Report on CSJ related events at the SCS 2019, Nancy S. Rabinowitz

This was a roller-coaster of a meeting, starting with a high of the Luis Alfaro lecture, ending with the very powerful prison workshop. But in between the SCS was the site of some very public racist incidents. Thus CSJ can’t rest on its laurels.

But here I want to accentuate the positive. Following the very successful appearance of Rhodessa Jones and the Medea Project at the San Francisco SCS, it seemed like a good idea to have such an event in San Diego. Luis Alfaro was the perfect choice for this Southern California meeting.

A Chicano born and raised in the Pico-Union district of downtown Los Angeles, Alfaro is the recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship, popularly known as a “genius grant”, awarded to people who have demonstrated expertise and exceptional creativity in their respective fields. He is the first Playwright-in-Residence in the 84-year history of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the largest repertory theatre company in the United States, serving for six seasons (2013-2019).*

*Cited from Luis Alfaro.

The SCS and Onassis Foundation USA enthusiastically co-presented the Luis Alfaro lecture on opening night, From the Ancient to the Streets of L.A.: Imagining the Greek Classics for Communities Today. Alfaro is a committed activist, poet, performance artist, playwright and faculty member at USC. Of special interest to us at Classics and Social Justice, he unites both the terms in our name. He has used the Greek tragedies (Oedipus, Sophocles’ Electra, and Medea) as the basis for his own plays, Oedipus el Rey, Electricidad, Mojada. The event was electrifying (pun intended) as Alfaro discussed the ways in which he envisions his plays creating community. Born in E. LA, many of his scripts are set in the barrio, but they are also produced nationally. In those cases, he told us, he spends up to a year in the cities where they will be performed, engaging local people in the project. This means that the actual performance truly represents the voices of the people. In listening to the concerns of those who will be in the audience, Alfaro’s work demonstrates what real “diversity” can look like. He illuminates the importance of the arts and the classics in social change. He ended with a peroration to the importance of love and family in the myths. The event was an inspiration for the standing-room only audience as to how the materials in the Classics curriculum can be used for radical purposes.

A panel the following morning (with presentations by Mary Hart, Amy Richlin, Tom Hawkins, Rosa Andújar, Jessica Kubzansky, and Melinda Powers) examined Alfaro’s work from both scholarly and artistic points of view. It introduced his plays to some who had perhaps never heard of him and gave insight to those of us who teach his work regularly.

Finally, on the last day, the Classics and Social Justice Prison Group sponsored a workshop on “Teaching the Incarcerated.” Chaired by Elizabeth Bobrick, there were five other very brief papers (presented by Nancy Felson [in absentia], Alex Pappas, Nancy Rabinowitz, Sarah Rappe, Jessica Wright), followed by a very full discussion of the issues that the opening statements brought up. It soon became clear that there is no one model for teaching in prison, any more than there is one model for college teaching itself. The workshop participants will be posting resources on the Classics and Social Justice blog, as they become available. The Classics and Social Justice Group will continue to try to bring together those who are doing this work.

To return to the roller coaster, however, these events are a drop in the bucket. We cannot, as the song says, simply eliminate the negative without hard work. There is much to be done, and thanks to colleagues who are leading the struggle to bring Classics into the present and perhaps into the future.

Nancy S. Rabinowitz,
Hamilton College, Clinton, NY

Editor’s addition: Luis Alfaro’s opening night lecture, and the panel the next day on his work were live tweeted by Benjamin Stevens (@beldonstevens) and Hannah Čulík-Baird (@opietasanimi) respectively. See below:

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