Deep Time

Snapshot:

Josh and I climb down from the boulders. We wind our way back to the road. Some of the big rocks look as though they would crumble to sand at a touch. Some of the huge hills look as though they are doing just that—crumbling at the touch of deep time. Our recorded decades, centuries, millennia are blinks of the eye of the universe. My awareness of the land’s sentience is heightened by the sunlight articulating each given moment of its unfolding, undoing, and remaking. Look at this friend, Josh says, a few paces ahead of me. He stands in a desiccated patch, with scattered, broken, grey latticelike branches, fragments of rock, and a few ghost-colored dried bushes so fine in structure they look to have been sketched in the air. He draws my gaze down to a plump, squat cactus with neon-pink flesh and long creamy yellow spines that look like a thousand manicured nails. This cactus is its own ecstatic pulse. The Joshua trees surrounding us are dancing. Our eyes see them still in an extended instant.

They are not stuck in time. We are.

Snapshot:

Kaneza and I walk boldly across the road, practicing with no small measure of trepidation what the residents of this city do all day every day. The rush of cars, minivans, buses, motorcycles, scooters, pedestrians with or without carts, and several kinds of animals in and out of cages flows in loose streams that weave in and out of one another—slowing or accelerating, but never stopping. Cairo’s constant thrum seizes me as much as its vastness. The monochrome hills and buildings are tea-stained and smudged with the passage of time. They provide backdrop to the explosive expressivity of the people, their arresting eyes, their range of silhouettes, their “ancientfuturenow” styles in action (handwoven jellabiyas and Adidas™ hijabs included)—and, the star of the show, the leonine African sun and its many moods. On our day off from our work on her project Go Forth, which is featured in the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary & Experimental Theatre, we scurry toward the Egyptian Museum to spend the afternoon with pharaonic faces that remind us precisely of all our folks back home in features and expressions. Thousands of years atop thousands of years atop thousands of years. Slowing or accelerating, but never stopping.

I thought I was coming to see the past. But I found the future present.

digital pathway

Illustration by Nguyen Tran

Snapshot:

Walter sneaks me up the back way into the theatre of the Walker Art Center. We enter the concert slightly after it has begun and as we dip into the auditorium and slip into seats near the booth, it is clear we have entered an alternate dimension. We have entered an unfolding trance. The spell in the music (coded in its polyrhythms, ululations, and layered claps) is cast by the splendid women who sit solidly on the ground in a half-circle, while the men stand behind them in a similar shape. The men are veiled, their eyes streaked with kohl. This is the Kel Tamashek band named Tartit. The women are in charge. This is both observable and something they make sure to communicate explicitly through their interpreter during the Q&A that follows the concert. One of their songs is sung when, according to one of the singers, women gather to celebrate when a woman divorces a man. An exceedingly polite and enthusiastic Minnesotan lady asks about the songs’ traditional length. The interpreter relays the question. The women, who are in charge, look at one another and laugh. One mutters a little and slaps the flat of her hand a few times on her thigh.

“The song just is,” comes the answer. “We sing until the people stop dancing.”

When considering futures I center expansive encounters rather than extractions and transactions.

***

I travel through time with a clutch of snapshots. I am one who arrives by night, stars and stories in tow. For over twenty-five years I’ve been making work for theatre. I’ve done so in collaboration and have taken on various roles along the way (playwright, director, performer, composer, et al.) depending on the particular project and its invitations. Throughout, I have come to understand that my true medium is energy. And my ways of working with energy are rooted in longstanding traditions of Black American experimental theatre and queer performance. Some of the practices I have extended from both traditions include a dynamic relationship between individual and community, a commitment to letting love lead (engaging all of the complications that come from so doing), and a reclamation of ways of understanding time that restore space for multiple truths to be held simultaneously and for the past, present, and future to consciously commingle. I carry these traditions not as defining boxes, but as wellsprings of meaning and, to use the word again, invitation. When considering futures I consider that a future is multivalent, as is this present, as is our collective past. When considering futures I center expansive encounters rather than extractions and transactions. When considering futures I wonder if we (that is me and you, whoever you may be) can gather, with intention, and experience one another in and across deep time.

By firelight I have always come to life, in the company of all those who gather for the ceremonies of sharing. Sometimes this has happened on stages illuminated by fresnels, sometimes on sidewalks illuminated by flickering streetlights, and often at kitchen tables bathed in incandescent light. I am drawn by laughter, by the glint of the flicker in eyes. I don’t know why it is that this tale or that tale gets told. My snapshots and others’ snapshots and all the snapshots that have come before and all the snapshots that will come after are of a piece. What’s crucial is our presence together. And the telling. And the keen listening. And the song that wells up from a testimony and gets lined out for all to sing. And the dancing that springs forth whole from a clap and a shout. And the lovers kissing. And the grandmothers knowing. And the fulsome presence of the nightbirds and those called ghosts who are just us beyond the veil.

