May 9, 2022

In this Princeton course, close listening becomes a gateway to Trenton’s rich art scene

What does close listening mean? And can it, too, be a form of activism?

This spring, nine Princeton undergraduate students set out to answer those questions and others in a course that explored the vibrant arts scene in Trenton, New Jersey, through the lens of activism.

Students in “Arts in the Invisible City: Race, Policy, Performance” had the opportunity to see a performance of a documentary theater work, “The OK Trenton Project,” at Passage Theatre Company. They visited the studio of Tamara Torres, an Afro-Latina artist whose work addresses women’s rights and racial equity. They took a walking tour of Trenton murals with graffiti artist Leon Rainbow.

Students examined the historical and contemporary racism that has shaped Trenton — the so-called “invisible” city between New York and Philadelphia — in direct conversation with Trenton’s activists, policy makers, politicians and artists. For their final project, students conducted oral history interviews with a range of Trenton artists.

This team-taught course was led by D. Vance Smith, professor of English, and Nyssa Chow, an oral historian, 2019-21 Princeton Arts Fellow, and lecturer in theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts and the Humanities Council. It was supported by the David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project in the Humanities Council. Cross-listed in English, humanistic studies, theater and urban studies, the course is also part of the Program for Community-Engaged Scholarship (ProCES).

Reflecting the course’s focus on oral history, six participants — professors, staff and students — share their experiences of teaching, inspiration and discovery:

We know from everyday experience that the story we’re willing to tell a stranger is different than the story we might tell our best friend — and different from the story we might tell our parents. The students learned that every narrative within the encounter of oral history will be the version we had permission to hear.
— Nyssa Chow, course instructor

Passage [Theatre Co.] leadership believes it is important to engage all facets of the community when we produce a piece of theater. Princeton students can offer a deep dive into the history and context of the work that is being produced, community partners are able to offer firsthand experience and expertise, and actors and directors bring their training and curatorial knowledge of the craft. The most impactful art is created when all these perspectives work together.
— Dylan Erdelyi, AmeriCorps fellow

Read more from Nyssa Chow and other faculty and students in the full article by Jamie Saxon on the Princeton University news page

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