Art and Activism
Motivating Students to Take a Stand
INSPIRED BY SUCH TEACHINGS, Susquehanna students and alumni have used their chosen art forms to make bold statements about social and political concerns. Last year, theatre and sociology major Darla Spangler ’10 wrote The Many, a one act play in which five anonymous characters present monologues addressing fallacies about sexual abuse. Spangler was spurred to write the play after an internship with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). She gave each character an archetypal name. “Male” speaks of his ordeal as a rape victim, underscoring the misconception that only women are thusly abused. “Slut” addresses the stereotype of the woman who brings violence upon herself by provocative dress or behavior. And “Nine” is the name given to a girl who suffered humiliation from a voyeur in her own family.
In a theory class, journalism major Kelly Stemcosky ’11 was challenged to think of a way to improve communication among students on campus. This led to a video club, postings on YouTube, and finally a student-run TV station, which she now produces. SUTV provides entertainment, but also airs debates about current issues such as health care. A proponent of women’s rights, Stemcosky also assisted with the 2008 production of The Vagina Monologues, the proceeds from which were given to Susquehanna Valley Women in Transition.
Billie Tadros ’10, a creative writing and music major, wrote the musical Fresh Ground, performed on campus in April 2009 as part of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) Colloquium. The play is about three lesbians who open a coffee shop in Selinsgrove, and the ways in which a conservative community responds to gay and lesbian issues, toward which Tadros felt the community had turned a blind eye.
She was pleased to learn that her play generated controversy and discussion within local Christian groups. Raised in a conservative Catholic family, she has thrown herself into the cause of sexual equality, participating in marches in Washington, D.C., and the Pennsylvania state capital. Tadros is applying to graduate school and hopes to write poetry and music that will continue the fight.
Perplexed by the notion of necessary violence, David T. Little ’01 grew up highly critical of military action. In his childhood and early adolescence, Little had difficulty understanding how someone could serve in the military. As he matured, he became conflicted by his loathing of war and his feelings for the people who served in the military, including three generations of his family and several of his high school friends. A talented musician and composer, he set out to create a piece that addressed these feelings.
“I wanted to write music that deconstructs what military service—and war—does to those who have to carry it out most directly,” he says. “It’s about the struggle that comes from having been in the military.”
Little interviewed veterans from four wars, including an Arabic linguist kicked out of the U.S. Army for being gay, his uncle who fought in Vietnam, his stepfather who did military intelligence in Italy during the 1960s, and his grandfather, a front command clerk in World War II whose duties included the compilation of casualty lists—a position that kept him out of the fighting but very much aware of its horrifying results. Little titled the work Soldier Songs and staged it as a one-man opera for bass baritone voice, amplified chamber ensemble and the taped interviews he did with the service men and women. The singer hums a tune throughout the piece but at the end bursts into a clear song, symbolizing the voice discovered by the soldiers who remained silent about their experiences for so long.
AS A GAY MAN RAISED IN THE SHADOW of South Africa’s apartheid, Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing Glen Retief has spent a significant part of his life fighting injustice. A somewhat sheltered youth from a loving and protective family, he was sent to a boarding school at the age of 12 and fell under the tyranny of a sadistic older boy named John, a prefect who created a “Jack Bank”—“Jack” being South African slang for a beating. “Each student was invited to voluntarily deposit beatings in an account book,” Retief explains. “Here, these thrashings, usually administered upon the bare buttocks with a cricket bat, could earn interest and later be withdrawn when the student got into trouble.”
Although John was eventually transferred to another hall, the torment he meted out had a profound effect on Retief, who, having surrendered to Stockholm syndrome and internalized homophobia, found himself identifying with the prefect. Years later, as a prefect himself, he savagely caned an underclassman and was so appalled by his actions that he pledged to “never fight in a war and never again bully another human being.” He had recognized “that great cycle of apartheid violence—the apparatus whereby white boys are bullied when they are young, so that later they will know how to beat blacks into submission.”
Retief devoted himself to the cause of freedom, and his work as a writer, journalist and activist with the Organization for Gay and Lesbian Action and the United Democratic Front helped South Africa become the first country to include nondiscrimination clauses protecting sexual orientation in its bill of rights.
In his memoir, aptly titled The Jack Bank (available from St. Martin’s Press in February 2011), he has fashioned a narrative free of preaching. “I strongly believe that the literature of witness should not be beholden to any didactic message. When art becomes a servant of activism, it fails. Art shows ambiguities and contradictions, and asks more questions than providing answers, and in this way the relationship between art and activism is mutually enriching.”