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Dear Most Valued Customers…

Robin Frohardt ouside The Plastic Bag Store

UMS presents Robin Frohardt’s The Plastic Bag Store, January 17 – February 5, 2023.

Dear Most Valued Customers:

It’s almost impossible for me to try to explain what it is you are about to experience and the journey it took to get here. I started working on The Plastic Bag Store in 2015 after watching someone bag and double bag all my groceries that were already bags inside of bags inside of boxes. I wanted to highlight the absurd amount of packaging we are using and throwing away by making something even more absurd: a grocery store that only sold packaging.

Over time the project evolved into an elaborate live immersive puppet play with transforming sets and hidden rooms. For several years, my amazing team and I slowly pieced together this epic beast of a project. Sometimes that meant working with the support of prestigious residencies at architectural firms and fellowships at Universities. But more often it meant grueling rehearsals, endless schlepping and hours spent sifting through NYC garbage.

With all the pieces finally in place and a venue to die for, The Plastic Bag Store was set to open in the heart of Times Square on March 18, 2020…ya know… the day the whole world shut down? We did one amazing dress rehearsal and locked the doors and walked away.

I think part of me wanted to give up after that. Thankfully, with the persistence of vision of the team at Pomegranate Arts and the generous support of CAP UCLA, we were able to create a filmed version of the project. I was relieved that there would be a record of what we created (we didn’t film that last rehearsal), but I never imagined how beautiful the film would turn out, and how perfectly it would capture the story as I see it in my head.

We then found a way to integrate the film into the installation for a truly unique live experience which we opened in Times Square, and have since taken to Australia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Austin! I couldn’t be more excited to share it now with the lovely people of Ann Arbor.

-Robin Frohardt

Robin Frohardt: The Magic of the Mundane

The Plastic Bag Store creator Robin Frohardt joined U-M’s Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series on January 12, 2023.


UMS Connect: Rachel Mars

Welcome to UMS Connect, a new digital series that invites audiences to dive deeper into the season’s performances in casual conversations with artists and creators.

In this Episode

Programming Manager Mary Roeder speaks with writer and performer Rachel Mars, in advance of her two shows coming to UMS’s No Safety Net 3.0 Festival:

Our Carnal Hearts
Feb 1 – 4, 2023 // Arthur Miller Theatre

Your Sexts Are Shit: Older Better Letters
Feb 4 – 5, 2023 // Arthur Miller Theatre

Growing a Long-Lasting Tomato 🍅

Robin Frohardt shares how a tomato is “grown” for The Plastic Bag Store, coming to Ann Arbor January 17 – February 5, 2023.

From Audience to Action: Making Connections in our Community

No Safety Net audience

Thank you to all who participated in No Safety Net 2.0! Below is a directory of regional organizations whose work intersects with the themes encountered in the festival. The listing here is by no means comprehensive, but we hope it will provide a starting point for learning more about our local, national, and international communities.

As Far As My Fingertips Take Me

Arab American, Refugee, and Migration Resources

The Arab Student Association (ASA) aims to unite and serve the Arab community on campus by organizing educational workshops, cultural events, and service opportunities. ASA represents all Arabs on campus, regardless of nationality.

As one of the largest refugee resettlement agencies in the state, Samaritas has resettled thousands of people from dozens of countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South America. Samaritas has been the Michigan affiliate of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service since the 1950s.

The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute seeks to improve immigration and integration policies through authoritative research and analysis, opportunities for learning and dialogue, and the development of new ideas to address complex policy questions.

UNICEF works in over 190 countries and territories to save children’s lives, to defend their rights, and to help them fulfill their potential, from early childhood through adolescence. And we never give up.

The Believers Are But Brothers

Internet Safety and Cyber Security Resources

A CALL TO MEN educates men all over the world on healthy, respectful manhood. Embracing and promoting healthy, respectful manhood prevents violence against women, sexual assault and harassment, bullying, and many other social ills.

Enough Is Enough (EIE), a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, emerged in 1994 as the national leader on the front lines of making the Internet safer for children and families. Since then, EIE has pioneered and led the effort to confront online pornography, child pornography, child stalking, and sexual predation with innovative initiatives and effective communications.

The National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) builds strong public/private partnerships to create and implement broad-reaching education and awareness efforts to empower users at home, work, and school with the information they need to keep themselves, their organizations, their systems, and their sensitive information safe and secure online and encourage a culture of cybersecurity.

The Internet Education Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization supported by public interest groups, corporations, and associations representative of the diversity of the Internet community. Their mission is to assure informed policymaking on Internet-related issues within both government and the private sector; promote the Internet as a valuable medium for democratic participation, communications, and commerce; educate the public about the challenges and problems presented by the Internet medium and offer potential solutions; raise the awareness and effectiveness of the Internet Caucus Advisory Committee as an educational tool for Congress; encourage coalitions of corporations, industry associations, and public interest groups to work together on addressing important Internet-related policy issues and engaging in educational outreach projects.

WISE KIDS is a not-for-profit company, founded in Oct 2002 by Sangeet Bhullar. WISE KIDS provides innovative training programs and consultancy in new media, Internet and mobile technologies, Internet proficiency, literacy, and safety. WISE KIDS believes that individuals and communities need the knowledge, skills, and tools to understand and harness the power of the Internet and mobile technologies. This includes media literacy skills, which include an understanding of how the Internet works, effective and proficient use of the Internet, and the ability to use these technologies to access information, learning, participate online, create and share content and services, and network online.

Is This a Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription

International Data and Civil Liberties

The Center for Computer Security and Society (C2S2) is an interdisciplinary center based at the University of Michigan. The center is dedicated to the investigation of emerging threats to critical embedded systems and networks, and on the impact of cybersecurity attacks on critical infrastructure, governments, and sensitive data.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded in 1920 and is our nation’s guardian of liberty. The ACLU works in the courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.

White Feminist

Gender Equity Resources

Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) is an intergenerational organization committed to the physical, psychological, social, and economic development of girls and women. Through education, organizing, and physical fitness, GGE encourages communities to remove barriers and create opportunities for girls and women to live self-determined lives.

American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) policy work connects and rallies advocates at the local, state, national, and global levels to empower women and girls. With the member-voted Public Policy Priorities as their guide, AAUW uses lobbying and grassroots efforts to push forward policies that break through educational and economic barriers for women.

National Organization for Women focuses on a broad range of women’s rights issues, including economic justice, pay equity, racial discrimination, women’s health and body image, women with disabilities, reproductive rights and justice, family law, marriage and family formation rights of same-sex couples, representation of women in the media, and global feminist issues.

Michigan National Organization for Women (NOW) is a chapter of the National Organization for Women. It was established to provide coordination of local chapters and statewide advocacy to advance women’s rights in Michigan. Michigan NOW’s purpose is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men. NOW is the largest multi-issue feminist advocacy group in the US and Michigan.

A Conversation with No Safety Net Theater-Makers

UMS’s Michael Kondziolka (VP, Programming and Production) and Mary Roeder (Programming Manager) joined No Safety Net artists Javaad Alipoor, Lee Minora, and Tina Satter at the Trotter Multicultural Center at the University of Michigan, for a discussion of theater as an artistic medium for social change.

My Time at the Fringe

written by Isabel K. Olson, 2019/20 UMS 21st Century Artist Intern

Rich Kids production shot

Production of Javaad Alipoor’s Rich Kids at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival

From its very origin, theater was designed to be political. In Ancient Greece, theater was used to tackle local issues onstage and influence the democracy and social tide. However, today, particularly in America, we are accustomed to thinking of theater as entertainment. We might even be a bit peeved if after our long work week we go to the theater and find the show provocative rather than fun and rejuvenating. Yet, at its core, theater is a form designed to activate a debate that might be more uncomfortable than enjoyable and might raise more questions than answers.

This season, No Safety Net 2.0 offers a diverse group of artists whose works use a variety of artistic mediums to tackle vastly different political topics. These unconventional shows risk a great deal in their creation, not only juggling sensitive subject matters but also using forms of art that are not all that common in mainstream American works. By the very definition of “no safety net,” these artists are not here to give us reassurance, security, or even entertainment. They are here to challenge our views.

Fringe Festival Pass

Through the UMS 21st Century Artist Internship, I had the life-altering opportunity to travel to the UK and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to work with No Safety Net artist and activist Javaad Alipoor on The Believers are But Brothers and Rich Kids: The History of Shopping Malls in Tehran. Alipoor is a bold artist who is unafraid to assume the audience’s highest intelligence when tackling a stream of political topics. Alipoor crafts his work by devising, a form of creating theater in a collaborative environment with no finalized script or preordained result.

For me, Alipoor’s rehearsal room was unlike any I’d experienced in America; it was a space for creative thinking and trial and error without the constraint of the “perfect outcome.” I’d grown accustomed to the “time is money” mindset of much American commercial work where the result is known before the collaborators walk in the door. However, in my experience working with Alipoor, I remembered that art is about creation — the literal act of molding and experimenting with endless possible consequences. And, it was a reminder that with certain limitations comes opportunity. No amount of money thrown at art will make it innovative or meaningful. Great political theater comes from bold artists willing to fail and try again, attempting to connect pathos to activism, making large-scale issues heartfelt, and forcing us to think.

With the backdrop of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, my life in Edinburgh resulted in seeing 56 productions that ranged from music to dance, circus to comedy, and street performance to pub theater. Over the course of the month, the world opened up to me as I saw art forms collide in ways I’d never seen before. Everything I’d known felt stale in comparison to these new risk-taking artists who were giving up everything to perform. Over the course of one month, I was reminded why I loved art in the first place and how art is absolutely a vehicle for political and social change.

If I had it my way, every single person would be given the opportunity to go to the Fringe. And though we can’t all go to Scotland, we can embrace how lucky we are to have an organization like UMS deliver bold work from around the world to our Ann Arbor doorstep. Political theater attempts to create a dialogue with new groups of people, and we are fortunate to have these works invite us to continue the dialogue.

My time at the Fringe taught me two very important lessons: first, that independent artists who take risks onstage, such as those that you will be seeing in No Safety Net, give themselves over to give you a show. You don’t have to like the show, but you owe it to the artist to consider their work and respect their risk. Second, there are no rules to art, and in my opinion, any art worth watching is the kind that redefines what we thought art could be or say.

I challenge you to embrace the uncomfortable and put your thoughts into words after the performance. Talk to those sitting next to you. Ask yourself why you feel the way you do. Continue the dialogue and continue to support the art that pushes boundaries.

Isabel Olson is a UMS 21st Century Artist Intern and a U-M senior majoring in theatre arts/directing and history.

Wonder and Woe: The Challenges of Internet

U-M School of Information professor Cliff Lampe explores bad internet behaviors in a free workshop, How to Become an Internet Troll, in accompaniment to UMS’s presentation of The Believers Are But Brothers.

The Believers Are But Brothers

Scene from The Believers Are But Brothers

The internet is filled with wonders. Really. It is filled with beauty. Tools like social media have helped people find love, reconnect with long-lost relatives, and maintain distant relationships. People have found others like themselves when their physical neighbors had excluded them, have built massive works of collaborative art, and have learned about people and places outside of their immediate experiences.

However, the internet is also filled with horrors. It is filled with monsters. Computer tools can’t differentiate whether a person is finding someone with the same medical problem to share emotional support, or whether a person is finding someone with a shared hatred of a group of people. Interactions on the internet take place within an architecture where several different specific design features “afford” a variety of actions. For example, the feature that allows you to share your photo on a social media site affords control over how you express your identity. You can show your face, or share a picture that is intended to deceive others. These features of computer-mediated communication mean that we have new opportunities for benefits, as well as harms, that happen via online interactions.

