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Activist Anthropology: Exploring Principles Through A Theatrical Lens

During our four-month exchange with anthropologist-in-residence Dr. Haile Eshe Cole, The Anthropologists examined a wide body of research while engaging in an analysis of our research process and methodology. Dr. Cole introduced to us the concept of Activist Anthropology. The following in-depth conversation took place mid-devising process with members of the creative team for axes, herbs and satchels, a new play about the history of Black midwives and the contemporary maternal health crisis.
Several bodies standing in a large rehearsal studio, looking at notes taped to the wall.
The creative ensemble responding to source material in the rehearsal studio.

DR. HAILE ESHE COLE (anthropologist-in-residence):

I went to UT Austin and studied Anthropology and African Diaspora Studies. There was another concentration called Activist Anthropology. I really took a lot from this training about how I interact with the community and how it informs my research.

I feel like what The Anthropologists are trying to do, particularly with this project, and with the other projects, like Give Us Bread, as well as the Community Action Workshops - that the work that you all are trying to do was really activist centered in a lot of ways. I see a lot of overlap, and maybe some potential opportunities. I'll start with this quote by Charles Hale, which encapsulates for me what activist anthropology is.

“In my understanding, then, the activist research a) helps us better to understand the root causes of inequality, oppression, violence and related conditions of human suffering; b) is carried out at each phase from conception through dissemination, in direct cooperation with an organized collective of people who themselves are subject to these conditions; c) is used, together with the people in question, to formulate strategies for transforming these conditions and to achieve the power necessary to make these strategies effective.” (Charles Hale, 2001)

What was unique about activist anthropology was that it was going against what everyone had learned about, like how to do research. It was about being really explicit and honest about your political affiliations. It was about working in solidarity with community who might have really clear political aspirations and community goals that they wanted to accomplish, and aligning yourself with those communities. I'm speaking specifically about research right now and then we can talk about if this resonates at all for theater devising. Typically anthropologists would go into other people's communities, live with the “natives”, talk to them, interview them, take all their information and knowledge and leave, and then write a book and get tenure.

But activist research is a reciprocal relationship. It's very transparent. The research questions that you're coming up with are directly coming from that community, and what they're trying to accomplish, which is really different. Because typically, when we are doing research, most of us come in with our own questions. This is flipping that on its head. Like feminist research, it’s being super self reflective, and thinking about your positionality in the field and how it relates to the project and the communities that you're working with. Being explicit about your political alignments, that's part of being reflexive and transparent. It goes back to researchers not being honest about their biases when they're doing research, right, this is how it might be impacting my lens and my understanding of the research. I'm really aware of my political leanings, and this is how it might also influence the research that I'm doing, and being open and transparent and communicating that.

The root of activist research is also really trying to shift power, both in the processes and in the outcomes. Some of the questions that I've had to ask myself when trying to do this approach are, is this a true collaboration? Is this really a reciprocal relationship? Am I only benefiting? Who else benefits?

Even as someone who has mostly done work in Black communities with Black women -- I feel very connected to this work. It's my own lived experience. I still have had to ask myself that question: Am I the only one benefiting because I'm writing an article about this? I have to really check myself on a regular basis, even when it's my own experience, to make sure that I’m not being extractive. Am I able to redistribute resources in my work? How am I able to shift power in my work, and how does the final outcome or whatever I'm producing actually move whatever strategies forward that the community is trying to accomplish? I see a lot of overlap with what The Anthropologists are doing and trying to do. I kept thinking, how might pieces of this approach be applied in a devised theatre practice?

SANDIE LUNA (Co-Director) It becomes this really sticky conversation about, what are the parameters of making art, right? And how does that conversation not become perceived as being just subjective, right? And I think this is an interesting tool to to overlay on top of that conversation, and maybe filter some of the realities of making art through some of the questions that you've posed and the tenets that you've shared.

"I have to really check myself on a regular basis, even when it's my own experience, to make sure that I’m not being extractive. Am I able to redistribute resources in my work? How am I able to shift power in my work, and how does the final outcome or whatever I'm producing actually move whatever strategies forward that the community is trying to accomplish?" - Haile

MARIAH FREDA (Producer, Artistic Associate)

I'm thinking about, Haile, what you were saying, about allowing input from the people you were studying and working with, as you're writing, and how that made you feel all kinds of things. In The Anthropologists, having that practice of feedback is really helpful, especially if we carry it through. And now I'm just thinking, okay, how can we push that a little further, to make sure that the feedback is also coming from the community that the content is coming from. So that's definitely a place where we can use this, and push what we're doing further, especially with this project.

