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Confessions of a Black Intimacy Director: Black Love and Human Rights

“Without sexual rights, [human beings] cannot realize their rights to self-determination and autonomy, nor can they control other aspects of their lives.” International Women’s Health Coalition

Black love, Black bodies, and Black sex matter because sexual rights are human rights. Theatre has a white supremacist history of oppressing Black sexuality and it needs to stop. Black people’s sexual rights are affected by the way theatre artists represent Black bodies. Black sexuality is portrayed as moral violation, while white sexuality is portrayed as natural and normal. But the sex and love we see on stage and on the big screen are not natural or “normal”; they are shaped by a white supremacist paradigm that determines how everyone’s sexuality gets presented.

Black bodies engaging in Black love is a way to resist that paradigm. Sexuality needs to be reconstructed by theatre artists who use their power to tell stories of Black love and create social change. When it comes to intimacy directing, choreography can celebrate Black love as an act of racial and sexual justice.

The history of white supremacy attacking Black sexuality is evident. For Black women—and other women of color—the oppressions of racism and sexism operate simultaneously. Look at the iconic case of Sara Baartman (Venus Hottentot), an African teenager lured to Europe to perform for audiences in 1810. Her genitals and brain were posthumously dissected, pickled, and museumized.

Baartman’s story ignited my artist-activist journey. In 2016, wanting to speak to the misinformation about her life and to resist racism and the current-day participation in the oppression of Black bodies, I wrote and directed Venus Hottentot: A Short Play, which premiered at Jewel Box Theatre in New York City. Several historical sources indicate that Baartman refused to show her genitals to the public, so I showed her on stage at the Piccadilly Circus, her arms crossed to protect her vagina from the white man trying to display her labia to the audience. I took the opportunity then to treat Black female bodies with love, care, and compassion, and today, through my work as an intimacy director, that is something I am intentional about.

In our recreations of Black sexuality, artists have the opportunity to reveal what is hidden by white supremacy. Staging sex is not just about making a kiss look real. Stories are pedagogy that tell society what is possible. As cultural theorist Stuart Hall stated and performance studies scholar D. Soyini Madison echoes in Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance, “How people are represented is how they are treated.” Baartman’s human rights were not only violated in nineteenth-century Europe—her human rights are also violated by the ways theatre and media remember her and tell her story. And like the International Women’s Health Coalition states, for human beings, “the right to control their own bodies and their sexuality without any form of discrimination, coercion, or violence is critical for their empowerment.”

The silhouettes of a Black woman and a Black man in an embrace against a pink-purple ombre background.

An illustration of Black love for Valentine's Day 2021. Courtesy of DC Beings.

Attempts to control and unfairly represent Black sexuality in theatre and media result in many of the human rights abuses Black people face on a daily basis, including gender-based violence and limitations on our mobility, dress, education, employment, and participation in public life. Because Sara Baartman was lured onstage to perform, other young African women were lured onstage to perform. Attempts to violate Black sexuality in storytelling can also affect the intimate relationships between Black bodies off stage. As one HowlRound audience member stated during the Confessions of a Black Intimacy Director talk, “We don’t even know how to touch each other.”

Black love, Black bodies, and Black sex matter.

When staging Black intimacy, I must be intentional about undoing this harm. In 2020, I started working with Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, creating the intimacy choreography for Our Daughters, Like Pillars, directed by Kimberly Senior and written by Obie Award–winning playwright and Boston native Kirsten Greenidge. Our Daughters, Like Pillars is about Black love. It’s about the “ties that bind us to our families.” Just before the pandemic and my last day in rehearsals, a Black actress pulled me aside and walked me down the hallway. We left the large rehearsal room on the second floor of the Huntington with a calm silence. We found ourselves at a large window in the stairway; she slowed down and turned her body towards me. She was an older woman, the sunlight lit the hundreds of soft wrinkles in her face when she looked into my eyes and spoke, “I’ve never seen Black bodies loving each other on stage.” I bent my head down, thinking neither had I.

It was in this moment with this Black actress that I yearned for Black love and felt such grief for not seeing it on stage or anywhere else. It was in this moment that I wondered how much the stage and media had fueled my own personal disconnect with Black love. A lot of what Americans know about race comes from the stories artists tell. I grew up on the stage and still never saw Black bodies loving, touching, or being tender. And I can recall—as a child and now—the absence of Black love coupled with the trophying and recycling of the Black man/white woman romance.