There is a dizzying array of bad behaviors that happen online, usually with colorful labels that only the internet could generate. Trolling, flaming, brigading, spamming, redpilling, doxxing, and more are all bad behaviors in which people engage. Some of these have been with us since the beginning of online social interaction. For example, “trolling” is saying something (usually deceptively naïve or aggressive) to elicit angry responses from an audience. The term itself relates to the fishing method — not the mythical creature — and the behavior has been around since the early 1980s, when Usenet was a primary mode by which people interacted in online communities.

In my work, I typically break adversarial online interactions into two main categories: those that target individuals, and those that target a group. The bad behaviors targeted at a specific individual can be devastating. Cyber-bullying has caused emotional distress, trauma, and death in adolescents. Women and people of color have been especially vulnerable to threats and intimidation from online harassers — in the same way they are more likely targets of harassment in every context. Actor Leslie Jones had to leave social media after a coordinated effort was made to harass her on Twitter. This type of coordinated action is known as “brigading,” where many harassers plan an assault on a person, using multiple channels and multiple types of attack. One common attack that harassers use online is “doxxing.” This is where documents ranging from home addresses and phone numbers to financial records and personal intimate photos are obtained both legally and illegally and shared with a broad audience. There are hundreds of variations of targeted harassment like this. While it is tempting to blame this type of attack on a small group of bad actors or “trolls,” the research has shown that almost anyone can become a harasser online. When triggered to anger, people often lash out, and that lashing out often becomes some form of harassment.

Adversarial online interactions that target groups are just as harmful as individual attacks, but the goals are often very different. Where an individual may be harassed for revenge, to prove a point, or to signal a virtue, group harassment often has a more specific goal in mind. A familiar example is how ISIS used social media to recruit sympathizers and convert them into active supporters. There, the message was sent to a large audience with the anticipation that most people would be hostile to their goals. But they weren’t trying to win over most people, they were trying to speak to a few folks who harbored similar resentments and fears, and to catch them in the net. This strategy is also common among hate groups in the US. They use social media to plan, create, and launch sophisticated recruitment campaigns. Whether the group’s goals be around misogyny, white nationalism, or religious extremism, the methods remain the same. Creating content that mocks the opposition forms strong group affinity in sympathizers, and establishes a trail of media sites that lead to even more extreme beliefs. This process is known as “redpilling,” named after the scene in the Matrix where the protagonist takes the red pill to learn the harsh truth about a false reality. It’s really just radicalization that takes advantage of the features of social media that hide identity, allow for creativity, and avoid suppression.

Another attack against groups is in the misinformation and disinformation campaigns currently seen surrounding global elections. Different groups that share the goals of disrupting free and fair democratic elections are using online tools to create false identities, news sources, and online groups with the goal of sowing dissension and getting us to question the nature of a shared truth.

Most of these behaviors are not new. They have been occurring in online spaces for decades — and with humans broadly — for thousands of years. What’s new is how important mediated interactions have become for us as a whole, and how unprepared we are for people who break the rules using features of online environments. However, I still think the juice is worth the squeeze when it comes to the internet. If we work on solving these problems of adversarial interactions, we can increase the wonders we experience. We will never entirely get rid of adversarial interactions, but we can support people who suffer from them and do our best to improve the internet overall.

Cliff LampeCliff Lampe is a professor in the U-M School of Information. His research is on how computing environments interact with social processes. For that work, he’s looked at how social motivations affect participation in online communities like Wikipedia, the psychosocial value people get from social media platforms like Facebook, and how features can be used to regulate social behavior on sites like Reddit. While much of his work has focused on the positive aspects of online interaction, recently he has been studying how the features of online systems propel hate speech, disinformation, partisanship, and harassment. He publishes in the fields of computer science and communication.

Glossary of Internet Slang Terms

4chan / An online chat room from which many popular memes emerge

Cuck / A term popular on the alt-right corners of the internet used to describe a man who is weak, effeminate, or submissive

Dabiq / an online magazine used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for Islamic radicalization and recruitment

Doge / A comically misspelled word for “dog” associated with photos of a dog that went viral in 2010

Doxxing / Searching for or publishing private material about another person on the internet with malicious intent

Gamergate / A 2014 harassment campaign that targeted sexism in video game culture, through which 4chan came to the attention of the mainstream media

KEK / A picture of an ancient Egyptian god with a frog’s head, which was dubbed the god of chaos on 4chan

Pepe / An anthropomorphic cartoon frog popular in memes which has become associated with the alt-right movement

Red Pill / A metaphor emerging from the 1999 movie The Matrix, in which the red pill represents the harsh truths of reality

Troll / A person who instigates quarrels on the internet by posting inflammatory or digressive statements, content, or material

Reality Winner: Espionage or Whistle-Blowing?

Is This A Room

Scene from Is This A Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription | Photo credit: Paula Court

In advance of UMS’s presentations of Is This A Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription, Brian Willen, lawyer and member of the UMS Board of Directors, sat down with Barbara McQuade, law professor at the University of Michigan and a legal analyst for NBC News/ MSNBC, and Greg Stejskal, former special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). They discussed aspects of Reality Winner’s case, including her interview with the FBI and the Espionage Act. The below transcription has been edited and condensed from their original November 2019 conversation.

Brian Willen: Is This A Room documents and dramatizes a particular moment in the Reality Winner story — her June 3, 2017 interview with the FBI, which ended with her arrest and ultimately a fairly long prison sentence. The show puts us in the room with Reality and the FBI agents, but we don’t see the rest of the story. So, I thought we could examine a little bit of that bigger picture and provide a context and information for people who are seeing the play.

The law that Reality violated is called the Espionage Act, which is a pretty evocative name for a statute. Can you tell us what it is, where it comes from, and what it does?

Barbara McQuade: The Espionage Act is a rather clumsy statute, and it gets used for a lot of purposes. It was passed during World War I as an effort to deter and punish people who disclosed secrets to the enemy. It covers both people who have clearances and obtain the information in the course of their employment, and has certain prohibitions for those people…as well as anybody who receives the information. That’s the piece that can be controversial, because in theory even the news media could be prosecuted for even having or publishing it.

Typically, the justice department has not done that, but has focused on those who have a sworn duty to protect secrets through their employment. And those people are prosecuted. The Espionage Act includes prosecution for people who give secrets to foreign adversaries — hostile foreign adversaries — and those crimes would then be punished more severely. But it also applies to people like Reality Winner, who disclose it to someone who doesn’t have permission to receive it, including the news media.

BW: Many people might think there’s a pretty big difference between those scenarios…between sharing classified information with a foreign government, and sharing it with a journalist. So why do you think the Espionage Act doesn’t make a distinction?

BMcQ: I agree with you, I think those are two very different harms, to very different degrees. When the statute was first passed, it was probably intended to address just the situation of someone who had access to military secrets sharing it with a hostile foreign adversary.

And then, a famous example of its use in a media sense came in the case known as the Pentagon Papers, when Daniel Elsberg shared a long study about the Vietnam War that was classified that he had worked on with the New York Times. The Justice Department sent a letter to the effect of “if you keep this or publish it, it will be a violation of the Espionage Act…be warned, you should return this right away.” And they filed a civil case to get a restraining order against them further publishing (they already published one or two days of stories about the Pentagon Papers). So it may have simply been a creative use of the statute, because there’s no other statute that addresses it.

BW: That’s an interesting point. Here, Reality Winner disclosed classified information to The Intercept. Do you think it would have been possible to bring a case against The Intercept for publishing this document?

BMcQ: Under the Espionage Act as it currently exists, yes, but the Justice Department has restrained itself from doing that. During the Obama administration, I know that there was concern about leak investigations including search warrants to reporters, and even referring to a reporter as a co-conspirator even though that reporter wasn’t charged.

After the Justice Department’s internal review of how to handle these types of situations, Attorney General Holder announced that he didn’t want to do anything that would interfere with the legitimate news gathering functions of the media. That’s a good goal, but it could be difficult to achieve in practice, when you think about how difficult it is nowadays to define who is the media. Certainly most people would agree with traditional media outlets like the New York Times, but how about something like The Intercept, or WikiLeaks, or just Greg in his basement on his blog. Is that media? So that’s where it becomes difficult.

BW: Let’s bring Greg into the conversation. As a former FBI agent, how do you think about this differentiation between spying and leaking? Should it matter to the FBI or to the justice system that someone like Reality Winner did what she did not for money or for some desire to harm national security, but because she thought she was doing the right thing for the country?

Gregory Stejskal: I do think it makes a difference. But, you have to realize that there can be substantial harm to national security, whether it’s given to a foreign power or ends up in the media. And I would cite the Snowden thing as a good example of the damage that can be done. Presumably, at least according to him, he thought he was doing the right thing. You don’t get to have that kind of discretion when you have the federal government’s trust to not violate classified regulations that you’re working under.

On the other hand, a whistle-blower who decides to speak up has certain procedures and things that they follow, and the first stop isn’t the media.

BW: In Reality Winner’s case, this is a document that reveals certain efforts that the Russian government and intelligence services were making to interfere with US election machinery in the run-up to the 2016 election. Reality’s lawyers argued that the disclosure of this information, rather than harming national security, actually helped national security because it alerted state and local officials to threats to the integrity of the election system that they might not have otherwise been aware of. What do you make of that argument?

GS: If the material is classified, that individual is not given discretion to determine the harm done or anything like that. Again, there are things that you can do, under the whistle-blower statute, or just talk to your supervisor. But you don’t have the right to say, “Oh, you know, this is something that the public should be aware of,” or, “These are things that we’re doing that I don’t agree with.”

BW: Gregory makes an important point. This is why we have whistle-blower laws. If someone thinks that there is an abuse, waste, fraud, some sort of issue…we want to deter people from taking it upon themselves to share the secret with the world, and instead, encourage them to follow this whistle-blower track, where you can go to an inspector general.

As we saw recently in the current case involving Ukraine — the process there is that the inspector general first makes a determination as to whether the claim is frivolous. If not, he’ll go investigate and talk to people. We have intelligence committees in Congress, in the house, and senate, so that they can exercise oversight and investigate if things are being done improperly. We want to encourage people like Reality Winner to go that route, and not taking it upon themselves to share information with the world.

One concern I have about what we’re currently seeing is, when President Trump is, I believe, intimidating the whistle-blower to identify him and out him, and keep demanding that he testify. We are going to push people into the Reality Winner channel, and I worry that President Trump’s conduct is diminishing faith in the system by people who are public servants who want to do things the right way.

BW: I want to shift gears a little bit. I want to go back to Reality’s interview with the FBI agents. I think people have a particular intuition about the way that the FBI might question suspects, and what we see in this show is something more informal, more meandering, more conversational. So it’d be interesting I think for you, Greg, to talk about how the FBI approaches interviews like this and the strategies that you use to try to get people to talk when you think they’ve done something wrong but you don’t necessarily have all the evidence.

GS: It’s dependent on the agent, and you do receive training, but, you know there are certain things I would do to try to develop rapport. What I found early on is that threatening people and doing the classic “third-degree kind of thing” — the light in the face and all of that — generally is not very productive. I wanted to be able to convince the person, if possible, that it would be in their best interest to be cooperative.

