This, mainly, is an exploration and a continuum of the process conversation I am in with myself and other theater artists and makers.
Some months ago I was at the Duane Reade getting travel-sized toothpaste for my weekend in Chicago starting that next morning. Mr. Stevie Walker-Webb rings my phone. He says he’s directing a project by Mr. Korde Arrington Tuttle in White River Junction, Vermont with JAG Festival. He says the play’s got something to do with 5 black scholars going to outer space and really, what was said after that didn’t matter because I was there. So... I went to my Chicago and saw my theater and ate my food and met my strangers. Came back to New York for what couldn’t have been more than 9 days before Untitled, Vermont.
See the thing about Untitled, Vermont was, I had designed my own spiritual experiment. What if? What if I went to this white state without any preparation except making sure I had enough clean drawers. I hadn’t asked where we were staying or what theater house we were working at and I really wasn't sure what we were really performing. The show was not only untitled, it was unwritten. But I trusted the hell out of The Stevie and The Korde and couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I took the leash off of my soul in their yard. And so we did. S & K, a cast of four other black women and myself Am-trekked all the way up to whit(er) America to go make some black theater in the snowy (white) mountains of Vermont. Untitled.
So part of this spiritual pseudo-science experiment was I would fiddle with who I knew myself to be. Typically turnt, I wanted to see and feel what it would be to say less words. To write less and read more. To keep my hair wrapped up for those days. To practice all the meditation and clean eating I half-do in New York, but foreal. And that’s what I really prepared for. I wanted to give myself all the way over to this work. I had never gotten to do that. My relationship with my art was always at the center of my heart but stood at the peripheral to my survival job. So in attempt to recenter love, I packed up my sage and as the train moved in and up and closer to snow, I realized I was headed out but I was going in.
And so we, a boatload of city black folk, arrived to White River Junction in the bosom of a thick snowstorm like we had landed on the moon.
When the other women and I arrived at our five bedroom mountain-hugged home, picking bedrooms like the first day of The Real World, I knew I was in for some shit. Spiritual, artistic, transformative, shit. I mean, just sharing space with these women, really. All different kinds, and I say that with gallons of love. A Belizean and Black American woman from Los Angeles, a Puerto Rican and Dominican woman from Miami, a Swiss, German and Black American woman from Northern California, a Black American woman from Memphis Tennessee and then, me, the Liberian-American gal from the New York, New Jersey area. Not really knowing where this trip fit in all of our lives, or what we had come from before this moment, we unpacked our groceries into our fine-ass kitchen and went off to our new rooms. There were not many words said in the beginning. Lots of active silence and still gestures of love. We gave each other the space shake off the city and drop into our— selves.
So we’re there, exhaling breaths of gratitude, seeping into our new space — still not knowing much about the theatrical sculpture we were fixin’ to create. We were given some source material to consume and ruminate on. There was one episode of On Being podcast with Krista Tippett interviewing Nikki Giovanni. It was the piece of material that I had seemed to hold on to; Nikki Giovanni tells us that the only things we’re missing from the space conversation is black folks and wine — wine because folks need to make it there sane and black folks because if anyone knew how to adjust in new lands, well it was us. Yes, I was awakened because I, too, love the possibilities of science-fiction— the practice of science-fiction or imaginative prophecy. The question we lead with was, What happened in the belly of the slave ship that left an ancestral footprint in our DNA that would make us fit for a long journey into the ether in the belly of a spaceship? What tools from one journey would be relevant for another? So from there, we leapt into a matrix ‘tween back and forth.
On the first day of work, we saw another snowstorm and the boys, as we started to lovingly call them, decided they come to our house for rehearsal. They were staying in town at a slow, antique hotel that they told us on day one was ‘with ghost.’ So they show up early Monday afternoon and we have our first Vermont rehearsal in the living room which really became the loving room because it was the one room in the house that, if you came in there, it was a choice to love. I was grounds for everyone and all that ever poured out on those couches, by that fire, was love. So on that first day, Korde asked us one question that bore a zillion answers: Where are you from? We answered with words of geography, ancestry and paternity.
“I come from people that were far beyond capable but never got the chance to” I said.
I just kind of spit that out before I really knew what I was speaking. But really. America and Americitis had seized my immigrant grandparents of so much of their ancestor’s heirlooms —imagination, resistance, free creativity— and put those stolen gifts for sale as The American Dream but they were just too expensive for my people to buy back. So they worked in circles and in silence for me to be able to scream ferociously in this work. They worked until it slowly and silently killed them. I come from smart, creative, durable grandmothers. Had they gotten the chance be on residency in Vermont, had all of our labored ancestors, the walls of this structure would already be in the soil beneath the sustainable economic system we envision.
Ann Bogart said if the theater were a verb it would be to remember and I would argue that, to play is also to imagine. The simultaneous work of remembering and imagining happens when we work to stage a play. To actually stage the play, that's presence. The past in dialogue with the future, right now.
