One Generation to The Next: Justin Emeka Talks Black Artistry, Facilitates Dialogue in Theater Spaces

Justin+Emeka

Courtesy of Tanya Rosen-Jones

Justin Emeka

As Associate Professor in both Theater and Africana Studies, Justin Emeka, OC ’95, has built a unique position for himself at Oberlin. This semester, Emeka worked with Professor of Theater, Matthew Wright to develop the Theater Dialogue Series: a roundtable discussion that provides space for Theater department students and faculty to reflect on important issues facing theater today. The dialogues focused on theater in the time of the pandemic and creating safer and more equitable spaces for Black artists, among other topics. With special guests from the broader theater world, including actor and writer Zora Howard and playwright and poet Keenan Scott II, Emeka was inclined to reflect on his experiences as an Oberlin student. Emeka has accomplished much outside of Oberlin as an Africana Studies and Theater scholar, musician and Capoeira instructor, but he often finds that his work ties him back to his Oberlin roots.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What were the intentions in creating the theater dialogues? Can you tell me about what you wanted those to bring to Oberlin?

It’s a major time this year. A lot of institutions — theater departments and theater institutions — have been reevaluating the representation and involvement of Black and Brown folks in the theater. I helped craft a vision statement for the theater department, which the department embraced and tried to figure out how they could put some of that philosophy in motion.

The department agreed on having a roundtable series that particularly highlighted and featured Black voices in the theater, and so then I just started reaching out through my networks and found people I thought would be good for the Oberlin community. I know both Zora [Howard] and Keenan [Scott II], reached out to them, and they came on board. 

Was there any sort of pushback from the Theater department? Was there any bad energy that you received from anyone or the department as a whole, or was it supportive of what this meant for this community?

I didn’t feel any overt resistance towards the idea — there was genuine enthusiasm. But again, this is kind of all over the country. In terms of these movements that have been dominated by white cultural aesthetics. There’s this whole movement now of, “We got to reimagine, we got to be progressive” and all this. But if you were to ask these same people that last year, they would have said they were doing that already, you know?

Part of the problem is not necessarily the intentions of these white people running this thing, but are they really willing to make the certain sacrifices and accommodations to put Black people into the center of a discussion — to put Black people into the center of the art form?

We in America train white people and Black people to assume certain positions.

Period.

You know? We train white artists to assume that they always have a spot at the center. We train Black and Brown artists to assume that they got to work from the outside and wiggle their way in. So it’s just hard for people to think any other way because that’s how they’ve been trained to think. You have colleagues and practitioners who are like “Yeah, I want to make things more equitable.” But what that even really means, what that really looks like … I don’t think people really know yet. And oftentimes they want to have a movement that doesn’t move them from the center. 

Getting into this second dialogue as a whole, how did you think it was gonna go? You get these two people that you’re familiar with, Zora Howard and Keenan Scott II, but we as a community may not be familiar with. Plus, the invite was worldwide — you had people from everywhere in there! 

As an artist and as a scholar, I cherish conversations with people who have bright minds and razor sharp thoughts — that’s the type of people that Zora [Howard] and Keenan [Scott II] are and always have been. Oberlin for me has always been one of the most exciting places that brings together the convergence of brilliant people in my life — there’s a legacy to that. On one level when I invite people here, I have that legacy in mind: all the bright minds that I’ve encountered that have helped forge and shape my ideas.

I’ve been a student and I remember so many great voices. Being a faculty member, I take great responsibility in introducing and bringing folks who are gonna bring inspiration and bring critical thinking — that was what I was hoping for.

What did you think about the overall experience? We’re in there, Ms. Caroline [Jackson-Smith] is in there, you have somebody from Brazil in there. You had all these different perspectives matching up, how do you think it all went down?

Just like how you said, it was very successful in that it attracted people from all around the world to come and listen. I was very happy with that, and with Zora, Keenan, and I getting the chance to just speak to each other. In these times of separation we as artists also need the inspiration of hearing each other’s voices and students need to see how artists inspire each other. In turn that’s how students get inspired as well, you know, and then the artists get inspired from those students. Everything is like this circular connection. So at one level it’s like giving people access to each other’s creative instincts and creative ideas and visions and then letting synergy grow from there — letting inspiration grow from there.

It’s crazy that you say that because I’ve been in such a creative mood. I made a decision: usually I sit down when I’m eating, turn on some Netflix, and I just watch and let the life get sucked out of me. Taking a step back I was like, “bro, that’s not the vibe anymore.” So recently I’ll go on YouTube. I got this history of all these Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison interviews and these interviews with Tupac and with Kendrick [Lamar]. Hearing about different musical influences from Pharrell and SZA — everything inspires me. So it’s funny that you say that because I’ve been thinking about the inspirational aspect of being able to interact with other artists’ process. Particularly with this dialogue, that’s like being in the same room with one of these giants that you’ve been watching. 

That’s what Oberlin means to me though! I was right there. As a student I spent time in the room with Amiri Baraka — watching, speaking and then having dinner with him back at Afrikan Heritage House. My first classes were with bell hooks. I took a class on Toni Morrison taught by bell hooks. Toni Morrison comes and speaks, then I’m sitting having dinner with Toni Morrison. So again, there’s this legacy of great minds and great thinkers and a lot of that was facilitated by Calvin C. Hernton, professor of Africkana Studies, writer, extraordinaire who really attracted a lot of other people, like Maya Angelou. He brought Maya Angelou here.

Wow.

I appreciated who he brought through here. When I came back to teach, Calvin had recently passed and there was a void here. I could feel it. I miss having him here but felt a responsibility to try and help fill some of that void by bringing more people here — that’s a little bit of the responsibility that I feel.

With that in mind, what does the future of these dialogues look like? 

Once you start a conversation it doesn’t end. A conversation is a back and forth and ideally one conversation sparks another conversation, sparks another conversation, sparks another. It grows like a fire that starts to burn and warm the soul. Another way to think of a conversation is like planting a seed. 

I’m just trying to move the conversation of the Black aesthetic into the center — to occupy space for a time.

White cultural aesthetic has been so dominant at the center and has taken up so much space. So we’re trying to figure out how to get other cultural traditions there. So the Black aesthetic, Black culture, opens doors for all cultures. That’s why the man that you got on the wall behind you, Malcolm X, was a hero for the Filipino revolutionary struggle — an inspiration for the South American liberation struggle. The Black struggle is the world struggle. So oftentimes we feel like “Well, in order to be accessible and inclusive, we can’t be too specifically Black.” 

I reject that idea and think “no.” We can be as Black as we want to be and still inspire the world to see themselves in our Blackness.