When I would interview somebody, I would never have a table or anything else in between me and the person I’m interviewing. I would actually sit on the same side of the table as he or she did, or she did. And I would spend time, before I would ever ask them a question, and even if I was going to Mirandize him, and talk to him, explain to him the situation, and try to develop that rapport. It would not be in a threatening manner. There have been times I arrested people where I might’ve been a bit more forceful, but that was only because of exigent circumstances.

BMcQ: What Greg is describing is common among all the agencies that we worked with at the US Attorney’s office. I, as a prosecutor, was really gratified when we began recording the interviews, because I think there’s a perception from TV and movies that agents are really tough on people, that they’re beating them up, that they’re intimidating. And in fact it’s usually, perhaps because it is more effective, that the agents are usually very nice to the person. Being able to show that in the courtroom to a jury could usually cut off any suggestion that the person was brow beaten or something, to confess.

BW: What about Miranda Warnings? One of the interesting things about this case is that Reality Winner was never told during her interview that she had “the right to remain silent or the right to a lawyer. Why wouldn’t the FBI have given Miranda Warnings here, and what would you have done if she had said, “I want to talk to my lawyer?”

GS: Well, once she says that, then that’s it. You’re done. That’s again one of the reasons why you want to have an opportunity to talk to them before you specifically ask them a question or you Mirandize, because you want them to understand why it’s in their best interest to talk.

The whole Miranda Warning thing was developed almost word-for-word by the FBI. Our policy was that unless they’re in custody (which means if a reasonable person would believe they’re in custody), you don’t have to provide them with their Miranda Rights. In Reality’s case, they didn’t even have an arrest warrant…they arrested her after the fact, after the surge, and after they spoke to her.

BMcQ: The legal test is looking at the totality of the circumstances: would a reasonable person have felt that they were either free to leave or free not to answer the questions? Miranda requires both being in custody and being interrogated. So if either of those are not true, then there’s not a requirement for a Miranda Warning. And as I read the transcription here, at least twice the agent said to Reality: “Talking to us is completely voluntary, right, just want you to understand that.” I’m sure it was very deliberate…it’s probably part of their training to make that statement known. And so by saying that twice, they alerted her that even if you don’t feel like you’re free to go, you also don’t have to answer our questions.

BW: Let me just ask you one final question. The three of us are joining the post-performance artist Q&A right after opening night of Is This A Room on January 29, and I’m just curious what each of you will be looking for when you see the show. Are there particular things that you are going to be paying attention to or looking for?

BMcQ: I suppose I will be looking for things that ring true or that seem unusual. I mean, this is a real scenario, so it’s not fictional. This really happened. But, to what extent is it typical, and to what extent is it aberrational? I think that would be useful for an audience to know if this is the way it goes down most of the time, all the time, or, if this was a really unusual, outlier-type situation. I’ll be looking for that, and then maybe just opportunities to explain how the law works in these situations, for better or worse. Most laws make sense — there’s a reason we came up with them — but others have flaws, and sometimes things evolve in society and a law is not caught up with that yet. So I’ll be looking for any areas like that that I might be able to flag for the audience after the show.

GS: I’m going to be interested in seeing how the agents handled it and be sort of critiquing it…I might find myself going “hey that’s an interesting technique,” or “boy, that’s not the way to do it guys.” So, I look for that, whether you see it in the media, like on TV or in movies, and then in real life. The other thing I think, and given the opportunity to talk about after the show it is what we’ve said…you know you have to understand that as an FBI agent, or as a US attorney, you have to enforce the laws. We don’t have discretion either. But, irrespective of what this person’s motive is — and that she’s a wonderful person and all of that — there is a reason for these laws being there. And in our job, we’re sworn to uphold the constitution, and with that goes the laws that are passed in pursuit of the constitution. It’s not our job to question that. It’s our job to enforce the laws.

Barbara McQuadeBarbara L. McQuade is a law professor at the University of Michigan, where she teaches criminal law, criminal procedure, and national security law. She is also a legal analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. From 2010 to 2017, Ms. McQuade served as the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. Ms. McQuade was appointed by President Barack Obama, and was the first woman to serve in her position. Ms. McQuade also served as vice chair of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee and co-chaired the Terrorism and National Security Subcommittee. Before becoming US Attorney, Ms. McQuade was an Assistant US Attorney in Detroit for 12 years, serving as Deputy Chief of the National Security Unit.


Greg StejskalGreg Stejskal, SA/FBI (1975–2006), was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. He attended and graduated from the University of Nebraska and received a bachelor and juris doctorate (‘74) degrees. In 1975 he entered on duty as special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Following new agent training, he was assigned to the Detroit field office which covers all of Michigan. In 1981 he was assigned to the Ann Arbor resident agency (a satellite office of Detroit). During his career, he was involved in numerous and varied cases within the FBI’s jurisdiction including foreign counterintelligence (espionage). In 2006, he retired from the FBI with over 31 years of service. He resides in Ann Arbor with his wife, Pat, who is a retired Ann Arbor Public Schools teacher. They have two grown children, Taryn and Andrew; both are graduates of the University of Michigan.


Brian WillenBrian Willen is a partner at the law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. He litigates cases on behalf of leading technology and Internet companies (including Google, Twitter, Dropbox, and Pinterest) focusing on intellectual property, online content-regulation, the First Amendment, national security, and privacy. Mr. Willen is also an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan Law School where he teaches classes on Internet law, and is a member of the UMS Board of Directors.

“Believers” by Javaad Alipoor

Javaad Alipoor
Artist statement from Javaad Alipoor, writer and performer of The Believers Are But Brothers, Jan 22-26, 2020.

When UMS programming manager Mary Roeder and her colleagues asked me to write a contribution to the No Safety Net program book, it felt like a really good opportunity to look back over the genesis and development of The Believers Are But Brothers and set out a little bit of the story of its development and its journey to the stage here in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor feels like a very different place to the location in which I began to make the show, but in some ways, this leg of the international tour has really brought something out for me when I think about what it means to make political theater for an international audience.

By background and by inclination I’m a very political animal. I grew up in a mixed-race family in Bradford, a working-class city in northern England. My family and my early experiences have helped to shape my world view and the kind of art I think needs to be made in the 21st century.

Bradford is a city with two kinds of reputations. In the first and largest sense, it doesn’t have one. It doesn’t pop internationally with the same reputation as Manchester or Liverpool for a variety of reasons. But it’s also known visually as a poorer city with a large Muslim population, and it is often used as a kind of visual cliché to illustrate new stories or dramas about supposedly “problematic” European cities with alleged “racial troubles.”

Before I began my artistic career, I was a community worker and a political and social activist. Now, as an artist, I feel like those parts of my practice, although sometimes less to the fore, are a crucial part of my work. I’m often told that we are living through a renaissance of political theater. But the problem is that a lot of it isn’t very good theater, and it doesn’t really have very deep politics.

For me a lot of that is because it’s made by artists whose only real political commitment comes through the work they make. As a result, it’s built on bad faith; the assumption that the artist has something to say that that will somehow teach an audience something about the world. But here is the rub: audiences are more politically savvy than ever; we live in a world where people are clear that they need to know more about what’s going on than ever before. This is especially true in the self-selecting sample of the population that makes up theater audiences.

The Believers Are But Brothers

For me, political theater isn’t about that at all. It’s about taking a problem — in the case of The Believers Are But Brothers, the relationship between extreme politics, masculinity, and the internet, and sharing that with an audience. So, I hope what might once have been a question that felt intellectual feels visceral, emotional, and centered in the gut.

Throughout the making of Believers, as well as my more recent work, I have tried to stay true to these ideas. As a community worker, I had first-hand experience of the racist and Islamophobic “anti-extremism” policies that were delivered throughout the UK in the aftermath of the July 7, 2005 London attacks. Artistically, it felt to me like the most important reframing for me to make of this discourse, as a young Muslim man, was to point out that we don’t live in a society where there is some sort of problem with young Muslim men, we live in one where increasingly there is a problem with young men.

Aside from that, the other big influence on Believers was the community of Syrian refugees and my links to the Syrian Solidarity Campaign. When I was making the very first iteration of the show, I shared it with some refugees and Syrian activists. They spoke eloquently to me about how the West’s focus on ISIS seemed to them to be part of the constellation that buried that country’s revolution in barrel bombs, inaction, and empty geopolitical discourse.

The Believers Are But Brothers is the first part of a trilogy of plays. I have just opened the second part, Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, where it also won a Fringe First Award (it transferred to London in early spring 2019). I want the trilogy to explore the relationship between emerging technologies and the great shifts in political reality we are seeing as the second act of the 21st century opens. That’s why it has felt important to me to experiment with using technology like WhatsApp and Instagram theatrically.

Over the past two years, The Believers Are But Brothers has really found its audience from its first award-winning run at the Edinburgh Fringe, through its London transfer, and international touring. It’s been seen across Europe, Australia, Canada, and now premieres in the US in Ann Arbor. In each city we have been to, it has felt like the work has reverberated with a community of people who look at the dynamics of contemporary politics with the same mixture of confusion and resolve that I, and the team that made it, do.

In some ways, it’s the kind of show that stands in an uncelebrated tradition of formally experimental political theater and art from my hometown. Artists like Albert Hunt and Noel Greig led different waves of radicalism in the 1960s and late 1970s, respectively, Hunt from the local art college, and Greig through his company Gay Sweatshop. In the 1990s and early 2000s the city became the home of radical south Asian artists and musicians like Fun-Da-Mental and Aki Nawaz.

I think, whether we consider Brexit, the 2016 American presidential election, or any of a host of other political events, we see the breakdown of the traditional “national” level of politics. People will talk about a feeling of living within two different countries, for instance. At the same time, digital communities and global migration patterns are connecting people and places in ways never seen before. When I think about what it means to make international theater or art, I want it to be that apparent contradiction.

That means, I think, that we have to make work that speaks authentically to place, but that finds the universal. Work that gives up the “state of the nation,” and seeks instead the new networks of power, resentment, and identity that criss-cross the whole world.

Hear a full interview with Javaad Alipoor on our No Safety Net Podcast.

Faculty Spotlight: Theatre and Incarceration

University of Michigan students in The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) had the opportunity to experience UMS performance, “Us/Them” in the Winter of 2018. Allison Taylor interviewed Ashley Lucas, the current director of PCAP and Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, to learn about the incorporation of “Us/Them” in the curriculum.

us them performers 

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) began in 1990 when Buzz Alexander, an English professor at the University of Michigan, had been doing work that incorporated theater and social change in his classes. He was approached by a student who wanted to do a theater workshop in a prison, and asked Alexander to accompany him. Alexander was so deeply moved and inspired by the experience in the prison that he began building a curriculum that essentially grew into what the Prison Creative Arts Project is today.

“This is our 28th year,” said Ashley Lucas, the current director of PCAP, and an Associate Professor of Theatre & Drama at SMTD and the Residential College. “We are now a curricular program and a student organization at the University of Michigan, so I, along with three or four other people, teach PCAP classes which train our students to facilitate arts workshops in prisons.”

Lucas has spent the last five years traveling the world and visiting prisons to see how other people approach theater in prison. Currently, she is working on an academic text entitled Prison Theatre in a Global Context that delves into the “why” behind theater in prison — what makes it so powerful? From where does this phenomenon stem?

“I’m trying to discover why people go through so much trouble to do theater in prison, because they absolutely do — it is happening all over the world, and has been for hundreds of years,” Lucas said. “Why is it so important to people? Why do people go to such extraordinary lengths to make this happen? What is it that people in prison get out of doing this kind of work?”

