Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, PhD (Cultural Anthropology), M.A. (Anthropology), MFA (Theater), Graduate Certificate) Women’s Studies, B.A. (Journalism); is an Associate Professor of Urban Theater and Community Engagement in the Theater Department at Temple University. The author of Through Smiles and Tears: The History of African American Theater (From Kemet to the Americas) (Lambert Academic Publishing, 2011); The Secret Messages in African American Theater: Hidden Meaning Embedded in Public Discourse” (Edwin Mellen Publishing, 2006) She is a recipient of the 2013 Associate Provosts Arts Grant; 2008 Seed Grant, 2003 Provost’s Arts Grant; 2001 Independence Foundation Grant, the 2000 PEW fellowship, and 1999, DaimlerChrysler National Poetry Competition. Williams-Witherspoon is a contributing poet to 26 anthologies and recipient of a host of awards and citations.
Interview with g emil reutter
GER: You instruct a course at Temple University, Poetry as Performance. Please share with us the development of the course, student reaction and the benefits they receive from the course?
KWW: Poetry As Performance (TH1008) was one of the first courses that I wrote for the Theater Department at Temple. I think I started teaching the course in 1996. I had always called what I did as a performance artist Performance Poetry—combing spectacle and the theatricality of theater with original poetry recitation. By that time, Spoken Word was just coming into being, but the Spoken Word genre was a completely different performance style limited to Slam competitions and three (3) minute “spits” constructed to solicit the most audience response. My work as a Performance Poet was more akin to poetic monologues and dramatic vignettes. So I convinced my colleagues in the Theater Department at Temple that a class like Poetry As Performance would get actors away from notions of the Hallmark-card style of performing poetry and could capitalize on the youth Rap/Hip Hop/Spoken Word movement that was emerging, while still training students in the elements of theater and performance studies.
In 2006, in addition to my course at Temple, I got special permission from my Dean (then Concetta Stewart) to pilot the course at Bryn Mawr College when they wanted to begin a similar course offering there. Each class teaches poetry style, performance technique and community-based learning culminating in free performances each semester on WRTI- radio, now TUTV and in Randall Theater for the university and North Philadelphia community.
My classes, first Performance Poetry and then Poetic Ethnography, TH 2008 have been wildly popular with the student body and not limited to just theater students. In any given semester, at least two thirds of the class come from English/Creative Writing programs, Dance, Tyler school of Art, biology, communications and the like. Alumni students and senior scholars have even come back to audit the course when they couldn’t fit it in to their schedule before graduating. I have former students replicating what I’ve taught them in public schools and community programs across the nation—keeping young people engaged in theater, poetry and the written word—even at time when so much of k thru 12 access to the arts is consistently (and strategically) being cut back and curtailed.
KWW: I have been very fortunate, Although I fell in love with words and started writing poetry when I was about 8 years old (really corny stuff like: Dear Lord God above/bless my boyfriend/and preserve our love…) I had no idea what love was and my father would have killed me if I really had a boyfriend at eight years old but you get the point. A library aide all through my public school career (Gompers Elementary, Beeber Junior High and the Philadelphia High School for Girls) I had unlimited access to books and I read all the time. I feel in love with rhyme, and rhythm and meter and because I grew up watching my mother reciting religious prose pieces in church, I knew the value in authors performing original work. I stumbled onto theater quite by accident. I was living in Houston and couldn’t find work in my field as a journalist but because I had won a bunch of awards at the Barbara Jordan Debate and Forensics Competition in Houston the year before, I could get a job in theater. Acting and directing in other people’s plays made me want to write my own…and the performance poetry morphed into playwriting.
I tell people that poetry is the language I am most comfortable in and playwriting is my method of social activism. I am no August Wilson, but like Wilson, I think my plays have a poetic quality and I know that playwriting has greatly enhanced my ability to capture character in my performance work. Couple all that with my doctoral training as a Cultural Anthropologist and I bring a unique skill set to theater and performance studies as a hybrid researcher, scholar, performance artist,, playwright, poet.
GER: Over the years you have received numerous honors and grants in the arts. How have these impacted your career in poetry and theater?
KWW: That’s a little tricky. You’re right, I’ve won some major awards in writing over the years for my work as a Performance Poet and as a playwright…the Venture Lifetime Achievement Award. (2014); The Miriam Maat Ka Re Award for Scholarly research (2013); The Spoken Soul 215 Award. (2013); “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the National Black Arts Spoken Word Tour; (2011); 2010 the Kennedy Center “Distinguished Achievement” Award for Project Co-Conception, Playwriting and Performance. of “SHOT” at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival; the 2000 PEW Charitable Trusts Arts Grant for scriptwriting; the 1999 Winner of the DaimlerCrysler National Poetry Competition; the 1999 Winner of the DaimlerChrysler Regional Poetry Competition (Philadelphia); 1996 PEW Exchange Residency Grant; 1995-96 Scholars Fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society; the 1993-94 PEW Playwright Residency Exchange Grant; the 1991 American Poetry Center Performance Poet Residency Grant; the 1990 American Poetry Center Residency Grant; the 1990 “Playwriting Fellowship” from the Theater Association of Pennsylvania; and the 1987 Award in Literature from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. And that’s just a few of them.
