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Blessings with Brittani Samuel

This podcast episode includes a short five-minute meditation around 17:05. We encourage all interested listeners to participate.

Brittani Samuel: It’s so easy to get your identity caught up in your job. You become the thing that you do. I’m Brittani, and I’m a human being who likes to write. That’s what I really am.

Chorus: [sings “Remember”]

Yura Sapi: Welcome to season three. Welcome to our liberation. Welcome to the Building Our Own Tables podcast. The Building Our Own Tables podcast is produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. This is Yura Sapi, here to support you on your journey of creation towards our collective liberation. How exciting is it to transform our future and be the future ancestors we’ve dreamed for? May you receive that which supports you on your journey and release that which does not. The universe expands as we do. Nature evolves as we do. We remember. We remember. We remember.

Chorus: [sings “Remember”]

Yura Sapi: Let us call upon the four elements that support us: The fire that burns within igniting our imagination, our ability to see into the future. The water that holds us and holds within our memory. The air that lifts us up and carries our stories across to meet each other. The earth, which provides us sustenance, repair. To support us on this journey, let us welcome in all of our ancestors.

We’re learning from visionaries who have built their own tables, receiving gems of wisdom to support us along our journey. In today’s episode, I interviewed Brittani Samuel, an arts and theatre critic who built her own table and was recently named the first Edward Medina Prize for Excellence in Cultural Criticism Award recipient, which was given by the American Theatre Critics Association, of which it was my honor to serve as a judge for. I’ve read Brittani’s words and immediately felt the power and great use of her personal voice that cultivates an honest and welcoming energy for readers. I knew this type of perspective, wholeness, and harmony with the world meant that her unique voice has the potential to lead a large-scale transformation in the theatre and the theatre criticism industry at large. I knew I had to interview her and find out more about her story and her practices to share with you all as we build our own tables.

Before we begin, Brittani and I wanted to take a moment to honor the legacy and the individual that was Edward Medina. Edward Medina was a proud Nuyorican whose rich background and multifaceted talents served to create a strong, well-established life within the arts and entertainment industry. Beginning as a young magician and performer, then throughout his career, Medina brought his flair for the theatrical and deep understanding of the value of the arts to his role as a recognized and award-winning producer, director, author, and eventually critic. Medina was especially honored as a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, to have served on the Executive Committee as well as the Membership and Belonging, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committees until his death in 2021.

During his time with the American Theatre Critics Association, Medina heavily emphasized needs for increasing diversity within theatrical production and criticism, as well as providing fresh opportunities and support for new critics finding their calling to this vital field of the arts. You can learn more about Edward on his website at edwardmedina.nyc. So much light, so much hope. Thank you Edward Medina for blessing us, for creating this space, for the connections, for this legacy that we are living and carrying out in your honor.

Brittani: Thank you for bringing enough joy and light to people’s lives that they would want to carry on your legacy with an award and give it to a young person of color. I’m sure sacrifices were involved in order to keep hold of that joy and that light. I just thank him for the sacrifice.

Chorus: [sings]

Brittani: My name is Brittani, and the most important thing about me is that I am a fan of Robyn Rihanna Fenty. I work as an arts journalist and, lately this year, specifically as a theatre critic. COVID pandemic learnings, it was the first time I decided to kind of bet on myself and fully step my foot into the journalism and editorial world. Since then, I’ve been really, really, really blessed; really fortunate to write for a number of publications I grew up reading and admiring like Elle recently and Glamour, Observer. I work right now as a critic with Broadway News. This is the kind of publication that puts out the briefing every morning—Broadway news and reviews.

Honestly, it’s been an incredible experience. I couldn’t have pictured even a year ago. People talk about like, “Oh, let’s pull up a chair for the young, the diverse, the queer,” and it wasn’t even like a table I knew about. So I had no idea I would end up as an arts critic. I’m really grateful for the ride. It’s so easy to get your identity caught up in your job. You become the thing that you do. I’m Brittani, and I’m a human being who likes to write. That’s what I really am.