So my story and all of our stories became the broth of the work. Untitled was being written. Though our heels were rooted in the past, we were readying to step into the future. We thought about The Middle Passage and what it took to actually endure. How our ancestors used or manipulated sound and silence for survival. How we used one another’s bodies; how interdependence was our means. So with care, S & K designed exercises to take us there. We held strenuous poses and positions — planks, sun salutations, squats — offering our bodies to a quotient of what our ancestors experienced on their horrid journey between.
This story. This play happens in response to The Great Unraveling (the gradual dying of our systems, governments and planet) and in preparation of The Great Turning (the conglomerate of humans working toward universal healing). This is the story of 4 Howard University students, young women, whose trailblazing and innovative work stands at the intersection of art and science. They are competing to be selected by elder/scholar/Howard U Bison, Gia to go to space and work toward resolution. My character Rasheeda, Oakland's finest, is a chemical engineer with Panther blood, born to sensitive theater artists. She approaches The Great Turning with an experimental and empathetic spirit. Her practice is to use the scientific experimental process to work toward the healing — science colliding with humanity. I say she but I'm all up in that character. We worked together to begin to build out these women. Korde had sewn our skin into the backs of these characters and I never felt freer saying scripted words. Stevie held us as we slipped into the waters of play to find out what these woman had to say to world.
We really played with the future using improvisation to put the words of the scientist-artist women we were to embody on our tongues. Every rehearsal, we stepped into a different layer of this work. Our rehearsals (and I appreciated them so deeply) were very black. We conjured up forces together. We opened portals. We had collective a meditation to Solange’s A Seat at the Table, cookout dance sessions, ancestral calling and Southern Baptist holy ghosts. For us, those practices unlocked, opened and released us in ways that no other theater making ever has for me. This work made its way under my skin. Under our skin. We exchanged the most beautiful, most rhythmic parts of ourselves and lined the work with it. This process was so deeply collaborative but still delegated.
Outside of rehearsal time in our house there was lots of admiring what lived outside the windows. Mountains. Trees. Snow. Silence. The ski lift we talked about visiting everyday but never made it up to do so. On the inside of the windows, we black gals, walked from room to room with our head wraps cooking food, sipping wine, baking cookies, hittin’ the one-hitter, reading, writing, self-taping auditions, running lines on each other and all the everything and nothing a New Yorker could do in a 2 story, 5 bedroom house for 8 days. We shared our histories, our loves and our lovers, our insecurities and aspirations. We just shared. Outside of the house we would drive into town for rehearsal and go to the coffee shop and swallow those pastries. We’d pack in the truck and go for dinner after rehearsal and hang with S & K and still end up talking about how wildly spiritual this work was. How deeply we felt our foremothers and forefathers guiding us. Nothing was really separate from the work.
Saturday actually came. Friday we had a rehearsal that went so deep. Korde had ended up writing all night, spirit lead. Until this day we were still untitled. It had been building day by day but that night our piece had earned a title. The Journey Between. The nature of the thing was as raw as its conception. We anointed the performance space calling upon our ancestors and then rocketing to the future. It is subject to change should we pick it up and continue to shape it but this play, still fetal, still unfinished and unbirthed changed things in me and my perception of what tools are need to make moving theater.
What still sits with me after this all is process. practice. What we practiced together with intention. Even the Solange and the Missy. As a company of theater makers —black ones— what happens internally, our connecting fibers, is integral to the impact we have on the community as we share these oh-so delicate stories and spirits with folks. The community we fostered strikingly resembles the human system that we fight to move toward. One where there is delegation and leadership and all members of the community have time to lead and steer, one with transparency and love and Jesus and magic and booty-poppin’ in an opera house and kale and pizza. For those of us seeking harmony: I used to use the word fight often when speaking of transformation but now I want to invite ease into my perception of the change. What we did in Vermont was with more ease than struggle, more love than fight and seeds of transformation were still planted! That makes me fee lighter.
As a budding student in Emergent Strategy, I cannot unsee how this, in a fractal sense, is a micro-model of our envisioned, harmonious planet. It takes radical hope to say this, much of which I owe to my time, alone and shared, in Vermont.
The train ride back home to New York felt so much like that spaceship we had just constructed. Instead, we were headed back home to the noise and the movement and I could feel everyone in their own meditation, preparing their spiritual skin for the city air. I had learned new things from that self-experiment. I’d seen and felt the value of isolation. I had learned what it really meant to carve out space and prepare the soil in order for something abundant to sprout. To give it space and time to synthesize. To take note of the tiny budding progress. To watch a thing stretch and reach toward our yellow sun with up and onward in sight. This holds true in my work as an artist, my personal evolution and my walk in transformation toward a more harmonious future. I prophesize a future where we humans and the universe can melt into each other.
Credit goes to Stevie Walker-Webb and Korde Arrington Tuttle (S & K), Erin Margaret Pettigrew, Maribel Martinez, Kirya Yvonne Traber, Jennean Farmer, Raven Cassell, JAG Festival, Vermont, our ancestors, our descendants and black folk in general.