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Winter 2002
Volume 39, No. 2
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PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar


Stories of Redemption

Professor Rena Fraden's research has involved her with three remarkable women and their belief in art and social justice.

In hindsight, Rena Fraden believes her dissertation was something of a flop.

Trying to identify the tipping point where the sentimental literary tradition of Dickens and Hawthorne degenerated into a low-brow artform scorned by the cultural elite, she now believes she fell short. “I never figured out the precise moment of change when writing sentimentally became just sentimentality,” says Fraden, now in the last of three years as chair of the College’s 12-person English Department, where she also teaches American Studies. “I’m still not sure why that huge paradigm shift took place. So, of course, it’s still enormously fascinating to me as a problem.”

Yet, consciously or not, Fraden’s scholarly pursuits ever since have also been efforts to define cultural shifts through works of art. A self-described sentimentalist, Fraden confesses to believing—like Dickens—that literature should reform the human heart and thus be capable of changing the world. That “anti-modernist” notion helps explain the appeal of a trio of disparate theatre projects that have captured Fraden’s interest in recent years. Seemingly unconnected, all three share a similar story line, albeit each with a different twist. “Like most academics, no matter the subject, I keep telling the same story over and over again,” she says.

The unifying thread in these three very different projects is that they all involve stories of redemption.

Ever since her arrival at Pomona in 1983, Fraden’s research has focused on the intersection between art and the social work some people believe it should accomplish. “It’s that mixture of optimism and realism that attracted me to these projects,” says Fraden, “that and the sounds of the people involved. The achievements and inevitable failures of these programs depend on the strength of the alliances forged among disparate communities. Each project imagines differently configured communities that would have the power to reshape culture, physically, practically, spiritually.”

It was during a visit home to San Francisco in 1994 that Fraden first encountered Rhodessa Jones, a charismatic African American actress who would become the focal point of her most recent book, Imagining Medea: Theater for Incarcerated Women.

At the end of an autobiographical performance that Fraden attended, Jones came on stage to describe the Medea Project, a prison-arts program that biannually culminates in performances by still-jailed actors. Two years later, when Fraden saw her first full Medea production, she was stunned by the performers’ power. In autobiographical vignettes based on the performers’ own stories and seasoned with different cultural myths, the actresses revealed their despairing lives on the fringe of mass culture. The result was confessional performance art as a brilliant fusion of mythology with down-and-dirty street life.

“That’s why I like Rhodessa,” Fraden says. “She takes on Euripides, classical Western literature, and says, ‘We can play this. This speaks to us, too.’”

Since the Medea Project’s first staging in a San Francisco cultural center in 1991, the prison-schooled actresses, identifiable by their jailhouse wristbands, have without exception received standing ovations from their sell-out audiences, who are often in tears by show’s end. Along the way, participants have confronted the sorts of problems that originally landed them in jail—drug addiction, prostitution and domestic abuse—and have often taken control of their lives.

It was to create a longer shelf life for this historically fragile event that Fraden set out to chronicle Jones’ work. While Fraden is quick to admit that the Medea Project isn’t a panacea for the black women who make up one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. prison population, she does see her book, like Jones’ work, as a manifesto for personal revolution. “It’s about finding your own ways to the intersections where you can intervene,” Fraden says.

That theme might also apply to an earlier stage in Fraden’s research, when her fascination with another black theatre project with a goal of social justice resulted in her first book, Blueprints for a Black Federal Theater: 1935-1939.

Focusing on the so-called Negro units of the Federal Theater Project, the book investigated the ambitions of WPA Arts Projects to solve unemployment for theatrical workers. A “voodoo” Macbeth and a “swing” Mikado were among the most imaginative Negro unit productions. In exploring the liberal idealism of the era, Fraden’s book examined the project’s attempt to foster a more inclusive national culture by creating a “people’s” theatre and to broaden representations of racial differences.

The book also focused on another remarkable woman, Hallie Flanagan, who headed that WPA project. Flanagan, Fraden believes, had many things in common with Jones, including a phenomenal charisma. Fraden says, “It was evident in the archives in the way people talked about Flanagan that she shared all the traits so apparent in Jones: a wild enthusiasm, a belief in the saving powers of art and in people’s desire to embrace change.”

Fraden’s most recent research focuses on still a third remarkable African American woman, again talented and charismatic, and again engaged in broadening the conception of theatre and its relation to social justice—Suzan-Lori Parks, whose work Fraden began to explore long before the playwright hit the big time in recent months with a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” and a Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Parks, who heads the dramatic writing program at the California Institute for the Arts in Valencia, Calif., dramatizes some of the most horrific aspects of the African American experience, unearthing hushed-up secrets, performing what’s been buried. Her plays challenge conventional thinking by portraying black and white history as intertwined.

In her play, “Topdog/Underdog” Parks deploys an astonishing central historical conceit, that of a black man impersonating President Lincoln in a theme park arcade. His “act” is to allow paying customers to pretend to assassinate him over and over again.

“It’s a joke, but has real consequences,” says Fraden. “Her writing is unlike any other playwright I know at the moment. You find yourself laughing uncontrollably, then uncomfortably, then the next moment you jump at the sound of a gunshot, and then the writing soars to lyrical heights.

“What I value about her is the way she is working out differences in identity politics, the way she plays around with identity and history, opens up and closes out fateful possibilities,” says Fraden, who in the spring shared a manuscript about Parks with a faculty seminar titled “Embodied Knowledge.”

Today, the trajectory of Fraden’s research is perhaps most evident in “The Confessional Voice,” a course that borrows from her research into the Medea Project. In the classroom, Fraden explores what it means to confess, which she describes as one of the most cherished impulses of the modern world. Her students read and debate whether literary confessions are intended to evoke pity, understanding or absolution, are conscious or involuntary. Besides reading traditional texts, students watched a video of HBO crime boss Tony Soprano confessing to his therapist. To find a contemporary parallel to Rousseau’s autobiography, which divulges his flashing fetish, students ferreted out other examples of public perversity: a Website by a man who dresses as Peter Pan.

“The great thing about teaching is all these things are open to discussion,” says Fraden. “I’m having a lot of fun as we’re trying to figure things out, make categories for ourselves.”

Her research has also inspired Fraden to consider her own influence as a catalyst. One of her fond ambitions is to nurture an intellectual hothouse among Pomona’s faculty. While what she describes as a “pie-in-the-sky” proposal for a faculty research institute went nowhere, Fraden, along with others, did win approval for the creation of a faculty seminar to explore interdisciplinary topics.

“Rena discerns in others, and in communities of all descriptions, what is possible and what is doable,” says one of her colleagues in the English Department, Martha Andresen. “She does so with a rare blend of empathy, humility, generosity, tough-mindedness and strategic shrewdness—all leavened with an endearing sense of wonder and irreverence.”

For her part, Fraden has no illusions that conversations involving only academics will lead to solutions. “I’d like to imagine a space for interaction between academics and other local workers, in government, business, law, social work. I think a place like Pomona with all its resources—the sheer intelligence and disciplinary knowledge of its faculty, and also, and not of least importance, good will among them, coupled with the financial means to support just about whatever we can imagine—should enable us, if not compel us, to imagine more generously intersections between our world and the world outside.”

“This is just the place,” she adds, “small enough but powerful enough, to invite conversations about what a more just configuration of the world would look like. In our society, the only way we’re going to more closely approximate justice is through vigorous and ongoing discussions among people who may have, indeed do have, radically different notions of what constitutes justice and what means should be used to implement it. Something like that is what I would like to see happen here.”

—Andrea Adelson

Photo by Ian Bradshaw