Rachel Watson

Undergraduate Discipline


BA, Dartmouth College. MA, Columbia University. MA, MPhil, PHD, New York University. Area of primary specialization: 20th- and 21st-century French and francophone literature, with an emphasis on theatre and performance. Teaching and research interests include diaspora, migration, and refugee studies; memory and trauma studies; intermediality and embodiment; performance theory; theatre history; and political theatre. Articles on French-language theatre appear in The Drama Review, Theater (forthcoming), Horizons/Théâtre, Arab Stages, and Routledge Anthology of Women’s Theatre Theory and Dramatic Criticism. Translation: The Théâtre du Soleil: The First Fifty-Five Years (Chapter 7). SLC, 2022–


Undergraduate Courses 2022-2023


Advanced French: “L’Imagination au pouvoir !”: le théâtre politique de la Renaissance à nos jours

Intermediate/Advanced, Seminar—Spring

Prerequisite: successfully completion of Intermediate French II, returned from Study Abroad, or placed into this level according to the SLC French proficiency test

In the age of streaming technology, social media, and connection across distance, why theatre? Why today? In short, what does theatre have the power to do? The theatre can be a powerful space for political reflection, theorization, experimentation, debate, and engagement. This art form—as it brings together living, thinking beings capable of action and reaction, adherence or resistance, conformity or dissidence in a given time and place—has a great capacity to dialogue with the social and political structures of its time. As a space for examining the nature of power, the theatre can work to uphold and solidify power or to question, critique, and subvert it. Through examples of French and francophone theatre and performing arts, this course investigates the ways theatre and performance take power to task through embodied political and social action. The course proposes a chronologically arranged examination of the relationship among theatre, politics, and power. Through a survey of texts from the Renaissance to today, we will examine the theatre as a space for political reflection and even, perhaps, action. The works under study—from Robert Garnier, Corneille, Racine, and Molière to Aimé Césaire, Sony Labou Tansi, Koffi Kwahulé, and Wajdi Mouawad—will deepen our understanding of the theatre’s capacity to dialogue with the social and political structures of its time. We will examine both plays and theoretical texts addressing the politics of representation, spectatorship, and aesthetics while also learning to analyze the other languages of the stage (movement, gesture, lights, sound, etc.) through analysis of specific productions. In short, we will learn to view the stage as an experimental space for theorizing political structures, either upholding or subverting power or for opening an ambivalent space for debate, as the case may be. How, we will ask, does the theatre engage with the pressing issues of its time? And what is the role of the spectator, whose action and reaction in this politically charged space can render theatrical texts dynamic and slippery?


Intermediate French I: The (Post)colony, (Im)migration, and Identity

Intermediate, Seminar—Year

Prerequisite: Admission by placement test (to be taken during interview week at the beginning of the fall semester), or completion of Beginning French.

This course will offer a systematic review of the most fundamental aspects of French grammar. Focused on the themes of colonialization, the postcolonial, migration/immigration, and identity, this course will teach students to master and refine French grammatical structures and vocabulary while also connecting them to a thematic that addresses pressing sociopolitical realities in the French and francophone sphere. We will work on the four skills—reading, writing, listening, speaking—with a special emphasis on oral proficiency. We will work on writing skills through in-class short essays and exercises with the goal of strengthening students’ grammatical agility. And we will work on speaking skills through oral exercises, presentations, songs, dialogues, and theatre scenes. We will meet for 1.5 hours twice a week during 2022-2023 academic year. We will use recent and hypercontemporary texts (literary, journalistic, theoretical, sociological, etc.), televised debates and news reports, theatre and performance, film, music, and visual art to apprehend underlying trends and tensions that have been at work in the francophone world since the 1960s. Some of the themes to be discussed are: the question of French colonization of North and Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and Indochina and its aftermath; the complex issue of race and slavery as part of France’s past, the ways this legacy haunts the present, and the recent decolonization movement in the arts; the Republican value of secularism as it comes into contact with the presence of Islam in France as a result of immigration from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia; and, finally, questions of immigration, identity, and the changing demographic of metropolitan France in the second half of the 20th century and today. We will focus on filling in the gaps in the archive, telling the récits manquants—those that have been silenced or willfully forgotten as the victors wrote their history and shaped collective memory. Each week will be organized around a theme, which will be paired with primary material that focuses on a certain linguistic function, grammar point, and skill. In addition to conferences, a weekly conversation session with a French language assistant(e) is required. Attendance at the weekly French lunch table and French film screenings are both highly encouraged.



Writing the Blue Note: Jazz, Literature, Art, and Diasporic Identity

Open, Seminar—Fall

Sometimes, poems sing, paintings swing, and novels bop. A line of poetry can achieve the effect of a jazz melody through assonance and alliteration. A painting can, like a trumpet, blow hot and cold using alternating color fields. And a prose phrase can beat with syncopation, playing with stressed syllables and sibilance like the rhythm section of a bebop group. Jazz musicians have long taken inspiration from literature; writers and painters have, likewise, borrowed strategies from jazz and blues music. Indeed, this borrowing and exchange is so prevalent that Brent Hayes Edwards writes: “Whether it is composers finding formal inspiration in verse or a poet invoking the sound of music, hearing across media is the source of innovation in black art.” In this course, we will learn to perform the practice of “hearing across media” by examining the jazz and blues aesthetic that permeates the art of various African and Afro-descended artists. Immersing ourselves in work from Africa and the diaspora, students will analyze literature, visual art, and music to trace the transfer of these aesthetic strategies across media and genres and to understand how these artists, finding connectivity beyond national borders through reference to American jazz, utilize this music to figure improvisation, multivocality, non-fixity, and subversion as central to diasporic identity. Inspired by the concept of the blue note—the microtonal flattening of certain pitches on a scale, a note in between notes, disruptive in its “inbetweenness”—we will investigate how these artists practice a liberating aesthetic, calling on the subversive qualities of jazz to create space for challenging convention, creating and recreating the self, and claiming a belonging to the diaspora. We will examine how diasporic work becomes a social and cultural performance, how vibrating with the blue note—a sonic metonymy for the experience of dispersal, exile, and longing of slaves in the New World and their descendants—this art mourns while also celebrating the freeing potential of artistic techniques that deviate playfully from the conventional structures of their media. Following the Glissantian notion of non-fixity and Paul Gilroy’s notion of the transnational Black Atlantic, we will trace the aesthetic and cultural practice of “hearing across media” in text (novels, plays, and poetry), music (jazz and blues), and visual art (painting) across several sites: Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, the United States, and Canada. Classes will be organized according to a “call-and-response” structure; that is, we will traverse geography and time period according to how concepts find their melody responded to, taken up, or revised in different times and places. Primary texts will be supported by scholarly and theoretical readings.