In the weeks immediately preceding September 11 Beau Willimon (CC '99, SOA '03) had been travelling through South Africa and was struck by the deep sense of paranoia he saw, stemming from the high rate of crime, the AIDS epidemic and the residual racism of apartheid. Willimon found this to be an eerie preamble for the fear he, like most Americans, experienced on September 11.
Willimon plans to transform this sense of paranoia into art with the help of a $15,000 grant from the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Travelling Fellowship. The program subsidizes arts training or an arts-related project in a foreign country over the course of a year.
Willimon will use the grant to make two three-to-four-month trips to South Africa to fully investigate how the inherent violence of the environment fosters and shapes the fear in which people live. He will document his findings through photographs and drawings, which he plans to re-interpret into a series of 40 black-and-white lithographs, tentatively titled "Paranoia."
"If we are to gain any insight from our own national tragedy I believe we must also attempt to understand the tragedies which confront the rest of the world," says Willimon. "We must not reflect on our losses alone, but rather place them in the context of global culture which is routinely afflicted with loss."
Using Capetown as his base, Willimon's first visit will focus on the urban architecture of South Africa paranoia, particularly the contrast between the suburbs and townships in cities such as Capetown, Johannesburg, Durban and Port Elizabeth. The second trip will center on the residual impact of apartheid on South African rural society and industry, with emphasis on the Transkei Xhosa culture and the gold mining trade.
"Paranoia will arise from the tension created by the juxtaposition of imagery distilled from these four subject matters," says Willimon. "Perhaps by reflecting on South Africa, a nation whose political realities have sustained decades-long forms of paranoia, Americans can gain insight into their own relationship with terror."
In addition to the "Paranoia" project, Willimon is also the president of Pangea Arts, a not-for-profit organization he co-founded with Tomas Vu-Daniel, director of Columbia's LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies. Pangea is dedicated to funding, developing and presenting art works and artists that represent a global spectrum of cultures. Willimon was instrumental in planning Pangea's SPRINGBOARD 2002, a global arts festival which brought international artists from theatre, film and visual arts to Columbia's School of the Arts for a series of exhibitions, screenings and lectures in April.
"I strongly believe in the power of art to shape our understanding of the political, economic and social dilemmas which face our world," says Willimon.
In addition to expressing himself through photography, drawing and painting, as a theatre student in the School of the Arts, Willimon harnesses this power of art through theatre -- as a playwright. His one-act play "Baby Blue" was a finalist for the 2002 Hangar Theatre New Play Festival in Ithaca, N.Y., and is the abbreviated version of a full-length play by the same title.
"The play focuses on a middle-aged mother attempting to help her 22-year old son recover from a nervous breakdown resulting from his alcoholism," explains Willimon. "As she struggles to take care of him he struggles to resist until the two are forced to confront each others' fears about life and each other. The play is about how unconditional love can prove to be brutal."
In September his theater adaptation of Beowulf, entitled "Beowulf: Unferth's Tale," will be produced by Guerilla Rep in Central Park. Over the last two years Willimon's plays have been performed at New Dramatists and HERE in New York as well as at the Battersea Arts Center in London.