Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S9 E3 | FULL EPISODE

Artists at the Intersection of Bias, Race, and Class.

In this Special Edition, we revisit interviews from artists, Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola, poet and playwright Claudia Rankine, and playwright Paula Vogel all of whom previously discussed their work at the intersection of bias, race, and class.

AIRED: July 17, 2020 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,

WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture

from around the region and the nation.

I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,

Boston's poet laureate, Porsha Olayiwola,

on the weight of words.

>> I sit down and I write, and I sit down and I think.

(whispering): And then sometimes I open my mouth.

(aloud): And that's its whole other thing, you know.

>> BOWEN: Then award-winning poet and playwright

Claudia Rankine

exposes the racism in everyday life.

>> That idea that you're here to help others means

that you already believe that you're dominant to those others.

>> BOWEN: And the play looking at this country's indecent past.

>> I feel that this is a play about us knowing

in this moment of time,

who are the immigrants in America?

Who is this happening to now?

What, what side are we on?

Are we paying attention?

>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.

Welcome to this special edition of the show.

Recent events have compelled people around the world

to look at society and race.

So we're looking back at interviews from several artists

who discussed their work

at the intersection of bias, race, and class.

First up, Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola.

In our interview last year,

she spoke about how words ignite and inspire her.

But first, the World and National Poetry Slam champion

performed a portion of her poem "Boston Ode" in our studio.

>> Can you name a love without rigor?

Without sweet ache and stretch

and sunshine and sweat?

Boston, parent of our hallowed America,

someone else's god before the land was conquered.

Not the city we are born of, but it is a charitable home.

The same way the city upon a hill gave birth to a country

and we are all now inside a nation

and unbelonging at once.

>> BOWEN: Porsha Olayiwola, Boston's poet laureate,

thank you so much for joining us.

>> Thank you for having me.

>> BOWEN: Tell me, what is the role of the poet laureate,

as you see it? >> The role of the laureate is

to integrate poetry into the everyday lives of Bostonians,

um, which is, like,

very specific and vague at the same time.

Um, I have the, like, privilege of being a younger laureate.

And so, you know, I've been trying to take all the love

I've, I've been able to muster,

and figure out ways to deliver it

via poetry through the city.

>> BOWEN: Well, where does the love come into it?

>> The way I think about it is, you know, people write poems,

or, or any production of art,

it literally comes from inside of a person, right?

It's, it's from a thing that doesn't exist.

And I have to write this poem

and I bring it out of myself.

And suddenly, I share with the world,

and they get to see a bit of my inside.

And vice versa.

Down the street, a man did a hate speech

to a black butch woman, and someone gave it a ten.

Someone said it was freedom.

Poets are still over there cheering.

I guess queer black woman ain't black enough.

I guess the movement ain't meant to be a crossroad...

>> BOWEN: How did you develop your style?

Was it work to develop it, or did you just find

it was something that came inherently to you?

>> Yeah, I will say, one, I'm still developing.

Um, or, you know, things constantly shift and change.

Um, but I would definitely say

something that felt innate.

I sit down and I write, and I sit down and I think.

And then...

(whispering): Sometimes I open my mouth.

(aloud): Um, and that's its whole other thing, you know.

>> BOWEN: It is fascinating to, to conceptualize

how the words may look on the page,

or read your work on the page,

but then, it's something altogether different

to experience it.

How does it feel for you

to vocalize what you have written?

>> Yeah, that's... I, I love that question.

(laughing): I'm a nerd.

Um, most people interact with poetry

when they're in eighth grade,

and they are forced to remember a poem for school.

I don't know if that's true for you.

>> BOWEN: I think it sounds about right.

>> Yeah, Robert Frost, two... "Two roads diverged."

>> BOWEN: "Diverged in a..."

>> Yeah, people know that one, right?

And I think, you know,

why would my teachers make me read that

and, and memorize it and then recite it?

And, I, I think

I didn't really, you know, conceptualize that

until I was memorizing and reading my own work.

And how close I feel to the work.

It's, it's really,

it becomes like a spiritual experience for me.

