Performance in the Covid Era: Interview with Danielle Roper, PhD

As a way of gaining a better understanding of the BIPOC experience at UChicago, Exploring Race editors conducted interviews with faculty of color. This quarter, the Editorial Staff of Exploring Race magazine chose to discuss the intersection of COVID, race, and their observations with the professors. This represents the first of the series of interviews. Exploring Race editor, Carla Abreu, speaks with Professor Danielle Roper about the impact Covid has had on her work in performance art and the communities she thinks about.

Danielle Roper, Ph.D., is from Kingston, Jamaica, and is a Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in Latin American Literature and a Spanish Undergraduate Adviser.


Professor Roper graduated with a Ph.D. from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University in 2015. She has an MA in Performance Studies from NYU and a BA in Hispanic Studies (cum laude) from Hamilton College.


Please give us a brief overview of yourself and the research you’re doing. What is it that you’re most excited about?


I work on race and performance, mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean. Right now, I’m working on blackface performance in Latin America and developing a concept that’s called “hemispheric blackface.” The work is seeking to do two things: one, to think about blackface performances in ways that do not depend on US minstrelsy as its central referent, and two, to push against narratives of racial democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean that disavow the existence of racism. One of the other areas I work on is feminism and activism in the Caribbean.


I think about female sexuality in the Caribbean and gay rights. I also think about queerness in the Andes, so I kind of have a broad range of interests.


That you do. It’s really interesting to see how they all come together. As far as Covid impacting your work, how do you feel your work has changed or stayed the same since the pandemic began?


I think that everybody’s work has been impacted by Covid, but what the impact looks like is very different. I, for example, work on performance and that usually requires me to actually go to performances. The moment we live in means that the arts are struggling. Well, the arts have already been on this track [of struggle]. We live in a world of neoliberalism that does not understand the value of the arts and humanities and that is centered around the sciences as if the two things need to be operating in opposition to each other. So one of the things that happen is that artists, artistic venues, museums, theaters, any type of local artistic group are under the gun. To the extent where they are not able to do the social gatherings they usually do. These social gatherings are the spaces in which these types of activities and modes of knowledge production thrive. These are communal activities so they are the first to be hit.


You are also operating in a context of scarcity. Artists are the ones whose jobs are going to be lost immediately because of Covid. Artists are already living in situations of precarity; they often do art on the side and work day jobs. It’s very likely that they are essential workers working in supermarkets, delivery services, and low paying jobs. Many of them have lost the venues and opportunities to produce art.


To think about performance art is to think about bodies. What bodies are rendered disposable? What bodies are rendered invisible? Amid the pandemic, it’s the racialized bodies, the queer bodies, the bodies who make their living on the street. Those are the subjects I think about.

In this time of Covid, you’re in a moment where the arts are desperately needed. But, we have to seriously rethink how it is that we produce art. What is it to produce art or to do the type of communal work that art typically involves at a time where you require social distancing? It forces us to rethink human contact and human interaction.


Another way that Covid impacts my work is that it directly affects the people I’m thinking about. The people I normally think about are, by and large, Black people. Black communities across Latin America and the Caribbean have been so severely impacted by Covid because they are already living in the consequences of systemic violence that leave them on the margins of society -- precarity in housing, precarity in job opportunities, precarity in access to healthcare. They have already faced these problems. Covid, in many ways, exacerbates what has long been ongoing systemic inequalities.


To think about performance art is to think about bodies. What bodies are rendered disposable? What bodies are rendered invisible? Amid the pandemic, it’s the racialized bodies, the queer bodies, the bodies who make their living on the street. Those are the subjects I think about. We’re in a moment where artists and vulnerable people are forced to reimagine what kind of social and communal networks they can forge and what kind of organizing we need to do to produce a different type of world.

Do you have any topics that Covid has inspired that you want to add to the research you’re currently doing? Have your research intentions changed drastically?


One of the questions I’m interested in for the future is the undercommons, the theory formed by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, in thinking about the university and knowledge production. I want to explore the undercommons of Latin America and the Caribbean, to the extent where I want to think about artists and activists who are not interested in integrating themselves into existing institutions. They’re not interested in reform, but rather abolition. How might art and activist practices—we call it artivism—be the site where certain abolitionist impulses are articulated.


So I wouldn’t say that Covid has changed my interests. I would say that because of Covid, I think my interests are even more important. What kind of possibilities are people trying to articulate in this moment? With all the reckoning, people are trying to get rid of systems that never worked for them anyway. Where they’re not looking for reform, they’re looking for complete and total destruction. What does this look like? I haven’t fully decided where I’m going to go with it yet, but Covid is making me think really closely about what sort of ideas are articulated through embodied practices. At this moment, what are artists and activists doing to respond?

