September Graduate Student Spotlight Profile

September Graduate Student Spotlight Profile:

Esther J. Terry, PhD Candidate, Theatre and Performance Studies

written by Clara Wilch

Esther J. Terry is a PhD candidate in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Pittsburgh who is preparing to defend her dissertation in fall of this year. She speaks eloquently about her research interests and relationship with Performance Studies generally, illuminating tremendous and nuanced questions of identity, history and a quest for truth, and demonstrating great and careful insight in the process.

She summarized her dissertation work as “looking at Afro-European exchanges in the Renaissance and Early Modern eras, in order to analyze why certain performances don’t make it into the history of black dance.” Histories of black dance tend to focus on the effects of the Atlantic slave trade,” EJ explained. She wishes to enrich this narrative through greater attention to bidirectional transcontinental and transoceanic exchanges throughout performance history. She explained, “If I can pull that off, reconfiguring Africa as a significant site of exchange, we should have more sources available to write those histories,” and provide a basis for further research. Given the distance of time between EJ and her research subjects, and the entrenchment of certain incomplete narratives and flawed disciplinary practices, this is often a complicated, uphill journey. “It’s tricky because Africa… was this ‘unchanging entity.’” Early Modern European travelers and twentieth century anthropologists all presumed African performance never changed. Identifying how this illogical philosophy came about, and then proposing ways to correct and uproot it, is challenging.

EJ discussed several experiences that were key to her investment in this important work. She discovered a great interest for African American theatre in high school. Exposure to the work of Lorraine Hansberry and others left her “always want[ing] to know more about them.” As an undergraduate, she made her first visit to Eastern Africa where she traveled with a group of Kenyan performers and writers. Then, in 2010 she went to Tanzania through the University of Pittsburgh and a group Fulbright-Hayes group project abroad. She has studied Swahili for years, most recently with Pitt’s Dr. Kivuva. Spending time in communities of Sub-Saharan Africa was a game-changer for EJ, who suddenly realized the limitations of her Western-based perceptions and education.

EJ had nurtured an enthused curiosity for history since childhood: “I always wanted to know who came before, and what happened before that, and who came before that…” She explains of her revelation upon exposure to East-African cultures, “I always felt found in Africa that there was so much history that the Tanzanians and Kenyans knew about their own home, and I had no idea. Africa was nowhere in my historical training. They would tell me things about ancient civilizations that were there and I’d never heard of… I just feel like it opened up this huge gaping blind spot in my way of looking at the world and I wanted to address that personally and academically.”

As for theatre, EJ became involved in high school, and quickly fell in love with the endeavor. She was delighted to find that in theatre “you always need more people- so when someone comes in who’s excited to be there, they’re like ‘come on in!’ And you get to work on plays. It’s just so fun.” The intersection between her passions for theatre and history became clear during her work as a professional dramaturge. She spent several years between her degrees working in “corporate America,” but continued being involved with plays on the side. She eventually discovered, in the words of a director she’d worked with, that she’s “happiest when [I’m] filling binders full of research.” An early dramaturgy experience on a Charlottesville production of Raisin in the Sun proved particularly important. She asserted in her brief play notes that the story’s ending might be less about achieving happiness than about mobility and the freedom of “being able to choose.” A local critic publically disagreed. Wondering if she might have been wrong, she revisited the issue with further research and found scholarship “largely…agreed with what I said. And I thought, maybe I should be having that conversation- so that was the first time I started thinking about grad school for theatre.”

Years later, as EJ nears the end of her PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies, it seems an exact fit for her lively and deeply considered questions and ideas, and she has gained a lot from her time here. The department’s strong basis in history was a motivation for choosing Pittsburgh’s program. A seminar with Dr. Lisa Jackson-Schebetta, who specializes in Latin American Studies, proved especially influential in EJ’s learning how to ask “really big questions and… to be specific in our answers (which is very challenging- but I love a good challenge.)” Jackson-Schebetta’s work was also helpful for EJ’s own journey to “work through” her self-identification as a Chicana, and conceptions of whiteness and blackness within her personal history.

Her experiences teaching have also been crucial learning opportunities. “The undergrads ask really good questions and they make me a better writer and a better scholar. When I taught ‘Contemporary Global Stages: as Performance of the Global Peforming African Diasporas,’ they my students asked a lot of philosophical questions every day.” She continued, “One thing in particular that I started to see in teaching that class— a lot of the ways we write black theatre and history are shaped by slavery, white people as perpetrators and black people being the victims. And the students know and understand those are the rules that white and black people are supposed to have in history, especially in relation to performance and appropriation. Through discussing their questions, those students and I discovered that we need more narratives that to go alongside of deeply those coercive histories of enslavement.”

All the while, EJ has also been raising her “delightful” son, now four, with her husband Preston. “I wouldn’t have been as successful in the program without the support of my husband, without him leading me and encouraging me and pushing me,” she shared. He’s also helped her to remain grounded through her passionate pursuits. “The biggest support Preston provides me is balance. Being in theatre, the work sucks you in really easily, and academia compounds that because there’s always more work to be done and there’s always a deadline… Preston reminds me that work is not everything…He also reminds me that if you step back and take a break, then you actually bring a fresh perspective on what’s happening and that’s more effective because you don’t drain out. Sort of like bread dough. If you let it rest, it tastes much better.”

Looking towards her future, EJ is exploring possibilities: “I’m not sure what’ll come next… I would like to get a job at a university to support my continued research and teaching. Beyond that I really like being an editor… I’m doing it for the ‘Dear Graduate Scholars’ series. I love that kind of work.” It’s clear that whatever the specifics, EJ has found the right path. “It always makes me so excited. I guess that’s why I like writing about history,” she said, adding, “I guess not everyone would find it so cool.” Yet speaking with her, I only wanted to hear more—EJ transmits the profundity, significance and fun of complex performance histories that, with the hard work of curious and thoughtful scholars like her, will continue to grow.