This semester, Lucas is teaching a PCAP class, “Theatre and Incarceration,” that has teamed up with UMS to incorporate two UMS productions, Us/Them and Nederlands Dance Theater. The class, which includes weekly visits to a number of prisons within the Michigan Department of Corrections, used their experiences with Us/Them and NDT to enhance and inspire the workshops and activities that are brought in to the visited prisons.

us them performers

“When Us/Them came up, and the gracious folks at UMS were kind enough to offer us tickets [through a Course Development Grant], I got really excited because Us/Them is a play with a very small cast, making an incredibly complex world out of very little, scenically,” Lucas explained.

When Lucas and her students visit the prisons, it is often difficult to find materials to use for their workshops; they must find ways to get maximal use and results out of whatever supplies they may have.

“They did some really cool stuff [in Us/Them], with the string and chalk on stage. We often have to use the same kinds of techniques and ideas in order to make a whole world out of improv when we’re performing in the prisons with incarcerated folks. For the most part, we can’t have props or costumes. I think Us/Them helped the students to conceptualize how to use things to create sentiment that becomes profoundly real. That was really mind-blowing for a lot of the students, particularly those who were not theater people. And even those who were theater people, I think, took a lot from seeing how much of a world you could create with such few people.”

“When I started talking to the folks at UMS about how my class could interact with the work that they were doing, NDT came up because they are a dance-theater company and they really create a whole world out of their bodies. We make a whole lot out of very little, and we do that with people who aren’t professionals, people who might be trying theater for the very first time, people who might never have seen a formal play in their lives, people who are wrapping their heads around the fact that live theater is not the same thing as television performed outside of the box. So to be able to contrast the experience we have in prison with a really highly professional performance that is created by people whose whole job it is to make this art form, is a very interesting contrast for me as a professor, for my students, and for people who are learning what theater is and can be in the world. I think things like Underground Railroad Game, Us/Them, and the edgier works that UMS presents help us learn, as we do in the prison, that there are many different ways in which the arts can be political and can convey something about social change.”

In addition to the arts workshops in the prisons, PCAP hosts one of the largest annual exhibitions of prisoner art in the world. Every year in March or April, the exhibition takes place in the Duderstadt Gallery on north campus for two weeks. This year, it ran from March 21st through April 4th.

us them performers

“That’s part of how we came to have this engagement with UMS,” Lucas explained. “ Part of what’s happening with our connection with UMS is an exchange program. For the last 5 years, I have taken students from the PCAP programs who have done theater workshops in US prisons to Brazil. Our students go into the prisons in Brazil and do theater with folks in prisons, favelas, and hospitals, with patients and staff. That program runs for three weeks every summer, and as part of the exchange, we invite the Brazilians here as well. While you all are having this wonderful event with the NDT, we are hosting guests that are coming here to perform in connection with that art exhibition. We will have four faculty and 10 students from two universities in Brazil here as well for a week — March 20-27.”

This year’s show is the largest show PCAP has ever done. “We’re displaying something like 658 works of art by over 500 artists, and we saw upwards of 3,000 pieces of art. The quality of the work being created is extraordinary, and you will never see an exhibition with a broader range of artistic media, or subject matter. You very seldom see a show with 500 artists in it who are all thinking about the world from very different perspectives. Because when you lock up as many thousands and thousands of people as the state of Michigan does, you’re bound to have a huge diversity of opinions and of viewpoints on the world, and that’s very much reflected in the work that we have in the exhibition.”

“This year, my heart is very full because one of my favorite artists is a man named Martin Vargas, who is one of only 5 people to have been in the show for all 23 years that we’ve had the exhibition, and he just came home a few weeks ago. He did 45 years in prison. And was in our art show for 23 of those years, and he’s going to get to see the show for the first time. It’s really, really exciting, and I’m so grateful he’s able, finally, to see the thing that he helped to make for more than two decades. That’s a profound gift for those of us who work in PCAP.”

Are you a U-M faculty member who would be interested in bringing your students to a UMS performance? $15 Classroom Tickets are available for students and faculty in courses that require attendance at a UMS performance. To learn more about how to work with UMS, email Campus Engagement Specialist at or check out our new guide How to Integrate a UMS Performance into Your Course.

FRAME-ing Performance

This essay is published in conjunction with FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity surrounding the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances. The U-M Institute for the Humanities and UMS will offer one more open dialogue around contemporary visual art, performance, and identity on  Monday, March 19 at 7 pm in the Atrium at 202 South Thayer Building in Ann Arbor.

Angela G. King

“FRAME-ing Performance” is written by Angela G. King. King is a writer, filmmaker, and actress. Her most recent endeavors include “The Girl Who Wasn’t There,” a memoir of human trafficking that she’s helping one young West African woman to share.

This is not an artistic undertaking for the faint of heart.

From the two-person cast that lay bare all inhibitions — literally as well as theatrically — to usher a fictitious middle school class along a graphic exploration of race, sex and power. To all the cultural deliberation that can surface amid witness of a black prima ballerina performing at the zenith of a historically Eurocentric dance form. Or a medley of classically superior vocalists belting out an operatic take on black life as interpreted nearly a century ago by those well outside that life.

The University Musical Society and University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities skirted no potential disquiet in culling their second slate of creative offerings for later discussion on how such offerings can test the limits of the status quo.

A discussion that, by her own words, left Amanda Krugliak in awe.

“It was a conversation so open and deeply generous in terms of what was being said by everyone on the panel as well as in the audience,” shared the curator of the U-M Institute for the Humanities. Krugliak conceived with Jim Leija, director of education and community engagement for UMS, the three open dialogues being called “FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity.” This most recent exchange continued into February after its January debut.

“Jim and I had talked for several years about wanting to create a gathering in the tradition of early salons in Paris and Berlin, first organized by women who had no space to express their thoughts and ideas,” explained Krugliak.

Their goal, she elaborated, was to create an intimate space not unlike a living room, one “where intelligent people could come and talk about the visual art, music or performance they had seen at UMS or the humanities institute.”

“We weren’t after lip service, or accolades, or a pat on the back for good intentions,” continued Krugliak. “But rather, a frank and informed conversation that would take us all somewhere else further.”

From that foundation ensued a discourse that may not have been quite as well attended as the first FRAME get-together of 30 or so guests. Convened once again in the atrium of the Thayer Building, it proved just as riveting, though. If not more so.

Photo: Underground Railroad Game. Courtesy of the artist.

“I didn’t think I could be made to feel uncomfortable again in my seat,” John Sloan III confessed from the outset of that second back-and-forth of Underground Railroad Game, one of two recent shows from the current UMS season that he attended. An actor and musician originally from Oak Park, Sloan capitalized on his U-M fine arts degree, spending more than a decade trekking around the country affecting others in their respective seats at regional theaters, concerts, and venues along the national tour of Disney’s The Lion King. He finally returned to this area for good this past August, bringing original theatrical works before audiences via his GhostLight Productions Inc.

Yet having appeared in everything from Julius X, a 1960s retelling of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar during the last days of Malcolm X, to Showboat, the racially provocative musical depicting life on a floating theater along the Mississippi River at the turn of the 19th century, he still found himself grappling with Underground Railroad Game.

Created by and starring Jennifer Kidwell, who is black, and Scott R. Sheppard, who is not, this is the 90-minute farce that made its way to the Arthur Miller Theatre on the campus of Sloan’s alma mater in mid-January. Bringing with it the racially-charged adult language, sexual content, and nudity that inspired The New York Times to declare the off-Broadway show a “resounding testament to theater’s continuing power to shock” when hailing it as one of the best theater productions of 2016.

“The nudity itself wasn’t necessarily provocative for me,” Sloan opined of Kidwell and Sheppard’s portrayal of two fifth grade teachers at Hanover Middle School. This is the school in southeastern Pennsylvania that Sheppard actually attended as a child. And where he actually experienced the premise of his stage collaboration with Kidwell: being led in a role-playing game where Union soldiers try to smuggle slaves — represented by dolls — to freedom. All while Confederate soldiers try to recapture the dolls as they make their way north.

Recast in far more mature terms of late by Sheppard and Kidwell, at times calling upon the audience to become the fifth graders, it was an enactment replete with oral stimulation, domination, masturbation, and the “N” word that Sloan admitted to finding “difficult, in moments, for me to digest emotionally.”

“There was a sense that the nudity allowed for an exploration of status and power dynamics,” he elaborated.  “This became especially dangerous when considering the actors’ identities.  Not to mention the idea that the entire framing was of two teachers using this ‘game’ to instruct middle-school kids.”

Articulating her own discomfort, Billicia Hines, the director of Wayne State University’s black theater program who was also at the UMS presentation of Underground Railroad Game, buttressed that with how the other black women in the audience reacted.

“The black women were really vocal about the fact that they were unhappy with the situation,” according to Hines.

“I understand that the characters in the play were constantly switching roles in terms of power,” she voiced of her dismay, in particular. “However, this play only left me more frustrated. Do I want to see the black female body be objectified even if she chooses to be? No. There are definitely other ways for them to make their point.”

Misty Copeland as Juliet in Kenneth MacMIllan’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

What Underground Railroad Game did to shock sensibilities, even provoke the four arts mavens leading the second FRAME discussion to question if they could ever appear in such a project, American Ballet Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet did to confront notions of cultural identity. And the standard of success in correlation to what has been deemed mainstream.

“Does a European aesthetic have to be the parameter of success?” Hines wondered.

Yes, she maintained, her mother was beside herself merely to get the opportunity to witness Misty Copeland, the first African American to be promoted to a principal dancer within the renowned American Ballet Theatre, onstage. In town from Hines’ home state of North Carolina and all dressed up, she was excited, even perched in the top balcony of the sweeping 2,700-seat Detroit Opera House, to see Copeland perform. For three hours with her daughter among a full house of fellow onlookers who had braved a Michigan snow storm for ABT’s elaboration of Romeo and Juliet.

“She is good in her own right,” Hines granted of Copeland’s leading turn in this enduring romantic tragedy by Shakespeare.

“It wasn’t about Misty,” she disclosed of what ultimately nagged her about the overall experience. “It was about the [dance] company.”

“I kept asking myself, what kind of dynamic would that have presented if she had been dark-skinned and had a big afro?” challenged Willie Sullivan, development coordinator for UMS. “I don’t think that ABT would want that on the stage, quite frankly.”

Still, Sloan cautioned against a discourse on some sort of standard of blackness. More productive, he urged, is the examination of how the black experience has been played out through the lens of white artistic creators. From Ragtime to Once on This Island to, more recently at U-M’s Hill Auditorium thanks to UMS and the university’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Porgy and Bess.

Composed by George Gershwin with his lyricist brother, Ira, and author DuBose Heyward, this long-hallowed love story between a disabled beggar and comely but drug-addicted prostitute that premiered in 1935 debuted more recently at U-M in concert form. That is, with the more familiar theatrical presentation swapped out for an orchestra on stage that, for four hours, fronted the all-black cast of opera singers who were adorned in tuxedos and evening gowns and backed by a sizable multicultural choir.

Porgy and Bess is a wonderful opera,” insisted Hines. “I love history. However, consistently telling our story from a white person’s point of view is getting tiresome. Do they truly know how we are feeling? I say no. And constant images of weary black people sticks in our souls and unconsciously stains

Photo: Porgy and Bess. Courtesy of Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts.

our hopes and dreams.”