You would think that having won as many awards as I have over the years that my position as a Performance Poet and Playwright in the city would be secure but that didn’t happen. Like everybody else, I struggle to get my work performed and published and have had to resort to sometimes, producing my own work. Even when I won the PEW in 2000, I thought…now, the theater community has to recognize me and my work; but that didn’t happen! Now, some people might say that it’s because I am an African American female…I don’t know…perhaps! We don’t really talk about the inequity of arts production and access to resources in this city so I don’t know if my career trajectory would have been different if I wasn’t a woman of color who writes about her community? But I do wonder sometimes if a white male had done the amount and variety of things that I have done, what would have been different?….Hmmm.
GER: You have been active in the poetry community of Philadelphia for many years. What changes have you seen in poetry in the city and what advice would you give to emerging poets?
KWW: Oh so much has changed. On any given night but particularly on Monday nights at the Bacchanal you could hear Will Perkins, Eugene Howard, Lamont Steptoe, Bob Small, Rosemary Cappello, Gerome Robinson, Etheridge Knight, Mbali Umoja, Rikki Lights and so many more. Now, there are only a few of us left.
Those poets didn’t sound alike like–they do now. Each poem and each poet was different! There was a vibrancy and an urgency to record what was happening in the world around us poetically. Now when I’m asked to judge competitions, so many of the young people sound the same—there’s so little nuance. With slam competitions, moneymaking has become a motivating force in the work and after awhile, some of the work can seem formulaic.
We didn’t make money with poetry when I first started. We all had day jobs. That wasn’t the goal. Sure some of us made a little money along the way; but that wasn’t the end all, be all of why we wrote and performed. We wrote because we had to…we were called to…we needed to—even if no one else heard us but one another. There was no YouTube or SLAM winner-take-all-purses. We wrote and performed together each week because the muse demanded that we capture that moment, that feeling, that character or that event so it wouldn’t be lost to forgotten memory.
KWW: Secret Messages is the published version of my dissertation. I did my field research at Freedom Theater during Walter Dallas’ tenure as Artistic Director. That work is all about the development of African American Theater, the inequity of African American arts production and their limited access to resources—unless, of course, those Black arts organizations produce work that appears benign or reinforces social stereotypes. That work also talks about the necessity for most artists of color to develop a hidden transcript or seemingly playing out the expectation of blackness in their public performance while infusing their art with code words, African retentions and cultural references that still have meaning to their community. In this way writers, actors and musicians can infuse their work with dignity—even when forced to play out notions of the Black coon, thug, “gangsta”, mammy or angry Black woman.
GER: Her praying knees: my mother believed that prayer held the world together was published in the Other Side. Tell us about your mother, her impact on you and the belief that prayer can hold the world together?
KWW: Well Mommy got it from her mother, Mama Curry—Beatrice Charlow Curry. Every day at 12 o’clock, no matter what you were doing, every body had to come in, kneel down and pray—and after the prayer, old to young (even the mailman if happened to be there at the time) we all had to recite the Lord’s prayer in unison. As a result, my mother was a praying woman. I still recite the prayer that she taught us, that her mother taught her and all of my children know it as well. Prayer was a very important component of my upbringing knowing how to pray has gotten me through more difficult times and situations than I care to think about. Prayer taught me to have faith. We all need to believe in something–some higher power. I wouldn’t presume to tell people what that higher power should be; but for me, I value the time that I can talk to God and the ancestors.
Now, as an adult, as a wordsmith and as an anthropologist, I also recognize that prayer is a component of word power—some West African cultures call it Nommo (power of the word). Praying, the repetition of the words in your prayer becomes a power in of itself. The repetition of the prayer becomes a mechanism for actualization—the word, the prayer can eventually call the thing into being. Just like incantation or prescription, the doctor tells the patient to take this medicine and it will make you fell better. The patient re-reads the prescription each time they take the medication and believes. Pretty soon the patient feels better—even when the medication is a placebo!
Not only did my mother Lillian Curry Hawes, teach me about prayer and faith and words and believing; but she also taught me to love books and learning and she is the reason why I perform. Both my parents grew up in the segregated south. While my father had to quit school after the sixth grade because he was the oldest son of nine children and had to go to work to help his parents, my mother loved school and learning. One of eleven children herself, in order to go from one grade to the next in the segregated schools of Dade County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in the 1920’s, each child had to be able to recite a body of literature appropriate to that grade—the Preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, the books of the Bible. Mommy knew so much history and literature committed to memory—she made you want to learn it too.
