Last Thursday’s Claiming Williams celebration kicked off on the ’62 Center’s MainStage with a collaborative project that brought together performances from many of the College’s premier art groups. Titled “Art/Work: Performing Activism” the tone of the event was equal parts celebration and criticism as it praised the ways in which the College embraces progressivism and change, while pointing out flaws present in the College and in mainstream American culture.
After a performance by the always-enchanting Zambezi Marimba Band, Associate Dean for International Diversity Karen Swann and President Adam Falk officially began Claiming Williams. Delivering speeches on this year’s topic, “Cultivating Change,” the two seemed genuinely enthused about the steps the College has made to construct a more diverse and accepting campus, while conceding that their work is far from finished. Event hosts Tatum Barnes ’15 and Spencer McCarrey ’17 then took the stage, offering up some jokes before introducing the first act.
As the cast of The Vagina Monologues took the stage, it might have been wise to warn the audience of the striking weightiness of the coming performance. Delivered by Madeline Seidman ’17, “My Vagina Was My Village” was a jarring and explicit illustration of the traumatizing experiences of Bosnian women imprisoned in rape camps during the Bosnian War, and was followed by a reminder of the need for better rape prevention in our own society. The performance, “Wear and Say,” answered the questions “What would your vagina wear? What would it say?” and provided some much-needed comic relief.
“Coming Home: Reconciling Faith and Sexuality,” authored and photographed by Sam Jeong ’14 was introduced by the smooth voices of the Springstreeters singing traditional church hymns. A collage of headshots and quotations explored the thoughts and experiences of Williams students and local residents who have struggled with the influence of religion and faith on perceptions of their sexual identity. The collection also expressed the difficulty of being different in an aggressively heteronormative society. The Ephlats then provided a stunning take on Sara Bareilles’ “Brave.”
Between other performances, the members of SpeakFree peppered the show with poems on a variety of issues. Melanie Subbiah ’17 addressed the awkwardness of running into a past hookup in “Greetings,” Jesse Sardell ’14 reflected on reaching senior year and “having less direction now than I did four years ago.” Cinnamon Williams ’16 criticized the attempts of the majority to empathize with discrimination by drawing metaphorical connections between white privilege and the difficulty of doing her hair. Her poem, “On Feelings that I Have Been Trained to Train” was met with an enthusiastic and prolonged applause.
These pieces led up to a performance by award winning spoken word artist Joshua Bennett of the Striver’s Row, a group dedicated to spoken word artists. “Levi” was penned for his little brother, praising the beauty of his personality in spite of his autism. In “Sing It Say It,” he asserted, “No one will make my beauty a burden… No one will make me afraid of being alive.”
The spoken and written word were accentuated throughout by the works of various performing groups at the College. In dance, CoDa gave a haunting rendition of excerpts from Diane Arvanites and Max Richer’s “Untitled,” while the Kusika performances of “Yanvalou ak Banda,” choreographed by Veroneque F. Ignace ’15 seemed effortless. The Williams Jazz Ensemble’s performances of “The New Colossus,” composed by band director Kris Allen, and “Fear of the Dark: Loathing Arizona,” composed by Williams Artist-in-Residence and lecturer Andy Jaffe were both tight. Both performances were accompanied by a series of photos of immigrants; the former chronicled the history of hopefuls crossing the sea for America’s shores, while the latter showed the attempts of Latin-American immigrants to oppose anti-immigration law and discrimination.
The morning’s performances ended with the subject of liberty and oppression. Demarius Edwards ’14 sang and rapped through his ironically-dubbed “Freedom” which confronted the stereotypes and obstacles that still exist for those of varied race, gender or sexuality. He then joined Claire Leyden ’16, Spencer McCarrey ’17, Chaplain to the College Rick Spalding and the Williams Jazz Ensemble sang Jerry Dammers’ “Free Nelson Mandela” an anti-Apartheid anthem that served as a memoriam for the late civil rights leader and champion of liberty.
If you missed the show, be sure to arrive at the ’62 Center MainStage next year for the opening events of Claiming Williams day. Although there are no guarantees on what that will entail, rest assured that the participants of “Art/Work: Performing Activism” were not only effective at inspiring Williams students to discuss the topic of “Cultivating Change,” they also set the bar very high for any Claiming Williams opening events in the future.