This week, HowlRound presents #BLKARTS Presents: Black Womyn Going Dark!, a co-curated series that explores the ancestry and legacy of black womyn in the arts featuring contemporary artists who create in multiple communities across the United States. Co-curators Erin Michelle Washington of Soul Center/ #BLKARTS, ATL and Deanna Downes of Deanna Downes Creative Consulting seek to engage a creative community of black womyn around questions including: What new/old ways are we creating/exercising to reach new or intended audiences? How are we creating access to the research of ourselves and our ancestry? This series is the beginning of a project that aims to address these issues for, by, and with black womyn artists. You will hear from artists across multiple disciplines using multimedia, writing, sound scores, visual arts, and other avenues in which we can expand our storytelling. These works and these womyn expand, define, and give framework for our contemporary experience of living in and through art.—Deanna Downes and Erin Michelle Washington

Roll Call! Barbara Ann Teer, Lorraine Hansberry, Vinnette Carroll, Mary Powell Burrill, Abena Joan Brown, Angelina Weld Grimké, Beah Richards, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Ellen Stewart, Adrienne Kennedy, Octavia Butler— 

Black womyn artists have been carving their own pathway since they first picked up the pen to write, with the first brush stroke on a canvas, listened to the impulse to move to create dance with their bodies, and to sing and to orate. Sci-fi novelist Octavia Butler created new worlds to blend ancestry and futurism, placing black folks at the center. As an ancestor, Butler continues to illuminate the intersections of our blackness to us, evident in the newly released graphic novel of one of her books, Kindred. In a nine-page one act, Mary Powell Burrill, a playwright from the early twentieth century, plotted the lives of rural black Americans working their fingers to the bone to pay the present day bills, while rearing children to work to pursue higher education and working for their own future prosperity. Black womyn did it and they did it for themselves as well as for their community, and it happened to be in the margins of popular culture. Yet, most great authentic creations are born in the shadows, born in and of community.

shadow women and world by Deanna Downes (2016)

Above we name a few of the spirits who continually speak to us through their work and lives, and who, through the winds that lift up our chins, straighten our spines, setting our eyes and minds on the work we are here to do. We invite you, as we sojourn through this week, to add more names. We aim to unearth and identify the bridges that connect us past to present, intergenerational, across socioeconomics, culture, religion, and art forms. This week is a massive celebration of what was and what is brewing to become our future—a simultaneous looking back to look forward. And the forward is what we imagine it to be. It is the world we want to build and craft with our own hands.

This series is a look at the ancestry and legacy of black womyn in the arts. We, the sisters who are bringing you this series are Erin Washington of Soul Center and Deanna Downes of Deanna Downes Creative Consulting. Our creative partnership began years ago on the bricks of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where we wrestled with questions surrounding graduate schooling on the black body, the Black Panther Party, and black arts/theatre—what is it today? Years hence we are still engaging these questions and this platform is an opportunity to expand our conversations. We are steeped in the performing arts and inspired by the legacies of black womyn artists and so we welcome the opportunity to share them with you. Through archive searches, play texts, articles, and personal journals, we have gotten glimpses of how black womyn artists thought about their art, their practice, the product and the spaces, and in the shadows they chose to work. We feel there are lessons in their original thoughts, lessons like birthrights, which we are obligated to build upon and propel black womyn’s artistry into the future.

Over the course of this series, we will spotlight the works of artists of the present and past in hopes of enlightening and encouraging the artists of our future. Black feminist cultural producers Sola Bamishigbin and Tia-Simone Gardner will place in dialogue the works of Lorraine Hansberry and Lynn Nottage. We will hear about efforts to map the history of House music through participatory memory in Chicago. We will learn about the theory and practice of Theatrical Jazz Aesthetic from a leading scholar of the practice and one of its burgeoning practitioners. Our ancestors will speak and say their piece/peace for us. From this work, we will hear what it takes to build and reframe our African diaspora.

It is as much about what they are doing as it is about the how. Black womyn have designed new ways of reaching people with their work, ideas and craft. Grimké, Burrill, and Nelson published their work in periodicals like Crisis magazine and The Birth Control Review; and Teer developed a center in Harlem for black artists to work and present and to research. What new/old ways are we creating/exercising to reach new or intended audiences? How are we creating access to the research of ourselves and our ancestry? This series is the beginning of a project that aims to address these issues for, by, and with black womyn artists. You will hear from artists across multiple disciplines using multimedia, writing, sound scores, the visual arts, and other avenues in which we can expand our storytelling. All of which remind us that it is not just the “what,” it is also the “how.” These works and these womyn expand, define, and give framework for our contemporary experience of living in and through art.

As we sojourn through this series, it is important for you to know that we are conversing with you as much as we are conversing with each other. Our ancestors held salons in their homes, ie, Georgia Douglass Johnson, or penned long and detailed letters to one another, ie, Alice Dunbar Nelson. Via technology and globalization, we feel more connected to each other today, but we are also more spread out geographically. This series is a way to embody a form of salon, a digital salon, using the technical and communal platform of HowlRound, to come together to discuss and exchange ideas, research, and history. An opportunity to reflect back as we project forward the ways in which we document, experience and explore identity, gender, ability, religion, spirituality, motherhood through the arts.

Twenty-feet Tall Womyn
This series is a way of connecting us across generations. Roll Call! Michele Shay, Elain Graham, Sonja Sanchez, Lynn Nottage, Kara Walker, Thulani Davis, Kia Corthron, Anna Deveare Smith, Ntozake Shange, Robbie McCauley, Wangechi Mutu, Rhodessa Jones, Dr. Tonea Stewart— 

Also in this series, we will be shouting out the work of black womyn artists today. Some you will have heard of, some you will know only if you travel in specific circles, and others will be a completely new introduction. Whatever your prior interaction, we will shine light on their accomplishments and work; their lives have deeply influenced and continue to influence our lives and our work. Some of these womyn are founders of deep black arts traditions, while others are adding to these traditions and/or creating new ones entirely. However we categorize them, categories are pliable and fluidly reflect who we—Soul Center and DDCC—are as a creative community.

Lilli by Gabrielle Lasporte (2008)

Connections and Community. Get Involved!
Your participation is expected and desired. Please add your comments and we will try to reflect and engage via HowlRound’s platforms. My work as a scholar entails holding live, in-home play readings. I cook a hearty meal and invite a small group. Each person picks a character to read, we read the play aloud and then afterwards, we eat some more while discussing the play and its contents and engaging with each other. It is an embodied practice of community engagement around a specific topic. Erin gathers folks across city lines and hosts online meet-ups to use the thoughts of some of these genius womyn to help young creatives to make their next structure for their organization or to help find the funding model that fits their group. If you know Erin or myself or the artist featured, personally, reach out to continue the conversation. Take the content and artists of this series into your communities and discuss, as our ancestors did, in the comfort and safety of your homes over some good food!

Going Dark!
Lastly, Going Dark! Before every show in every theatre there is a sequence of events. One event is to check for a true blackout on the stage and in the house. Going Dark! is the call and response of theatre and I have taken it up as my personal mantra to go deeper into the margins and the shadows to nurture black art within community in the shelter and safe haven of “home.”

Going Dark! into my artist ancestry and learning from these master teachers.
Going Dark! into my craft with my peers, my community.
Going Dark! into the blackness of the future and not fearing any of it.