By Elizabeth M Melton
One of my first oral history performance experiences was watching E. Patrick Johnson perform Pouring Tea: Black Gay Men of the South Tell Their Tales, the readers theater version of his oral history collection, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, at Texas A&M University. I was an undergraduate studying English and Theatre, and I was mesmerized by the histories Dr. Johnson shared. Learning about his research, the relationships he developed with interlocutors, and the performances he created was the push I needed to pursue graduate degrees that would teach me the skills to become a critical ethnographer committed to oral history performance.
Fast forward to last October when you may have passed me in the halls of OHA’s Annual Meeting, or joined me in the audience of Saturday’s Plenary where once again I witnessed the power of Dr. Johnson’s work. I was a fourth-year Ph.D. Candidate attending OHA for the first time, spinning from my recent exams and prospectus defense, and preparing for my first oral history performance that was scheduled to take place in November. I was grappling with two big questions: Is what I’m doing actually oral history? How do I present these histories in a way that is ethical, engaging, and critically contextualized?
Simple questions, right?
I am happy to report that my first question was embraced, addressed, and debated the entire weekend. I came away with a strong sense of my position as a critical performance ethnographer who is committed to an oral history methodology. My second question is one that continues to morph and shift as I pursue my research, but I want to share some of what I’ve learned about performance and oral histories.
My dissertation is a hometown ethnography about public school desegregation in Longview, Texas. Thus far I have interviewed ten interlocutors who were present during desegregation as teachers, administrators, students, and parents. Their stories are powerful and offer insight into the experiences of both white and black Longview residents. One of the biggest challenges of this work is my relationship with my hometown. My sisters and I completed our K-12 education in the school district I am studying, as did our parents. All of my grandparents and my mom taught in the school district, and my father served on the school board for many years. After my father passed away in 2010, the school district named the new performing arts center at the high school after him. My position is undoubtedly privileged, and my understanding of my hometown, my family’s legacy, and my education experience is distinctly informed by my whiteness.
Wrestling with all of these complexities is really challenging and I often find myself questioning what actually needs to be part of my dissertation. All of it is important and this web of relations undoubtedly informs my research… but where does it all fit?
Enter: Unpacking Longview, my solo performance-as-research play. I have found that performance is an amazing place to work out the connection between all of these histories. Before I began writing my play I knew that the voices and stories of my interlocutors would be present throughout the piece, but I didn’t know how to incorporate my own story or how to capture the distinct history and culture of East Texas without simply telling story after story after story. I was worried that there would be no dramatic action if I just sat there and explained everything to the audience. Eventually, I settled on a combination of three performance styles: autobiography, oral history performance, and camp.
The performance begins with Elizabeth-the-researcher-and-hometown-girl (that’s me!) searching and digging through boxes, trying to make sense of everything that has been left behind.
This autobiographic part introduces the importance of my family’s history in East Texas and the way my father’s life and death inspires my research. I also acknowledge that much of my father’s success is reliant on his whiteness, and the advantages afforded to him as the grandson of a successful cotton gin owner.
After this reasonably somber foundation is laid, Elizabeth-the-researcher exits in search of a family memento that is lost amongst all the boxes. A radical shift occurs in the lighting and projections on-stage, a booming voice comes over the loud-speaker introducing the one and only–TEXAS MELT.
That’s right. I have my very own all East Texas, all the time, alter-ego. Unsurprisingly, Texas Melt is BIGGER than life, loves to dance and yodel with the skeletons she unpacks throughout the show, and really loves giving the audience a piece of her East Texas mind. Quite simply, she’s a hoot and a half, y’all. What I love about Texas Melt is that she not only provides some much needed comic relief, but she can say things Elizabeth-the-researcher-and-hometown-girl can’t. Texas Melt is the wise(ish) fool who explains how things “really” work in East Texas.
The autobiographic moments and Texas Melt’s interruptions are interspersed with oral history performances. These oral histories dialogically present histories from one white school administrator, one parent who graduated from Longview Negro High School and had two daughters in school during desegregation, one current high school Spanish teacher who was one of the only Latinas in the district during desegregation, and another current teacher who chose to attend the white school during desegregation by choice.
For these scenes, the audience hears a snippet of the interview with the interlocutor’s voice before I step into their story and continue performing it for the audience.
I performed Unpacking Longview last November at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and will take it to Longview this fall. Now, you might notice I’m not telling you much about the ending or other details of the play. Honestly, that’s because I’m not sure it’s really done yet. It’s a work in progress that keeps shifting and revealing new things to me. Oral history performance is the spine of this work, and I had no idea what would happen when I combined campy Texas Melt and my personal story with a performance style that often stands alone. Fortunately, mixing three styles enriches the overall telling of the story and enhances the critical voice of the piece overall. And who knows, maybe Texas Melt is an oral historian, after all.
Featured image and images included in the post are by Headen Photography, used with permission.