink, and a stimulating discussion of Richard III—the person and the play. Guided by two splendid Shakespeare experts—UM English Professor Barbara Hodgdon and Carol Rutter of the University of Warwick—the group used the play as the starting point to discuss everything from the roots of Richard III’s behavior, to his choice for future matrimony, to what it must be like to confront death.  Along the way the discussion was enlivened by images and quotations from the play.

Two nights later the same group attended Richard. Three reactions:

The amazing thing is not so much the production’s obvious connection with a hospital setting, but the holistic way we should be looking at people. It’s very easy for people in medicine to separate themselves from patients. These events underline that we’re all the same.

It was also nice to see that hospital gowns had backs to them. —Sonali Palchaudhuri, third-year UM medical student

I’m doing a rotation in psychiatry now, and I was thinking about how difficult it would be to diagnose Richard, because he’s such a complex character. Any art is a sharp critique of the boundaries and categories we have in psychiatry. —Eunice Yu, third-year UM medical student

Richard III helps to draw into relief how many people outside the medical world see the hospital setting as creepy and scary. The use of masks [in the production] is in sync with that. I thought of how I have to garb when I go into the operating room or the ICU—how that separates us and makes both doctors and patients feel less human. —John Rhyner, house officer