Colbert investigates black performance
By Sharla Grass, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, July 17, 2012
English professor Soyica Colbert’s first book, “The African American Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance, and the Stage,” is an intriguing exploration of the intersection of theater and the African-American experience. Colbert focused on plays spanning the 19th to the 21st centuries to demonstrate how theatrical works can be used to redefine the way people view African Americans.
African-American drama from this time period worked to “create places on the stage and the page to recover and to respond to the trauma and the aftermath of the transatlantic slave trade,” according to Colbert.
Since her time as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, Colbert said she has been interested in how race manifests itself. Her experience researching and teaching theater allowed her to combine knowledge from these two areas together.
“One of the things that I think is interesting about theater is it allows us to think of race as a physical embodiment as well as an ideology or a category,” she said. “We often think of how theater functions in terms of race or discourse. What I was really trying to think about is what happened with the materiality of race.”
Colbert’s book explores how drama allows viewers to think about race in different aspects. For example, in written works, readers are confronted with the discursive side of race, but when a play is performed, audience members are faced with the materiality of race.
“[The book involves] thinking about race as something that shifts and moves and has different meaning,” Colbert said. “When we think about what blackness means, it keeps us aware of the way in which we understand blackness or whiteness.”
Colbert cited the prevalence of racial profiling as an example of how Americans currently view race.
“We can say that race is constructed and that it means different things, but part of that is the way in which racial profiling functions,” she said. “In that way it seems static and that we have a clear understanding of what it means to be a certain type of race.”
Her experience teaching, interacting with and advising students at the College has contributed to her work, Colbert said. The dramas brought to campus by different Dartmouth departments have also influenced her thinking.
“I think there have been a lot of intersections with my work and my experiences with being a professor at Dartmouth,” she said.
Colbert said that her book includes passages about African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Park’s “America Play,” which the theater department brought to campus, and that the book was also influenced by other African-American playwrights that she saw through Dartmouth.
Colbert’s research in English earned her an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship — a post-doctoral fellowship in the humanities at Stanford University — in 2006. It also allowed her to advise Lou Lou Igbokwe ’10 during Igbokwe’s writing and production of a play about being a black woman, according to a College press release.
Colbert said she is hopeful that more African-American playwrights will be brought to campus during the Year of the Arts, which began this summer to celebrate the Hopkins Center’s 50th anniversary. She also hopes to plan an event involving her book in conjunction with the English department this fall, she said.