Dr. Nikki Yeboah will join the UW School of Drama this fall as our new Assistant Professor of Playwriting. As the first full-time faculty member hired in the playwriting area since the retirement of Executive Director and playwriting professor Betty Comtois in 1993, Yeboah will be instrumental in designing and implementing the school’s playwriting pedagogy.
Yeboah’s work brings together oral history methods and performance to create alternative records of Black life. Her research and creative work explore documentary theatre methods, African drama, Black storytelling practices, theatre for social change, Black feminist performance aesthetics, and the ethics and politics of conducting creative research in marginalized communities.
We sat down with Dr. Yeboah to learn more about her artistic and scholarly work, and what she is looking forward to most as she makes her transition to UW. Enjoy!
You identify as both an artist and a scholar. Can you talk about that a little bit?
My identities as an artist and a scholar kind of grew alongside each other. My first desire was just to be an artist, but because of the limitations I faced as a young artist in Toronto, a Black artist in a predominantly white kind of structure—it’s not a white city by any means, it’s a very diverse city—but I was trying to be a writer for television and film, and at the time all of my professors were white and most of my classmates were white. I still talk to a few of the people that I went to school with and, of all the POCs, only one of them is left in the industry. And she talks about this a lot—not realizing what's happening until you look around you and you realize that, yeah you may have started with ten peers, but now you're the only one. And what does that say about the industry?
So those were the kinds of tensions I was facing, and I needed language for that, 'cause I couldn't understand what was going on. You feel like it's just you. You can't articulate what is making you uncomfortable about the situation, you can't articulate the kinds of walls that you're hitting. You're just like, “Why is no one interested in these stories? I find them interesting.” Theory and scholarship really helped me articulate that. Gaining a voice through that strengthened my voice as an artist. It's given me confidence, it’s allowed me to speak from a place that I now understand holds value, even if it's not a normative value, it holds value and I can articulate what that value is. And it’s actually made me a much better artist as a result. I became much more confident in my creative voice once I was introduced to scholarship and academia and the discourses that support my voice.
...you can't articulate the kinds of walls that you're hitting. You're just like, “Why is no one interested in these stories? I find them interesting.”
A lot of our students, especially coming out of undergrad, contend with this feeling like they have to choose an artistic path or an academic path. Can you talk a little bit about what your path looked like and how you made your way to where you are now, where you are really fully holding both?
My path was meandering, and I think that’s true for a lot of artists of color. I think it’s true for a lot of artists in general, but especially when you're an artist of color, not sure of your voice in the industry, and likely not from any kind of money, and so you need a Plan B desperately. And then your Plan B at points becomes your plan A, and then goes back and forth. So my path was definitely meandering. I'm actually shocked that my mother, who is an immigrant—I mean we're both immigrants but she immigrated as an adult, I was six—I'm surprised that she even let me enroll in radio and television as an undergraduate. I had really great marks and could have been a doctor or lawyer or engineer or all of those things that they hope and pray we become. But she was like, “Yeah! Go for it.” I still can't wrap my head around that and I’m grateful to her for it.
But I think it was a combination of growing up without very much and knowing, at the time at least, that there wasn't really a place for me, academia strangely became like a Plan B. Like, at least I can be a teacher. It turns out that academia is just as hard to try to break into as art. But because I had no professor relatives or friends, no one told me about this, right? So I just thought, it's a teaching job, and I can teach and make art. So I pursued academia kind of as a Plan B and also because, like I mentioned earlier, it just it just allowed me to think about myself in a way that didn't feel so limited and limiting.
I went from undergraduate and spent a year in Ghana as a journalist. I went back home to try to connect with my culture. And in connecting with my culture I was exposed a little bit to postcolonialism. And I decided to pursue a Masters because I was discovering all these things about my culture that, through the Canadian education system that I had been raised in, I just didn’t know enough about to feel like I was actually making the contribution that I wanted to make. So I enrolled in a Masters at York, and I was studying culture and I was studying politics and I was studying postcolonialism. And luckily I came across a professor that was Ghanaian, and he changed my life. He was very much like, “Yes, what you're studying absolutely is important, yes I know exactly who you should be reading, what you should be reading, where you should go.” I'd never had that kind of support.
And then I stumbled across performance studies in a political science class. I had no idea it existed but it explained so much. It just made so much sense. I think Judith Butler was the first person I read in performance studies, and their conceptualization of gender as performative and not just biological opened my eyes to thinking about culture as performative, race as performative, you know my African identity as performative, it just made so much sense to a third-culture kid who always felt this tension between multiple cultures, like code switching and never feeling like you're doing it well enough. It just made so much sense. And so I was like, “Oh. What is this?” And just started doing Google searches and discovered that there were entire degrees just on performance studies. I had no clue.
