Speculating Black Queer Futures

Nkenna Akunna: I read the first chapter of Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake yesterday, a book that interrogates how white supremacy and chattel slavery have produced a climate for anti-Black violence and gratuitous Black death. I had to fall asleep. It was too much. I feel like my body was recognizing that everything Black people are doing, all the ways we are existing, is not necessarily living. It’s all in the wake of death, in the space left behind by so many legacies that wanted to, and still want to, kill us.

It made me think a lot about the work the two of us do as Black queer artists and why we do it. I’m currently working on a play called Some of Us Exist in the Future about a Black immigrant woman making some of these discoveries, so I am thinking of theatre within this concept of “wake work,” particularly in this past year, when so many of us have passed on. As we think about queer futures in theatre… I don’t know how we move forward without reckoning with death in a much deeper way.

JD Stokely: That’s real. Last week I tried to write three succinct questions for our conversation today and ended up going on my own little rants around white supremacy, white supremacists, and domestic terrorists in the United States, feeling like they are able to move freely and feel no consequences. One of the things I think a lot about is the ways safety and justice feel like a white fantasy.

There was a tweet by writer Saeed Jones that was making its rounds on social media after the siege on the Capitol, which said, “Black people can’t even sleep in bed safely at night without getting shot and killed by police. But when white nationalists attempt a coup, suddenly cops can’t even find their handcuffs.” The last time we spoke, we were speculating what a Black queer future looked like where we were nourished, safe, and supported. We named that the liberatory process of dreaming and conjuring new worlds is impossible without rest. But today I’m wondering how we as Black queer people can do the necessary work of dreaming a new world when rest is so vulnerable, because there’s the threat of death even in sleeping. And who gets to be restful, who gets to feel safe, who gets to be fully in their bodies...

Nkenna: How have you been sleeping?

Stokely: Really badly.

Nkenna: I go to bed at 9:00 am. It’s a bit of jet lag, but it’s not all jet lag...

How do we dream when safety is a myth? Not to say that all our dreams are nightmares, but all our dreams are undoubtedly colored by the fact that we’re not sleeping well and or safely. Part of me is like, we can’t ever rest, but there’s also a weird comfort that even in sleep we’re not lying to ourselves. And so, because we’re not lying to ourselves, we can trust in dreaming as a way to create futures for ourselves.

Something that has been so frustrating to me is how much shock and surprise there still is in response to (routine) white supremacist violence. When do the foundations of the world we exist in stop surprising us? How do our dreams look then? This kind of shock has been the source of my dissociation recently. We can’t build the world we want to see if we’re still in shock. The places that feel like comfort don’t work, and history—even just the past decade—has taught us that time and again. There’s a part of me that wants to reject the desire to pretend there was ever a normal to go back to.

These days, dreaming can feel like being haunted, and there is something useful about being haunted. It’s a reminder that we must be honest. I don’t know how you can build without being honest about what you’re working in.

As we think about queer futures in theatre… I don’t know how we move forward without reckoning with death in a much deeper way.

Stokely: I’m curious about the productivity of being haunted. I reject the idea of “linear time” and instead imagine Black queer time as a spiral. You know when people say that history repeats itself? Time as we understand and experience it really doubles back on itself like a spiral. As an artist, what I find inspiring about spiral time is that we’re just as much in conversation with the past as we are in conversation with many speculative possibilities for the future. It can be productive to look back to find stories we knew existed but have been erased or forgotten.

Haunting has a negative connotation, but what are the positive connotations of some sort of spiritual haunting or recognition of spirits as we imagine the future? One of the things I love about your piece Some of Us Exist in the Future is how time collapses for your main character, a Black queer woman. She exists somewhere between the earthly realm and a spirit realm informed by Indigenous Nigerian mythologies, which start to shape her reality. To me, that is an example of how “a haunting” is the past’s way of having a conversation with the present. How else is spirituality and ancestral practice informing your work?

Nkenna: The spirit realm can play a huge role in our journeys towards the self. As I get older I acknowledge that this realm includes my ancestors, too—I can’t think of self-knowing outside the context of spirit and those who came before me guiding me towards something. And then being in touch with the truest versions of myself always feels like a prerequisite to the work.

I feel like the more I experience time, the more I experience spirit. A couple of weeks ago, artist and PhD student Mysia Anderson mentioned to me how spirituality exists in the mundane in my writing. I care about public journeys and what it is that different characters who don’t know each other happen to share because they’re in a space at the same time, or how a window being open and music coming through it shifts what is possible in that room.

