Humanitas: Theater returns to Yale, and a new public art project

In the inaugural Humanitas column, we celebrate the return of audiences to the Yale Rep and preview an interactive art installation arriving soon in New Haven.
Jeena Yi behind a wall of slatted glass on the set of “Today Is My Birthday”

In the inaugural Humanitas, a new monthly column focused on the arts and humanities at Yale, we celebrate the return of audiences to the Yale Repertory Theatre, preview a public art installation that will soon arrive in New Haven, and catch up with two scholars who will engage in interesting off-campus pursuits: one digging into the power of visual storytelling and another who’s spending a year in London exploring environmental justice. For more, please visit an archive of all arts and humanities coverage at Yale News.

Raise the curtain! Audiences return to Yale Rep

Last week, nearly two years after New Haven stages fell silent amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Yale Repertory Theatre welcomed members of the Yale community in person for a new production of “Today is My Birthday.”

The sly comedy by playwright Susan Soon He Stanton ’10 M.F.A. seems an especially apt choice for the times: It dramatizes the experience of a struggling writer whose life is falling apart following a nasty breakup, reflecting on how technology can both bring people together and drive them deeper into isolation.

Protagonist Emily Chang, played by Jeena Yi, fantasizes about an idyllic homecoming after returning to O’ahu from Manhattan, but complications arise as she discovers how little she knows the people she loves most — and how difficult it is to let her true self be known to others.

The play beautifully captures the loneliness and isolation we have all felt during the pandemic,” said Jennifer Kiger, acting artistic director and director of new play programs at Yale Rep. “It’s hilariously funny and heartbreakingly truthful. Our audiences have been so generous with their responses. Many have said this is the best production they’ve seen at Yale Rep.

Still more have shared that they are deeply grateful for the opportunity to return to the theater.”

Performances opened Jan. 28 and run through Feb. 19 at the Rep, 1120 Chapel St. While performances were initially open only to members of the Yale community, tickets are now available to members of the general public. All eligible ticketholders must present evidence of vaccination, including booster shots, and wear masks throughout the performance.

Yale Rep is simultaneously in rehearsals for a new production of “Choir Boy,” by Academy Award-winning playwright-in-residence Tarell Alvin McCraney ’07 M.F.A., and is preparing for “Between Two Knees,” by the sketch comedy troupe the 1491s.

Making art to inspire joy, empathy, and understanding in the world is at the very center of the mission of Yale Repertory Theatre and the David Geffen School of Drama,” Kiger said. “For us, our work is not truly complete until we get to share it with an audience. Returning to the stage has reminded us of our purpose. We’ve seen how healing and necessary it is to gather, to celebrate each other’s strengths and victories, and to remind ourselves of the beauty of the art of collaboration.”

Coming soon: An installation weaves joy with music and light

During the recent holiday season, visitors to Manhattan’s Flatiron Public Plaza were dazzled by “Interwoven,” an interactive piece of public art with Yale roots that celebrates the joy of crossing paths and making connections in public spaces.

The installation, winner of the eighth annual Flatiron Public Plaza Holiday Design Competition, was created by design firm Atelier Cho Thompson (ACT), which has offices in New Haven and San Francisco. It is made of intersecting archways of green, red, and yellow that combine to form a strong, playful structure.

The “Interwoven” installation in New York.

The form comes from the idea of people interweaving in public space,” said architect Ming Thompson ’04 B.A., an ACT co-founder and lead designer of the project. “America is a tapestry of people, languages, and cultures that are woven together to become a stronger whole.”

Interwoven” is now poised to enchant New Haven residents. Thompson is working with the City of New Haven to locate the structure in one of the city’s public parks.

The installation, which was on view in Manhattan from Nov. 21, 2021 through Jan. 2, 2022, is outfitted with a series of sensors that trigger synchronized lights and music whenever two people pass through one of a series of arches together. When pairs are passing through all archways simultaneously, an extended lightshow commences choreographed to a celebratory song.