She knew almost all of the Harlem Renaissance Writer’s work by heart and she would recite poems and prose as she worked around the house. You could not come downstairs for breakfast on Sunday morning, while Mommy cooked both Breakfast and dinner at the same time (so that dinner would be ready when we got home from church) and hear Mommy reciting James Weldon Johnson’s The Creation, stirring grits at the stove and not be affected. She also wrote these wonderfully profound Christian prose pieces that she would preform at church for Women’s Day, the pastor’s anniversary and conventions and I would watch the congregation sitting on the edge of their sits, listening to her recitation, enthralled with every word—and I wanted to be able to do that! Not only was my mother an incredibly warm and godly individual but also she was a phenomenal orator and performer all on her on. Mommy has been gone since 1992. I miss her every day and I still perform one of her pieces called The Bible that she wrote when she was a little girl.
GER: Through Smiles And Tears: The History of African American Theater was a follow up to The Secret Messages in African American Theater. How does this book differ from the first?
KWW: Through Smiles and Tears is an expanded history of African American Theater beginning with a discussion of performance traditions in Ancient Kemet (Egypt) , southern and West Africa through to the Americas. The book covers plantation performance, African American contributions to dance, minstrelsy, serious drama in the early 1900’s, the anti-lynching plays and African American women playwrights of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, the Little Theater Movement, the Black Arts Movement (BAM) through to the millennium and August Wilson.
KWW: Again, because I was a library aide all through my public school years, I worked in the school libraries before school, during lunch and free periods and sometimes after school. Books were my friends growing up so I read all the classic writers but were drawn to narrative story poets like Clement Clarke Moore; Edgar Albert Guest and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But my favorite poets were Paul Lawrence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Robert Haydon. The people who have inspired me were the women who let me be part of their circle here in Philly—Sonia Sanchez, Toni Cade Bambara, Kristen Hunter Lattany, and Sharon Goodman. Etheridge Knight was wonderful, E. Ethelbert Miller encouraged me when I would give him rides to 30th Street Station when Sonia had him come up every week to teach a workshop to us all. As a playwright, Al Simpkin taught me a lot. John Allen was a warm and wonderful man, Ed Shockley recommended me for the MFA program and then my mentors Robert Hedley and Tom Patterson have been so instrumental to me in my career in the academy. I have been very fortunate!
GER: Please tell us about Countdown to Boom?
KWW: Count Down to Boom was a dance drama that I wrote and co-directed which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, where four little Black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley were killed in one of the most horrific acts of domestic terrorism perpetrated against Blacks during the Civil Rights Movement. Count Down to Boom: We All Fall Down was the second collaboration with another Temple mentor, Dr. Kariamu Welsh, that premiered in April 2013 at Temple University’s Performing Arts Center, as part of the second Philadelphia International Arts Festival (PIFA) thanks to the generous support of Dean Robert Stroker of the Center for the Arts, a Vice Provosts’ Arts Grant, and the departments of Dance and Theater. Count Down to Boom was subsequently remounted at the State Museum in Harrisburg, in February 2014 for Black History Month sponsored by Life Esteem, Inc., The City of Harrisburg Office of Arts, Culture and Tourism; “Some One to Tell It To”, the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts; the State of Museum of Pennsylvania, the American Literacy Corporation, Penn State Harrisburg Outreach, the Subcommittee of the Diversity Education Equity Committee, The Nathaniel Gadsden Writer’s Workshop and Giant Foods.
KWW: I have had favorite moments performing. Performing on the stage of the Majestic Theater in Detroit in front of 4000 audience members was a rush that I’ll never forget. Performing in London in a bookstore in Covent Gardens and at the base of the Washington Monument during the National Black Family Reunion was one for the record books. When my play, A Woman’s Choice opened at the Cannon Theater in Beverly Hills I thought I had made it! You know…big or small, I love what I do. There have been some monetary benefits along the way but in real life I perform because I have to! The poetry keeps me alive. It demands to be written and it demands to be heard…I’m just the vehicle. I’ve always said, if I couldn’t be a poet, I would probably be a preacher. I don’t know. I see the world this way…as poetry, and songs and stories. My first language is poetry. I write because if I didn’t I don’t know if I would be able to breathe. And I guess I perform for the same reason I still pray…everybody has got to have something to believe in!
You can read the poetry of Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon in The Fox Chase Review at these links: http://www.thefoxchasereview.org/s14-kwilliamswitherspoon.html http://www.foxchasereview.org/11June/KimmikaWilliams-Witherspoon.html
Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&field-author=Kimmika+Williams-witherspoon&search-alias=books&text=Kimmika+Williams-witherspoon&sort=relevancerank
g emil reutter lives and writes in the Fox Chase neighborhood of Philadlephia, Pa. (USA) https://gereutter.wordpress.com/