At the stairway, a flood of anger and pain rushed through my body—anger at my father who left when I was an adolescent, anger that Black women are not protected, anger that Black women have to take care of Black men. I recognized my own turbulent relationship with Black love, my focus on Baartman and pain as opposed to love and joy. I recognized my need to see stories of Black love: I need to see us meet, fall in love, and make love. I recognized America’s need to see stories of Black love and how much healing that could bring.

One actress on the left sitting down and holding a book while the other two actresses stand to the right.

Arie Thompson, Nikkole Salter, and Lyndsay Allyn Cox in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Our Daughters, Like Pillars. Photo courtesy of Nile Hawver.

I realized that with the intimacy work of Our Daughters, Like Pillars, I was creating history: I was showing Black love for the stage. I looked upon the choreography I had done with a new ray of light. For example, characters in the play, Vinnie and Morris, have been married for a long time. In one scene, I choreographed them facing the audience with Morris behind Vinnie, his arms around her. She crossed her arms and reinforced his hold. In another scene, he kissed her on the forehead and she kissed his chin and then playfully tapped it with her index finger. I was choreographing tender scenes in which a Black woman was being caressed and adored. How many times had I seen this Black love outside of this rehearsal room? I have no memory of it. Moments like this of Black love matter; they increase Black sexual health and integrity; they increase Black access to human rights.

As an intimacy director, within the capacity of the play’s story, characters, and the intimacy rehearsal process, I have the opportunity to support the human rights of Black actors.

As the International Women’s Health Coalition affirms, “Sexual rights underpin the enjoyment of all other human rights and are a prerequisite for equality and justice.” As an intimacy director, within the capacity of the play’s story, characters, and the intimacy rehearsal process, I have the opportunity to support the human rights of Black actors and encourage their access to:

  • Information and education. I let my actors know who I am and what my role is. I also let them know what their rights are as actors.
  • Freedom of opinion and expression. I see what the actors do in the scene first and then build the choreography from movements that come naturally to them.
  • The right to privacy. I do consent work and check in regularly, which are critical, because the right to privacy should help the actors protect their bodies and past traumas. I also meet with each of the actors who are in an intimate scene to hear any anxieties or concerns about the scene and allow them to share any confidential information they may not want to share with the cast/crew.
  • The right to be free from torture or to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment. I ensure actors are versed with the concept of a safe word, which, when used, stops the rehearsal in its tracks. Consent is fluid, so the actor is never judged or blamed for this. I make sure the choreography is repeatable and that actors know what to expect so that even if the character is being degraded, the actor is not.
  • The right for their sexuality to be fairly represented. When choreographing a scene between a Black couple, if it fits the story, I like to incorporate gentle touching between the characters. This tender side of Black love is rarely seen on stage.

Some of these practices are already basic in intimacy direction, however it is the intentionality with Black bodies that matters. After that last rehearsal before the pandemic hit, I promised myself to continue building theatre pedagogy on Black love and to be more intentional about Black love when live theatre returns. With a racial justice intention, intimacy directing can resist white supremacy in the choreography. Intimacy directors are less likely to commit harm with the intention of advocating for Black sexual and human rights. I will continue to tell the story the playwright and director want to tell, and to tell it in a way that respects the Black actors as human beings who deserve appreciation and autonomy. I will aim to tell stories in ways that allow Black actors to be individuals and not caricatures of racial stereotypes.

I am a sexual being, so, as Gloria Anzaldua states in “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers,” I write to “rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me,” about Baartman, about Black men and Black women who deserve empowering sexual identities. Sexual rights are human rights, and Black people’s sexual rights are impacted by the way theatre portrays Black bodies. Intimacy directors have the choice to decide what their choreography will do—whether it will stand as an act of justice or exploitation.

The theatre world needs to show more Black love, more Black sex, and more appreciation of Black bodies. Writers must write it, producers must produce it, directors must cast it. And intimacy directors must advocate for it—for Black passion and tenderness, celebrating Black people touching, kissing, and loving one another.

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