That’s awesome! Are you of the opinion that meaningful change in the art/performance arena can only happen outside of these grand institutions?


Yes. I just think that we’re in a kind of neo-fascist moment where we are seeing a far-right that has been revived and legitimized. A movement that we thought was fringe—which was never really fringe—has suddenly been granted an authorized public space that they weren’t previously given. This moment reveals the way in which certain institutions are beholden by their shareholders. And so I think the way forward can never be the institution.


[T]he catalyst of change won’t come from an institution or an art gallery. The catalyst will come from the street. When the revolution comes, the institutions will fall in line. Until then, they are not answerable to the people.

As an academic, what I try to do is elevate knowledge systems that have been discarded, as the alternative to the hegemony of text and textualism in academia. It’s important to think about which knowledge systems are at work. It’s also important to remember that the work I do is very much grounded in and in response to what is taking place in the streets. Radical interventions have never existed in the space of the academy. To do academic work is to put yourself at service to a cause that exists outside of the institution. These institutions are beholden to structures of power that folks on the street are constantly fighting against. It’s not to say that there is no struggle in academia, that’s not true. To be a faculty of color is very much to know that you’re always dealing with the racial politics of the university. It’s understanding that your work has to have a political commitment beyond the university. How can the work you do be useful or in service to folks on the street?


So no, the catalyst of change won’t come from an institution or an art gallery. The catalyst will come from the street. When the revolution comes, the institutions will fall in line. Until then, they are not answerable to the people.

Do you worry that this influx of artists who are willing to be radical and anti-institutional right now is simply a product of the moment we’re in with many galleries closed and little work opportunity open to artists?


No, I’m hopeful because the questions surrounding race and art are longstanding. The issues around equity, diversity, and inclusion in the arts have been propelled to the forefront in ways that they haven’t been before. The art world, from the most corporate sort of institutions to the local museum, is embroiled in this moment of racial reckoning. This reckoning in art manifests in terms of having more curators of color at your museum, for example. Or having more folks of color who are in editing and giving people book deals. The reckoning is trying to remove a lot of these old school white conservatives who have been at the vanguard or who have been the gatekeepers of access to artistic production for the museum.


Going back to representation, how important do you think improving representation in the arts is as a catalyst for anti-racist movements or for, quite simply, the well-being of non-white audiences?


Representation is important. But we have to remember that there is this empty politics to representation. We assume that just merely having black people or black and brown bodies is in and of itself enough change. You can include black and brown bodies in ways that either tokenizes them or that reproduces a whole dynamic of subjugation where they just become the foot soldiers or agents of white supremacy. If BIPOC stories are ultimately used in the service of white supremacy, then that is not change. We need to look for a system that is more equitable, so we can put folks of color in positions where they can enable a different set of stories to be told.


For example, Michaela Coel’s show “I May Destroy You”. When she went to Netflix, she told them, “I want ten percent.” They said no. So she leaves and goes to HBO and tells them she wants creative control over everything and they say yes. And the show is fantastic! The point is that the story she is able to tell is not simply because you put a black person there; it’s because she has the agency to control the narrative.

If BIPOC stories are ultimately used in the service of white supremacy, then that is not change. We need to look for a system that is more equitable, so we can put folks of color in positions where they can enable a different set of stories to be told.

Representation means nothing if black and brown people are given no control. Then it’s just window dressing.


Showing those characters having difficult conversations about race is far more progressive. The way forward is through difficult conversations. It’s not through this honky-dory kumbaya nonsense. It’s not through the silencing of conversations about race. Shows like “I May Destroy You” are giving people a chance to rethink the myths they believe in by forcing us into these difficult conversations.


Do you see the reckoning that is occurring in the U.S. as a leading force for a global reckoning surrounding race or as a movement that is very far behind?


I don’t know. I have an issue with trying to declare, “and this is where it all started!” I think that erases the fact that activist work is never immediate, it’s ongoing. The genesis of movements like #MeToo or BLM is never grounded in one single action. Activist work in all parts of the world is always ongoing. Just because we have moments like this that coalesce doesn’t mean that, in the case with BLM, this summer is, somehow, the beginning. What we’re seeing now is actually an eruption of years and years of a fight against anti-blackness. I think it’s better to think of activism in and outside of the US as ongoing, with moments of eruption. We have to be careful to not erase that there has been long-standing work, often by women of color, by poor people who have long been in the trenches, by unions, etc. by folks that may that suddenly be getting a spotlight that they’ve simply never gotten before.

Representation means nothing if black and brown people are given no control.

A magazine run by and for students of color at the University of Chicago. 

Exploring Race