Remarks delivered on January 5, 2017, at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, during the Under the Radar Symposium as part of the "From Where I Stand" series, curated by Mark Russell.
The women who raised me in theatre embodied the concept of radical aliveness. Long before I encountered any one of them, they each had done the work of discerning and exorcising the myriad caging distortions engendered by the various gazes they had to negotiate in the United States. They had each crafted their own shimmering, beautiful mirrors, which were wide enough to reflect many faces, not just their own. They were all clear that the limited narratives afforded them in the broader culture had little bearing on the truth, the breadth, and the force of their lives.
Our capacity to imagine beyond the limits of what we know is core to our humanity. We imagine, then manifest. In theatre this is our practice, no? When our circumstances are coming undone—imagine.
Their acts of creation were multivalent and multi-dimensional; they understood the paramount importance of presence and the umbilical relationship of the work one does in performance to one’s innermost intimate perceptions and imaginings. They knew how to kick ass, figuratively, and, if y’all know them, literally. Because I met them, and because they, in the way they did (and still do, those still living), lived the dynamic relationship between I and we that made mentorship an unambiguous extension of their purpose on the planet, I was fortunate enough not to get it twisted. In other words, the limits of other people’s imaginations did not define me. And, as an artist who they said was going to have, “an unusual path,” I have been able to draw upon a wealth of immaterial resources as motivation and sustenance. They affirmed for me that while we may find ourselves—as we do now—in circumstances beyond our control, we have access to a core aspect of our humanity that, unless we cede it, is the source of emancipatory power.
Imagine, imagining, together.
From one state through to another.
Through the doing.
Through the making.
Through the sharing.
Our ancient future form
We embody imagination.
Now, you heard my name is Daniel. I know some of y’all, but mostly we’re unfamiliar with one another, yeah?
We don’t know one another.
What happens when we stop making familiarity a prerequisite for intimacy?
What happens when we call curiosity to the center?
What happens when courage, going back to the original root of that word, the heart, heartful bravery, is our driving pulse?
What if we practice maroonage? Do you know what that is? That’s the maroon societies where the black people, the poor white people (in some rare cases), the native people during slavery escaped and lived their own realities off and under the radar.
What happens if we remember lineage outside the blinders of canon or hierarchy?
What happens if we remember our capacity to envision through and beyond atrocity?
What if we buck up?
What if we keep moving?
What if we take responsibility?
What if responsibility looks like radical love?
What if resistance is rooted in presence not reaction?
What if we lay down our certainty?
What if we stop—and this is a big one for the theatre people—conflating our likes and dislikes with our purpose?
Now, when I talk about imagination, a lot of times my students look at me like I’m from the New Age planet. Feel-good, touchy-feely imagination. And I say to them, I go back, as a Black person in America, to slave narratives. And I recognize in those narratives, in those oral histories, the histories I inherited from my family.
There were generations of people who imagined freedoms that they would never themselves experience. And who imagined it as their work on the planet.
They imagined it in order to hold space for some invisible architecture to come into being over time.
Had they not imagined it, I would never experience the freedom I now have.
There was no evidence for them.
We have evidence.
We have no excuse.
We need to do better.
This is a fucked up time in the USA. No doubt.
But—and I say this not as dismissal, but as a clarion call—y’all, what’s new? Really.
Not too far from here (The Public Theater) in 1995, I had just finished doing a reading of a new play by Shay Youngblood that Laurie Carlos directed. It was when I first met Morgan Jenness and Shelby Jiggets. Afterward, Laurie took me by the hand and took me on a tour of the Lower East Side where she grew up down here. And we ended up back at her apartment that she shared with Butch Morris (Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris) the incredible musician. She looked at me in the way that many of my mentors did, with a great deal of sympathy because I was too big for my skin, too big for my age, they knew I had to wait, I had to season, I had to be tempered. And she said, “Let me play you something.” She pulled out a cassette tape and she put it in the deck. Tells you how long ago it was. It was Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry. “Two mainstream die… you don’t love me when I cry…” and I listened, and I looked at her with shock and awe and she said, “I know, I know, I know. You never thought you’d hear those notes together, did you? You never thought you’d hear those sounds together, did you?” But Laura Nyro imagined them together and thereby made them.
Our capacity to imagine beyond the limits of what we know is core to our humanity.
We imagine, then manifest.
In theatre this is our practice, no?
When our circumstances are coming undone—imagine.
The most powerful experiences I have had in performance have all begun with invitations, acts of profound hospitality and risk, or have happened when my inviting acts have been accepted by audiences and some new possibility is conjured. The most powerful experiences have never been when I sought to yoke the unknown to my limited frames of reference, in order to say that I recognized myself in something unfamiliar and thereby gauge its merit. But rather, when I experienced the unfamiliarity with curiosity and courage as my guides and was radically rearranged, re-constellated, consecrated to some unfolding new.
My grandmother often said, in her brisk Yankee voice, “Once you meet somebody, and relate in any way to them, you become somehow…a part. You may not think it amounts to anything, but it does. We are a part of everyone we meet, whether we know it or not.”
As I think about the artists that I’ve met or been reacquainted with even in this last six months I think about people who are imagining a radically different future.
Ebony Noelle Golden, who is creating 125th and Freedom, a piece that’s going to move from one river to the other along 125th Street.
Kaneza Schaal and Christopher Myers who are creating Cartography 1.
Sharon Bridgforth who has created the Dat Black Mermaid Man Lady Oracle Deck and does weekly readings to connect us to the ancestral realm to give us some information.
Alec Duffy at JACK who has turned it into a profound source of healing, witness, and transformation in the community that reflects the community that its in.
And Matthew Glassman and Nick Slie, who I call my straight husbands, who created the Art & Survival conference.
People are doing the work.
Leave your certainty.
Let go your centrality.
Let go your attachment to predetermined outcome.
As the mooring posts come undone, become a maroon.
As the boundaries of your known existence fall away, there is within you an urge—it’s an urge toward life.
Last story. Those of you who know Vinie Burrows, she’s in her 90s now. Incredible actor. She works more than me. Really. She lives in the Lower East Side and I always pass by and say, “I’ve got to see Vinie.” Our interactions are often the same. She walks up to me, she grabs me by the arm, and she gives me a piece of information that changes my life. She walked up to me, she grabbed my arm, she looked me in my eye and she said, “Life is motion! Life is motion! Life is motion!”
So, y’all. Get moving.