Diane Paulus considered it self-evident to put race at the center of the American Repertory Theater’s revival of the award-winning musical “1776,” debuting next year.
Speaking Friday at the “Vision & Justice” conference, Paulus, A.R.T.’s director, said earlier runs of the musical about the writing of the Declaration of Independence, failed to adequately depict how the nation’s founders dealt with slavery. “I thought, as an artist today, this makes me want to do the musical and look at who wasn’t included,” Paulus said. “It’s a great American tragedy.”
The conference brought together Paulus and other experts from Harvard and beyond to explore the role of the arts in citizenship, race, and justice. Participants included University President Larry Bacow, former University President Drew Faust, several Harvard deans, and prominent national figures including Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation; musician Wynton Marsalis; student activist Naomi Wadler; rapper Kasseem Dean (Swizz Beatz); artist Carrie Mae Weems; and Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor at Harvard and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research. The conference concluded Friday evening with a keynote speech by Bryan Stevenson, J.D./M.P.P ’85, a professor of clinical law at New York University who in 1989 founded the Equal Justice Initiative.
The two-day conference, which was hosted by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, included panel discussions, musical performances, and videos and films at Sanders Theatre and the Radcliffe Institute’s Knafel Center.
Launched to consider the roles of art and culture in establishing the narratives of people of color, the conference was inspired by a course taught by Sarah Lewis ’97, assistant professor of history of art and architecture and African and African American studies, who also moderated parts of the event.
Lewis was drawn to the subject by her research of Frederick Douglass and his understanding of how art was used to manipulate public perception of African Americans. She said she was also inspired by her grandfather, who was once expelled from school for asking why there were no African Americans in the history books.
“The work of culture alters our perceptions,” said Lewis. “It connects us to the work of justice. How many movements have begun when a work of art, when culture, so shifted our perceptions of the world entirely that we had to conceive it anew? I think more times than we can possibly imagine.”
The conference began Thursday with opening remarks from Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, after which the first session featured multidisciplinary artist Alexandra Bell, Columbia professor and New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb, Nicole Fleetwood of Rutgers University’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, and Harvard Art Museums’ Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography Makeda Best discussing “Citizenship and Racial Narratives.” Later, Weems and Lewis were joined by architect David Adjaye to deliberate “Originality and Invention” before the afternoon wrapped up with performances by Weems and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer.
Friday morning began with welcoming remarks from Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, Ph.D. ’82, who said he hoped the conference would “provide new insights into power and culture and a broader understanding of race and justice in the United States.”
The day’s first panel, “Cultural Citizenship,” examined art’s ability to make people of color feel a sense of belonging. The panel was moderated by Drew Faust, president emerita of Harvard and the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor.
Following an opening performance, Marsalis suggested that jazz can be a metaphor for different kinds of people working together. “The drum is the loudest, the bass is the softest, the bass is the lowest, the cymbal the lightest, and they’re forced to deal with each other,” he said, explaining how musician improvise with one another.