January 2021 Campus Conversations: La Donna Forsgren, Associate Professor, FTT
Meet La Donna Forsgren, Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre. La Donna shares why she was drawn to the theater as a child, discusses her research uplifting Black female playwrights, and talks about how she challenges her students to exist in and learn from the liminal spaces in the classroom. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
By Maura Boston ‘17 and Jessie Wurzer ‘17
How did you become involved with theater? Was it something you knew you wanted to pursue early in life?
I grew up in a household with nine other sisters, raised by a single mother, well below the poverty line. There were times when we were homeless. If you grow up poor,
people tend to give you things. One time someone gave us a box of old books and inside there was an anthology of plays. I was about 10 years old at the time; I was curious. I had never read a play before, so I just dove in. It was called The Boor. It was the funniest thing I had ever read. I thought, “What if we performed it for our friends and neighbors?” I cast my siblings in it and paid them my pocket money (it wasn’t much) to perform in the show. At that point I was acting, directing, and producing, not knowing what theater was at all.
Growing up poor, it was not like we could attend theater productions, so I had never seen a show before, but I was determined that everyone should know about the funny play I had discovered. It wasn’t until college that I found out the playwright was Anton Chekhov, the incredible Russian playwright. Not even knowing who he was or what theater was, I just instantly gravitated toward comedy and a playwright who has inspired generations of theater artists.
Theater also helped me find my people. I took the GED so I could stay home and care for my baby niece whose mother was unable to take care of her. Once my niece was in elementary school, I could continue with my education. At 16, I went off to college. I quickly found out as a first generation student and 16-year-old that I was in way over my head. It was difficult academically and socially. There were very few Black students, and there were no other 16-year-olds.
At one point I saw they were holding auditions for a play called The Bourgeois Gentleman by Molière. I was absolutely terrified at my audition, but the adrenaline was pumping, so I was able to get into the character. I’m not quite 5-foot-2, but I’m very loud and have a lot of energy. That alone made me perfect for comedy, and I was cast as the fencing master. So I was this 16-year-old kid, cast as a man, who got to wear tights, hold a sword, wear a wig, and fight people onstage. I thought, “This is incredible! People get paid to do this? I want to do this for the rest of my life.”
Oftentimes theater includes people who have been marginalized in society. Whether you are a person of color, queer, or if you are somehow different, theater tends to bring people together who haven’t been accepted within dominant society. You come together and have this ability to create meaningful art. I’m not saying that’s always the case, but that’s what drew me in: being able to connect with people who were also misfits. So I found my people and I’ve never looked back.
You've been a dramaturg for many productions. For those not as familiar with the theater world, can you explain what a dramaturg's role is?
A dramaturg advocates for the play, the playwright, and the audience. They provide a thoughtful analysis of the script, the imagery, the characters and their relationships, and the action on stage. They help designers and directors take the words on the page to the stage. For example, they might provide actors resource packages, which give historical context to help craft characters.
When working with a newer play, they provide direct feedback to the playwright. When producing an older work, their main role is to consider the intentions and realities of the playwright, so no one is misreading the text. Being an advocate for the audience is one of the aspects of dramaturgy that I really love. A dramaturg provides public outreach, creates lobby displays and educational resources for students attending the production. I love dramaturgy because it allows me to share research, be creative, and have interaction with the public.
You're a faculty member in not only the Department of Film, Television, and Theater (FTT), but also the Gender Studies Program and the Department of Africana Studies. Can you talk about the intersection of these disciplines and how you hope to see the departments collaborating in the future?
My graduate school program at Northwestern allowed me to take core courses in the theater department in addition to courses in African American history, including those taught by Darlene Clark Hine, an incredible African American historian honored by Barack Obama. I also earned a gender studies certificate. All of these fields are tied together for me. Now, I’m a full-time faculty member in FTT, concurrent in Gender Studies, and affiliate in the Department of Africana Studies. My mission is to celebrate and recover the works and activism of Black women. Theater provides the means of pulling different elements together - Black history, Black culture, women’s art and activism - because the essence of theater is about the human condition. Black women’s subjectivity, meaning the unique ways they see the world, their art, and their activism, crosses all of these disciplines.
Gender, sexuality, race, and ability - all of these intersections of our identity impact our opportunities in life. They have real tangible consequences, and we need to speak across disciplines to have these enriching conversations. I hope FTT continues to produce plays that are meaningful and center marginalized voices. Theater is a powerful tool that can actually bring about social change.
In the context of racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter Movement, what are your hopes for your students? What do you hope to help them learn, change, or be? How do you view your role as an educator and the impact you can have?
One of the things I would like to see happen is for both students and faculty to become anti-racist, or even co-conspirators in the struggle and not simply “allies.” I want all of us to be invested in real change. It's a movement, not a moment. This semester (Fall 2020) was the first time I saw students address systemic racism by leading protests.* I’m hoping the protests the students undertook are not the end. It’s just the beginning.
I want to live in a world where, when my daughter goes to sleep at night, she knows she can wake up in the morning and not be killed. I want my students to know that I need to live in a world where my three sons can go out jogging and not be harassed or killed. I let them know that these issues are not just theoretical concerns. They need to know a course like “Performing Blackness” would have never happened prior to 1968. They need to be a part of the change happening now and not to leave it in the 1960s. I want them to know that no matter your racial identity, you are a part of this conversation; something is at stake for you as well. None of us can be free until Black people are free. I want my students to speak their truth to power. I want them to gain greater empathy for people who may not look like them, have the same history as them, or have the same culture as them. I want them to gain that sense of empathy and then actively engage to make our world more equitable and just.