When people wonder about black names,

why the names aren't shorter,

why the runaway syllables aren't easier to catch,

why our names chime like music

when they traverse between lobes.

About why we name our children

after cars, after movement, after freedom...

>> BOWEN: Well, to watch your, your, your performances,

is that an accurate word? >> Yeah, totally.

>> BOWEN: It builds and builds and builds,

and there is an intensity.

Is that something that, that just comes naturally,

or is that built in to how you've constructed the poem?

>> I think it's both, you know?

I think... you know, everything is crafted, right?

Um, first there's the page.

And, and it depends, right?

Not all poems get memorized.

But first there's the page,

and then there's the craft of the performance.

One thing I'm always constantly thinking about is,

"How do I interact with the work

and think only about the work in that moment?"

So I try not to think about the room,

the floor, what I'm wearing.

I don't even think about the poem.

I try to think about literally the word that's coming

out of my mouth in that exact moment, and only that word.

>> BOWEN: So then going back to the kids, as part of your role,

how do you get them engaged in poetry,

and do you find, here in Boston,

that they have a concept of what poetry is already?

>> I love teenagers.

They're my favorite people in the world.

Teenagers also love me, I don't know what it is,

but we have great relationships.

And so oftentimes, I, I found for a while,

my first several years in working, you know,

at the intersection of poetry and teenagers,

that they only did it because they, we were,

they were my mentees, and they were, like, hanging out.

But they were all really great poets,

just so happened, which is,

ironically, how I started out.

>> BOWEN: What can poetry do that other art forms can't,

in your estimation?

>> I think about poems, I think about language.

You know, like, language... poems use language.

Language is our number-one source of communication

as human beings, right?

And language is often, is inadequate.

It's frugal with its word choice, you know?

Unlike a novelist, for example.

So we have to be very careful,

and we have to get as close as we possible, possibly can

to explain exactly is, what it is that we, we mean.

And I think, because we, we try to get that close,

it creates a whole 'nother level of intimacy, I think.

>> BOWEN: It's described in your bio as you having

a dangerous imagination. >> (chuckles): That's funny.

>> BOWEN: What does that mean?

>> I... no, nobody wants to know what that means.

No... mostly... right?

>> BOWEN: I want to know what that means.

>> Um, I identify as a futurist, or Afro-futurist.

Um, and I play a lot

with magical realism, sci-fi, fantasy, um,

and use that as a tool to solve issues of folks of color.

Um, and, you know, sci-fi is weird,

sci-fi and fantasy is strange.

Especially when I, I think I tangle it with, um...

history, mostly, um,

and, like, some of the darker parts of American history.

And I think that intersection...

>> BOWEN: Because you, you look at the surrealist nature of it,

or the... >> Yeah.

>> BOWEN: The mystical nature of it.

>> Yeah, or I imagine a... so, for example,

I have a poem where I imagine a world

where no one says the N-word.

You know, and I think that some people would think

that was dangerous, you know?

And it's a futuristic world, right?

It doesn't actually exist, unfortunately.

But I paint that world, you know,

and whatever... and sometimes that might look not good

to some people and, you know,

but also, simultaneously, it's a world

that is free of a type of, um,

what is it... microaggression, so.

>> BOWEN: I also find that the poetry sometimes gets put

into that, talking of boxes,

the same box that classical music does.

That, that people can't get out of their eighth-grade selves.

And, "I didn't get it then, it was forced down my throat,

so how could I possibly understand it now?"

Do you find you... that that is a problem

as your way, making your way through the, through Boston

as the poet laureate?

>> You know, it's really interesting,

because I also, there are so many types of poetry, right?

And I, um, have the interesting intersection

of coming into poetry via the spoken-word community.

And it's really interesting, because right now,

the canon is completely shifting, right?

Like, it's like classical music suddenly integrating hip-hop

or something, I don't know.

Um, but the canon is shifting around poetry,

and, you know, a lot,

a lot of the folks shaping the canon

are from a traditionally spoken-word background.

Um, and so I have the luxury or the tension--

that's what we'll call it-- um, of being at the intersection,

of being the laureate, right,

and also coming from that particular background.