“What can we do but choose joy every day? What can we do but try to carve out the lives we want for ourselves? My practices definitely help me do that and keep me sane enough to do that.”

Yura Sapi: Me too. I’m hearing you build your own table. You’re building your own table as an arts critic. What are some practices you would like to share with someone who’s looking to build their own table?

Brittani: I had to take a small break from full-time work in order to reorient my mind to become a freelancer. Learn so much about the backend of both industries—the journalism-publication-editorial industry and the theatre industry—because I think in the long run it’ll serve me better. It was just a really difficult thing for me to not wake up and show up at a place every day; to sit and carve out time to just teach myself. Especially when you are first gen, when your parents aren’t born in this country, and they come here from a lot less. My parents have been able to build an extremely successful life for themselves in this country, from where they’re coming from. It doesn’t feel right to wake up and know that your parents are going to work and you’re not. It feels like it goes against everything you’ve ever been taught and ever done. The challenge of carving out time for yourself, it is a practice that has to be practiced and practiced without shame because it doesn’t hurt to take a beat before you transition into your next groundbreaking thing.

I’ve become very busy again. I’ve been very blessed to find success so far as a freelancer. And now that I have to orient and organize my own time, that also means carving out time for daily practices. So I’m a prayerful person. I pray every day. It’s like really prescriptive. I enjoy meditation as well, journaling regularly because this brain, the thoughts running around, need to be put down someplace. I have very active dreams, very active visualizations, so it all has to go in a notebook.

Dancing and music. I think dancing is really healing. I love Caribbean music. I love Soca music, so anytime I can go out to a fête or a concert or to a club, I mean it’s hard now. These practices don’t always feel safe. Just this past weekend, I was at a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen and had the time of my life. The next day I wake up and read about the horrible shooting that happened in Colorado. It’s strange where the practices that make you feel most safe are threatened right now and that’s like the world that we’re living in. What can we do but choose joy every day? What can we do but try to carve out the lives we want for ourselves? My practices definitely help me do that and keep me sane enough to do that.

Yura Sapi: Wow. Yeah. I think everything that you shared is all connected. I just see the universe connecting every part of it because your dance is connected to your release, is connected to the ability for you to be able to write from a centered place, connected to your meditation, connected to your prayer, connected to your ancestors, connected to that lineage of your family, and then back to the dance because of the specific cultural music. All of it is connected, investing in ourselves, in our care, in our joy.

Brittani: Even with dancing, you have no idea how many times I go see a show, I’m invited as a critic, so I’m in the little press section with all the stodgy people and all of our notebooks. And it’s wonderful, it’s a blessing to be able to go and critically engage with a form I’m so passionate about. Afterwards, I’m going to the club. I’m going to a party because if I get lost in my job—and it’s no secret theatre critics, this field is largely white, largely ancient, largely monopolized by legacy publications.

Being in that environment, going to conferences in that environment, being in meetings with that environment—I mean, maybe that’s some of the aspect of them trying to pull up a chair for me. But me building my table is going to the club afterwards and not necessarily being so caught up in trying to impress the older whites around me and always making sure that when I do finally come home from the club and sit down to write my review, it’s still Brittani showing up. The Brittani that likes to laugh and likes to read and loves poetry and loves movement and sees the potential of all of these things in live theatre and wants to champion when a theatrical work connects to these really human and spiritual emotions.

Yura Sapi: I think there’s also that aspect of really transforming, decolonizing what it means to be writing, sharing words about artistic pieces and welcoming others to learn more about them and to experience them for themselves. Everyone can do that in terms of sharing. Maybe people do, do that when you talk to your friends about different artistic experiences you’ve gone to.

And so in that way, decolonizing and centering again in what is the essence of what we’re doing that has been around for much longer than these ancient critics. Because ultimately our cultures, our ancestors are even more ancient and even going back and back and back and back. We can connect with the beginning of the planet and our inception as beings of Earth, and there’s that freedom. There’s that comfort in knowing that there is so much that has come before and so much to come, especially when it’s in these moments. Like you say, when it’s like the news, the latest news cycle, the latest tragedy can feel like in the present moment, very, very much like a cage, like our prison.

