The UC Santa Barbara MultiCultural Center hosted UC Los Angeles Assistant Professor and medical anthropologist Ugo Edu on Feb. 13 for an online discussion on anthropology and theater and their connections to Black life, health, history and culture.

Ugo Edu is a UCLA Assistant Professor and medical anthropologist. Courtesy of the UCLA African American Studies Department

“Forecasting Through Anthropology and Theater for Black Life” focused on the history of Blackness in science and how anthropology and theater can be used to promote awareness of Black issues and generally create visibility of Black community members. The event — part of the MultiCultural Center’s (MCC) Race Matter Series — was delayed from Nov. 17, 2022, to winter quarter in solidarity with the UAW strike.

MCC Office Manager and Interim Program Director Jesse Avila introduced Edu as a “medical anthropologist who’s working at the intersections of medical anthropology, public health, Black feminism, science, technology and society studies.” Edu’s scholarship focuses on reproductive and sexual health, gender, race, aesthetics, body knowledge and body modification, Avila said. 

Edu opened her presentation with dialogue from her play and described it as being “within the contexts of an economy of aesthetics, race and sexuality.” Edu wrote the play while working on her dissertation on voluntary tubal ligations — the cutting of fallopian tubes to prevent pregnancy — in Brazil. 

The specific scene she read follows a woman’s struggle to receive a tubal ligation from a male doctor who pressures her to, instead, take the route of having vaginal plastic surgery. Although the play is fictional, Edu said she was inspired by the stories she heard from testimonies from various women. 

“I wrote about what some women had told me had happened to them or others. They were only able to secure a tube ligation after consenting to vaginal plastic surgery. Some of them were uncertain whether the plastic surgery had actually even happened,” Edu said. “I began crafting some ideas in my head of scenes and the story I wanted to tell. I want it to be something that unrests audiences and then unleashes them to action.”

Edu discussed reactions she’s received to her work, and how one audience member fixated on access to plastic surgery over having unwanted surgery being operated on an individual. 

“My play left the white woman [focused] on the inability to access vaginal plastic surgery as if that is on the same level of having to accept the surgery that one was not looking for, to be able to access one that was needed,” Edu said. 

Edu then read another scene from her play about an airport official interrogating a woman and her daughter and ultimately arresting the former over concerns that they are leaving the country for “vacation cutting,” a process where parents will take their daughters to another country where restrictions on certain vaginal surgeries are not as strict. 

“The revealing of this circumvention justifies the increased surveillance and monitoring of particular demographics both in airports and schools,” Edu said. 

Edu spoke about a workshop that was held at San Francisco International Airport where participants were taught how to identify those at risk for vacation cutting. 

“The largest stakes are the lives of the women and the girls who will be subject to this increased surveillance, searching, observing, prodding, touching, studying and examining of their bodies,” Edu said. 

Edu is planning on finishing her play and is currently working on a new project that focuses on body modifications in Nigeria. Edu said the new project “tries to situate older and newer ideals and modify practices within the constellation of aesthetics, health, technology and cultural influences that are local, regional, continental and diasporic.” 

She expressed her concern about maintaining the balance between furthering her research and protecting the safety of those she works with. 

“Part of what constantly concerns me about this project is how to creatively work through my findings in ways that will not further jeopardize the lives of the Nigerian women, and sometimes men and other Black people, around the world that may be implicated,” she said. 

Edu further discussed how the popularity of body modifications such as Brazilian butt lifts — a procedure that transfers fat from one’s body to the buttock —  has ushered in critical discourse around ethics and impacts of body modifications.

“The way that the [Brazilian butt lifts] BBL era in the U.S. specifically has opened up scrutiny and claims of expertise on reading bodies is something that interests me,” she said. “I’m hesitant to license more people and reasons for people to gaze and ponder and objectify the bodies of Black women, but I think the forgotten or neglected areas of what happens to the users of body modification techniques that are not BBLs might be good to speculate and draw attention to through theater.”

Edu spoke to the importance of understanding the vulnerability of Black people in the face of medical and health advancements, emphasizing the historical precedent of Black women being operated upon without consent in justification of developing modern medicine. 

“Also at stake is how we have come to know and position ourselves through medical and health advancements, surveillance and norms … and we should not forget the role that Black people, with an emphasis on women, have played without consent in the development of modern medicine and knowledge about our bodies,” Edu said.

Edu ended her talk by talking about her hopes for the future and takeaways from her work. She further highlighted the importance of making the world more “liveable,” particularly for Black women. 

“I guess I end up hoping to make something that disrupts who we think we are, how we think we are, something that leaves us uncomfortable but not so much about the thing in question, whether it’s tubal ligations or female genital modification,” Edu said. “But, about how we come to feel about the thing in question and what we do with the possible future before us.”

“We should go out and do the work to shift our world toward something liveable for all of us, especially for Black women, because when it’s liveable for Black women, it will be liveable for all of us.”