Teaching deconstruction using drama and improv games

This semester was the second time I attempted to teach Suzan-Lori Park’s The America Play to Korean students completing English majors in a rigorous program with an international faculty. We began reading the text just after the news about the supreme court decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown broke in the news, and protests (which are still ongoing) began to spread throughout the United States. As we were discussing the text’s unique breaks with dramatic and writing conventions, the news of the court decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner via strangulation also broke, further inflaming protests. My students, ever thoughtful and perceptive, reflected on the violence of the protests through their own encounters with racism or other forms of exclusivism, both abroad and at home. One young woman’s comments especially struck me: she spoke about noticing the tendency of people to hold “dual” or “double consciousnesses” within themselves, rightly decrying racism when they encounter it, but not noticing their own prejudices. This became an especially valuable insight when students began reflecting, prompted by the idea that the Ferguson riots were “not just a black and white issue”, on the kinds of prejudices and stereotypes, whether positive or negative, they’ve noticed between Korean and Korean-American and African-American communities. Many of these Korean students have spent time in the United States or in other countries where they have become more fully aware of their own potential outsider status.

In order to more fully understand Parks’ notion of repetition and revision, I decided to pair the play with an introduction to the concept of deconstruction and differance in literary theory, and then open this out into the question of performing and interpreting identity, especially racial or ethnic identity. We spent one class period on the broad idea of deconstruction, and another class period on differance as difference and deferral. In the first class, we played a simple improv game wherein the group stands in a circle and passes a sound and movement around the circle like a wave. The objective is for each participant to copy, as exactly as they can, the sound and movement “passed” to them from the previous participant. It’s an audible and kinetic game of “telephone.” By the time the sound/movement gets back to the original “sender”, it has morphed into something perhaps similar, but more than likely completely different. After playing this a few times, getting over the giggles and hesitations, the game functioned as a wonderful analogy for the process of communication. In each repetition, something changed. Each “original” began something new. Yes, we could physically trace the pattern back to the original “sender”, but where did each variation “come from”? How did these variations arise, and how could we predict what would remain recognizable of the “original” and what would not? Now the students had a clear visual and physical aide to understanding the process of difference and deferral in the interpretation of meaning: communication is a process wherein signs differ and defer from one another. We then turned to Parks’ text to look at examples of repetition and difference. What is the setting? Who are these characters? Do they represent real places? Do they represent individual people? Students began to “get” the play when they began to see the setting (The Great Hole of History) as an idea itself, and the characters as explorations of what it means to find your identity through the deconstruction of history, rather than in a history that one is given as a “truth”.

I began the second class in a similar way. We reviewed the idea of deconstruction as peeling away the layers meaning, to try to discern an idea’s genealogy. Rather than viewing history as having an origin and a linear trajectory (from the Big Bang to the space shuttle; from the Garden of Eden to America the Beautiful), what about history as multiple, fluid, as representations of representations (the students especially found this significant in relationship to the TV, the bust and the pasteboard cutout of Mr Lincoln that Brazil digs up in the Great Hole, which is itself an “exact replica” of the Great Hole of History). To introduce the idea of differance, we again stood in a circle and played a simple free association game. I urged them to not censor themselves and allow the association with whatever the last person has said to pop out of their mouths (which can be really difficult to do if you’re translating yourself in your head between two or more languages!) To play this game, simply pass a word to the person to your right or left and go around the circle. The objective is to allow the word you receive to prompt images, sounds, ideas, whatever that is for you, and to say the first thing that you associate with that word. It can sound like “pen–pencil–eraser–eraser head–movie–popcorn–butter–greasy–hair–brush…” etc. This game illustrates the idea that the meaning of any word is constructed through its relationship to all other concepts related to it. Meaning is constructed through difference. Differences defer from one another–there’s always a space between a word and meaning. Language is a network of related ideas, rather than a set of signs that correspond to a set of truths or absolute meanings. By grasping this basic concept, students understand the basic notion that differance contests any philosophy that aims at revealing a universal or higher truth. Instead, differance reveals relationality. This was especially helpful in helping students understand that as an African American playwright, Parks is doing something very different from people like Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson. Such African-American problem-plays are about the conflicts African Americans face in US society. They are plays about black people. But Parks wants to take on the who set of assumptions about what African American theatre is supposed to be. The America Play is a play about history itself, not just about African Americans and the history of slavery. It is a play about identity itself, not just about African American identity. In deconstructing the whole project of African American dramaturgy, Parks helps readers understand the very concept of drama anew. I am not sure that my students became well-versed enough in American drama as a whole to fully appreciate this last point, but what they certainly did come to appreciate, judging from their thoughtful written reflections afterward, was that Parks’ play challenges any idea that identity must correspond to a normative history.