And so the shifting of the canon

is also happens, happening in, in the city's, you know, um,

appointment of me, in and of itself, is a shift of the canon.

And so I feel like that's the conversation

I'm mostly a part of,

is, you know, how these two things marry.

>> BOWEN: Well, I can't let you go without asking what you think

of Robert Frost now, now that you've had this life.

>> I like Frost; you know, the thing is,

all the poets are awesome.

There are so many great poets, you know,

I read a poem, and I say, "What can I take from this?"

Or, "What, what is this poet teaching me?

"What does this poem doing that I love?

"And if it's not doing anything I love,

"what is it doing that I don't like?

And how can I learn from that," you know?

So I don't know, I like them all now.

I do, I'm embarrassed to admit it.

>> BOWEN: No, no.

Thank you so much for joining us,

it was a pleasure to have you here.

>> Thank you for having me.

"Boston Ode."

Can you name a love without rigor?

Without sweet ache and stretch

and sunshine and sweat?

Boston, parent of our hallowed America,

someone else's god before the land was conquered.

Not the city we are born of,

but it is a charitable home.

The same way the city upon a hill

gave birth to a country,

and we are all now inside a nation

and unbelonging at once.

There is not a love I can fathom with neither push nor pull.

With neither grit nor sorrow

nor glory raining out the other end.

What is a home, then,

if unhinged and locked?

Beloved city, gemmed with bodegas on its corners,

each studded with a cat guarding the front stoop.

Gracious current, ringing the rush of the river,

the calm of the pond,

the guilt of the ocean hushing secrets

along Dorchester's shores.

Beantown, the best to keep the kept.

Slades on Tremont and Bintou's in Roslindale.

Home is the booth we plop into.

>> BOWEN: MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Claudia Rankine

has been writing about race and class for more than 20 years.

The poet and playwright addressed racial tension

in her 2018 play The White Card,

about a wealthy white couple hosting a party

for an emerging artist at their home

where life, culture, and race all collide.

Claudia Rankine, thank you so much for joining us.

Just to start, uh, I've read-- you've talked

about how culture very much drives in this country

how we think about a lot of things in life,

how we process a lot of things in life.

Uh, elaborate on that for me.

How did, how do you get a sense that it shapes us?

>> Well, thank you for having me, it's lovely to be here.

Um, I think we learn by example.

Much of the time.

Recently there is a tennis player, for example,

who, uh, was called up

because he liked a bunch of white supremacist things

on his page.

And, um, his retort was,

he's being demonized by the media.

Where did he hear that?

In the media, from our president.

So I think we, we learn from what we see.

>> BOWEN: As you write a piece likeThe White Card,

how, do you look at it as a way to shape the conversation,

or are you just putting your thoughts out there,

or is there a specific aim?

>> Well, I think it's, it's...

It's not a way to shape the conversation,

but it's part of the conversation.

The conversation is wide and diverse.

Coming from lots of different places.

Coates is in that conversation.

In many ways, Donald Trump is in that conversation.

I seeThe White Card

as yet another way to talk about these issues

that are very present in our lives today.

>> BOWEN: Tell me about the dinner party

that you have created.

Who are they, first of all, present?

>> Good people.

The, the dinner party is a party where, um,

good-intentioned, wealthy white people

have invited a black artist over for a meal,

but also to discuss her work.

They have the intention of purchasing some of that work,

and...

But also maybe they want to demonstrate their goodness

around issues that have a direct effect on her life.

>> BOWEN: Who is she, then, walking into the party?

>> Well, I think she's a... she's an artist.

She's an artist whose world is,

is different and not different from their world.

I mean, she doesn't have the kind of wealth that they have,

but she's gone to the same schools.

She has an understanding that she is dependent upon them

in terms of her own possibilities,

depending on what she wants for her life.

So that is also in the room.

>> BOWEN: How many times do you have the conversation,

especially with your public appearances, book signings,

where you have the conversation

that we see play out inThe WhiteCard,

where people think that, because they give to causes

and have established nonprofits,

then they couldn't possibly be culpable for anything,

any microaggressions, any level of racism?