I ended up pursuing a PhD, and in my first year I almost dropped out, because I had never anticipated doing a PhD. I was going to do a Masters and then go back out and be a practitioner. And it was hard. It was really difficult. And nothing in my life had prepared me for it, and no one in my life had prepared me for it, and I didn't know anybody else with a PhD except for that Ghanaian professor. I was incredibly unprepared. I made a lot of mistakes. I changed what I was going to study a million times. It took me a year after field research to even begin writing my dissertation. It was just mistake after mistake after mistake.
But what was important for me was, in the program that I chose, many of the faculty were of color. I never had to explain why my work was relevant. They just saw value in it. That was deeply empowering.
I ended up pursuing a PhD, and in my first year I almost dropped out... nothing in my life had prepared me for it... I made a lot of mistakes. I changed what I was going to study a million times. It took me a year after field research to even begin writing my dissertation. It was just mistake after mistake after mistake. But what was important for me was, in the program that I chose, many of the faculty were of color. I never had to explain my why my work was relevant. They just saw value in it. That was deeply empowering.
The fact that I was even able to apply for this job and say with confidence that I am an Africanist and I'm going to bring that into a western curriculum, that wouldn’t have happened without performance studies. I just never had enough faith in the importance of any of those things.
But while pursuing the PhD it fully hit me that maybe I wasn't going to get a job. So I started consulting for healthcare. My half-sister had died from sickle cell while I was in Ghana doing field research. When I came back there was a Northwestern alum who was white and had a company that did research in the medical field. She had gotten a job on sickle cell anemia, but all of her researchers were white. The majority of the people [sickle cell] affects are of color, Black primarily. She sent out a call to African American Studies—I happened to be on their listserv—and it just, it hit me hard 'cause just months before I had lost my sister. And that's how I was introduced to taking qualitative research skills and applying it outside of the academy. And that too was really affirming for me, because up until that point I didn't know what I was going to do with my degree. I felt so far removed from my creative self at the time, because, you know, pursuing a PhD will do that to you. It takes you away from the making of art and the making of culture. I felt like I had lost my creative voice but had gained an analytical voice and I didn’t know what to do with that. So that helped me figure out that there are other ways to apply these skills—I'm not limited to this field. So I went down that route and started consulting as a qualitative researcher, most predominantly in healthcare. And that was like a plan C, you know? [Laughs]
But I luckily did get a job in the academy, and a job that allowed me to pursue my creativity. I became a professor at San Jose State, and by that time I had created a professional identity for myself. I was as committed to qualitative research as I was to making art, and now the two things just seem… it's just my process now. I can't even imagine doing one without the other anymore. So yeah, like I said, my path has just been [makes winding motion with hands].
How do these intersections between all the different types of work that you do show up? How does your work as an ethnographic researcher, for example, influence your work as a storyteller?
I think that they influence each other, and if there's anything a student can get from this interview with me, I really want them to understand the value of the skills that they're learning. Because we're so easily dismissed in the humanities. People question our importance all the time, our relevance all the time, the value of the degrees that we hold. But, first of all, I don't think there would be a conversation about Black lives mattering, or, you know, gender as performative and fluid, none of these conversations would be happening without us. We're literally setting the cultural tone that we're in, this cultural moment that we're in.
The skills that we learn as storytellers, and story receivers in my case, are so invaluable.
When I'm working on a project in tech, it’s not just about their ability to compute data or to analyze data. You then have to communicate that. That is storytelling. You have to communicate why it’s important. And so that means you have to tug at people’s emotions, you have to make them pay attention, you have to make them listen, and all of those skills I got from being a storyteller. Additionally, when I'm doing creative work, my skills as a qualitative researcher, my ability to listen, and to see threads, and to map out a journey, and to make sense of a journey, that is so integral to my process as an artist. My ability to see culture beyond the surface of what is presented to me, those are qualitative research skills. It allows me to become a better storyteller, because I dig beyond the surface of things, I analyze things more critically.
When I'm working on a project in tech, it’s not just about their ability to compute data or to analyze data. You then have to communicate that. That is storytelling. You have to communicate why it’s important. And so that means you have to tug at people’s emotions, you have to make them pay attention, you have to make them listen, and all of those skills I got from being a storyteller.
The “So what?” question that a lot of artists struggle with, it comes naturally to qualitative researchers 'cause that's where we start—we're starting at the “So what?” Why is this story important? Why is it being told in this way? Why should we pay attention? That's where a qualitative researcher starts. And a lot of artists that aren’t trained that way, they just start at like, “This is interesting! This is cool!” We start like a little bit deeper than that and then make it interesting, you know? So both really feed into each other, and I want us as humanities people and makers to fully appreciate what we're giving to this world. My skills translate in so many ways and I'm always telling students, “So will yours. You just have to believe it and articulate it. 'Cause they don't see it right away.” But it's there. The value is there.
