Cornerstone and Community-Based Theater
May 2003, 272 pages. Southern Illinois University Press, Robert A. Shanke, Theater in America Series, editor, 800-346-2680 or 618-453-2281, www.siu.edu/~siupress
In Staging America: Cornerstone and Community-Based Theater, Sonja Kuftinec scrutinizes the complexities of artistic attempts to build and represent community. Kuftinec, who is associate professor of theater arts and dance at the University of Minnesota, describes such attempts as "animating community" and focuses on Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theater as a case study to question what is community and to explore the elements that define and build community. Dr. Kuftinec's book engages in a specific discourse engaged by academics in contemporary critical studies that challenges singular notions of identity, and thereby community. Such studies posit the world to be diverse, multiple, and contradictory, rather than homogenous, singular, and unilateral. Although her style of writing and vocabulary are embedded in this academic practice, her thorough scholarship resonates for anyone who invests time, energy, and resources in cultural initiatives that build communities.
Staging America begins by establishing a history of community-based theater in this country. It starts in the early twentieth century when civic theater pageantry showed immigrant audiences didactic representations of how to behave, think, and feel as residents of the United States. The pageant's boosterism of the U.S. — with its mise-en-scÃ¨ne of flag waving, boisterous performances of nationalist songs and pledges of allegiance, and representations of how to act as citizen — demonstrated to immigrants this nation's beliefs, practices, culture, and identity. Pageantry, Dr. Kuftinec carefully points out, did not intend to erase ethnic and cultural differences, but certainly such differences had no place in these performances of a nationalist, popular identity. The book's historical survey next describes grass-roots theater, folk theater, and the Little Theater Movement's construction of an alternate identity that was based on rural people and lifestyles and that contrasted with popular urban-based Broadway shows. Staging America goes on to describe the period of the 1930s to 1970s as one of socialism, civil rights, and identity politics, resulting in theater companies and movements that spoke on behalf of workers and unions, engaged in political discourse, and represented ethnic minorities struggling to be recognized in a “White America.”
This history provides a backdrop and context for understanding Cornerstone's plays. Cornerstone's work aims to compensate for the homogenizing effects of the early pageantry, align with grass-roots and folk theater's focus on representing rural communities, and articulate the voices of ethnic and cultural differences just as did the work of socialists, civil rights activists, and cultural critics.
Establishing the history of community-based theater is Staging America's starting point. The real work, however, lies in the subsequent chapters that examine specific moments of stress when Cornerstone and community members are deciding how to represent and define their community. These stressful moments are essential to Dr. Kuftinec because they reveal the challenges in representing and building a community. They occur, for example, when key voices of the community are not involved, when community members have differing ideas about who they are as a community, and when either Cornerstone or community members censor the play due to discomfort about how to represent the community. Specific instances involved Cornerstone members' disapproving the use of a community member's racist language and of a community's exclusion of people and ideas that differed from the popular norm. These moments are complicated, too, by a commitment to aesthetic standards that sometimes conflict with Cornerstone's sense of social responsibility in portraying a community.
Underlying Staging America is the notion that “community” is not easily defined, not always apparent, and depends upon both inclusion and exclusion. As such, Dr. Kuftinec discourages the concept of community as fixed, easily identifiable, and all-inclusive. Therefore, the act of building community depends on identifying, representing, and activating the many voices that compose a community, whether the community is a rural town of a few residents or the national community. The challenge for artists who want to help construct community identity is deciding what and who to include and exclude while also pursuing their aesthetic interests.
As grantmakers — that is, as agents in influencing culture — we have a particular responsibility to be critical of the work of community-based artists who participate in defining and animating community. (By “critical” I do not mean wariness, but rather the intellectual activity of questioning and examining.) Grantmakers can be repositories not only of financial support but of intellectual resources as well. If we understand scholarship such as Staging America we can inform our partnerships with artists and communities so they honor the many diverse and divergent voices present at the microcosmic level of rural, suburban, and urban communities, and thereby influence national identify at a macrocosmic level. Therefore, I recommend reading Staging America with attention not only to the history of community-based theater and the compelling story of Cornerstone Theater Company, but also to Dr. Kuftinec's well-crafted inquiry into the ways that art and society intersect to construct culture.