Editor’s note: Meet-a-Ram is an occasional VCU News series about the students, faculty, staff and alumni who make Virginia Commonwealth University such a dynamic place to live, work and study.
Today, we meet Tanya Boucicaut, an assistant professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry, part of University College. Her spellbinding 2021 TED-Ed lesson on Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”’ examined the novel’s unique power and told the story of the author who wrote it. The lesson has been viewed more than 290,000 times.
Boucicaut received her MFA in theater pedagogy from the VCU School of the Arts, as well as a Master of Divinity from Virginia Union University. Boucicaut, who founded a nonprofit youth theater that ran for two summers when she was a VCU student, spoke to VCU News about the experience of creating her dynamic TED-Ed video lesson, the enduring power of Hurston’s novel, and the gratifying feeling of seeing her work embraced by such a large audience.
What inspired you to create your TED-Ed talk, “Can Love and Independence Coexist?” and what drew you to “Their Eyes Were Watching God”?
I’ve always done work in academic spaces, but also outside of academic spaces. And one day, I just woke up and said, “You know what, I want to try a TED talk.” During the pandemic, I’d begun to spend more time working on myself, my mental health, my confidence, and just being a human being outside of teaching. And as a result of working on myself, I decided I should do this.
My initial idea was to either do something about fairy tales, which is connected to the work that I’ve done with young people with my theater company, or to do something on the Black Arts Movement, but when I had conversations with the people from TED, we realized that it would be best to do Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” I really love the text, and it felt like this journey to womanhood was something that I was experiencing. I also believed that her story about her would impact so many other people’s lives.
As you grew up reacquainted with the book, were there things that struck you about it in a new way and surprised you?
Absolutely. When I read the text, it was life-changing. Just beginning with the main character, Janie Crawford, and the influence of her people in her life, particularly her grandmother. As someone who grew up very, very close to my grandmother – my grandmother’s name is tattooed on my right hand, so theoretically I take her everywhere I go – that relationship and the way her grandmother always wanted the best de ella for her strongly resonated with I. And then Janie’s quest for personhood and autonomy resonated, too, particularly being a Black woman in higher education, which has such a patriarchal structure. The novel shows that there are times when you have to find your voice, and you have to speak out, even if it’s not popular. Sometimes you have to stand alone. It felt really good to see that message in this story.
Another piece that was powerful to me was the spirituality piece. I really identified with the spirituality of the text, particularly in spirituality’s relationship to nature. Finally, the story is framed as a conversation with Pheoby, who is a great friend of Janie Crawford’s de ella – I’d call her a sister-friend – and I found that very powerful as someone who is very close with their friends de ella .
How was the creative experience of working with the TED-Ed team to develop this unique lesson?
I thought it was going to be like an academic paper, but it’s much more of a script. You
have to write it in beats, and you have to appeal to a broad audience. It has to be conversational – you have to invite people in. It wasn’t easy. The other thing is you have to be straight with your facts. Everything that you say has better sources. As my grandmother used to say, you can’t just talk out the side of your neck.
It took almost a year from initial submission to going live. I leaned into my experience as a playwright. I wrote my first play at 17, so being able to pull back into that creative space was so fun, and then to see the animation and the script come alive – I’ve never done anything like this before. It felt so gratifying. And I knew that there was something special about it that was going to really resonate with people.
How fulfilling is it to have found such a large audience with this project?
It was a strange concept to me for so many people to know my work – exciting but also unnerving to a certain extent. It was very gratifying because I put my heart into this. It has made me feel good to know that my artistry can impact people. And there was so much synergy with the team who worked on this with me. There were these little things in there that meant a lot to me. For example, when we talk about Zora Neale Hurston writing the text in Haiti, the animator highlights the word Haiti, and I’m Haitian. Another thing they highlighted is a phrase that’s in the text, “I reckon,” which was something that my grandma always said – she was from North Carolina. To be able to share these parts of my life that I’m so proud of – these things that inform who I am and my identity – and to have it received well was, well, I’m never speechless because I talk a lot, but it made me feel full.
How will this project influence you going forward?
This experience has made me more confident to share my work with the world. It’s one thing to write a paper that your professor and maybe your classmates will see, but it’s a different thing when there are so many more eyes on it. It gives me confidence to know that my work is worth other people viewing. And it’s taught me to focus more on the process instead of the product.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a YouTube series for educators, and I’m also working on a podcast. It’s called The Booce Teaches Podcast – Booce is a play on my last name, and it’s my nickname. For this first season of the podcast, I’ve interviewed over 20 of my mentors about their educational journeys. I’ve talked to quite a few people connected to VCU. I talked with Dr. T – Tawnya Pettiford-Wates – who is a huge influence on me and building my confidence as a Black woman educator and artist. I have talked to Noreen Barnes, who is a professor emeritus for the theater program here. She was my advisor and just a phenomenal force in my life. I’ve talked to people from across different units, like Tom Bannard with Rams in Recovery, who I work with through a nonprofit. I’m taking a film class at VCU – one of the perks of being a faculty member here is you can take free classes – and I’m actually learning how to edit sound for this project.
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