>> I think until white people understand

that they are as subject to white dominance

in terms of acculturation--

that they've grown up in it,

they, they take for granted many things,

they on some level believe

that they're better than other people,

um, and on some level,

believe that they're here to help other people...

That idea that you're here to help others

means that you already believe

that you're dominant to those others.

But they, they tend not to go to the dominance--

they just stay in the position of the help,

because that is the more benevolent place to be.

>> BOWEN: Well, what was your thinking

about having the audience surround the dinner party?

You've written it right into the script.

>> Well, I wanted the audience to understand

that they are always in these conversations.

They're always in these moments,

um, whether or not they're willing to see them

is a whole 'nother story.

Microaggressions, acts of racism,

cannot happen without white people.

So by insisting that everyone stay in the room

and look at each other, uh,

the play's just asking for accountability on that level.

>> BOWEN: One of the major issues

that has arisen out of art controversies

and swirling around artists over the last year

has been around cultural appropriation.

Uh, I'll ask you that question,

especially in this play, The White Card,

where you're writing about white people.

How do you feel about those arguments?

>> I think that arguments are always good to have.

I, I think artists should be accountable to their work.

I don't think the work needs to be destroyed once it's made.

And I do think that artists should be willing to show up

and talk about why they are willing, wanting,

desiring to do what they're, what they've done.

In this case, I'm really interested

in whiteness as it functions institutionally.

And the act of creating a space and an environment

where whiteness owns the space

is one way of doing that.

>> BOWEN: I've read that you've said

that you've felt more comfortable

over the last few years, especially sinceCitizen,

in just blatantly calling out racism--

"That was racist."

Was that, was that a big, uh, transition for you,

to be able to do that, to feel more comfortable?

>> Yeah, no, I mean, you know,

I grew up like everybody grew up:

you don't make people uncomfortable,

you don't say things that will cause people

to have to account for themselves publicly.

Um, so for a long time,

I lived the life of watching,

and then you go home and you talk about it.

And then I began to train myself

to just have the conversation in, in the moment, in real time,

and, and take the consequences of that.

If you're going to say something racist to me,

then I'm going to respond to that.

Um, but it-- now that I do live in real time in this way,

um, it has been freeing,

because I don't have to defer the conversation to later.

>> BOWEN: I was struck by something you said that--

about people 100 years hence looking back

and saying, "We did this," about any number of things

that we're doing in our society right now around race.

Which implies almost an optimism,

that in a hundred years from now,

people will be able to think differently.

So that's a long way of me asking,

are you more of an optimist about things improving?

>> I think I'm a pragmatist.

I think that no one could have anticipated the Me, Too moment,

for example.

And it's an-- it's an incredible moment.

It doesn't undo the violence

that had been done to all of those people in their lives.

But it, it's a moment of accountability

that we didn't know was coming.

I believe that, um,

we can make turns that we don't anticipate.

But we're only going to get there

if people are willing to risk something.

I think about Alabama.

The, the elections there,

and those, those, the majority of black women who showed up

and turned that election.

Those are individual moments,

but those are the moments that make you understand

that individual action is always still important.

So do we keep trying?

Yes, we keep trying.

>> BOWEN: All the reason to seeThe White Card.

Claudia Rankine, thank you so much.

>> Thank you.

>> BOWEN: Next, we revisit playwright Paula Vogel's

Tony Award-winnerIndecent, based on true events

surrounding the 1923 New York debut ofGod of Vengeance,

a drama that landed its makers in jail on obscenity charges.

>> We have a story we want to tell you

about a play.

A play that changed my life.

>> BOWEN:Indecent is Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel's

new play about an incendiary one.

Written more than a hundred years ago,

God of Vengeance is a Yiddish drama

by Polish playwright Sholem Asch.

It's about a brothel owner

eager to see his daughter move up in society

by marrying a rabbi's son.

>> The only hitch is, the daughter has fallen in love

with a prostitute downstairs.

So imagine this being written in 1906,

the first love presented between two women,

and certainly the first kiss.

>> BOWEN: InIndecent,

Vogel tracks the play from its inception

to its resurrection during World War II.