MELISSA MOSCHITTO (Co-Director, Artistic Director)

One phrase that I thought was interesting was, “is the knowledge useful”? It just really struck me, as we’re delving into really heavy source material and research in a condensed period of time. There is this tendency, I'm noticing, of “Oh, I've read this research, I've pulled it into my show archive. Let's put it up on stage and see what's there.” Maybe that would have been a helpful lens or tool -- having a better understanding of, no, this knowledge is not useful anymore in this context. We are trying to be, as an organization, always thinking about who is in the room devising and what is their personal connection to the material. There's benefits to that, and then there's potentially greater opportunity for harm if we don't have a strong enough or thoughtful enough container.

I am feeling the tension of what happens after you've done all this research and ideas for a show have started to bubble up and then eventually you have to sit down and start to hammer away at putting together a plan for a script. And by necessity almost, you have to shut out other voices, where you might have been really open. Now, how do we move a project forward? How do you get to the cohesive outcome of your articulation of your research? How do you get to a script? I don't know if there's a word that captures what it is both for theater and for the anthropologist.


This has been my perpetual tension as an academic. I feel like even with this method, that attempts to push when hosted within these institutions of power and money, I'm always kind of like, “how radical is it actually? How far can it actually go?” For me, how I've used my training, and I'm just gonna be really blunt here is, I use it as a way to check myself and whatever process I'm doing to make sure I'm not doing problematic shit. That’s basically, what it is, you know, and I'm not always perfect. I might still mess up. But it's part of a constant check for myself when I'm doing work.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, Melissa, you were kind of talking about this, the fact that what proves that the method is effective is that you're producing something that has a real outcome. And I think that there's something really capitalistic about value being measured by what we continue to produce. But then at the same time, how do you then measure that you're doing work? There are all these tensions and contradictions within it that I even haven't resolved, that are tough, even as I talk about it with you all.


I’m definitely feeling the tension of wanting to create a slow, rich, creative process that values exploration, in collaboration. And yet, the grants almost always come with a public presentation of what you have. We're in that space right now trying to hold those two things together, trying to make sure that the public showing doesn't cannibalize the process. I think the trickiest part to get into is that first showing where you said you have to make decisions about what you're going to share with an audience, and it's that natural, or unnatural selection process, and how much it influences where the play ultimately will go. It's very tricky.


I really appreciated some of the stuff you brought up, Haile, before, because I was thinking about what stuck with you Melissa: Is the knowledge useful? And I was like, well, is art supposed to be useful? So even the language we use, right?


I think that's my internal dialogue. In pursuing the thing that feels pleasurable in the storytelling or the art making, I have that voice in the back of my head: Is it useful? Is this really how you're going to spend your resources? Is it real? Is it going to do anything besides entertain you?

Two Black women are seated on a bench next to two Black women who are standing and smiling at each other.
In rehearsal (L to R): Asha John, Jayda Jones, Sandie Luna and Jalissa Fulton.


I think in this moment in time, specifically, there's such a need to shed light on things, but that, you know, it's and this is my perception, obviously, to like, elucidate a white audience, right, to teach a white audience. And so, is there a place for them? Right, should we be doing that? If we don't do it, who does? It? How do we do it?

JALISSA FULTON (Performer, Deviser)

Something that I've thought about is this idea of dismantling ‘centering whiteness,’ because that is one of the things that colonialism has given to us -- to center whiteness. To feel, "Oh, I gotta explain to the audience." Well, why would you have to explain? Because some people might not know. What people wouldn't know? And then you realize you're now centering white people, instead of telling the story. For me personally, I really enjoy doing the work for work’s sake, and whatever else is trying to be explored, but not telling the audience. Allowing the audience to discover… to figure it out for themselves, rather than telling stories that pander to whiteness, or pander to a specific audience. So, I think the work that is being created and the work I’ve seen The Anthropologists do, that I've been part of, I never feel like the stories are being told for a white audience, or being pandered to, you know, centering white people. I think we must be active about making sure that we don't do that, but in a way that does not intentionally alienate people. I think if we can take in some of that for this project and do that in general, that would help American artists tell more authentic stories effortlessly.

