Interview: Tavia Nyong’o, visiting professor, talks race and performance

Tavia-Nyong'o_Michael-Drummond
Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

Tavia Nyong’o is a performance studies researcher and professor at New York University as well as a cultural critic. Nyong’o is finishing a study of fabulation in black aesthetics. His work focuses on art, music, politics, culture and theory. His first book, “The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory,” won the Errol Hill Award for best book in African American theater and performance studies. He was invited to be a part of the Black Room Collective at UC Berkeley, a program fostered by the English and African American studies departments that invites scholars and artists to revisit blackness in the 21st century. The Daily Californian sat down with Nyong’o over a cup of coffee to pick his brain on defining blackness in the present day and how this definition intersects with culture and performance.

The Daily Californian: From what I understand, there is no clear, succinct definition of performance studies. So what does performance studies mean to you?

Tavia Nyong’o: The reason why I don’t have a good definition of performance studies is because I find that any definition you offer will place boundaries around what it does. What I find very interesting about the field — I know this isn’t what people like to hear — is that it doesn’t really set too many boundaries in advance as to what you can do. I found it to be a location in the academy where I can study live performance events but also mediated performance, film, cinema, the Internet and music. But it is also a space where you can do serious critical work around categories of difference: gender, race, nationality and sexuality. We always say that it is less what it is and more what it does. And that’s what it does for me: It lets me ask the questions that I want to ask and also find people who are interested in figuring it out with me.

DC: Why do you think studying performance is important?

TN: Is it important? It’s important to me and the people who are attracted to it because we are people for whom the aesthetic dimension of experience is important. Performance studies is very much of the moment. People really want to engage with their whole selves.

DC: You said in a previous interview that as a performance studies professor and researcher, you “study culture in an embodied and ethnographic way that goes beyond disciplines like anthropology.” Do you think performance studies can transform and reshape the way we presently view history?

TN: Yes. My work is engaged in this question of the past and how we remember. At the same time, I am also interested in how the past presents itself, how it stages itself in the present through performance and what the process by which collective memory is articulated through performance is. So, I think, through relation to the study of history, (performance studies) can enrich it by suggesting history doesn’t just belong to the professional field of historians, but we are all carrying around multiple pasts — the whole history of the universe. That is all embedded in the present, and it surfaces in performance.

DC: What brought you to UC Berkeley?

TN: The Black Room Collective brought me to Berkeley. My understanding is that it’s a collective of faculty in English and African American studies who are engaged in this process of defining blackness in the context of Berkeley. I am very excited and honored to be entering this conversation with students and faculty, some of whom are my colleagues.

DC: Could you tell us a little bit about the lecture you’ll be giving tomorrow?

TN: It is going to be about two figures from the late ’60s, early ’70s. The musician and filmmaker and theater maker Melvin Van Peebles and focusing on his debut album, “Brer Soul” and his film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” The other person I’m talking about is the conceptual artist Adrian Piper and a series of performances she did right around the time I was born. These two artists from the emergence of a radical black aesthetic associated with black power and the black arts movement are very different artists who nonetheless find, through these alter egos, a way of performing on gender and sexual dissonance. My argument tomorrow will be that we can look to this era of black arts for a version of gender and sexual dissonance that queer theory and transgender theory today can and should learn from.

DC: How do you define blackness?

TN: It’s a differentiator. What I’m interested in is how blackness without ever having necessary identifiable properties or characteristics can be productive of social life and, within that life, the difference. I am interested in how blackness can be more than one thing while still being interconnected.

DC: Looking at your published work, you write a lot on feminist, queer and race theory. How do the three intersect, in your opinion?

TN: Life. I don’t see them as separable. I understand that there’s an academic division of labor with which we study one topic rather than the other or look at a particular genealogy. I want to recognize and value those distinctive histories but at the same time I want to — not so much force them to intersect even when they diverge — but to understand the resonance between them and to understand the ways in which particular concerns taken up in black studies or queer studies or feminism can echo and amplify each other.

DC: What message are you hoping to spread to students and faculty attending your lecture?

TN: I don’t have a message, but I always like to learn something about a place when I come to it. I want to get a sense of what is happening (at UC Berkeley) and what the concerns are here. It’s obviously a very particular moment for campus conversations around diversity and Black Lives Matter. Berkeley is historically a leader — and I don’t mean the administration. The student body here has taken the lead in articulating a very different vision of what America or the world should become. We are around the corner from the home of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, and there’s a wonderful tradition of black studies in the school here itself. It is really about how to enter into a conversation that has been taking place and is always looking for additional voices in order to continue to differentiate and expand itself, to tackle new horizons. A big question today is about the centrality of queer people and feminists in organizing Black Lives Matter. So without necessarily being a queer or feminist organization, it has built upon those principles, and that’s actually something else that has come out of the Bay Area.