As part of the New Narratives series, Conversations on Identity and Culture, playwright Jeff Stetson held a discussion in the Newkirk Alumni Center on Jan. 29, titled “Activism in Art.” Several distinguished guests were present for the evening, including Vice Chancellor Thomas Parham and Dean of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts Joseph Lewis, both of who gave introductory remarks.
As head of the School of Arts, Dean Lewis promotes the arts with enthusiasm and sees New Narratives with the sentiment that “through the arts we can connect with different kinds of people and make them think about themselves.” The series is designed to generate discussion about social issues of culture and identity and, of special interest to Dean Lewis, art’s way of expressing that.
“It’s time for a new narrative and one of the ways in which we have been able to do that is to be bold enough to have discussions about race and identity and culture in ways in which most people don’t want to touch,” Vice Chancellor Parham said. “Our job in this series is to challenge you, to disrupt those comfortable categories of intellectual and emotional apathy that has us comfortable in the way which things are, rather than thinking, pushing forward toward the way things might be.”
Guest speaker Stetson is known for his work on stage in “The Meeting” and “Fraternity;” on screen in “For the Love of Liberty;” and in print in “Blood on the Leaves,” but before his work as a writer, he worked in education. Stetson worked in the California State University system and higher education for fifteen years, seeking affirmative action programs and social progress in schools. He established BASE, Black Alliance of Scholarship Education, to bring students and faculty and staff all over Cal State campuses together. After some time working in education, Stetson became a writer.
“One of the things I realized here in California is that the things that made me become an educator: the psychic damage of black people that has occurred over 350 years — was being undermined by the Hollywood machine. And so I decided maybe I ought to start writing to see if I could make a change,” Stetson said.
While being an educator at CSU Long Beach, Stetson saw the need to explain the Civil Rights Movement to his students who did not grow up in that era. This led to his writing of his most well-known play, “The Meeting,” in which he imagines the meeting of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
His other well-known work is his novel, “Blood on the Leaves,” which was named for the Billy Holiday song “Strange Fruit” about lynching in the South. In the novel, Stetson shows the murderous nature of American history, as the white men who participated in lynching in the 1960s are killed in the same manner when their names are released in the 1980s. Stetson read chapter 39 during the event and shared that his editor thought it was too graphic and drastic for readers to appreciate. Stetson stands by his writing, explaining that he deeply believes that it is important for these accounts, fictional but based upon real events, to be shared and that there is something important to gain from retelling history.
“It’s important for artists who are attempting to hold up a mirror to society, to see that as unpleasant as this is, it’s important for you to take a look,” Stetson said. “All writers regardless of race, ethnicity or gender share a common responsibility-to seek the truth.”
Working in the entertainment industry, Stetson addressed the difficulties of creating art versus creating a livelihood. Stetson stressed the impact that the artist’s work has in defining the artist and impacting the audience. Known for his work about black culture and racial injustice, Stetson is approached with scripts for movies that would compromise his own values by depicting stereotypes, and for turning them down, he consequently loses business with those companies or individuals.
“Success is very much a question of why you as an artist, you as a person, value what it is you do and the potential that you have to pass it to others,” Stetson said.
Beyond any monetary motivation, Stetson encourages all artists and writers to seek their goals and to never compromise their vision. He says that compromising it and settling for a lesser version will forever identify the artist, and the struggle for achieving one’s vision will be much more difficult.
Vice Chancellor Parham concluded the conversation, restating the goals of the series and this discussion to be intellectually provocative, entertaining on a certain level and most of all challenging to the audience in their views and their respect for other cultures and identities.