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Performance: Richard Wright in 2015

[by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Despite my having “performed” Richard Wright with a modicum of success some years ago in a Chautauqua series sponsored by the Mississippi Humanities Council, I know virtually nothing about performance theory as an “interdisciplinary area of study and critical method,” as it is discussed in the recent book Black Performance Theory (2014), edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez. For me, performing Wright was a matter of absorbing what I could of his personality and changing states of mind from his writings, listening to his recorded voice, and praying that on some spiritual level Wright would channel my imagination. I am not an actor, so I just gathered courage and, one magical night, I did become Richard Wright. At least, that was what several people in the audience told me.

Tonight I had the opportunity to witness the performance of a project conceptualized by Dr. Ross Louis, a professor in Xavier University of Louisiana’s Department of Communication Studies, that used “haiku as a performance aesthetic to prompt questions about Richard Wright, his haiku, Native Son and Black Boy.  The project was titled “This Other World” after the 1989 published collection of 817 of Wright’s haiku (selected from approximately 4,000 he wrote in the last two years of his life). For this project, Louis did substantial research in the Richard Wright Papers at Yale University, then wove a small number of haiku and Julia Wright’s introduction to Haiku: This Other World together with excerpts from Native Son, Black Boy (especially the young Richard’s inquiries about race, his catalog of very poetic discovery images, and the moment of verbal paralysis in a school room), “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” and “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born.”

It is important that Wright’s collection has been most recently published as Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon because the change of title is itself a publishing “performance” with consequences for our reception of Wright’s work. Louis directed two Xavier students, Thomas James Nash II and Mia Selena Ruffin, in using their voices and bodies to perform a quite challenging sketch of Wright’s creativity at the end of his life. Presented in the outdoor sculpture garden of Xavier’s Art Village, the experiment succeeded in dealing with two questions: 1) How does Wright represent place within his haiku, especially rural Southern places? and 2) How do the values of the haiku genre guide decisions about space, time and movement in a performance of Wright’s work? The experiment raises enormous questions about our motives in transforming Wright’s poetry into sound and motion and spectacle in 2015.

As the sun set over New Orleans and Xavier on a breezy spring evening with the background musicality of construction noises, I was at once pleased with the originality of the experiment and disturbed that the performance was not followed by some dialogue among the audience, the director, and the performers. The originality consisted in putting Wright’s haiku–or projections in the haiku manner–into Nature (the site specificity of New Orleans) and saluting the Japanese spirit of creating a certain kind of poetic experience. This was far more satisfying than flawed adaptations of Wright’s works for the stage, the movies, and the television screen. However, without clarifying dialogue about what was absent–especially a clear connection between Wright’s early proletarian poetry and his late, very American projections of haiku–I think the quality of aesthetic experience for the audience depended overmuch on how much people knew about Richard Wright and about a kind of Japanese poetry that is internationally very popular but only lately getting critical notice in Wright studies, by way of such books as The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku (2011), edited by Jianqing Zheng, and Yoshinobu Hakutani’s Richard Wright and Haiku (2014). Already Zheng and Hakutani have been challenged (in Dean Anthony Brink’s article on Wright’s search for a counter-hegemonic genre in Textual Practice 28.6) for giving insufficient attention to Wright’s use of anamorphic possibilities in writing haiku. The performance at Xavier was a very rich exposition of the problems of anamorphism, but the audience did not have an opportunity to begin exploring that topic.

I applaud Dr. Ross Louis and the student performers for their genuine effort to pay tribute to a portion of Richard Wright’s legacy to world literature. I had a great experience because I know Wright’s works well. I do know that one other spectator had a less felicitous experience in following the spaced arrangement of the project’s content. I must insist, in light of that fact , that the Xavier Performance Studies Laboratory have a public discussion of exactly what it performed in its “This Other World” presentation. It is not perverse to ask, borrowing language from DeFrantz and Gonzalez, whether Xavier’s quite specific “experimentation with form and ingenuity” is “part of what has been called ‘the black aesthetic’” (10). It is likely that Richard Wright would urge us to have just that discussion in order to grasp the ineluctable complexity of everyday multicultural phenomena in New Orleans and to determine why his works, haiku and all, are such powerful tools for shaping critical consciousness of everyday life.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.   
March 27, 2015