The Unwieldy Otherwise: Rethinking the Roots of Performance Studies in and through the Black Freedom Struggle


  • Leon Hilton Brown University
  • Mariahdessa Ekere Tallie Brown University


This project presents a syllabus that emerged out of an ongoing set of discussions between the two co-authors about how Black, Southern theatre and performance traditions—as well as embodied and transmitted genealogies of community engagement and activism—informed the intellectual, social, and political commitments that have suffused performance studies from its origins as an academic discipline. These discussions allowed us to generate a syllabus that provides the raw materials for an alternative and potentially radically destabilizing pedagogical approach to narrating the historical roots and development of performance studies over the past half-century. Specifically, we ask what shifts might occur in the performance studies classroom by narrating the field’s origins through the Free Southern Theatre, founded as a multiracial artistic ensemble in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964. Our syllabus incorporates the key strands woven into the Free Southern Theatre’s aesthetic and political interventions, including Africanist cultural forms (such as the story circle); influences from the artistic and theatrical avant-garde; and populist theatre projects that developed in tandem with the revolutionary energies of the anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, and anti-capitalist struggles of the student movements of the 1960s. We ask how these largely hidden histories of resistance and dramaturgies of evasion reorient the way performance studies syllabi of the future tell the story of who and what matters, and in so doing materialize pedagogies of field formation that get frozen in place.

Author Biographies

Leon Hilton, Brown University

Leon J. Hilton is an assistant professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies and a faculty affiliate with the Gender and Sexuality Studies and Science and Technology Studies programs at Brown University. His first book, Feral Performatives, is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press, and his articles have appeared in GLQThird TextAfrican American ReviewThe Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, and TDR/The Drama Review.

Mariahdessa Ekere Tallie, Brown University

Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie is a PhD student in Theatre Arts and Performance Studies at Brown University and the award-winning author of Layla’s Happiness (Enchanted Lion Books), Strut (Agape Editions), Dear Continuum: Letters to a Poet Crafting Liberation (Grand Concourse Press), and Karma’s Footsteps (Flipped Eye Publishing).