Tuesday, January 17, 2012

W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Somebody: Prof. Kathryn Bentley & Du Theatre

Artist Scholars: r2c2h2 tha artivist & Prof. Kathryn Bentley

Video: W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Somebody: Prof. Kathryn Bentley & The Du Theatre Tradition 
 “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
~Zora Neale Hurston (Brainy Quote, 2011)

Kathryn Bentley’s title is associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (SIUE). She is also the director of SIUE’s Black Theatre Workshop. She has taught at SIUE for 6 years under her current title and 2 years before as an adjunct professor. Whereas Prof. Bentley is an academic practicing her craft in a traditional accredited institute of higher learning, I am more of a grassroots educational maverick, operating my projects under an incorporated umbrella entity, The W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Group Inc., where I operate as a consultant and community advocate within as well as outside the traditional educational paradigm. 
 Dr. Aminata Cairo & Prof. Kathryn Bentley

Prof. Bentley has been interested for awhile in exploring the history and tradition of the enslaved African theatre in North America. However, most recently she started research that focuses on a form of theatre done in Suriname, South America, called “Du Theatre” which was originated by slaves. She was introduced to her current research project by Dr. Aminata Cairo. She met Dr. Cairo a few years ago at a mixer for new black faculty.  Dr. Cairo’s family is from Suriname, but she was born and raised in the Netherlands. Suriname is a former Dutch colony and was formerly known as Dutch Guyana. She saw this as a golden opportunity because Dr. Cairo told her that there was nothing written in English about the Du Theatre tradition.  “I became very interested because I am very interested in the slavery theatre of North America just never thought about the possibility of looking at theatre created by enslaved Africans in South America so last summer (2010) I traveled with her to Suriname and stayed for a few weeks where I was able to do some initial interviews with some of the purveyors of the theatre tradition and I taught some acting classes to some young people” (Cinch, 2011).
After her initial visit, Prof. Bentley took her students to Suriname the next summer. “Over the last 2 years I have been heavily researching this form of theatre and incorporating it into working with my students. This summer I was able to take students with me to Suriname to conduct research and they actually became research assistants and also helped me to bring the research to life by putting on an actual performance of this traditional art form” (Cinch, 2011).       
Prof. Bentley with her students

Prof. Bentley realizes that her research and community advocacy approach is rather unorthodox to the traditional function of an academic theatre arts program but she adamantly feels that it is important for her students to not only see themselves as performing artists but also as scholars/intellectuals and community advocates. “I am an artist first that’s my training that’s my background…Fortunately, I was able to discover that I also was a scholar…Typically in liberal arts theatre programs research is not the focus, usually we are training young people to hone their craft to be able to go out and audition to have a career in arts that is more performance based…Because of my background with the arts and having realized through my artistic career there is so many ways to use my artistry as a community artist helping to develop curriculum and also to use it to teach just about anything, I wanted to make sure that I expose my students to the possibilities of using research in their craft and being able to utilize that to find out about different cultures and incorporating that into what they do as artists…I am hopefully opening up my students to a whole other way to look at a degree in theatre” (Cinch, 2011).
Kindred Spirits: Katherine Dunham & Zora Neale Hurston

However, she is following a very unique tradition within the African American culture canon that has visible roots and origins in the Harlem Renaissance Movement of the first half of the 20th Century…Combining her passion for the performing arts with her appreciation for the empirical scientific process has allowed her to share intellectual and aesthetic kinship with literary genius Zora Neale Hurston and dance genius Katherine Dunham, both of whom had extensive academic pedigrees in the anthropology field of which they used the research methodologies and knowledge gathered from the latter to create and inform their unique individual arts legacies. 
Prof. Bentley considers herself as a trendsetter because her research work is contributing to what is now known as multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is the view that the various cultures in a society merit equal respect and scholarly interest (Dictionary.com, 2011).  However, working in an area of a country that is prone to insularity and cultural conservatism can have its challenges because people are less prone to venture outside their comfort zone or worldview. However, according to Prof. Bentley the philosophy and ideals of multiculturalism in esoteric terms is wholly different from its actual application (or lack of) in our shared reality. She often asks her students who pretty much see themselves as open-minded and inclusive human beings “when was the last time you actually sat at a different table at lunch with somebody that was not in your ethnic group or your group of friends???”(Cinch, 2011) When she starts “questioning them on that, they start to realize that maybe I am not as cosmopolitan as I thought” (Cinch, 2011).

In conclusion, Prof. Bentley plans to continue her research on the Du Theatre in Suriname and also in the Netherlands where some of the purveyors of this theatre tradition are also located. She plans to present her research at conferences as well as publish a book on her findings after a few years of further research. Through her connections she was able to bring a Du Theatre artist from Suriname as an artist-in-residence for a semester to expose her students even further to the culture of that particular form of theatrical expression. She is also looking forward to bringing theatre students from Suriname to the U.S. to do theatre projects with her students at SIUE.

Brainy Quote. (2011). Zora Neale Hurston. Last page update unknown. Last retrieved
10/16/2011 from

Cinch. (2011). WE ALL BE Somebody: Prof. Kathryn Bentley Interview. Last Page Update
10/16/2011. Last retrieved 10/16/2011 from http://cinch.fm/r2c2h2/my-stuff/297765.

Dictionary.com. (2011). Multiculturalism. Last page update unknown. Last retrieved 10/16/2011    

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