Can you tell us about your teaching philosophy and what strategies you use in the classroom?
First of all, my work is absolutely student-centered, which attracted me to Notre Dame. Notre Dame cares about the mind, body, and spirit. I care about my students’ mind, body, and spirit. My research and my teaching are inextricably linked. Students have asked me questions that then became book projects. I know there are some classes where you take notes and regurgitate it back to the professor at the end of the semester. That is not my class. We share.
Difficult conversations about politics, race, gender, and sexuality can cause friction in the classroom. That’s where the term “liminal space” comes in. The liminal space of learning is that moment when you are introduced to new material - new ways of living and being and thinking - and the material causes a rupture. It makes you feel very uncomfortable because these aren’t the same ideas you thought of as true, fixed, and normal. I let students know on day one of our classes: you will be caught in that liminal space, and I want you to work through it.
I want my students to know I respect them and I value them, especially their experiential knowledge. I also love baking for them, which I haven’t been able to do during Covid. Food in the Black community is so important and it crosses other communities as well. Sharing food with my students is one of the most important things I can do to let them know I think about them, they are loved, and they are cared for.
Your first book, In Search of our Warrior Mothers: Women Dramatists of the Black Arts Movement, discusses the careers of Martie Evans-Charles, J.e. Franklin, Sonia Sanchez, and Barabara Ann Teer. Can you tell us a bit about these women and what drew you to write about them?
The Black Arts Movement was a period from 1965 to the late 1970s when Black artists were investigating and disseminating the idea of a Black aesthetic. In academia at that time, people were saying Black history and culture didn’t exist, or if it did exist, it was subpar. But Black artists were saying Black history and culture exist and we are going to liberate Black America through our art. My first book is about recovering and celebrating these artists’ works in a way that is reader friendly.
I uncovered the works of Martie Evans-Charles, who wrote incredible plays but was only mentioned as a footnote within historical narratives. Sonia Sanchez is known as a poet, but most scholars don’t talk about her drama. Her poem plays are, in many ways, a precursor to rap. Barbara Ann Teer founded her own theater at a time when Black women were considered high risk as far as giving them a loan. She heard “no” so many times, but she persevered and produced her own works. J.e. Franklin produced a play called Black Girl, centering Black girlhood as something meaningful and significant to present on stage. That was powerful for that time, and it is still powerful today. One of the first questions I had for her was, “Why do you spell your name with a capital J and lowercase e?” She said her manager advised her to use her initials instead of her name because it was very hard for women to get work produced in the ‘60s and ‘70s. That is what they were up against: not just being Black, but being women as well.
What links these four women is that they lived and worked in Harlem, were concerned about the collective well-being of Black men, women, and children, and were mothers. Black womanhood is always something I have appreciated. My mom, raising nine girls, was amazing! I never thought there were limitations for what I could be or do. It wasn’t until I attended college that I realized society thought very differently about Black women. There are so many stereotypes about Black women and history has marginalized them. These women I studied created a different form of imagery in their work that celebrated Black motherhood rather than evoked an idea of a masculine warrior, common within the Black Arts Movement drama. They showed strong Black mothers’ sadness, happiness, and joy, and used it as a catalyst for change.
These playwrights weren’t waiting for the government to step in. They said we as Black women can make this happen and can work with Black men to make our communities safe and to make them free. We see Black women activists doing that now. We see the Black mothers whose children were killed by police or extralegal means coming together, running for office or leading grassroots organizations so that future generations of Black children can live free. That speaks to me as a Black mother of three boys and one girl.
Parenting - being a Black mother and just a mother in general - and being a scholar during Covid has been the most challenging time of my life. I hope we as a society start normalizing parenting and creating spaces for us to be able to fulfill those obligations and responsibilities. We all have the responsibility to lift others up as we ourselves climb. Everything I do is about providing better opportunities for my children and making the world better for them. That is why I continue to do what I’m doing. Notre Dame has been wonderful in supporting my research financially and as a community. It has been wonderful working here.
Are you currently working on any additional publications?
In October 2020, I published my second book, Sistuhs in the Struggle: An Oral History of Black Arts Movement Theatre and Performance. The book comprises 30 interviews with Black women artists and activists, providing them the space to talk about their own work. I interlaced the interviews with information about the historical era. While my first book looked at playwrights only, this book looks at dance, activism, poetry, and performance. I interviewed giants in art and activism like Judy Juanita, the editor-in-chief of The Black Panther newspaper. Before the book was published, several of the women I interviewed passed away. It’s a book that needed to happen at that moment and can never be replicated.
More recently, I was awarded the Oscar G. Brockett Prize by the American Society for Theatre Research, the premier conference in my field of study, for my article, “The Wiz Redux; or Why Queer Black Feminist Spectatorship and Politically Engaged Popular Entertainment Continue to Matter.” The article is a chapter drawn from my third book project, which focuses on queer Black feminist spectatorship in African American musical theater.
I was absolutely floored that I got this prestigious prize. I want to acknowledge the people that came before me. There have been amazing Black women scholars who never had the resources or opportunities I’ve been given. It’s not only a responsibility, but also a privilege to amplify their work. I was recently selected as associate editor for the top journal in my field, Theatre Survey. In this role I will have even greater opportunity to amplify incredible works by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) artists. Winning the Brockett prize was amazing, but it wasn’t just for me: it was for the field of African American theater and it was for BIPOC scholars, whose incredible works are often not recognized.
*Editor’s Note: Professor Forsgren speaks here from her personal experience with witnessing campus activism since joining Notre Dame faculty in 2017. We note there has been a long history of activism around racial justice and equity on campus led by generations of Notre Dame students.