Each year, the Colby Center for the Arts and Humanities supports a faculty-led theme that contributes to the intellectual life of the college through courses, events, public exhibitions, film screenings, and more. In the decade since the inception of the CAH, we have led the campus in explorations around the importance of food to our lives, the presence of the past in our daily interactions, the commingling of energy and exhaustion in our work and free time, and impact of carcerality and the promises of abolition, to name a few of our most powerful themes. It is invigorating to see what can happen—from life-changing conversations to day-to-day shifts of perception—when we as a community turn our sights to a single theme seen through a kaleidoscope of perspectives.
This year and next, the humanities theme is “Play.” Emerging from the worst years of the pandemic with a scramble of pent-up energy, frustration, and excitement, an initially small group of us (faculty) found ourselves drawn to this theme. It was, perhaps, an odd path to the theme, mostly because we kept finding our conversations overwhelmed by mounting global crises, political divisions, and climatic upheaval (among other things). The tunnel vision caused by the unfolding crises of the present left us feeling slow, sad, and empty. We even thought of proposing a theme around “rest,” which has a long tradition in Black feminist thought (see the work of Tricia Hersey, for example). As we continued our conversations together, though, we found ourselves uncovering small delights and pleasures in a variety of things—sometimes a hobby, like reading or sewing, and other times the physical pleasure of athletics or the dark and hushed anticipation of a cinema. It became easy to see play all around us. Around this time, Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed by three men in South Georgia, about two hours from the town I grew up in. Arbery was out for a jog when he was chased down and ultimately murdered in this racially motivated and racist attack. Even as we were thinking about the pleasures of play in Maine, we were brutally reminded that play is not always permitted for some. There is a seriousness to play that must be considered; even when it can be something transcendent and hopeful, it has also often had tragic and unjust outcomes.
We wanted to uncover the potential of studying and thinking about play in its complicated facets, and we returned to the increasingly appealing prospect of discovering ways to play together, which is not often (or ever) part of some of our scholarly pursuits. We found that “play” provides a framework for us to lean into the haptic pleasures and difficulties of communal engagements while remaining focused on the demands of the present. That is to say that play can be fun, pleasurable, and even silly—but it can also offer a channel to understand systemic injustices, bad policies, and weaponized inequalities.
Responding to the ups and downs of play, my co-organizer Philip Jun Fang (Sociology) and I created a public seminar series that brought speakers who discussed Asian gamer death and its representations (Se Young Kim), tropes of racist humor (Raúl Pérez), institutional pressures to keep people gambling (Farah Qureshi), poetic play and queerness (Richie Hoffman and Arisa White), the sonic pleasures and pains of recording climate change (Gustavo Valdivia), movement and dance as a group (Annie Kloppenberg), and the “game” of migration as empathetic tool (Juan Llamas-Rodriguez). Working in partnership with Colby Athletics, its lacrosse teams, and the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs, we also worked to bring in Michael-Corey Hinton, who discussed the Indigenous roots of the game that is today called lacrosse.
Across campus, a number of courses explore play through distinct disciplinary lenses, ranging from the anthropology of play to the philosophy of humor, and from theater and dance to the visual and literary arts. In the Performance, Theater, and Dance Department, Girls Just Want to Have Fun (taught by AB Brown and Bess Welden) investigated the gendered, age-based, and class politics of play through a study of texts that show how play socializes young women/girls into particular social roles and configurations, particularly in a US-context. In Sandra Bernal Heredia’s course on Indigenous cultures in Latin America, students played video and board games by Indigenous creators.
We’ve only started scratching the surface of what play can do, and what we can do when we come together through play. Across the welcome differences in our lives and perspectives, we as a community have a lot to learn about the ways that we play: how it is sometimes kept from us by institutional or social structures, how it can find its way into our lives, how it can free us to relax into ourselves.
Image at top: logo for the Colby Center for the Arts and Humanities’ faculty-led theme, Play.