Friends could walk through the archways together and trigger the light show deliberately, or a pair of strangers could engage the effects by chance,” Thompson said.

Along with lights and music, the installation also features an interactive story wall made of backlit papers hung on a grid inviting visitors to share responses to a prompt to speak their response aloud. The prompt reads “I dream of a world where together we can …” Visitors’ handwritten responses create a patchwork of voices documenting hope amid this challenging time, Thompson said.

Other Yalies involved in the project included Yale College student Joaquin Soto ’24, and Shikha Thakali ’21 M. Arch. Indistinguishable From Magic Inc., a company co-founded by Yalies Lance Chantiles ’19 B.A. and Isaac Shelanski ’19 B.A., did the design and programming behind the interactive effects. New Haven-based musician Will Orzo composed music for the project.

Doerfler on child mortality and bereavement in the ancient world

As a graduate student, Maria Doerfler was translating a homily written about the death of a child in ancient Syria. The theme, the death of children, was fairly uncommon in writings from late antiquity, which struck Doerfler as unusual considering how common mortality in children was in the premodern world. Indeed, at the time, as many as one in three were likely to die in the first year of life.

Doerfler, assistant professor of religious studies, explores the theme more closely in her book “Jephthah’s Daughter, Sarah’s Son” (University of California Press), a social history that examines how extant texts helped shape bereavement for ancient Christians who lost children. The book recently received the 2021 Best First Book in the History of Religions from the American Academy of Religion.

I started exploring the possibility that children’s lives mattered to late ancient societies, and attending to homilists’ efforts to speak to the challenges their death posed for families and communities,” she told the University of California Press blog. “Once I began to follow that trail, it became clear that only a monograph-sized project would even begin to do justice to this topic.”

At the forefront of environmental injustice

During her three-decade career at Yale, Hazel Carby distinguished herself as one of the world’s leading scholars on race, gender, and African American issues. She now has been appointed as Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s (LSE) International Inequalities Institute, where, over the next year, she will conduct research on inequalities embedded in climate change and other global environmental challenges.

Poor Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples are the most vulnerable to the effects of environmental exploitation, dispossession, and degradation rooted in settler colonialism and racial capitalism,” said Carby, the Charles C. and Dorothea S. Dilley Professor Emeritus of African American Studies and professor emeritus of American studies.” Today these communities are also at the forefront of mobilizing collective, cultural, and political resistance to mining, the extraction of fossil fuels, toxic pollution, and waste.

It is imperative that our research and knowledge systems be propelled from and informed by these sites of struggle and alternative ways of living with and on the earth if we are to have a future.”

The healing power of stories

How do people heal from loss and trauma? Laura Wexler, the Charles H. Farnam Professor of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies and of American Studies, believes that one way is through visual storytelling, particularly the telling of stories with family photographs.

Over the next few years, Wexler will investigate the reparative nature of storytelling through photography as a new fellow of the Hastings Center, a nonprofit, interdisciplinary research institute that addresses social and ethical issues in health care, science, and technology, and helps bring key issues in ethics and bioethics into the national conversation.

Wexler — who directs the Photographic Memory Workshop at Yale and is a co-chair of the Public Humanities Program — was recently named one of 24 new fellows of the center. Hastings Center Fellows are a group of more than 200 individuals from disciplines as diverse as medicine, genomics, philosophy, and social justice whose work has informed scholarship and public understanding of complex ethical issues in health, science, and technology.

Wexler believes that greater imagination is needed to address such critical public issues as climate change, the disparate impacts of COVID-19, the effects of de-industrialization on communities, the trauma of forced migration, and more.

We need more imaginative ways to counter the moral injuries of our time,” she said.

Mike Cummings, Susan Gonzalez, and Kevin Dennehy contributed to this column. If you wish to suggest an item for a future Humanitas column, please email Kevin Dennehy with a brief description of the news and key details.

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