That has been my prayer of late for whatever is next in “theatre.” That those of us who need to will remember ourselves to ourselves, our expansive ways, our transformational capacities, our creativity.

Someone offers their hand and the map in their palm reminds someone else of the lush firmament above us. Sweet smoke binds with the sound of someone’s tears, too-long held, finally dropped back to the ground. Each of these things recurring, conjuring as they do, for all of us who gather, the particulars of our songs, our tailfeather shakes, ourbeloveds’ lips, our grandmother’s gait, our solitary night walks, and our longed-for long-gone loved ones. As the fire dies we become silhouettes like the shapes and shapes and shapes surrounding us. As the deep, dark night absorbs us into itself we are remembered to ourselves. The songs of distant suns and planets and nebulae come clearer and we feel awe in their infinitude.

That has been my prayer of late for whatever is next in “theatre.” That those of us who need to will remember ourselves to ourselves, our expansive ways, our transformational capacities, our creativity. That we get unstuck from our allegiance to habits and to cycles of reaction and saturnine tests of our limits: that we loosen or let go of adherence to the industry, the field, the business, and the prepackaged and predetermined roles and shapes and runs. My prayer is that we embrace our vastness, our inherent inimitabilities, and our common capacity for presence however we may be and wherever we may go. I hope this includes a reclamation of everyday acts of storytelling, celebration, teaching, and collective healing that are integral to the communities from which they are born yet fall outside traditional definitions of what theatre is. I hope this means a broad embrace of the ways theatre happens and can happen, and where, and for whom. And I pray that the fact that we carry multiple ontologies is honored at all levels of our work. The traditions I come from embrace the unknown and welcome the stranger, cognizant of the dangers in both actions but clear of the inherently transformative power. We are changed by one another and the story is never told the same way twice because who has gathered, why they have gathered, and what they carry with them shifts constantly. Again, multiple truths hold sway.

It is precisely because I remember the ancientfuturenow that I have always been predisposed to the experience and presence of gathering together with others. And to the stories of us together that hold all the stories of us together. These stories and their tellings are seedbeds of creation. Sometimes when I find myself sitting with a word like “creation” I go to my old-school hardbound dictionary, decommissioned and gifted to me by the city librarians I worked for as I got ready to head to college. “Creation: the action or process of bringing something into existence.” “Existence: the fact of state of living; having objective reality.” And, considering the root of objective, “Object: a material thing that can be seen or touched.” That desire to bring what I imagined into form—my creativity—was crystal clear in my youth, cultivated in arts programs in the public schools, bolstered by the dreams of those who raised me up at home and in community and who expected my devotion to my chosen field. They viewed art as necessary work because it could bring people together. So, I imagined with us all in heart in mind. I carried the countless snapshots of family and friends and neighbors in the working-class Western Massachusetts town in which I was raised. I also carried the ethic of care emblematic of these people who were “objectively” without wealth or stature but who were in word and deed abundantly generous and visionary. I have felt them back through time and time again and I have seen their values reiterated in the dynamism and generosity of younger artists I’ve more recently encountered.

It is precisely because I remember the ancientfuturenow that I have always been predisposed to the experience and presence of gathering together with others.

Multiple truths surround us. Our snapshots contain our witnessings of particular, individual expressions of those truths. They live in vital connection to, interplay among, and unfolding with those snapshots of others. The resulting field of articulated perception becomes a kind of map of testimony. It invites us to experience a fluid relationship with meanings that continuously unfold and transform. It invites us to journey and deliberately practice reorientation. It invites us from fixity toward fluidity. In the United States and certainly in its professional theatre our relationships (to time, to one another, and to creative practice) have been distorted by the violence of objectification in the service of commerce and empire. If I walk away from the thrall of singularities and dominant narratives, and stop ceding my authority to play whenever, wherever, together, who will I be? Will I leave the burning house? Run on ahead. Run to the mountain. There are streams there. Run to the desert. To the ocean. To the forest. Gifts and gifts and gifts await. In silence and shadow, get still and plan.

It is precisely because I remember what I call the ancientfuturenow that I have always been predisposed to the presence of us together. And to the stories of us together that hold all the stories of us together. Stories of the upswell of sudden color and fulgent beauty in the desert. Stories of the repetitions with variations blooming across millennia staring us in the eye. Stories that remind us the objects we make are the means of communication, the snapshots. The songs that contain them just are. Let’s return to dancing.

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Thoughts from the curator

It's 2021 and we're amid multiple pandemics that are revealing the structural failures, challenges, and opportunities facing the nonprofit theatre. Where do we go from here? What are we bringing with us through the portal, and what are we making anew? The Devising Our Future series asks theatremakers to consider a future theatre field where resources and power are shared equitably in all directions, contributing to a more just and sustainable world. This series is curated by HowlRound Theatre Commons as part of our tenth anniversary celebration.

Devising Our Future

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