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Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic

Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic
Art, Activism, Academia, and the Austin Project

A multimedia documentation of a collaboration of artists, activists, and academics, all working on issues relevant to women of color.

Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Number Twenty-three

July 2010
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392 pages | 6 x 9 | 1 b&w photo, 1 line drawing |

In Austin, Texas, in 2002, a group of artists, activists, and academics led by performance studies scholar Omi Osun Joni L. Jones formed the Austin Project (tAP), which meets annually in order to provide a space for women of color and their allies to build relationships based on trust, creativity, and commitment to social justice by working together to write and perform work in the jazz aesthetic.

Inspired by this experience, this book is both an anthology of new writing and a sourcebook for those who would like to use creative writing and performance to energize their artistic, scholarly, and activist practices. Theoretical and historical essays by Omi Osun Joni L. Jones describe and define the African American tradition of art-making known as the jazz aesthetic, and explain how her own work in this tradition inspired her to start tAP.

Key artists in the tradition, from Bessie Award–winning choreographer Laurie Carlos and writer/performer Robbie McCauley to playwrights Daniel Alexander Jones and Carl Hancock Rux, worked with the women of tAP as mentors and teachers. This book brings together never-before-published, must-read materials by these nationally known artists and the transformative writing of tAP participants. A handbook for workshop leaders by Lambda Literary Award–winning writer Sharon Bridgforth, tAP's inaugural anchor artist, offers readers the tools for starting similar projects in their own communities. A full-length script of the 2005 tAP performance is an original documentation of the collaborative, breath-based, body work of the jazz aesthetic in theatre, and provides both a script for use by theatre artists and an invaluable documentation of a major transformative movement in contemporary performance.

  • Preface: How to Use This Book
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I: Framing the Work
    • Chapter One. Making Space: Producing the Austin Project
    • Chapter Two. Finding Voice: Anchoring the Austin Project's Artistic Process
  • Part II: Working the Work: An Anthology of Austin Project Writings
    • Chapter Three. Polyphony: Writings by Ensemble Members
    • Chapter Four. Call and Response: Performance Pieces by Austin Project Guest Artists
    • Chapter Five. Affirming Connection: Pre-Show Artists' Performance Texts
    • Chapter Six. Spoken Word Orchestra: A Full Script from the Austin Project Jam Session, December 2005
  • Part III: The Work of Transformation
    • Chapter Seven. Transforming Practice: Artists, Activists, and Academics Working across Boundaries
    • Chapter Eight. Work of the Spirit: A Conversation with an Austin Project Elder
    • Chapter Nine. Narrating the Austin Project: The First Five Years
  • Notes
  • Index

Omi Osun Joni L. Jones is Director of the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies and Associate Professor of Performance Studies in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin.

Lisa L. Moore is Associate Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Sharon Bridgforth is the Lambda Literary Award–winning author of the bull-jean stories and love conjure/blues. She is a member of New Dramatists and served as the Anchor Artist for the Austin Project from 2002–2009.


In addition to the pleasure and inspiration we hope you will find in the writing collected here, we offer tools you can use to create similar projects in your own communities. We invite and challenge you to take the personal, political, and artistic risks made possible by these prompts and ideas, and to seek the private and communal joy that this work can yield.


The book is organized in three parts. Part I, titled "Framing the Work," sets up the context from which the writing and dialogue collected in this book emerged. An introductory chapter by Omi Osun Joni L. Jones discusses the Austin Project with regard to other community-based art and activism projects and the history of the performance tradition of the jazz aesthetic. The next chapter is a guide to the Finding Voice method written by the method's originator, Sharon Bridgforth. With these two chapters, Part I shows you how and why this work emerged as it did, and invites you to make it your own.


Part II is an anthology of writing produced in the Austin Project's workshops and by Guest Artists during the first five years (2002-2006). Chapter Three collects pieces by (almost) every one of the nearly fifty women who participated in the workshops and performances throughout this period. Chapter Four offers full-length original scripts by Guest Artists Laurie Carlos, Daniel Alexander Jones, Carl Hancock Rux, Maiana Minahal, and Robbie McCauley, who shared excerpts or earlier versions of this material with participants and the public during their residencies with the Austin Project. Chapter Five gathers writing by other Austin artists working in the jazz aesthetic. These community artists performed these "pre-show" pieces in 2002 and 2003 as opening acts for the Austin Project performances with the goal of linking local and national artists through the work of the Austin Project. Finally, these individual voices build to an orchestra: the script documenting the 2005 performance by the Austin Project constitutes Chapter Six. That year, we worked with Laurie Carlos in a two-week residency, combining our individual pieces of writing into a full-length performance. The script published here did not exist in 2005; this version was painstakingly amassed by Anastasia Coon from our scribbled notes and from grainy, nearly inaudible videos of the performance. Aside from being a work of literature in itself, Chapter Six is a methodological model for documenting the ever-vanishing present moment of performance in the jazz aesthetic.


Part III documents the widening circles of influence of the Austin Project. In Chapter Seven, four participants talk about their respective academic, artistic, and activist works, reflecting on how the Austin Project experience transformed their practices and offering models for others who may also be looking to counter burnout or refresh their commitments to these arduous paths. Chapter Eight transcribes a remarkable conversation that Austin Project women had with poet and spiritual elder raúlrsalinas in 2006. This open-ended discussion demonstrates the power of the jazz aesthetic to transform the spiritual practice and understanding of its participants as well as their artistic, activist, and academic work. Chapter Nine constitutes a kind of appendix: it's a narrative history of the first five years of the project that we hope can provide a starting point for leaders in other places who want to know the nuts and bolts of the communities and practices described here. In other words, the book ends with a pebble thrown into the lake in which the reader is standing. Where will the ripples take you?


We think there is something for everyone in this book. Specifically:


Community organizers and activists


Read Chapter One for a discussion of the mission and structure of the Austin Project. This chapter offers a useful guide for developing similar work across class, sexual, and racial boundaries. Women of color are central to the Austin Project. This chapter offers ways of thinking about the roles of women of color as leaders and white women as allies that model the most progressive, Black feminist approach to community work. Also, read Chapter Nine for a narrative chronological account of community building and performance in the jazz aesthetic.


Teachers and scholars in performance studies, creative writing, and related fields


Chapters Three, Four, and Six are excellent introductions to the jazz aesthetic for your students. Some discussion questions might include: How do the women of the Austin Project shape language to express their identities? Do the works of nationally known theater artists Laurie Carlos, Robbie McCauley, Carl Hancock Rux, Maiana Minahal, and Daniel Alexander Jones share formal or thematic concerns? Does the Austin Project script in Chapter Six have similar or different concerns? What other traditions and genres (artistic, activist, spiritual, cultural) does this work reference?


Workshop leaders


Start with Chapter Two, a handbook on the Finding Voice method of facilitation. Try some of the exercises with your classes or workshops. They are appropriate for workshops seeking to deepen participants' work in terms of writing, performance, spirituality, identity exploration, personal history, and community building. They are excellent team-building exercises for people working together on many kinds of projects.




Read Chapters Three, Four, Five, and Six to find examples of writing that move you. Read Chapter Two and use some of the writing prompts to get started on some free writing of your own.


Theater artists


Mount a production based on the script in Chapter Six. Alternatively, use the process described in Chapter Two to work collaboratively with a group of artists and develop your own script. Try mixing experienced artists with emerging artists, or mix artists with activists and academics that share similar interests. Should you need replenishing, read Chapter Eight to be reminded of the spiritual authority invested in your creative work.



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This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse