Elizabeth Wright, Distinguished Research Professor of Spanish literature in the department of Romance languages and associate academic director of the Willson Center, is a principal investigator of a grant project that has been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Wright and co-P.I. Nicholas Jones, assistant professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Davis, were awarded an NEH Collaborative Research Grant of $96,347 to produce an international conference and a special journal issue on Recovering Black Performance in Early Modern Iberia (1500–1800).
The conference, which will bring together 19 scholars from North America, Europe, and Latin America, will take place April 29-30, 2022 at New York University’s King Juan Carlos I Center. After undergoing peer review, conference papers will be published the following year in a special issue of Bulletin of the Comediantes, the journal of early modern Spanish-language theater of which Wright is editor. The project will draw attention to how the Atlantic slave trade and resulting African diaspora shaped Iberia’s “Golden Age” of theater.
The project took shape in summer of 2020, as Wright was involved in a Mellon Foundation-funded Willson Center public humanities project examining early modern empires and the shaping of the American South. She reached out to Jones, who had recently won the 2020 Outstanding First Book Prize of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora as well as the 30th Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize awarded by the Modern Language Association for his 2019 book Staging Habla de Negros: Radical Performances of the African Diaspora in Early Modern Spain, both to invite him to present for the Mellon project and “hoping he’d left some things in the inkwell,” as a saying in Spanish goes, that he might contribute to the Bulletin of the Comediantes.
“I immediately replied and had this ambitious idea of doing a special issue on the topic of Black performance in early modern Iberian theater studies,” Jones said. “And then from there, Betsy had this great idea: ‘Let’s go big; let’s really try to bring a lot of folks together, across rank, across generation, who’ve been working on these topics… And why not apply for an NEH grant?’”
Jones and Wright are joined on the project by fellow scholars Julia C. Hernández and Cornesha Tweede. Hernández, a 2019 PhD graduate in Spanish literature from UGA who is managing editor of the Bulletin of the Comediantes and a visiting assistant professor at Washington and Lee University, will be the point-person for the final publication preparations of the special issue. Tweede, a fourth-year PhD student at the University of Oregon, will assist Jones with conference planning and logistics, including work during the conference to provide detailed notes on the discussions and debates.
“A big priority was to reach out to scholars at all career stages, but especially to give protagonism in the conference and in the preparing of the journal article to graduate students and to emerging scholars,” Wright said. The grant program will include intensive mentoring of graduate students throughout its two-year duration. Beyond academic circles, Wright and Jones share the conviction that innovative assessments of Black performance in the past can provide historical perspectives for contemplating the legacy of slavery, resistance, and the struggle for abolition and emancipation in our times.