Such candor is why Sharman Spieser was glad she didn’t go with her first inclination to skip this latest FRAME salon, an informal occasion again that, according to her, “created a sense of intimacy and spontaneity.”

“Listening made me feel part of the sharing, and this deepened my understanding and appreciation for the complexity, authenticity, and skill that artists offer our world,” raved the independent education consultant. With a ticket already to Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation, the multi-media concert that UMS will host on March 14, Spieser plans to be at the final FRAME discussion five days later as well.

“They bare their souls for us,” she noted of the creative professionals who lend their time and insight to facilitate these talks after such performances. “I have so much respect for them!”

This essay is published in conjunction with FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity surrounding the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances. The U-M Institute for the Humanities and UMS will offer one more open dialogue around contemporary visual art, performance, and identity on  Monday, March 19 at 7 PM in the Atrium at 202 South Thayer Building in Ann Arbor.

“FRAME-ing Performance” is written by Angela G. King. King is a writer, filmmaker, and actress. Her most recent endeavors include “The Girl Who Wasn’t There,” a memoir of human trafficking that she’s helping one young West African woman to share.

Disrupting the FRAME

This essay is published in conjunction with FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity surrounding the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances. The U-M Institute for the Humanities and UMS will offer  two more open dialogues around contemporary visual art, performance, and identity on Monday, February 19 and Monday, March 19 at 7 PM in the Atrium at 202 South Thayer Building in Ann Arbor.

Angela G. King

“Disrupting the FRAME” is written by Angela G. King. King is a writer, filmmaker, and actress. Her most recent endeavors include “The Girl Who Wasn’t There,” a memoir of human trafficking that she’s helping one young West African woman to share.

Getting a glimpse into the heavily-shrouded quandary that we African-American women have had with our hair throughout time. And coming face to face, of a sort, with 73 civilians – 72 men and one woman – who were killed over four days in the 2010 drug war in Kingston, Jamaica, known as the “Tivoli Incursion.”

Such was the impetus of the first of a three-part series of public discussions being held at the University of Michigan that examine how contemporary art, be it exhibited or performed, can challenge the very framework of social conventions.

“These kind of disruptions can be groundbreaking,” summed up Detroit native Taylor Renee Aldridge. “We need to have these dialogues.”

Of burgeoning prominence as an art critic, curator and co-founder of the ARTS.BLACK online journal, Aldrige was speaking before a diverse gathering of some 30 attendees who filled the atrium of the 202 South Thayer Building last Monday evening. There, in this site of the U-M Institute for the Humanities, educator and contemporary dancer and choreographer Jennifer Harge joined her in helming the exchange. As did Jillian Walker, a U-M alumna like Harge, who’s taking time out from an award-winning career in New York writing plays to draft her latest script back here in her home region as a resident artist with the University Musical Society. Michael Awkward, the Gayl A. Jones Professor of Afro-American Literature and Culture at U-M, was also on hand as a key speaker.

Aldrige, Harge, Walker and Awkward were brought together by the university and UMS, the independent performing arts group housed among the downtown Ann Arbor hub of this sprawling, venerated center for higher learning. Their casual but decisive conversation kicked off “FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity” that’s slated to reconvene on February 19 and March 19.

“Amanda Krugliak, who is the curator at the U-M Institute for the Humanities, and I had noticed that many of our artistic projects were in dialogue with each other,” explained Jim Leija, the director of education and community engagement for UMS.

“For some time now, we’ve wanted to build that implied dialogue into something more explicit and intentional,” he elaborated. “The notion of an informal salon surfaced as a counterpoint to the many academic platforms that already exist in our most immediate university community in Ann Arbor. This year in particular, our institutions are both presenting shows that are dealing quite explicitly with questions of identity, and even more specifically with race.”

The all-black cast of creative professionals who launched the FRAME series speaking with assorted guests on Jan. 22 about the show from the current UMS season and exhibit they attended together embody what Leija began seeking out for these dialogues this

Photo: Urban Bush Women. Courtesy of artist.

past summer – diversity. And their commentary ranged from the discomfort that Taylor and Harge articulated about some of the expressly cultural lingo included in “Hair & Other Stories,” the interpretive performance brought to Ann Arbor by the Urban Bush Women on Jan. 12. To the sense of empowerment Walker, in contrast, shared that she gleaned from her account of the rare showcase of African American vitality presented by this Brooklyn-based company dedicated to melding artistic expression with community engagement to promote social justice.

“I took this as an opportunity to be seen with other black women,” Walker said of an evening of music, movement and declaration that literally brought her to her feet. Brought her to her feet among a multiracial crowd that packed the more than 1,200-seat theater in the U-M’s towering, mirror-encased Power Center for the Performing Arts.

The Ann Arbor performance kicked off a 14-city tour through April for the Urban Bush Women. And the company was true to its internationally recognized penchant for weaving contemporary dance, music and text – accentuated by strobe lights and haze at the Power Center – to defy boundaries in sharing the gamut of the African-American experience with people of all backgrounds. An ambition that wasn’t lost on any of the speakers at the ensuing first FRAME discussion. But one that certainly wasn’t universally received, either.

“I was really taken by the physicality of the performance, so much so that I could have done without the didactics,” admitted Aldridge. She, like Harge, took exception to the liberal mention of “naps” and “kitchens” – hair vernacular long rooted strictly among black folks – during the event.

“I felt like I was having a family discussion in mixed company,” Harge added. “I felt exposed.”

And Harge, a lecturer at both U-M and Oakland University, is no stranger to mining the African American experience – from protest movements to hip hop – to help strengthen community engagement and promote social change. Trained in modern dance, with a

Jennifer Harge teaching with Harge Dance Stories. Photo by Carlos Funn.

master’s degree from the University of Iowa as a Dean’s Graduate Fellow, and a bachelor’s from U-M, she has run a Detroit-based performance collective called Harge Dance Stories for the past four years.

Yet it was the ambivalence of Harge and others to what the Urban Bush Women conveyed onstage in this area most recently that had Awkward zero in on the disparity that can result from exposing some of the darkest secrets of black hair. Beyond the black community.

“Part of the performance was like letting out a nappy secret about the preparation that needs to go into black hair in order to be seen as what’s considered presentable,” he surmised at last week’s FRAME discussion. “Then they turned the lights up in the audience [at one point], so we were as visible as they were on stage.”

An apparent moment of vulnerability that never surfaced the next afternoon, in Detroit, at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. That’s where Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who founded the Urban Bush Women in 1984, took some of her dancers from the Ann Arbor performance to host a community workshop delving into the historical connection between hair, social consciousness and dance among African Americans. The rest of her troupe that had traveled here to Metro Detroit with her from their Brooklyn creative base conducted the workshop at the Ann Arbor YMCA that same day.

With the gallery space at the Wright Museum where this event took place cleared of any seating, the dozens of people who showed up, many with children in tow, found themselves on foot the entire time. And doing their best to keep up as Zollar and company led them in doing the Stroll, the Twist, the Jerk and other vintage moves.

She didn’t avoid any of the hair terminology that her dancers had bandied onstage in Ann Arbor, either. Yet contrary to any of the varied audience reaction from the previous day, the spirited, diminutive 67-year-old managed to provoke quite a few wistful smiles among her exclusively African American audience.

When all was said and done, the occasion turned out to be quite family-centric, made all the more so with Aminata, the not quite 2-year-old daughter of Urban Bush Women dancer and associate artistic director, Samantha Speis. Having performed with Speis and her colleagues in Ann Arbor, Aminata was with them at The Wright as well to participate with the Urban Bush Women.

Photo: Urban Bush Women. Courtesy of artist.

Alongside local mother and wife Sherita Gosha-Williams during this occasion were her daughters, 13-year-old Jaylah and 9-year-old Siana.

“It was important to me to bring my daughters, very important,” Gosha-Williams, whose husband and 4-year-old son were back home in Lenox Township, said while flanked at The Wright by her other two children. “Being that our culture is not often promoted positively in the media, I wanted them to know the foundation and beauty of our hair.”

Her mission speaks volumes about the possibilities of a better future for children of color. Far better, hopefully, than the one that was snatched from the black men, and one woman at the hands of their own people during the Tivoli Incursion.  Tucked away in a small gallery at the front of the Institute for the Humanities atrium where last week’s FRAME session transpired, the mixed-media vision of Kingston-born artist, Ebony G. Patterson, brings this still-haunting massacre into glaring view until Feb. 9.

Known as “The Of 72 Project,” Patterson employed fabric, digital pictures, embroidery, rhinestones, trimmings, bandanas and floral appliques once again to offer commentary on the United States’ bid to extradite a Jamaican drug lord named Christopher “Dudus” Coke. It was a demand that plunged Kingston under a state of emergency in May 2010 as Jamaica’s military and police forces battled Coke’s Shower Posse cartel, leaving dozens of individuals dead whose identities remain a mystery to this day.

And, according to Awkward, author of six books probing race and gender representations in 20th and 21st century black American expressive culture, a calamity that parallels what it can mean to be black and meet a violent, untimely end in the U.S. Namely, in the frustration over crucial truths concerning the lives and deaths of these people that remain elusive, elaborated Awkward, who’s now writing a book on Emmett Till and other black American boys famously murdered or psychologically mangled since him.

“It’s the same story, the fear of the other, and the desire to obtain power over the other,” asserted George Shirley, 83-year-old emeritus professor of the U-M School of Music who attended last week’s  FRAME discussion.

More like a narrative in overcoming that fear to break down barriers among people that’s given more lip service than anything else, to hear 19-year-old Lanae Jefferson tell it. Even at a long-regarded progressive institution like U-M, where she’s a sophomore.

“I don’t like how the university likes to say we’re so diverse, and I don’t see the diversity,” Jefferson, also there at the FRAME dialogue, charged. “Personally, I don’t feel comfortable on this campus. It’s very large and has many cliques”

Which raises the question of how to get more students “who really need to be there out to the many UMS performances about diversity and inclusion [on campus],” according to the Southfield native who’s interested in art history.

Her sentiment magnifies the challenge facing UMS and the U-M Institute for the Humanities, with two open FRAME discussions that Aldridge and Harge will host remaining, in moving forward in their mission. That is, Leija reiterated, “to bring a diverse group of people together to explore how visual art and performance can be used as a tool for disrupting the status quo and building a different culture and reality for all of us.”

And while talk alone isn’t tantamount to bringing about actual change, Aldridge pointed out, “Having cross-cultural dialogues about marginalization and our respective differences and attributes is necessary to upending the status quo of patriarchal white supremacy and white-centered gazes in art-making. It has the potential to foster change, and to consider how we perpetuate these gazes.”

This essay is published in conjunction with FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity surrounding the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances. The U-M Institute for the Humanities and UMS will offer  two more open dialogues around contemporary visual art, performance, and identity on Monday, February 19 and Monday, March 19 at 7 PM in the Atrium at 202 South Thayer Building in Ann Arbor.

 “Disrupting the FRAME” is written by Angela G. King. King is a writer, filmmaker, and actress. Her most recent endeavors include “The Girl Who Wasn’t There,” a memoir of human trafficking that she’s helping one young West African woman to share.

Challenging Times Require Challenging Art


Matthew VanBesien in Nickels Arcade, with the 2017-18 UMS No Safety Net brochure. Photo by Jesse Meria.


When I was announced as the new president of the University Musical Society (UMS) at the University of Michigan a year ago after five years as president of the New York Philharmonic, some people thought I was crazy.  Why on earth, they asked, would a former professional musician and successful orchestral executive who led three different major orchestras on two continents want to move to a relatively small university town in the Midwest?