"what if the research on both sides of the conflict requires you to be neutral and against what you ethically believe or stand for?" - Jayda

JAYDA JONES (Performer, Deviser)

Something that I've been grappling with was the question of, what if the research on both sides of the conflict requires you to be neutral and against what you ethically believe or stand for? And that just kind of sent me down a rabbit hole of, okay, what does that mean to be attacking these traumas and getting to the deep emotions of the subjects that you're dealing with? Whenever you're considering, you know, black violence and trauma and everything that we were talking about. And as an emerging artist, something that definitely troubles me is obviously or maybe not obviously but I want to create art about black people. But I also don't want to make my art another avenue to commodify black bodies for trauma. Everything that I do will be black no matter what. And I'm also into weird sci-fi things and our people deserve to dream and be shown dreaming on stage. But at the same time, how much of that is catering to a wide audience and how much can we break away from that and have that freedom and still have a platform in the American theatre industry? So that troubles me the way that we are now, especially as African Americans: how do we separate our violence and our experience and our trauma and our suffering and get to the other side, without putting ourselves again through that violence and experience? That is something that one of my mentors told me, an amazing Black woman, is that all art is political, but dealing with art that is political and being in that situation where you don't feel safe and you feel like your traumas are being exploited for the sake of a story, how do you grow through that? And how do you continue to be a human being doing the research whenever you don't feel safe enough to do so?

I struggle with the neutrality question, because even like myself when I'm actively, not trying to be political, which is rare. It's not like something I turn on or off, but when I'm writing something, that's, I don't know about reincarnation or something, and I put a Black character in it, and I inundate that Black character with experiences that are related to my own, my blackness is still in everything that I do. It's hard for me to be objective because of my own experience as a subjective human. So how do I separate that and be neutral, especially in times where we so much need Black voices and their stories represented and a world that's very much not fair and neutral. How do I not put my blackness into everything that I do, or how do you separate your identity from the art that you're making?


I guess I'm curious why you feel you need to separate it. I think that is what I love about activist anthropology. It's telling you, you don't have to do that. You bring your experience into the research but you talk about it -- this is who I am. This is how it's impacting my experience. This is how it's impacting my relationship with the people. These are my political alignments. I think it opens space for a much deeper understanding of life in a way that being neutral doesn't allow you to do. Hopefully, you're able to see that, and hopefully, your relationships with the people that you're working with allow you to be called out because you are in a reciprocal and accountable relationship with the people that you're working with. So it's difficult, but it's basically saying you don't have to be neutral.


I don't think we can ever be neutral if we bring it wherever we are.


I find this concept that activist anthropology invites the whole person fascinating -- it's saying that you don't have to split yourself into different pieces as a researcher and also this facet of being in community with the people or the groups that you are interested in researching. In terms of The Anthropologists and our process, we are always inviting everyone into the room to be their full, whole self, and I hope it's clear that we're not also requiring people to share their personal experience. Yet I've definitely been noticing in this process that these conversations have elicited a lot of personal stories. So I guess that's just a question that I'm sitting with, in terms of moving towards the creation of a piece of art or piece of theater: where is the distinction drawn?


I think a lot of it is about agency and about choosing what you get to share and how that gets to play out. As opposed to your story kind of getting taken and driven in a different direction for the sake of an audience or for the sake of it being attention grabbing. A lot of it is having the agency to be able to say, this is my story.

"...this question of, “who gets to tell whose story?” is something that I struggle with." - Haile


I had a question. I think it's kind of a hard question, and Sandy I think you already posed it, but this question of, “who gets to tell whose story?” is something that I struggle with. And when I think about activist anthropology, you know, at least how it's laid out on paper, everything is guided by and led by the group that's most directly impacted. Even in my own work, I did all these interviews, with women in the community, and people that I knew, and then I got a book contract to write this book about it, and I couldn't write it. Even though I'm a black woman, I kept thinking, Am I doing justice telling these stories? Should I be telling them this way? I really struggled with it. I struggle with this tension of telling someone else's story.


We struggle with this too. I mean, I think at a certain point, you can't keep telling your own personal story, right? At some point, you get to tell other stories, but I think it's more about, who gets to tell that story? Even if it's not yours, who are the voices that are required to tell that story responsibly? I think it's about always asking those questions and also asking the people that you're working with, “Hey, is it cool, I'm telling the story? Does it feel good? Does it feel ok?” I think it's, it's always good to, to have concerns about it, but I don’t think that means that you shouldn't do it, if that makes sense.


