Making Our Own Table: Defining Black Intimacy Practice
A Conversation with Kaja Dunn
Ann James: Hi, Kaja Dunn! How are you, illustrious Broadway-credited intimacy director/coordinator? Congratulations for that!
Kaja Dunn: Thank you. I’m working on Choir Boy with director Jamil Jude for the second time. We mounted the first production at Denver Center in April, and now we are at ACT with a co-production with The Fifth Ave. Theatre. I’ve wanted to work with Jamil for years. He curates beautiful rooms. We’ve talked and dreamed, so this was an exciting opportunity. It was also an all-Black creative team.
Ann: How did you train for this moment and the work you do?
Kaja: It was a combination of things. I had all the movement principles and have done fight choreography. I also worked as a director and did work in race and theatre. Consent was part of that work of thinking about better techniques. Back in 2012, I had consent and boundary clauses in my acting class syllabi. I started training in fight choreography in grad school and found many of the environments to be unhospitable to myself as a Black woman.
Then I spent a lot of time in my work thinking about how all of these things intersect. My way into intimacy choreography was to do work on how race affects consent and boundary practices. In 2019, Theatrical Intimacy Education (TIE) approached me for help diversifying their student base, and I asked what they had that targeted choreographers of color. I was previously affiliate faculty in Africana Studies at University of North Carolina Charlotte, so the crossover between sex in performance and race was one I had been thinking about. I have since taught Race and Choreography to several hundreds of intimacy professionals and students.
I would rather be there late than not at all because I think it’s important.
Ann: Tell me a little bit about some of the roadblocks you have come in contact with. For example, when you've been called in late on a project, tell me about the impact on a cast and on you as an artist when that happens.
Kaja: I think this happens in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it’s about a creative process. Sometimes someone wasn’t a good fit for the team. Sometimes it’s a disparity between culture of the creative team and the story they are telling. Sometimes it's a desire for effective training or a discussion. People decide, “we should also add this intimacy piece,” and I'm always grateful to be in the room. I would rather be there late than not at all because I think it’s important.
My research is in intimacy of the global majority with a focus on Black sexuality and race and intimacy. People tend to think of intimacy in terms of gender and orientation and forget about the racial element.
The earlier in a process you are brought in, the more fully you can do your work. What becomes hard is people don't see their blind spots, and they want you to talk about this thing. But you haven't been there to help develop that thing, and they're not realizing what's missing.
It's always nice to be able to be there at the beginning of a discussion or creative process, and in most of my work I have been fortunate that that is the case. I think the times where it becomes most problematic is when people really have not been thinking about race at all.
Ann: I was just working on a show, and there was a Black actress and Latina actress who had a kiss. We were not even getting physically situated to kiss. We were talking about the kiss, and the Black actress just burst into tears. We stopped everything, of course, and we let the tears flow. Then I said, “Okay, we've hit a boundary of yours, and this is a beautiful moment. Can you talk about what you're going through?” She said that she got embarrassed every time she had to kiss a person lighter than her, because her makeup would get all over the lighter skinned person, and it would be crushingly embarrassing for her to do kissing scenes because she didn't want the other actor to have her makeup all over themselves.
I just said, “Whoa, Whoa! Okay. So, this is something that is completely fixable. You are not alone in this. We have setting powders. We have setting sprays. We have all these things available to you, and we are going to make this part of the journey something that is going to be a healing moment and a moment of success for you.” We were all just in tears because of the relief of pain of that. So sometimes we walk into a place where it’s not the just sexual content, but race and sexual content and shame and Eurocentric training.
Particularly with Black intimacy professionals or Black feminist thought, there has been a lot of extraction. So there's an importance to saying, “Please cite my work or include me.”
Kaja: Yes. It's not just being able to do the choreography. It's research, dramaturgy, and lived experience. This is something we've talked about before: boundaries are also around cultural practices or what you share culturally. That means if you're creating a space of cultural inclusiveness (often in a predominantly white area), have a resource sheet with a barbershop list and other things to help folks navigate. Technically, things like this aren’t exactly part of my job, but they become part of the work I do. Most of the time I’m collaborating on how we can help people be their full selves and do their best work.
Ann: How do you find balance? Do you practice any rituals before you get into the work? How do you create self-care space around your psyche and around you?
Kaja: When I go into spaces, I'm bringing a community with me. You know this from working with me. I will say people's names—the Black artists, feminists, and scholars who inspire this work, the other intimacy professionals I have worked with and learned with.
On the other side of that, I have really begun to ask for people to cite my work and recognize the work of other Black scholars and artists when they use it. There is sometimes a level of extraction and appropriation. Particularly with Black intimacy professionals or Black feminist thought, there has been a lot of extraction. So there's an importance to saying, “Please cite my work or include me.” I also champion hard for anybody I know in my community and have mentees and people shadow whenever possible.
My biggest ritual is community. I don't move alone in almost anything I do. I got into theatre because I love community and collaboration in stories. It’s an inherent part of my culture. That's a huge part of my self-care.
Ann: Tell me about the impact of not being cited or recognized.
Kaja: It’s tricky. When I started doing the work in race and theatre, we were trolled by white supremacist groups. They were publishing the names of where people's children went to school. So as my work training other choreographers through TIE was really taking off, alongside some additional work I was doing, I was pulling back on social media because I was worried about my family. I have gotten better about advertising and highlighting that I was on the forefront of training people in the connection between the practical aspects of race and intimacy choreography and that I developed these classes over the years about racial sexual tropes. But there is a balance and a personal cost. It’s also important to me that I am citing people of color. Women of color—and Black women in particular—are the foundation for a lot of this work around boundaries, storytelling, and consent. Audre Lourde, bell hooks, Diana Ramey Berry, and Tarana Burke all are Black feminist thinkers whose ideas lay the foundation for the field, and they are under-cited and plagiarized. In conjunction with Chelsea Pace and Laura Rikard at TIE and Brian Eugenio Herrera at Princeton, we did a summit online in 2020. It was about race and intimacy choreography, and Black women were centered.
Solidarity doesn’t come without sacrifice.
Ann: It's really interesting that community is one of your benchmarks and pillars. I can say same with me. You know this idea of Afrocentric Intimacy Pedagogy (AIP) that I'm developing is based in ubuntu, or that idea of “I am because you are,” and the philosophy nommo, which was created by one of my theatre ancestors, Paul Carter Harrison. It involves working as community in artistic gathering spaces and setting the feeling for a rehearsal process by gathering first and talking together, meeting together, sharing a meal together.
Your quest to be in many varied rooms in order to represent is a beautiful, beautiful quest, and I am so supportive of you. I really do look up to you as a person who has been doing this for a very long time, and you know I just appreciate you.
I have one final question. Is there anything that I haven't mentioned and that we haven't talked about that you want to share?
Kaja: As I'm writing about the beauty of Black American intimacy and other cultures for a training guide, I want people to know it’s important to really take the time to do your homework. It’s also important that everyone, not just people of color, make sure that we are working to diversify who is telling stories. I say solidarity doesn’t come without sacrifice. That means we look to bring other people in and lift as we climb. It means promoting other people of color visibly. It's beyond a physical act of choreography. It's a representation of survival and beauty.
If there are people who are interested, especially those who are not represented—I don't like the word underrepresented, because it sounds accidental, and none of this is accidental, right?—find us. Because most of us are willing and very happy to help and to support. All of us are working to increase representation in the field. (Be patient if it takes us a minute to get back to you…we're emailing as fast as we can).
Ann: I could talk to you forever, Kaja Dunn. Thank you for making space for this.