Monica White Ndounou joins theater department faculty

Ndounou, a “scholar artist,” has a Ph.D. in theater and is both a director and an actor.

by Kasey Rhee | 9/28/17 12:14am

A new name has been posted on the office doors of Shakespeare Alley, welcoming Monica White Ndounou, who joined the Dartmouth faculty as an associate professor of theater earlier this year.

The theater department now has nine faculty members, not including adjunct faculty. The addition of a new faculty member is an exciting occasion, and the hiring committee’s search was especially intentional due to the department’s size.

Theater professor and department chair Laura Edmondson shared that though the scholarship of each candidate was the primary factor, “because we are such a small department, we were looking for someone who also had familiarity and experience in the practical side of theater.”

Ndounou, a “scholar artist,” has a Ph.D. in theater and is a director and an actor. She observed that her perspective is “shaped by both of those worlds.”

Her directing history includes student productions such as August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” and Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf”for Tuft University’s Department of drama and dance. Since Dartmouth student productions all need faculty advisors, Ndounou brings experience to that role.

Edmondson recalled that members of the department felt they “hit the jackpot” with Ndounou.

“People tend to think of the theater department as doing productions, but we also have a discipline of theater and performance studies ... the history, the literature and the theory of theatre,” Edmondson said. “Not only was [Ndounou] a top-notch scholar of black theater and film, but she also had extensive directing experience.”

Ndounou explained that she became familiar with Dartmouth because of Errol Hill, a former theater professor at the college.

“[His research] and the work he produced, especially while teaching at Dartmouth, has had a very profound impact on the development of black theater scholarship,” Ndounou said.

August Wilson held a Black Theater Summit at Dartmouth twenty years ago while serving as a Montgomery Fellow, and in the same vein Ndounou plans to host a reconvening of the summit in the near future, Ndounou added in an email.

Ndounou also made a visit to campus to give a presentation on her research, and Edmondson pinpointed that moment as particularly moving.

“[She] blew us away with her charisma and the clear rapport she had both with the students in the room and the faculty,” Edmondson said. “It was just very clear that she was a gifted teacher as well.”

Ndounou is teaching Theater 1, “Introduction to Theater” and Theater 22, “Black Theater, U.S.A.” this term, and her students echo Edmondson’s sentiment.

Jovanay Carter ’19, a theater minor and student in “Black Theater, U.S.A.,” described Ndounou’s teaching as “exactly what anyone would want from their professor.”

“We’re driven to think critically in a very engaging way,” Carter added. “She’s excited to teach us. It feels good to be in her presence … super positive, a great spirit.”

Carter noted that just in these past few weeks of classes, she’s observed Ndounou’s encouraging attitude.

“She works off of what we contribute, and I appreciate that,” Carter said, citing how Ndounou’s leadership has affected her on a personal level.

“[Ndounou is] someone who I can definitely relate to on campus … as a woman of color on campus, as someone who studies theater, as someone from the south … all things that are less common here,” Carter said. “It just feels good to have a black professor. It’s not that there aren’t any other professors of color, but it is rare for me … this is my second time.”

The concept of representation is a significant focus of Ndounou’s scholarly work. She will not be teaching for both the winter and spring terms, instead conducting research. Ndounou’s current project is comprised of a digital archive, a book and a documentary film component that look at the different theories and practices that black Americans specifically have developed over the years in terms of actor-director training. She will be working at various institutions located both nationally and internationally. As an awardee of a New York Public Library short-term research fellowship, Ndounou has already begun archival research both there and at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. She will also be traveling to Yale University to see the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s collection, and to New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Ndounou said.

Elaborating on the motivation behind this project, Ndounou said her ultimate goal was to “spearhead an overhaul in theater training.”

“Many U.S. actor training programs rely primarily on theories and practices developed by white Americans or white Europeans,” Ndounou said. “This is not an accurate reflection of the various contributions people of color have made to developing the crafts of acting and directing. My research will ultimately help to develop curricula that more accurately reflects the demographics of not only this nation but the world.”

Ndounou went on to explain that her work is to “demonstrate the particulars of black American cultural influences in theater and performance” which can then serve as a model to be applied to other cultural backgrounds that have contributed “culturally nuanced” approaches to theater performance, creation, theory, criticism and behind-the-scenes work.

“There are multiple worldviews that are not historically represented in the ways artists, scholars and critics are trained,” Ndounou said. “As part of this larger project, my book considers strategies artists have historically used to humanize stereotypical roles and related narratives as well as roles that are more three dimensional and culturally nuanced.”

In the short term, Ndounou will be crafting and gathering resources that could provide students and professional artists alike with tools to feel comfortable accessing material from their cultural backgrounds.