Anthropological Artmaking: An Interview with Dr. Haile Eshe Cole
If you were to attend Cultural Anthropology 101 with Dr Haile Eshe Cole, you might find yourself watching clips of Indiana Jones or digging up dinosaur bones with Laura Dern. She thinks it best to squash those stereotypes right from the start. For Dr. Cole, the field looks different. Hers is not your grandpa’s anthropology.
Haile is native to Texas, with her heartstrings in Austin where she received her MA and PhD in African Diaspora Studies and Women's and Gender Studies from the University of Texas. She currently resides in Connecticut (from here, we can lure her to NYC to make theater together!). Dr. Cole’s research has mostly focused on maternal and infant health disparities for Black women, both in Texas and nationally.
Mariah Freda (Artistic Associate / Untitled Doula Play Producer): How did you first become interested in your field of study?
Dr. Haile Cole (Anthropologist-in-Residence): “Most of that work came out of community work that I had been doing back home. I was working with the collective of mothers of color and we were organizing around the needs of working class black and brown mothers of color. And ended up settling on reproductive health injustice as this piece of the work that we found that really connected all of our experiences. And also [through] seeing the kind of injustices and our experiences, the lack of resources and things like that, and so we decided to focus on that as the collective and so we did like lobbying work, we did trainings, we trained a group of women to be doulas and to offer labor support for free. Then, we had this vision of starting this clinic for Black and Brown women. We ended up starting it and it's still up and running right now in Austin. So my academic work came out of that work and was really informed by that work.”
In Dr. Cole’s words, anthropology, the study of humans, is really looking at human culture and what it can tell us about society. At The Anthropologists, we approach making theater the same way. We ask, How can we look backward to illuminate present issues? What can the past teach us about how society is functioning around us? Even now, at the beginning of this experimental partnership, Dr. Cole and our team seem to be taking cues from the same playbook.
However, I was still bothered by the trope of the solitary anthropologist in a “foreign land”—a concept that seemed itself foreign to how Dr. Cole approaches her work.
MF: Your practice seems to defy my assumption that Anthropology is a solitary field.
HC: “It's not lost on any of us, the origins of the field and that lone anthropologists that goes to live with the natives—you know, like, that is very real. That was a real thing! And I think that for a lot of us doing this different approach to anthropology, we also had to grapple with the problematic and racist histories of anthropology.”
Rather than taking up the mantle of the passive observer, Dr. Cole’s methodology is action-oriented and her training is rooted in activist anthropology.
MF: How did you arrive at this model of activist anthropology?
HC: “We were standing on the heels of those who had laid the ground for us. You know, there were people talking about Native anthropology and what it means to study your own community as opposed to people coming into your community and studying you, like what that shift in power does—feminist anthropology, Black feminist anthropology. So all of that stuff had already existed, although it's growing and people are really pushing the boundaries in the field and doing really amazing work.”
This collaborative mindset is at the core of devised theater companies likeThe Anthropologists. We value horizontal models of collaborating and developing plays, intentionally blurring the lines of actor/writer/designer/dramaturg. Together, the collective generates the research and translates this research into physical theatre.
Certainly, there are many parts of anthropological work that take place in solitude–whether solitary hours pouring over research or crafting notes into papers and books. But, as Dr. Cole puts it, “if you're working in solidarity with a community and they're leading and guiding the research, it is a very different approach.”
Community collaboration changes not just how we create our work, but also the type of work that we choose to create. It leads us to ask: What kinds of stories does the world need to hear and who are the driving forces behind those stories? Can we find the community voices that should be leading this story and can we take our dramaturgical cues from them? How can we expand our artistic community so that the driving questions come from within the community of those affected, and not from an outside lens?
MF: Did you expect to find so much overlap between your field and ours?
HC: I think that when we look historically at art making, a lot of creatives and artists were doing that critical analysis work in their creation of the art that they were making, and so I think that maybe they weren't trained anthropologists necessarily, but I don't think that we necessarily need to have a piece of paper to be doing the same type of analytical work, right?
Just as artists have been incorporating these academic practices, academia has been continually pulled towards art.
MF: Do you have an artistic practice?
HC: “I was supposed to be writing an academic book for my job when I was at UConn and I just could not. I felt like I wasn't doing the stories of the women that I worked with justice by talking about them in this way. So what actually came out of me was a Ntozake Shange-inspired choreo poem. And I finished it like it's a whole play. And so I've been trying to get funding to try to put it on. But my ideal scenario for creating that piece would be to work collaboratively with other artists and Black women and musicians or whoever to take my vision and make it a community space and bring it to life, so that it's not only my voice. That's what I want.”
This shared instinct and desire to gather knowledge and share it collectively is perhaps what makes this relationship a manifestation of kismet. Through partnering with Dr. Cole, The Anthropologists hope to bring the spirit of this vision to life. With the union of our practices and community-led dramaturgy, we dare to imagine what equitable and actionable theater can look like if we come to it from the inside. We don’t want to be the lone theater maker OR the lone anthropologist, observing the world from our perch above, but rather a community of artists and excavators telling a shared story and inspiring united action.
Interview conducted by Mariah Freda, Artistic Associate
Edited by Eva Moschitto, Archives & Communications Intern