Brittani: Unfortunately, yeah. So, so true.

“It doesn't hurt to take a beat before you transition into your next groundbreaking thing.”

Chorus: [sings “Time is Not Linear”]

Yura Sapi: Time is not linear. You are not alone. You are never alone. We’ve been through this cycle before. We’re working from the power of our past fighters from before, and time is not linear. Connections happen for a reason. There’s a reason I am here where I am so bask, indulge, refuge in the happenings of now, the happenings of past, which will guide to the future, which is also really the past.

The Building Our Own Tables podcast is produced in partnership with Advancing Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts. We create liberated spaces like this one to uplift, heal, and encourage us all to change the world. You can connect with us more beyond this podcast by visiting advancingartsforward.org. We offer coaching, courses, organizational consulting, and an artist residency in Nuquí, Chocó, African descendant and indigenous Embera native land.

Do you have a specific meditation or writing prompt that you can share with listeners?

Brittani: Get rid of this idea that every time you journal, you have to say something profound or useful or take any type of checkpoint of your life. Sometimes I’m writing down, I’m journaling a grocery list, literally, and that might lead off into something. It’s completely fine to write truncated sentences. Just get a thought out, that’s all it really is. Even if the thought is like, “Ugh, that book I read yesterday was trash. Goodbye Diary.” And I think for meditation, I used to use guided ones. They’re so readily available right now. For me, I need to have a Black woman speaking in my ear. I don’t know, something about it. It’s like also when I do any type of at-home workout or yoga, it’s got to be a Black instructor. I just can’t with the white ones. All respect to them, but it doesn’t make me feel at home.

The point of meditation I’m always trying to get to—I check in with every part of my body but the point I’m always trying to get to—is a reminder that my physical body is just a vessel. This spirit, this soul, this voice could be plopped into any physical... I just happen to have gotten this one. In a way, it’s like, love this body. Also like let it go. The spirit is you. Sometimes I’m just think, I’m just a bunch of ideas walking around in a box. The box is my body, and I think meditation just separates me from all the ailments of the physical world. The, “Oh my God, I have acne. Oh my God, my hair is damaged. Oh my God, I’m overweight.” Come on, man. It’s about the spirit. It’s about this voice and the vessel is wonderful, and it means things when I show up, especially in this industry as a dark-skinned Black female with natural hair, people are making all sorts of assumptions, but their assumptions are not who I am. So meditation kind of just pulls me back to the truth of it.

Yura Sapi: Amazing. Do you want to meditate together right now?

Brittani: Oh, let’s do it. How long are we going for? Five minutes? Let’s do it.

To get me into the rhythm of it, I like to do breath works just to calm down the nervous system. And in inhale for four beats. You hold that inhale for eight, and then you release the inhale for eight. I’ll probably do it a couple times, like three, four times until my nervous system is calmed down. Then I can just breathe normally. I like to do a little hand over my heart situation to remind myself that there’s a beating organ in there.

[instrumental music plays]

Yura Sapi: Wow.

Brittani: And here we are.

Yura Sapi: I feel just so much more connected.

Brittani: Yeah. Why is sitting in silence actually the best thing human beings can do?

Yura Sapi: Yeah.

This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts on iTunes, Google Podcast, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.

[sings]

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Thoughts from the curator

I hear talk about wanting for racially diverse populations to “get a seat at the table” or “bringing chairs to the table for POC,” meaning that we want our people to have a position at existing organizations and institutions with decision making power. For me, a few years ago, I decided to not focus on infiltrating existing organizations, but rather start my own. I know I’m not alone. With the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, this podcast checks in and learns from BIPOC founders of various organizations in and related to the theatre industry changing the game, making new things happen within, and expanding beyond white and euro-centric experiences. We will learn from these incredible visionaries who have created their own tables of arts institutions, movements, collectives, initiatives, and more. We learn about their processes, pathways to success, and challenges they've overcome. This is an outside-the-classroom leadership learning from folks who are doing the things.

Building Our Own Tables

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