Something we're talking about a lot in Drama right now, especially re-emerging from the pandemic, is not just what we do but how we do it. Something that you spoke about really powerfully in your interview process was your work on revolutionizing rehearsal through Black feminist practice. I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about what that is and how you apply it in rehearsals and classrooms.
So this really comes out of Tina Campt, who writes about Black feminist futurity as not just what you wish could happen, but striving to make it happen now, taking the steps to realizing your dreams in the present. What must be done now in order to achieve the future you want? I try to bring that ethos into the rehearsal process.
A lot of Black people—women, gender nonconforming, etc.—when they're called to perform, it’s usually traumatic narratives. So Black artists will go through their whole professional lives going from trauma to trauma to trauma. And being Black in this society can be traumatic, so you leave your rehearsal space and then you're entering into a world that also feels unsafe to you. And that's a lot. That's a lot to hold constantly. And The (M)others* is when it fully hit home to me because The (M)others is probably the hardest thing I've ever had to write. I was in need of self-care and did not even realize it, though I was exhibiting all the signs. Everyone around me could tell that this was taking a toll except for me.
Photo of Dionne from The (M)others by Michael Cheers
And then one of the mothers that I interviewed ended up in the hospital with heart issues, and I worked so hard to get her mental health help, and in that process it hit me that I needed it, likely my performers needed it, everyone that is working on these issues and on this play needs this, whether or not they're articulating it to me. It wasn't uncommon to have actors crying in the middle of rehearsals, but I had somehow normalized it. We had all somehow normalized it. Because, yeah, these are difficult narratives, and it shows that you're feeling something if you're crying, but that's not okay. It's not okay.
So it has become increasingly important to me over the many years of developing this project that the rehearsal space needs to be made safer for those that are telling these kinds of narratives. And I think generally speaking, beyond The (M)others, rehearsal spaces where Black people must enact Black trauma need to be made safe. That is the world we want. When we're making these plays we're doing it to change the world, but our rehearsal process is the status quo, you know? So if we are developing work for the future that we want, what can we do in this moment to work toward what we want?
...rehearsal spaces where Black people must enact Black trauma need to be made safe. That is the world we want. When we're making these plays we're doing it to change the world, but our rehearsal process is the status quo, you know?
I can’t control everything, but when I am directing a play, I can control the rehearsal space, that process. I can make it so that it uplifts or empowers or encourages people to keep going. I can make it safe for them to be vulnerable. I can make it such that when they leave the space, they're leaving it, not carrying it in their bodies and into the other traumas that they're dealing with in everyday life, and then compounding that. Essentially at the heart of it is that Black feminism, feminism in general but especially Black feminism, is trying to envision a future that is otherwise. And we have it within our power to start taking those steps now. So that's what my rehearsal process is attempting to do.
What are you working on right now?
I'm working on a new project that is kind of documentary theater. It emerges from interviews and conversations I've had with African Americans and Africans on identity, what it means to be Black, and also the cross-cultural conflicts that happen between us. Not all Black people have the same experiences of Blackness, and so there's a lot of tension, actually, between African and African American communities that, because of a Pan-Africanist desire, we try to gloss over. But I do think it needs to be faced if the Pan-African community that we're trying to form is to be achieved, because we also face very similar oppressions.
So this play is based on these conversations that I had over the course of about a year—it was a series of dialogues facilitated by the Afrourban Society in Oakland. I set it in a world where because of global warming—it's called The Referendum—because of global warming, the United States is facing a referendum to decide whether immigrants can stay or if they have to leave because there's not enough resources left for everyone. It’s about a Black American family who are the tenants of an African family, and if the African family leaves they get the house. So the stakes are high for them. So it's all about them negotiating, what does solidarity mean? What does Blackness mean? What does Pan-Africanism mean? Can we support each other? Are we too different? That’s what I think through in the play.
A lot of the dialogue comes from the actual dialogues that we had in the series, and I’m modeling these characters off of real people. In the staged reading of it, I had those real people play themselves. I wanted to make sure I was capturing their voices, so I had them read it, and I saw how they were auto-correcting and then I made notes of that. Now that I have this job I can fully dive into this project and I'm so looking forward to that.
What is exciting to you about coming to Seattle and UW? Any aspects of that that you're really looking forward to exploring?
I mean, this is a dream job in many ways. It's a dream job in that I feel like I'm coming full circle. I’ve always wanted to be creative. I always wanted to be a writer my whole life. And then it felt like at a moment in time there was this real crisis, that I talked about earlier, as to whether or not my stories were— if they mattered. This job is proof that it matters, and that's a really beautiful feeling. Also to be moving to a city that I have friends in. Usually in academia you move, and you're starting from scratch. Here I have a soft place to land when I arrive and that feels amazing amazing amazing. So it's like the dream job in a dream city. It doesn't really get much better. I'm just super excited.
* The (M)others is Yeboah’s documentary performance about four women brought together by the unimaginable experience of losing a loved one at the hands of the police.