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Mining the Details: Reflections on a Semester with The Anthropologists

By Eva Moschitto, Spring 2023 archives and communications intern

My first day back in California for the summer, I reunited with a good friend at our favorite coffee shop. Per usual, we spent three-and-a-half hours catching up and debating future plans, like whether she should apply to medical school. This question sparked various tangents on the roots of American healthcare inequalities, hierarchies of “scientific” and “unscientific” knowledge, the ways language reinforces these boundaries, and the role of art in it all—which, of course, led me to The Anthropologists.

There was so much I wanted to tell her about my experience as The Anthropologists’ Spring 2023 archives and communications intern.

Did you know theater companies could even be run this way? Like, collaboratively?! That they could value each actor’s unique expertise and creativity, and use that to transform in-depth historical research into a play?

Did you know that the things we might think of as terrible, unfortunate aberrations in American healthcare—like racial disparities in birthing outcomes—are actually the results of a system designed to function that way?

Our coffees disappeared before we could answer, or even ask, all of these questions. There’s still so much I wanted to share—like how, by attending a talk-back for Artemisia’s Intent or community group reading Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body, I witnessed how The Anthropologists facilitate interactive, inclusive dialogue that welcomes each participant’s unique perspectives and identities. Or how, by editing a bibliography for Give Us Bread (in print, as of April 2023!) and attending weekly doula project meetings with anthropologist Dr. Haile Eshe Cole, I learned how much time goes into unearthing the historical foundation for each play.

When I got the chance to attend an in-person doula project rehearsal in May, I saw how our team of actors, directors, producers, and anthropologists drew out sights, sounds, smells, specific language, and other details from our key sources (academic papers). By attending to these details, we reimagined what daily life might have felt like for the Black granny midwives described in the text.

We analyzed not just the practices of early Black midwives, but how these practices and midwives were perceived by outside, “objective” academics—and how the form, style, and language of the papers themselves perpetuated some of the racist de-legitimization these women experienced.

While I’d practiced this formal analysis in my literature and creative writing classes, I’d rarely applied it to academic papers. I had certainly never used my analysis to inspire movement experiments with actions like pulling, scooping, or dabbing.

Yet, by mining details from the text and using these details to inform our embodied experiments, we uncovered what the papers didn’t convey—the stench of birth; the sound of water boiling to sterilize tools or midwives’ footsteps traversing unpaved roads at night; the precious, momentary joy of cheese, soda-crackers, and a cool bottle of Coke; the force and strength of a caregiver’s labor.

We moved past the academic abstraction of the papers’ to draw closer to their subject: early Black granny midwives and the women they served.

This is what The Anthropologists are all about: making real the lives and stories of communities whose lives and stories have been systematically devalued, invalidated, ignored, and erased. This process, I learned, involves rigorous research and creative exploration.

After a semester of interning with The Anthropologists, I might have more questions than when I began. That seems to be the way it goes, with research too—the more you learn, the more curious you become. And I learned so much this semester—not only about the history of midwifery and birthing practices, but also about how to retell that history in a way that honors and centers the women’s stories. I got just a taste of The Anthropologists’ research and rehearsal process, but thankfully, I’ll be back in New York next fall—ready to see what the team has dreamed up.

(L to R) Melissa Moschitto, Mariah Freda, Eva Moschitto, Jalissa Fulton

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Jul 31, 2023

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