Rena Fraden's research has involved her with three remarkable women and
their belief in art and social justice.
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 Colleges 12-person English Department, where she also teaches
American Studies. Im still not sure why that huge paradigm
shift took place. So, of course, its still enormously fascinating
to me as a problem.
Yet, consciously or not, Fradens scholarly pursuits ever since have
also been efforts to define cultural shifts through works of art. A self-described
sentimentalist, Fraden confesses to believinglike Dickensthat
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 Fradens
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,
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, Fradens research has focused
on the intersection between art and the social work some people believe
it should accomplish. Its 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,
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.
Thats 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 Projects 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 shows end. Along the
way, participants have confronted the sorts of problems that originally
landed them in jaildrug addiction, prostitution and domestic abuseand
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 isnt 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. Its about finding your own ways to the intersections
where you can intervene, Fraden says.
That theme might also apply to an earlier stage in Fradens 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
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, Fradens book examined the projects
attempt to foster a more inclusive national culture by creating a peoples
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 peoples desire to embrace change.
Fradens 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 justiceSuzan-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 whats 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.
Its 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
Today, the trajectory of Fradens 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 Rousseaus 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. Im having a lot of fun as were 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 Pomonas 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
shrewdnessall 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. Id 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 resourcesthe
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 imagineshould 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 were 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.
Photo by Ian Bradshaw