Certainly the chance to come to one of America’s most charming and livable cities, to collaborate with one of the best research universities anywhere, and to work with an intellectual and culturally adventurous populace were all important factors.

But another answer for me was something quite potent and simple, and that I know will continue to define our work at UMS moving forward. Coming to UMS offered artistic diversity as a performing arts presenter (not just music, but also dance and theater — and maybe much more), but also the latitude to think more broadly about the arts as a vehicle for both cultural and social change. We are now at the end of a three-week theater festival titled “No Safety Net,” using theater and creativity as catalysts for exploring viewpoints that we, as individuals and as a community, long to understand better.

No Safety Net Brochure Cover

Program cover for “No Safety Net”

This is no easy time for university campuses across the nation, including ours, where the community is grappling with how to respond to a speaking request from a white supremacist who slyly foments protests with hateful words and singular ideas; where students have encountered racist flyers and ethnic slurs in prominent locations on campus; and where issues of identity, gender equality, and sexual harassment are ever-present.

And, of course, these issues transcend the public university environment and are symptomatic of larger cultural divisions, threatening to engulf our entire society with mistrust, anger, and fear.

But as artistic leaders, we have the privilege—and the imperative—to help change that.

A few weeks before his death, President John F. Kennedy spoke at Amherst College, at an event honoring the late poet Robert Frost. He spoke of art serving as a touchstone of our judgment as humans, noting that “We must never forget art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth…If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes [them] aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential.”

As a performing arts institution, and as a major public university, we endeavor to help people understand the breadth of the human experience and to reach our highest potential. This comes about by creating an environment for courageous conversations across areas of commonality — and difference.

In an increasingly polarized world, it’s tempting to take complicated issues and turn them into reductive problems that lack both substance and nuance. But as the American actress and playwright Lisa Kron has said, “If there’s only one point of view, there’s no drama. Drama only occurs when people come up against situations outside of themselves and are changed by them.”

As someone leading an arts institution, I can no longer ignore the imperatives for social consciousness, for empathy, and for moving beyond superficial representation and into meaningful and substantive dialogue. One of the most powerful pathways for doing so is to engage with culture and creativity, embracing free speech and an unfettered exchange of ideas.

These imperatives are manifesting themselves with increasing frequency — Robin Bell creating protest art against President Trump’s immigration policies, and Oskar Eustis’ production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Public Theater causing a stir last summer with Caesar styled as a present-day Donald Trump.

The cast of Hamilton addresses Vice President Pence. Photo courtesy of Twitter.

And last year, shortly after the election, Vice Present-elect Mike Pence attended a production of Hamilton and was admonished by the cast to work on behalf of all of “the diverse America who are alarmed that your administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.”

Shortly afterwards, President Trump demanded an apology, tweeting, “The theater must be a safe and special place.” Special? Absolutely. Safe? Maybe. Maybe not.

At UMS, we took an alternate approach, purposely calling our concentrated theater festival “No Safety Net” to signal that we are intentionally placing major societal issues on the table: slavery and race in America, terrorism and acts of violence, non-binary gender identity, and recovery from addiction and depression.

We programmed this festival for those eager to engage with some of the thorny issues of our time. But it’s also intended for those who are hesitant, or even anxious, about doing so, providing an honest but nurturing environment for civil discourse. What happens off the stage during No Safety Net is as important as what happens on it, with many opportunities to spark and facilitate debate around the relevant, interesting, and sometimes troubling issues contained therein. While sometimes controversial, the four theatrical works on stage provide a concentrated period for both reflection and action, bringing people together to think about how we move forward as institutions, as a country, and as a global society.

No Safety Net asks us to embrace complexity and ambiguity—the artists we are hosting provoke thinking that can unsettle, challenge, entertain, but also hurt. At the same time, tackling these issues through their artistic lens has the real possibility to expand our own thinking as audiences, granting us both the intellectual and emotional space to consider others’ points of view.

When we step back and remember that one person’s provocation may be another person’s reality, we are also reminded that it behooves all of us to move out of the echo chamber and expose ourselves to environments where people may disagree with us.

Our communities will once again thrive upon returning to the basic tenets of our democracy — respect, decency, and a commitment to both seeking, and acknowledging, truth. The University of Michigan and the University Musical Society believe the arts are uniquely positioned, now more than ever, to help us with this journey.


Matthew VanBesien has been president of the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan, a 2014 National Medal of Arts recipient now in its 139th season, since July 2017. He has previously served as president of the Houston and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras and the New York Philharmonic.

Meet two artists performing in No Safety Net festival

Artists Becca Blackwell and Jennifer Kidwell chat with each other about their work and why they are excited to be part of No Safety Net.

Learn more about the No Safety Net theater festival, taking place in Ann Arbor January 16 – February 3.

Teaching the N-Word

This essay is published in conjunction with the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances of Underground Railroad Game. UMS Presents Underground Railroad Game on January 17-21, 2018 at the Arthur Miller Theatre in Ann Arbor. 

“Teaching the N-Word” is written by Emily Bernard. Dr. Bernard is a professor of English and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Vermont. She is working on a collection of essays called Black Is the Body.

underground railroad game

Photo: Underground Railroad Game. Courtesy of artist.

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

—Countee Cullen, “Incident” (1925)

October 2004

Eric is crazy about queer theory. I think it is safe to say that Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, and Lee Edelman have changed his life. Every week, he comes to my office to report on the connections he is making between the works of these writers and the books he is reading for the class he is taking with me, African-American autobiography.

I like Eric. So tonight, even though it is well after six and I am eager to go home, I keep our conversation going. I ask him what he thinks about the word “queer,” whether or not he believes, independent of the theorists he admires, that epithets can ever really be reclaimed and reinvented.

“‘Queer’ has important connotations for me,” he says. “It’s daring, political. I embrace it.” He folds his arms across his chest, and then unfolds them.

I am suspicious.

“What about ‘nigger’?” I ask. “If we’re talking about the importance of transforming hateful language, what about that word?” From my bookshelf I pull down Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, and turn it so its cover faces Eric. “Nigger,” in stark white type against a black background, is staring at him, staring at anyone who happens to be walking past the open door behind him.

Over the next 30 minutes or so, Eric and I talk about “nigger.” He is uncomfortable; every time he says “nigger,” he drops his voice and does not meet my eyes. I know that he does not want to say the word; he is following my lead. He does not want to say it because he is white; he does not want to say it because I am black. I feel my power as his professor, the mentor he has so ardently adopted. I feel the power of Randall Kennedy’s book in my hands, its title crude and unambiguous. Say it, we both instruct this white student. And he does.

It is late. No one moves through the hallway. I think about my colleagues, some of whom still sit at their own desks. At any minute, they might pass my office on their way out of the building. What would they make of this scene? Most of my colleagues are white. What would I think if I walked by an office and saw one of them holding up Nigger to a white student’s face? A black student’s face?

“I think I am going to add ‘Who Can Say Nigger?’ to our reading for next week,” I say to Eric. “It’s an article by Kennedy that covers some of the ideas in this book.” I tap Nigger with my finger, and then put it down on my desk.

“I really wish there was a black student in our class,” Eric says as he gathers his books to leave.

underground railroad game

Photo: Underground Railroad Game. Courtesy of the artist.

As usual I have assigned way too much reading. Even though we begin class discussion with references to three essays required for today, our conversation drifts quickly to “Who Can Say Nigger?” and plants itself there. We talk about the word, who can say it, who won’t say it, who wants to say it, and why. There are 11 students in the class. All of them are white.

Our discussion is lively and intense; everyone seems impatient to speak. We talk about language, history, and identity. Most students say “the n-word” instead of “nigger.” Only one or two students actually use the word in their comments. When they do, they use the phrase “the word ‘nigger,’” as if to cushion it. Sometimes they make quotations marks with their fingers. I notice Lauren looking around. Finally, she raises her hand.

“I have a question; it’s somewhat personal. I don’t want to put you on the spot.”

“Go ahead, Lauren,” I say with relief.

“Okay, so how does it feel for you to hear us say that word?”

I have an answer ready.

“I don’t enjoy hearing it. But I don’t think that I feel more offended by it than you do. What I mean is, I don’t think I have a special place of pain inside of me that the word touches because I am black.” We are both human beings, I am trying to say. She nods her head, seemingly satisfied. Even inspired, I hope.

I am lying, of course.

I am grateful to Lauren for acknowledging my humanity in our discussion. But I do not want me—my feelings, my experiences, my humanity—to become the center of classroom discussion. Here at the University of Vermont, I routinely teach classrooms full of white students. I want to educate them, transform them. I want to teach them things about race they will never forget. To achieve this, I believe I must give of myself. I want to give to them—but I want to keep much of myself to myself. How much? I have a new answer to this question every week.

I always give my students a lecture at the beginning of every African-American studies course I teach. I tell them, in essence, not to confuse my body with the body of the text. I tell them that while it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that my own racial identity has nothing to do with my love for African-American literature, my race is only one of the many reasons why I stand before them. “I stand here,” I say, “because I have a Ph.D., just like all your other professors.” I make sure always to tell them that my Ph.D., like my B.A., comes from Yale.

“In order to get this Ph.D.,” I continue, “I studied with some of this country’s foremost authorities on African-American literature, and a significant number of these people are white.

“I say this to suggest that if you fail to fully appreciate this material, it is a matter of your intellectual laziness, not your race. If you cannot grasp the significance of Frederick Douglass’s plight, for instance, you are not trying hard enough, and I will not accept that.”

I have another part of this lecture. It goes: “Conversely, this material is not the exclusive property of students of color. This is literature. While these books will speak to us emotionally according to our different experiences, none of us is especially equipped to appreciate the intellectual and aesthetic complexities that characterize African-American literature. This is American literature, American experience, after all.”

Sometimes I give this part of my lecture, but not always. Sometimes I give it and then regret it later.

underground railroad game

Photo: Underground Railroad Game. Courtesy of the artist.

As soon as Lauren asks me how I feel, it is as if the walls of the room soften and collapse slightly, nudging us a little bit closer together. Suddenly, 11 pairs of eyes are beaming sweet messages at me. I want to laugh. I do. “Look at you all, leaning in,” I say. “How close we have all become.”

I sit at the end of a long narrow table. Lauren usually sits at the other end. The rest of the students flank us on either side. When I make my joke, a few students, all straight men, I notice, abruptly pull themselves back. They shift their eyes away from me, look instead at their notebooks, the table. I have made them ashamed to show that they care about me, I realize. They are following the cues I have been giving them since the beginning of the semester, cues that they should take this class seriously, that I will be offended if they do not. “African-American studies has had to struggle to exist at all,” I have said. “You owe it your respect.” Don’t be too familiar, is what I am really saying. Don’t be too familiar with me.

Immediately, I regret having made a joke of their sincere attempt to offer me their care. They want to know me; they see this moment as an opportunity. But I can’t stop. I make more jokes, mostly about them, and what they are saying and not saying. I can’t seem to help myself.

Eric, who is sitting near me, does not recoil at my jokes; he does not respond to my not-so-subtle efforts to push him and everyone else back. He continues to lean in, his torso flat against the edge of the table. He looks at me. He raises his hand.

“Emily,” he says, “would you tell them what you told me the other day in your office? You were talking about how you dress and what it means to you.” “Yes,” I begin slowly. “I was telling Eric about how important it is to me that I come to class dressed up.”