If you're censoring yourself in the storytelling, at what cost? Are you preventing someone else from connecting with a story that can be really impactful for them or meaningful for them? Are you hoarding your art and not allowing people to enjoy the beauty of your art? On a very personal note, I definitely struggle with that question with this project. I am questioning all the time about how I can, as a white woman, serve the project.

JALISSA I have no issue with art taking a stance because I do believe that all art is political. It should have a stance, a perspective. I also believe that if you're telling someone else's story, as these people were, you should stick to the facts, stick to the true narrative. If you are going to tell someone else's story, stick to the actual impact and actual perceived narrative of what happened. And if you don't, then I think that's when you're taking advantage and when you're doing something that is not right, or rather, not fair, inaccurate, unethical. Especially, if you say that this is what happened then I go and look it up and that is not what happened. That, I think, is a true artistic crime.


That brings up the concept of integrity in research based theatre making, right? And that line that we walk about how we're interpreting the source material when we're putting it on stage. Oftentimes, we're looking for the narrative that hasn't been told right or most frequently, like, here's the story you haven't heard. And by the same token, not causing harm with how you interpret the source material and not misleading an audience.


I think it's nearly impossible to stick to the facts. Right. I am interested in people being clear about their position in relation to the subjects in the stories that they're talking about. Because I feel like we're so deep down this hole of anti-blackness-- I think what is most interesting and beneficial is to just for me to hear when I'm seeing something that somebody's telling a story that doesn't seem to be belong to them or be part of their group. It's to hear okay, this is where I'm coming from, with this story. Rather than, "I'm telling the truth or the facts."


The stakes are so high for the narratives that get created. They can be so harmful -- the power of visual media and art and the reach of it. Every piece of art that gets created, particularly when it comes, marginalized communities… it can have an impact on people's real lives. And I think that on the one hand, carrying that fear maybe doesn't allow people to be as creative as they want to be, because they carry that weight of responsibility, and that cautiousness, but that's the reality of it. That's one of the reasons why I'm so fascinated and interested in art. It's very powerful. More powerful than people want to admit. That's why it has such a huge potential for transformation.

That's one of the reasons why I'm so fascinated and interested in art. It's very powerful. More powerful than people want to admit. That's why it has such a huge potential for transformation.

A Black woman with long braids and a baseball cap is seated in front of a curtain with blue sticky notes on it. To her left, a white woman with curly hair is standing in a black dress, pointing at the notes.
Haile (left) and Melissa (right), crafting an idea for a scene in rehearsal.


In conjunction with this idea, and model for, or ideals for activist anthropology, we've been talking about community led dramaturgy a lot more, especially with this project, and thinking about how not to silo the research process. Having these research-based conversations with all the collaborators in the room, are all a form of dramaturgy. The next part of this experiment is our Community Action Workshop [with The Doula Project]. We're going to gain more insight from the work that we do there, that can inform the play itself. I’m curious about how we can keep looking at community input, both our artistic community and audience, as we're in this phase of research and investigation.


Considering that we've looked at stories of people who are no longer with us so you know, what kind of care should we consider taking?


That’s something to really think about. If there are practices we can put in place to make sure that we're responsible for that kind of research and storytelling when a person is not there to ask their permission.


Something I grapple with: how can you ask these questions without freezing up? Or you know, because since I was little, the one thing I've learned to be, this is gonna sound awful, Is a little bit more shameless. Because shameless people go out there and do so much and so that balance is really hard, right? I think asking these questions can lead to… I'm just gonna hold it in, but I think risking doing things wrong in the search for figuring out how to do it right -- there's some real value to that. Not fucking up just because you're fucking up, but fucking up because you are trying to figure out the most noble way to go about it. And I think as a society, we need to make room for that distinction.


When I left school and went out into the world as a baby anthropologist, I realized some people weren't even asking these questions… like… did not care at all. I just imagine that there are few people having these conversations, and there probably should be more, but you all make space for conversations like this and ask these questions. I always try to remind myself that that’s a big deal, you know?


This conversation took place over zoom on June 6, 2023 with members of the creative team of axes, herbs and satchels, The Anthropologists' forthcoming play. It was transcribed using and was edited for clarity and continuity by Dr. Haile Eshe Cole and Melissa Moschitto.

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