School of Communication scholars welcome 2013 with groundbreaking new books

January 16, 2013

Novelist Toni Morrison once said, "If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." Heeding this call, three School of Communication faculty members are ringing in 2013 with brand-new books.

"Teaching American theatre courses, I became frustrated by the lack of books related to black theatre history," said Harvey Young, associate professor of theatre, performance studies, African American studies, and Radio/Television/Film, who responded by gathering essays from thirteen leading scholars in the field and compiling The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre.

The collection is an in-depth look at the development of Black theatre in America that spans from the early 1800s when slavery was legal and many blacks remembered the "coerced performances" of their parents and grandparents (singing and dancing at the command of their captors on slave ships; standing on auction blocks) all the way up to the present day (the book's final essay is "Black Theatre in the Age of Obama").

Rich with scholarly insight, these essays include examinations of the Negro Little Theatre Movement, the soul aesthetic of the 1970s, and the hard-won ascendency of black theatre artists on "the great white way" that is Broadway.

The producers and artists described in the book, Young writes in his introduction, "understood that expressive art has the capacity to enable self-determination, to record and preserve historical experiences, and to fashion community." Their efforts, he said, helped "revise the stereotypes and negative images of blackness" and brought "a more accurate and recognizable representation of African American experiences to the stage."

Similar themes are explored by Ramón Rivera-Servera, but the associate professor of performance studies examines a more distilled subject: the culture of performance in Latina/o LGBT communities during a twelve-year period that began in the 1990s and ended in the early 2000s, a time known in popular culture as America's Latin boom.

Like the other authors highlighted here, Rivera-Servera has broken new ground with Performing Queer Latinidad.

"It's the first single-authored monograph devoted to the subject," he said. "I focus specifically on the way that ethnicity, class, and sexuality are negotiated at sites of performance."

Rivera-Servera travelled the country to research the book—from Hunts Point, in the Bronx, to Phoenix, Arizona, where club-goers ushered in the twenty-first century dancing to reggaetón in cowboy boots. He looks at individual performers, like dancer-choreographer Arthur Aviles, whose 1999 performance Puerto Rican Faggot from the South Bronx Steals Precious Object from Giuliani's East Village contained the transcendent qualities that make up what Rivera-Servera describes as "utopian" performance.

His book offers a tour of dance floors across New York state and Texas, and analyzes the ever-changing landscape of Latina/o queer nightlife. He also examines movements, like the cultural organization Esperanza, whose activist performances include not just dance and theatre, but candlelight vigils, press conferences, and mock trials.

"It was very important to me to offer an understanding of Latina/o queer communities that did more than take for granted the categories under which this diverse population coalesces," he said. "There are so many national, ethnic, and racial differences" under the umbrella of queer Latinidad, Rivera-Servera said. "I wanted to highlight how performance served as productive communicative action that bridged these communities, their many and diverse stories of arrival and settlement, and their shared struggles to improve their living conditions."

From dancers to design engineers, the stage where Paul Leonardi has his critical spotlight trained is today's technology-driven workplace: a vast and often entrenched world where, he argues, there's a lot of room for greater efficiency.

Leonardi is the Pentair-D. Eugene and Bonnie L. Nugent Associate Professor in Manufacturing. He teaches the management of innovation and organizational change in the School of Communication's Department of Communication Studies, the McCormick School of Engineering, and the Kellogg School of Management.

In Car Crashes Without Cars: Lessons About Simulation Technology and Organizational Change from Automotive Design, he looks at why innovation in the workplace is often stifled by inside-the-box thinking.

There is a "strange reality," he writes, "that managers who are responsible for designing formal and informal organizational structures and engineers who explicitly design and redesign advanced computational technologies often come to believe that particular kinds of change are inevitable."

One reason for this, he argues, is that organizations and the technologies they use are often so interrelated that the people working within them often can't see the forest for the trees. To illustrate this phenomenon—and to suggest news ways of working around it—Leonardi lasers in on a team of "crashworthiness" experts at a major U.S. auto company—the engineers responsible for ensuring vehicles are roadworthy and meet all federal safety regulations.

He charts the team's development of an advanced computer-based simulation technology called CrashLab, and his field study—which has shades of great investigative journalism—not only helps support the central theme of his book, it also gives readers a fascinating glimpse into today's auto industry.

As one reviewer put it, "Readers of this book will think differently when they get behind the wheel of a new car." For Leonardi, though, the takeaway is more universal: "I aim to show that not only can we arrive at better explanations of why workplace change unfolds as it does, but we can also explain why people come to think that those changes had to occur as they did."

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