Erica Fugger (2012) is an alum and Project Coordinator to OHMA. In this post, she profiles 2015-2016 Oral History Merit Scholarship recipient Tauriq Jenkins.
“To fail to view the world through a post-colonial lens is to deny reality,” he asserts with a fierceness that catches the notice of passersby. The undergrads gaze up from their mobile conversations, intrigued by the company gathered around the young actor. “It neglects history, our inheritance. It is at the core of ignorance.” He stands with his arms crossed over tweed, awaiting agreement but equipped for rebuttal. The group nods in approval, star struck for just a moment.
I smile in recalling that I shared a similar conversation with Tauriq Jenkins three years ago, one fortuitous evening at the International House. After a chance encounter in the community dining room in mid-autumn 2012, we were each intrigued by the work of the other. He, a Shakespearean actor, poet, and chess champion, born to South African parents in exile during Apartheid—and I, an aspiring oral historian still green to the city, an American anomaly amidst the global stream of graduate students. My view of the world changed drastically that night. Just as my commitment to fostering humility and inclusiveness within the field of oral history was forever strengthened.
Tauriq’s connection to orality, it turns out, is imbued within the fiber of his work and soul of his being. Through his upbringing in the newly independent Zimbabwe, he listened to accounts of his diverse and stately ancestors, and gazed in awe at a family tree that spread its roots across the entire room. In school, his teachers would stray from mathematics into stories that entranced the class and inspired his own artful imaginings.
Reinforcing these connective powers and creative outlets, Tauriq recently told me, were political underpinnings contributing to radical shifts in the national consciousness. In Zimbabwe and South Africa—and now America—history did not lie complacent like a specter of a static past interred. Instead, it leapt to the streets and into the classrooms, ingrained in the students as the spirit of activism.
After years of colonialism and de jure racism, there was a call to set the record straight—to reorientate the archive. Tauriq asserts, “While science education was important in establishing the mechanical workings of these countries, the humanities were taught in order to build sensibility.” There was an urgency in ensuring that the right story was communicated to the young generation, as a reclaiming of their history and heritage.
“How do you see orality contributing to, shifting, or disrupting an archive?” I inquire in our latest conversation. “Any dialogue—of great quality and bravery—contributes to an archive,” he says. “It motivates shifts, institutes disruption. When schools were integrated, when street names were changed, when overnight, the U.S. had a black president—when there are significant paradigm shifts, what happens in the present or future would be unrecognizable by the past. Orality captures a living sense of history from disenfranchised spaces and communities that mold society but are inevitably sidelined. We already have the tools to begin to divest history from its colonial infringements.”
Tauriq’s vocational trajectory directly answers these calls to action. From founding the Independent Theatre Movement of South Africa and directing Shakespearean productions with incarcerated youth in Cape Town, to teaching chess classes at New York’s Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, his work traverses institutional and societal barriers to seek transformation.
“For me,” Tauriq says, “chess is the framework and acting is the soul. Yet, again, those can also be seen as interchangeable. Without the framework, one cannot understand how the system works. Without the soul, one cannot react in the spontaneity of the moment. In chess and acting, you are very present and make suggestions that alter change. You are aware of how you are listening, being affected, and affecting. One single movement may alter an entire perspective.” “The same is true in oral history,” I reply with a smile.
We share a long conversation on the journey back to Manhattan from his recent performance at Sarah Lawrence College, where oral history melds with theatre in a collaborative space shared between the families of Hour Children and Prof. Gerry Albarelli’s students. Echoing those admiring undergraduates, I buzz with the energy of Tauriq’s monologues off-stage. “For actors, everything we experience is useful. The most useful things on stage are the things that in life you find to be the most painful. It’s that very paradox that gives license to humanity in rejoicing everything about itself. But rejoicing in a way that is not necessarily narcissistic, but rather allows the audience to tap into an archive of experience—and empathy.”
“What is oral history?” I ask him on multiple occasions. “What does OHMA mean to you, in the context of your work?” “I don’t know yet,” Tauriq once declares with a sly grin. “That’s a rather cheeky answer, I know. But what I mean is that I have still to learn what oral history signifies in the context of this program at Columbia University.” He continues, “Almost everything I do has some sort of historical pertinence; it is a driving force. There is an occasion to coalesce what has constituted my life in many ways—a comfort in knowing where one wants to project and comfort in immersing in the unknown. How could I forgo the opportunity to unify these elements?”
Tauriq Jenkins is our 2015-2016 Oral History Merit Scholarship recipient. A recent graduate of the Acting MFA program in the Columbia School of the Arts, he comes to OHMA eager to explore the convergence of oral history and theatre. To learn more about Tauriq and his innovative work, you can view his full biography on our Current Students page and watch his recent TEDx Talk, “Rehabilitating through Shakespeare.”