“And remember what you said about Todd? You said that Todd exercises his white privilege by dressing so casually for class.”

Todd is one of my closest friends in the English department. His office is next door to mine. I don’t remember talking about Todd’s clothing habits with Eric, but I must have. I struggle to come up with a comfortably vague response to stop Eric’s prodding. My face grows hot. Everyone is waiting.

“Well, I don’t know if I put it exactly like that, but I do believe that Todd’s style of dress reflects his ability to move in the world here—everywhere, really—less self-consciously than I do.” As I sit here, I grow increasingly more alarmed at what I am revealing: my personal philosophies; my attitudes about my friend’s style of dress; my insecurities; my feelings. I quietly will Eric to stop, even as I am impressed by his determination. I meet his eyes again.

“And you. You were saying that the way you dress, it means something, too,” Eric says. On with this tug of war, I think.

I relent, let go of the rope. “Listen, I will say this. I am aware that you guys, all of my students at UVM, have very few black professors. I am aware, in fact, that I may be the first black teacher many of you have ever had. And the way I dress for class reflects my awareness of that possibility.” I look sharply at Eric. That’s it. No more.

Photo: Underground Railroad Game. Courtesy of the artist.

September 2004

On the first day of class, Nate asks me what I want to be called.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, fussing with equipment in the room. I know. But I feel embarrassed, as if I have been found out. “What do you think?” I ask them.

They shuffle around, equally embarrassed. We all know that I have to decide, and that whatever I decide will shape our classroom dynamic in very important ways.

“What does Gennari ask you to call him?” I have inherited several of these students from my husband, John Gennari, another professor of African- American studies. He is white.

“Oh, we call him John,” Nate says with confidence. I am immediately envious of the easy warmth he seems to feel for John. I suspect it has to do with the name thing.

“Well, just call me Emily, then. This is an honors class, after all. And I do know several of you already. And then wouldn’t it be strange to call the husband John and the wife Professor?” Okay, I have convinced myself.

Nate says, “Well, John and I play basketball in a pickup game on Wednesdays. So, you know, it would be weird for me to be checking him and calling him ‘Professor Gennari.’”

We all laugh, and move on to other topics. But my mind locks onto an image of my husband and Nate on the basketball court, two white men, covered in sweat, body to body, heads down, focused on the ball.

October 2004

“It’s not that I can’t say it, it’s that I don’t want to. I will not say it,” Sarah says. She wears her copper red hair in a short, smart style that makes her look older than her years. When she smiles I remember how young she is. She is not smiling now. She looks indignant. She is indignant because I am insinuating that there is a problem with the fact that no one in the class will say “nigger.” Her indignation pleases me.


“I’d just like to remind you all that just because a person refuses to say ‘nigger,’ that doesn’t mean that person is not a racist,” I say. They seem to consider this.

“And another thing,” Sarah continues. “About dressing for class? I dislike it when my professors come to class in shorts, for instance. This is a profession. They should dress professionally.”

Later, I tell my husband, John, about our class discussion. When I get to Sarah’s comment about professors in shorts, he says, “Good for her.”

I hold up Nigger and show its cover to the class. I hand it to the person on my left, gesture for him to pass the book around the room.

“Isn’t it strange that when we refer to this book, we keep calling it ‘the n-word’?”

Lauren comments on the affect of one student who actually said it. “Colin looked like he was being strangled.” Of the effect on the other students, she says, “I saw us all collectively cringing.”

“Would you be able to say it if I weren’t here?” I blurt.

A few students shake their heads. Tyler’s hand shoots up. He always sits directly to my right.

“That’s just bullshit,” he says to the class, and I force myself not to raise an eyebrow at bullshit. “If Emily weren’t here, you all would be able to say that word.”

I note that he, himself, has not said it, but do not make this observation out loud.

“No.” Sarah is firm. “I just don’t want to be the kind of person who says that word, period.”

“Even in this context?” I ask.

“Regardless of context,” Sarah says.

“Even when it’s the title of a book?”

I tell the students that I often work with a book called Nigger Heaven, written in 1926 by a white man, Carl Van Vechten.

“Look, I don’t want to give you the impression that I am somehow longing for you guys to say ‘nigger,’” I tell them, “but I do think that something is lost when you don’t articulate it, especially if the context almost demands its articulation.”

“What do you mean? What exactly is lost?” Sarah insists.

“I don’t know,” I say. I do know. But right here, in this moment, the last thing I want is to win an argument that winds up with Sarah saying “nigger” out loud.

Throughout our discussion, Nate is the only student who will say “nigger” out loud. He sports a shearling coat and a Caesar haircut. He quotes Jay-Z. He makes a case for “nigga.” He is that kind of white kid; he is down. “He is so down, he’s almost up,” Todd will say in December, when I show him the title page of Nate’s final paper for this class. The page contains one word, “Nigger,” in black type against a white background. It is an autobiographical essay. It is a very good paper.

October 1994

Nate reminds me of a student in the very first class I taught all on my own, a senior seminar called “Race and Representation.” I was still in graduate school. It was 1994 and Pulp Fiction had just come out. I spent an entire threehour class session arguing with my students over the way race was represented in the movie. One student, in particular, passionately resisted my attempts to analyze the way Tarantino used “nigger” in the movie.

“What is his investment in this word? What is he, as the white director, getting out of saying ‘nigger’ over and over again?” I asked.

After some protracted verbal arm wrestling, the student gave in.

“Okay, okay! I want to be the white guy who can say ‘nigger’ to black guys and get away with it. I want to be the cool white guy who can say ‘nigger.’”

“Thank you! Thank you for admitting it!” I said, and everyone laughed.

He was tall. He wore tie-dye T-shirts and had messy, curly brown hair. I don’t remember his name.

underground railroad game

Photo: Underground Railroad Game. Courtesy of the artist.

After Pulp Fiction came out, I wrote my older brother an earnest, academic e-mail. I wanted to “initiate a dialogue” with him about the “cultural and political implications of the various usages of ‘nigger’ in popular culture.”

His one-sentence reply went something like this: “Nigga, niggoo, niggu, negreaux, negrette, niggrum.”

“Do you guys ever read The Source magazine?” In 1994, my students knew about The Source; some of them had read James Bernard’s column, “Doin’ the Knowledge.”

“He’s my brother,” I said, not bothering to mask my pride with anything like cool indifference. “He’s coming to visit class in a couple of weeks, when we discuss hip-hop culture.”

The eyes of the tie-dyed student glistened.

“Quentin Tarantino is a cool-ass white boy!” James said on the day he came to visit my class. “He is one cool white boy.”

My students clapped and laughed.

“That’s what I said,” my tie-dyed student sighed.

James looked at me slyly. I narrowed my eyes at him. Thanks a lot.

September 2004

On the way to school in the morning, I park my car in the Allen House lot. Todd was the one who told me about the lot. He said, “Everyone thinks the lot at the library is closer, but the lot behind Allen House is so much better. Plus, there are always spaces, in part because everyone rushes for the library.”

It is true that the library lot is nearly always full in the morning. It’s also true that the Allen House lot is relatively empty, and much closer to my office. But if it were even just slightly possible for me to find a space in the library lot, I would probably try to park there, for one reason. To get to my office from Allen House, I have to cross a busy street. To get to my office from the library, I do not.

Several months ago, I was crossing the same busy street to get to my office after a class. It was late April, near the end of the semester, and it seemed as if everyone was outside. Parents were visiting, and students were yelling to each other, introducing family members from across the street. People smiled at me—wide, grinning smiles. I smiled back. We were all giddy with the promise of spring, which always comes so late in Vermont, if it comes at all.

Traffic was heavy, I noticed as I walked along the sidewalk, calculating the moment when I would attempt to cross. A car was stopped near me; I heard rough voices. Out of the corner of my eye, I looked into the car: all white. I looked away, but I could feel them surveying the small crowd that was carrying me along. As traffic picked up again, one of the male voices yelled out, “Queers! Fags!” There was laughter. Then the car roared off.

I was stunned. I stopped walking and let the words wash over me. Queer. Fag. Annihilating, surely. I remembered my role as a teacher, a mentor, in loco parentis, even though there were real parents everywhere. I looked around to check for the wounds caused by those hateful words. I peered down the street: too late for a license plate. All around me, students and parents marched to their destinations, as if they hadn’t heard. Didn’t you hear that? I wanted to shout.

All the while I was thinking, Not nigger. Not yet.

October 2004

Nate jumps in.

“Don’t you grant a word power by not saying it? Aren’t we, in some way, amplifying its ugliness by avoiding it?” He asks.

“I am afraid of how I will be affected by saying it,” Lauren says. “I just don’t want that word in my mouth.”

Tyler remembers a phrase attributed to Farai Chideya in Randall Kennedy’s essay. He finds it and reads it to us. “She says that the n-word is the ‘trump card, the nuclear bomb of racial epithets.’”

“Do you agree with that?” I ask.

Eleven heads nod vigorously.

“Nuclear bombs annihilate. What do you imagine will be destroyed if you guys use the word in here?”

Shyly, they look at me, all of them, and I understand. Me. It is my annihilation they imagine.

November 2004

Some of My Best Friends, my anthology of essays about interracial friendship, came out in August, and the publicity department has arranged for various interviews and other promotional events. When I did an on-air interview with a New York radio show, one of the hosts, Janice, a black woman, told me that the reason she could not marry a white man was because she believed if things ever got heated between them, the white man would call her a nigger. I nodded my head. I had heard this argument before. But strangely I had all but forgotten it. The fact that I had forgotten to fear “nigger” coming from the mouth of my white husband was more interesting to me than her fear, alive and ever-present.

“Are you bi-racial?”


“Are you married to a white man?”


These were among the first words exchanged between Janice, the radio host, and me. I could tell—by the way she looked at me, and didn’t look at me; by the way she kept her body turned away from me; by her tone—that she had made up her mind about me before I entered the room. I could tell that she didn’t like what she had decided about me, and that she had decided I was the wrong kind of black person. Maybe it was what I had written in Some of My Best Friends. Maybe it was the fact that I had decided to edit a collection about interracial friendships at all. When we met, she said, “I don’t trust white people,” as decisively and exactly as if she were handing me her business card. I knew she was telling me that I was foolish to trust them, to marry one. I was relieved to look inside myself and see that I was okay, I was still standing. A few years ago, her silent judgment—this silent judgment from any black person—would have crushed me.

When she said she could “tell” I was married to a white man, I asked her how. She said, “Because you are so friendly,” and did a little dance with her shoulders. I laughed.

But Janice couldn’t help it; she liked me in spite of herself. As the interview progressed, she let the corners of her mouth turn up in a smile. She admitted that she had a few white friends, even if they sometimes drove her crazy. At a commercial break, she said, “Maybe I ought to try a white man.” She was teasing me, of course. She hadn’t changed her mind about white people, or dating a white man, but she had changed her mind about me. It mattered to me. I took what she was offering. But when the interview was over, I left it behind.

My husband thought my story about the interview was hilarious. When I got home, he listened to the tape they gave me at the station. He said he wanted to use the interview in one of his classes.

A few days later, I told him what Janice said about dating a white man, that she won’t because she is afraid he will call her a nigger. As I told him, I felt an unfamiliar shyness creep up on me.

