Same Old Song and Dance: The lost opportunity of cultural shows

Cultural shows are ubiquitous institutionalized events here at the University of Chicago. For most cultural Registered Student Organizations (RSO), they typically function as the single centerpiece event of annual programming and are sometimes their only means of outward cultural representation on campus. However, the tradition and convenience of using the cultural show as a template for cultural expression has brought a certain static consideration of the ever-changing status of ethnic and racial issues on campus. This tendency to rely solely on an elaborate display of culture–primarily music and dancing–invites complacency rather than critical discussions of important, contemporary issues. And this is problematic. It appears that complex discussions about ethnic and racial minority issues are often overlooked and forgotten in the haze of flashy costumes, comedic storylines, and ornate sets. And because cultural representations are packaged for easy consumption, the form of the cultural show–and not necessarily the content itself–can be the only accessible element.

The discourse surrounding the status of cultural shows here at the UofC, oddly enough, seems to occur among the participants themselves. Despite the fact that these cultural shows serve as their major activities of the year, it appears that cultural RSOs re-examine the ramifications of executing these shows on an annual basis. Participants, mostly RSO leaders that organize the events, observe a paradoxical relation that exists between the primary purpose of the cultural show and its reception by the UofC community. It is understood that careful consideration must be taken to ensure that particular cultural representations are received correctly. As cultural shows represent ethnic and racial culture on campus, RSOs certainly feel the responsibility of doing a careful job in portraying their respective cultures.

Luis Lara, a fourth year in the College and the head of this year’s cultural show for the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS), explains the difficulty of such a consideration, noting that cultural shows are expected to be “more of a medium through which to entertain people than to educate them.” And although a conscious goal of the organization is bringing awareness to lesser-known political issues, these issues are mostly explored “in a much deeper and serious way through…other events,” Lara says. “Due to time constraints and the overall mood of the show…issues are represented in a humorous way.” This “humorous way” Lara describes seems to be motivated by external pressures, namely the expectation of “light-hearted fun through dancing and acting”–a comfortable experience where challenging contemporary issues aren’t confronted at all. As Lara makes clear, the point of the shows is to celebrate a culture; anything more controversial or political is left for “other events,” where discussions of “harsh contemporary issues” takes place.

Udodi Okoh, a second year in the College and the Organization of Black Students’ (OBS) Historian, agrees with Lara about the paradoxical nature of cultural shows. Okoh finds cultural shows to be restrictive, limiting, and only representative of what “RSOs assume [about] how others see their culture…[they] reflect what people enjoy seeing.” Okoh adds that she “likes the idea of the cultural show…[But it remains] restricted…it’s become mundane…[and we] see the same thing every year.” OBS’s cultural show this year, simply titled “iRep,” seems to appeal to the necessary elements of entertainment and humor while addressing heavier issues in the black community. In a “story of two best friends and the iPods that play the musical soundtracks to their lives,” “iRep” employs the popular medium of music, as its advertisements describe, to “discover the beauty of loving who and what you are and where you come from while breaking down cultural, economic, sexual and gender divides.” Clearly, this cultural show is making the necessary compromise to achieve every cultural show’s purpose of confronting key issues about ethnic and racial identities. As OBS’s cultural show this year promises to present its audience with an “encounter [of] diverse people and situations that teach them a lesson in life and the African American experience,” it functions as a venue for self-reflection “through the arts and the universal language of music.” As Okoh explains, cultural shows function quite simply: “This is the time to show everyone what your culture [is like].” Clearly the dual function of educating while entertaining prohibits any progressive attempt to change the show’s content. An explicit discussion about racial identities, as in “iRep,” may only occur with some song and dance.

Jennifer Kennedy, the adviser of most major cultural RSOs on campus, discusses how ultimately the direction and consequently the reception of cultural shows are self-determining. In an interview during the South Asian Students Association’s cultural show this past Saturday, Kennedy remarked how educative elements of cultural shows are certainly encouraged but not necessary by any means. In the end, it is the decision of cultural RSOs to determine what they want to do with the shows. And the critical question Kennedy asks RSOs during the planning of these shows is: “Why are you doing this?” This question means to provoke a serious consideration of goals and purpose. And the RSOs’ answers to this question should influence the underlying principles of their cultural shows; they should inform the results which cultural shows aspire to produce. Kennedy explains that when “goals aren’t set out right” and cultural shows continue out of habit, they fail to bring awareness to ethnic and racial issues.

Ultimately it remains the responsibility of cultural RSOs to decide how they want to represent their own cultures. There is no excuse for the significant compromises with and concessions to audience expectations. As cultural shows become more gimmicky and pander to audiences’ expectations, their significance at the UofC diminishes. And as a result, important discussions about minority issues remain determined not by those who plan and execute the shows, but instead by those who watch them–a popular majority. As cultural shows continue to represent only the familiar cultural representations audiences are comfortable with, those expected stereotypes are transformed into institutionalized norms. At a certain point, the self-determining potential of cultural shows disappears all together; cultural shows have become, as Lara described before, simple forms of “light-hearted fun through dancing and acting.”

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