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Doctoral student writes dissertation based on behavior and culture of students in Detroit

Michelle Cowin-Mensah has chosen to combine theatre performance and research for her dissertation.

The fourth year doctoral student majoring in theatre and film at the University chose to combine theatre performance and urban ethnography in an effort to understand the behavior of natives in her hometown of Detroit.

“At first I thought I was going to do Zora Neale Hurston, but I got bored with her because I didn’t find enough of myself in her,” Cowin-Mensah said. “I can codify my blackness; I wanted to do a project that had my own context in identity.”

That is when the light bulb went off and Cowin-Mensah got the idea to use her hometown of Detroit as the basis for her project.

“I love Black people. I’m deeply fascinated with stories that have to do with black and brown bodies,” Cowin-Mensah said. “There’s a certain blackness ingrained in Detroit culture; it’s a highly racialized area with a rich history. So the project is looking at how black Detroiters perform and live identities of self.”

Cowin-Mensah received her Bachelor of Arts from The University of Michigan and earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Acting at the University of California Irvine. Now she is working on her Ph.D.

“To earn a Ph.D, there are certain benchmarks that a graduate student must pass. First there’s a set of comprehensive exams, then there is the perspectus and the part I’m working on is my dissertation,” Cowin-Mensah said.

The process of doing field work for the project was rigorous as described by Cowin-Mensah. She began interviewing people she knew and those people introduced her to other interview prospects. Phone calls and surveys are included, although she usually meets the subjects at their home and asks them a series of questions.

“Some of these people I’ve never met before,” Cowin-Mensah said. “I do have one BGSU student participating in the project and she lives in the suburbs. So a mix of phone conversations, in-person interviews and surveys helped create the project.”

Cowin-Mensah has traveled to different venues and areas in Detroit to complete her field work.

“I’m giving myself until October first to finish all of my ethnography work,” Cowin-Mensah said. “My brother is a hypeman at a club in Detroit where I spent a lot of time at. I look at how blacks use Detroit behavior and culture as spaces of performance and also as product/commodity. I chose Detroit because of the racial, class and gender inequalities there.”

Also, she said that the ethnography she has been engaging in has been nothing short of interesting.

“Amid the standard questions I ask, I always ask if Detroit were a body, what race and gender would it be and how would it move?” she said. “I always get the most interesting answers, Detroit is a beautiful woman with lots of jewels but she was raped and left desolate. Just goes to show how much pride people still have in their city.”

Cowin-Mensah is hoping her work inspires others to dig deeper.

“As far as my project, what I find is what I find,” said Cowin-Mensah. “They’re human beings. I hope to find Detroiters who are surviving and thriving. I hope to incorporate a lot of black radical thought/black nationalism into my project. It takes a lot of time, not only to absorb yourself in the culture/fieldwork but to go back and reflect on what you’ve done. If all goes as planned I should be finished by Spring 2015.”

Cowin-Mensah believes in the power of performance as a way to show social inequality and expression.

“I wrote and directed “Detroit 67” and have acted in numerous performances, such as a piece I wrote and starred in a while back called “Blunt Force Trauma,” where a boy throws a Wii remote at a flat screen television and his mother, a single 19-year-old girl, beats him to death and kills him,” Cowin-Mensah said. “Lynchings were performative, the Trayvon Martin tragedy was performative. The people freedom fighting in Ferguson are performing. We oppress ourselves in specific ways and can lose our black identity. Performance used to be expressive and sometimes silence; that’s why it’s so powerful and important for me to do the work that I do.”

She hopes to eventually become a theatre teacher.

“Here at the University, I teach acting courses. I teach THM 2410 which is Acting Principles and THM 2020. I want to eventually teach, but be more of a jack of all trades. I want to build a black theatre program focused on Pan-Africanism and traditional theatre, the oldies but goodies, like old time Negro theatre performance.”

Above all, Cowin-Mensah knows the power of expression and encourages people to not only combine it with academia but use it to their advantage.

“Performance is the key,” she said.

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