She's found a kindred spirit

in channeling the youthful, audacious playwright.

>> Once upon a time, I was a young playwright myself,

so I do think that there's a young playwright principle,

where you want to walk into the salon and light the bomb

and throw it into the salon, that...

"Here's my new play!" Boom!

>> BOWEN: Despite its lesbian subject matter,

whenGod of Vengeance first debuted,

it actually wasn't controversial.

>> The love between women was seen

as a kind of pure and beautiful love story

by the men in the Yiddish salon, in the Yiddish Renaissance.

It was seen as something that was beautiful.

It went on tour from 1907 all over Europe.

>> BOWEN: The scandal came

whenGod of Vengeance finally opened on Broadway in 1923.

An anti-immigration sentiment was taking hold in the U.S.

And seeing the play for the first time,

the mainstream, Christian audience was unnerved.

>> And what is happening is that there is a great deal of hatred,

the rise of the KKK,

and the Jew is seen as someone who is invading American soil.

So here... I mean, all of these issues, it's...

When people say, you know, "What isIndecent about?",

yes, it's about a play,

but it's really not about the censorship of the play,

it's really not just all of the multiple love stories.

It's, how do we describe or catch a moment in time

when we as a country-- all of our neighbors,

all of our friends, all of our family--

are in danger?

>> It was a real lightning rod

for tremendously, you know, important issues and questions

about immigration.

>> BOWEN: Rebecca Taichman isIndecent's director.

She discoveredGod of Vengeance as a graduate student at Yale,

which also houses Sholem Asch's papers.

>> He's asking about what...

In a deeply corrupt world,

is there the potential for true love

in a world that conspires so heavily

against the, like, basic principle of love?

>> BOWEN: Shortly after the play opened on Broadway,

it was actually a rabbi who filed a complaint,

concerned over how his community was being portrayed.

In short order, the cast, producer, and theater owner

were put on trial for obscenity.

What was the tone of that trial?

>> Nobody was allowed to get onto the stand.

So the deck was really, really stacked.

>> The writer of world literature,

I couldn't walk into that court.

>> BOWEN: Roughly ten years ago,

Taichman brought the story to Vogel,

who then spent the next seven years writingIndecent.

>> I got to imagine, "Well, what was it like

"when my grandparents came to this country?

"What was it like to walk down the Lower East Side?

"What was it like to speak Yiddish?

What was it like to know all of those songs?"

(music playing)

(cast singing traditional melody)

>> BOWEN: Music is both instrumental

to howIndecent unfolds and how Vogel writes.

She creates soundtracks to guide her through each act.

>> ♪ Of all the boys I've known, and I've known some ♪

>> At my computer, and the music is so, so very beautiful,

it made me weep every night.

>> ♪ My heart grew light

♪ And this old world seemed new to me ♪

>> I feel that music is the most pure art form.

I hope I don't get drummed out of the Dramatists Guild

for saying this.

But I feel that music is pure emotion.

>> BOWEN: When it opened on Broadway in 2017,

Indecent marked the legendary playwright's

long-overdue Broadway debut.

And Taichman won a Tony for her direction.

>> Musically, it feels like we bottom out for too long,

the side... the pause.

I don't know that I see it as a personal validation,

but a real, deep kind of honoring

of the power of this story.

>> BOWEN: The production here is a rare remounting

of the Broadway one,

with nearly the full cast intact.

AsIndecent continues to find life,

its creators say it also continues to find resonance.

>> I'm heartbroken, honestly, to say it feels

more and more relevant than I wished...

You know, I ever could have wished it would.

>> I am done being in a country that laughs at the way I speak!

>> I feel that this is a play

about us knowing, in this moment of time,

who are the immigrants in America?

Who is this happening to now?

What, what side are we on?

Are we paying attention?

>> BOWEN: And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week, as the Institute of Contemporary Art reopens,

we take a tour of the museum's new normal.

And a conversation

with famed British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare

as he unveils a new sculpture on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

Until then, I'm Jared Bowen, thanks for joining us.

And as always, you can visit us online

at wgbh.org/OpenStudio.

And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,

@OpenStudioWGBH.

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