“That’s just so far out of . . . it’s not in my head at all.” He was having difficulty coming up with the words he wanted, I could tell. But that was okay. I knew what he meant. I looked at him sitting in his chair, the chair his mother gave us. I can usually find him in that chair when I come home. He is John, I told myself. And he is white. No more or less John and no more or less white than he was before the interview, and Janice’s reminder of the fear that I had forgotten to feel.

underground railroad game

Photo: Underground Railroad Game. Courtesy of the artist.

I tell my students in the African-American autobiography class about Janice. I say, “You would not believe the indignities I have suffered in my humble attempts to ‘move this product,’ as they say in publishing.” I say, “I have been surrounded by morons, and now I gratefully return to the land of the intellectually agile.” They laugh.

I flatter them, in part because I feel guilty that I have missed so many classes in order to do publicity for my book. But I cringe, thinking of how I have called Janice, another black woman, a “moron” in front of these white students. I do not tell my students she is black.

“Here is a story for your students,” John tells me. We are in the car, on our way to Cambridge for the weekend. “The only time I ever heard ‘nigger’ in my home growing up was when my father’s cousin was over for a visit. It was 1988, I remember. Jesse Jackson was running for president. My father’s cousin was sitting in the kitchen, talking to my parents about the election. ‘I’m going to vote for the nigger,’ my father’s cousin said. ‘He’s the only one who cares about the workingman.’”

John laughs. He often laughs when he hears something extraordinary, whether it’s good or bad.

“That’s fascinating,” I say.

The next time class meets, I tell my students this story.

“So what do we care about in this sentence?” I say. “The fact that John’s father’s cousin used a racial epithet, or the fact that his voting for Jackson conveys a kind of ultimate respect for him? Isn’t his voting for Jackson more important for black progress than how his father’s cousin feels?

I don’t remember what the students said. What I remember is that I tried to project for them a sense that I was untroubled by saying “nigger,” by my husband’s saying “nigger,” by his father’s cousin’s having said “nigger,” by his parents’—my in-laws—tolerance of “nigger” in their home, years ago, long before I came along. What I remember is that I leaned on the word “feels” with a near-sneer in my voice. It’s an intellectual issue, I beamed at them, and then I directed it back at myself. It has nothing to do with how it makes me feel.

After my interview with Janice, I look at the white people around me differently, as if from a distance. I do this, from time to time, almost as an exercise. I even do it to my friends, particularly my friends. Which of them has “nigger” in the back of her throat?

I go out for drinks with David, my senior colleague. It is a ritual. We go on Thursdays after class, always to the same place. I know that he will order, in succession, two draft beers, and that he will ask the waitress to help him choose the second. “What do you have on draft that is interesting tonight?” he will say. I order red wine, and I, too, always ask the waitress’s advice. Then, we order a selection of cheeses, again soliciting assistance. We have our favorite waitresses. We like the ones who indulge us.

Tonight, David orders a cosmopolitan.

We never say it, but I suspect we both like the waitresses who appreciate the odd figure we cut. He is white, 60-something, male. I am black, 30-something, female. Not such an odd pairing elsewhere, perhaps, but uncommon in Burlington, insofar as black people are uncommon in Burlington.

Something you can’t see is that we are both from the South. Different Souths, perhaps, 30 years apart, black and white. I am often surprised by how much I like his company. All the way up here, I sometimes think when I am with him, and I am sitting with the South, the white South that, all of my childhood, I longed to escape. I once had a white boyfriend from New Orleans. “A white Southerner, Emily?” My mother asked, and sighed with worry. I understood. We broke up.

David and I catch up. We talk about the writing we have been doing. We talk each other out of bad feelings we are harboring against this and that person. (Like most Southerners, like the South in general, David and I have long memories.) We talk about classes. I describe to him the conversation I have been having with my students about “nigger.” He laughs at my anecdotes.

I am on my second glass of wine. I try to remember to keep my voice down. It’s a very nice restaurant. People in Burlington do not want to hear “nigger” while they are eating a nice dinner, I say, chastising myself. I am tipsy.

As we leave, I accidentally knock my leg against a chair. You are drunk, I tell myself. You are drunk and black in a restaurant in Burlington. What were you thinking? I feel eyes on me as I walk out of the restaurant, eyes that may have been focused elsewhere, as far as I know, because I do not allow myself to look.

Later that evening, I am alone. I remember that David recently gave me a poem of his to read, a poem about his racist grandmother, now dead, whom he remembers using the word “nigger” often and with relish. I lie in bed and reconstruct the scene of David and me in the restaurant, our conversation about “nigger.” Was his grandmother at the table with us all along?

The next day, I see David in his office, which is next to mine, on the other side from Todd. I knock on the door. He invites me in. I sit in a chair, the chair I always sit in when I come to talk to him. He tells me how much he enjoyed our conversation the night before.

“Me, too,” I say. “But today it’s as if I’m looking at you across from something,” I say. “It has to do with race.” I blame a book I am reading, a book for my African-American autobiography class, Toi Derricote’s The Black Notebooks. “Have you read it?” David is a poet, like Derricote.

“No, but I know Toi and enjoy her poetry. Everything I know about her and her work would lead me to believe that I would enjoy that book.” He is leaning back in his chair, his arms folded behind his head.

“Well, it’s making me think about things, remember the ways that you and I will always be different,” I say abruptly.

David laughs. “I hope not.” He looks puzzled.

“It’s probably just temporary.” I don’t ask him my question about his grandmother, whether or not she is always somewhere with him, in him, in the back of his throat.

John is at an African-American studies conference in New York. Usually, I am thrilled to have the house to myself for a few days. But this time, I mope. I sit at the dining-room table, write this essay, watch out of the window.

Today, when John calls, he describes the activity at the conference. He tells me delicious and predictable gossip about people we know, and the divas that we know of. The personalities, the in-fighting—greedily, we sift over details on the phone.

“Did you enjoy your evening with David last night?” he asks.

“I did, very much,” I say. “But give me more of the who-said-what.” I know he’s in a hurry. In fact, he’s talking on a cell phone (my cell phone; he refuses to get one of his own) as he walks down a New York street.

“Oh, you know these Negroes.” His voice jounces as he walks.

“Yeah,” I say, laughing. I wonder who else can hear him.

Todd is married to Hilary, another of my close friends in the department. She is white. Like John, Todd is out of town this weekend. Since their two boys were born, our godsons, John and I see them less frequently than we used to. But Hilary and I are determined to spend some time together on this weekend with our husbands away.

Burlington traffic keeps me away from her and the boys for an hour, even though she lives only blocks away from me. When I get there, the boys are ready for their baths, one more feeding, and then bed. Finally, they are down, and we settle into grown-up conversation. I tell her about my class, our discussions about “nigger,” and my worries about David.

“That’s the thing about the South,” Hilary says. I agree, but then start to wonder about her grandmother. I decide I do not want to know, not tonight.

I do tell her, however, about the fear I have every day in Burlington, crossing that street to get back and forth from my office, what I do to guard myself against the fear.

“Did you grow up hearing that?” She asks. Even though we are close, and alone, she does not say the word.

I start to tell her a story I have never told anyone. It is a story about the only time I remember being called a nigger to my face.

“I was a teenager, maybe 16. I was standing on a sidewalk, trying to cross a busy street after school, to get to the mall and meet my friends. I happened to make eye contact with a white man in a car that was sort of stopped—traffic was heavy. Anyway, he just said it, kind of spit it up at me.”

“Oh, that’s why,” I say, stunned, remembering the daily ritual I have just confessed to her. She looks at me, just as surprised.

Photo: Underground Railroad Game. Courtesy of the artist.

December 2004

I am walking down a Burlington street with my friend, Anh. My former quilting teacher, Anh is several years younger than I am. She has lived in Vermont her whole life. She is Vietnamese; her parents are white. Early in our friendship, she told me her father was a logger, as were most of the men in her family. Generations of Vietnamese loggers in Vermont, I mused. It wasn’t until I started to describe her to someone else that I realized she must be adopted.

Anh and I talk about race, about being minorities in Burlington, but we usually do it indirectly. In quilting class, we would give each other looks sometimes that said, You are not alone, or Oh, brother, when the subject of race came up in our class, which was made up entirely of white women, aside from the two of us.

There was the time, for instance, when a student explained why black men found her so attractive. “I have a black girl’s butt,” she said. Anh and I looked at each other: Oh, brother. We bent our heads back over our sewing machines.

As we walk, I tell Anh about my African-American autobiography class, the discussions my students and I have been having about “nigger.” She listens, and then describes to me the latest development in her on-again, offagain relationship with her 50-year-old boyfriend, another native Vermonter, a blond scuba instructor.

“He says everything has changed,” she tells me. “He’s going clean up the messes in his life.” She laughs.

Once, Anh introduced me to the boyfriend she had before the scuba instructor when I ran into them at a restaurant. He is also white.

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” I said, and put out my hand.

“I’ve never slept with a black woman,” he said, and shook my hand. There was wonder in his voice. I excused myself and went back to my table. Later, when I looked over at them, they were sitting side by side, not speaking.

Even though Anh and I exchanged our usual glances that night, I doubted that we would be able to recover our growing friendship. Who could she be, dating someone like that? The next time I heard from her, months later, she had broken up with him.

I am rooting for the scuba instructor.

“He told me he’s a new person,” she says.

“Well, what did you say?” I ask her.

“In the immortal words of Jay-Z, I told him, ‘Nigga, please.’”

I look at her, and we laugh.

In lieu of a final class, my students come over for dinner. One by one, they file in. John takes coats while I pretend to look for things in the refrigerator. I can’t stop smiling.

“The books of your life” is the topic for tonight. I have asked them to bring a book, a poem, a passage, some art that has affected them. Hazel has brought a children’s book. Tyler talks about Saved by the Bell. Nate talks about Freud.

Dave has a photograph. Eric reads “The Seacoast of Despair” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

I read from Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid. Later I will wonder why I did not read “Incident” by Countee Cullen, the poem that has been circulating in my head ever since we began our discussion about “nigger.” What held me back from bringing “Incident” to class? The question will stay with me for months.

The night of our dinner is an emotional one. I tell my students that they are the kind of class a professor dreams about. They give me a gift certificate to the restaurant that David and I frequent. I give them copies of Some of My Best Friends and inscribe each one. Eric demands a hug, and then they all do; I happily comply. We talk about meeting again as a class, maybe once or twice in the spring. The two students who will be abroad promise to keep in touch through our Listserv, which we all agree to keep going until the end of the school year, at least. After they leave, the house is quiet and empty.

Weeks later, I post “Incident” on our Listserv and ask them to respond with their reactions. Days go by, then weeks. Silence. After more prodding, finally Lauren posts an analysis of the poem, and then her personal reactions to it. I thank her online, and ask for more responses. Silence.

I get e-mails and visits from these students about other matters, some of them race-related. Eric still comes by my office regularly. Once he brings his mother to meet me, a kind and engaging woman who gives me a redolent candle she purchased in France, and tells me her son enjoyed  “African-American Autobiography.” Eric and I smile at each other.

A few days later, I see Eric outside the campus bookstore.

“What did you think about ‘Incident’?”

“I’ve been meaning to write you about it. I promise I will.”

In the meantime, Nigger is back in its special place on my bookshelf. It is tucked away so that only I can see the title on its spine, and then only with some effort.

This essay is published in conjunction with the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances of Underground Railroad Game. UMS Presents Underground Railroad Game on January 17-21, 2018 at the Arthur Miller Theatre in Ann Arbor. 

“Teaching the N-Word” is written by Emily Bernard. Dr. Bernard is a professor of English and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Vermont. She is working on a collection of essays called Black Is the Body.