I don’t know how Black people exist without spirit, because this world fundamentally has never marked us as human, in fact it was built on our non-humanness. In my work, my characters dissociate a lot, and so much of their journeys are about them getting back into their bodies.

Stokely: I think disassociating is a type of dreaming and a type of rest. Sometimes that’s the only way to experience respite in a very anti-Black world without feeling like your body is left vulnerable. I welcome any kind of rest Black people can find these days. Maybe that’s just what it means to be able to rest and imagine right now as Black queer folks. My own work has been about haunting and spirituality without me even knowing that’s what I was doing.

Ten years ago, I wrote The (Sexual) Liberation of Mammy, a play that tried to combine the blackface caricature of Mammy with the role of a Theatre of the Oppressed “Joker”—the person who guides actors and audience members through games and exercises. My teacher used to call the Joker a “difficultator” because it was their job to trouble the world of the play or rehearsal room. So my play revolved around a Black lesbian who’s gifted a mammy statue, which eventually comes to life and haunts her. This mammy trickster character revealed anti-Blackness and homophobia present in the main character’s closest relationships with her girlfriend, best friend, and mother.

Now, the work I do with UnBound Bodies Collective thinks about how to create healing for queer and trans people of color in public space. We create containers for performances to happen and invite community members to be joyful with us and interact with and respond naturally to objects we’ve created. In the fall of 2019, we staged The Stoop in downtown Boston, which was an investigation into Black care and tenderness, inspired by the story of one of the last Black hair stores closing in a Boston neighborhood.

We began exploring Black hair care as a display of tenderness, and stoop culture as a site where Black hair gets done, among other things. We created a sixty-foot-long braid made out of synthetic hair, rope, yarn, and fabric, and wove seeds, beads, and prayers into it. Without knowing it, we made a shrine to Black tenderness in downtown Boston.

So much of our collective’s work has been about publicly fighting against the haunting legacy of colonialism and anti-Blackness in the city by literally changing the spiritual energy of spaces that we do work in. Taking the ghost of this site of Black hair care that no longer exists and being like, “We’re still here. Remember us.”

I think disassociating is a type of dreaming and a type of rest. Sometimes that’s the only way to experience respite in a very anti-Black world without feeling like your body is left vulnerable.

Nkenna: That’s so moving. This is what I mean when I say spirit is what leads us, because, like you said, you created that without even really knowing what you were doing. And you’re only able to see all of what was happening in hindsight.

I was born and raised in London and since then have spent a significant portion of my life in New England. The significance of being on this land named for this specific group of settler-colonists, what it means for my body to be in that journey, and how my body sits and feels on this land… The work comes about, or the writing can only happen, once the space has been shifted, once the space feels safe enough. And that safety is temporary.

My play good god, which I worked on with Ngozi Anyanwu, is about three Black teens who meet in a New England college their freshman year. One of them is from London, one of them is from New York, one of them is from Lagos, and they all have the same name, which is what draws them to each other. They find themselves on this land before they even realize what it means and who else is there. Who are the Black people who were there before them? And what does it mean for them to be in conversation with those people?

We workshopped the play over Zoom last summer—that the workshop could even happen felt like such a lifeline. It was during the protests for abolition. So much was happening and people were dying. There was a petition going around to officially change the name of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. All but one in our company were Black. Without knowing it, so much spiritual work was taking place whenever we met. There was such a fullness. I felt an overflowing all the time and, honestly, I was afraid of it.

An illustration of two Black people with different hairstyles and outfits, surrounded by clouds and suns, against an orange and blue background.

An illustration inspired by the essay by Silent Fox.

One day, on the advice of a close friend, I opened up all my windows and sat in front of some plants and stones and rock salt and jewelry I had inexplicably arranged by my bedside. The stones had been picked up from beaches across the globe, and the pink rock salt was from a performance of Selina Thompson’s salt at the Royal Court in London. I played Nigerian gospel music and just sat there and spoke to my grandma who died earlier in the year and my aunt who I’d watched die the year before. That process shifted so much in my apartment and what I felt able to create on this land that is drenched in blood. There was this sense that the ghosts, at least the ones in my life, had to be acknowledged for the space to feel like one I could create in.

Which then again brings us back to this idea of a cyclical spiral time. The knowing might come later, but the knowing is also already there because you’re doing the thing even if you don’t know why.

Stokely: Dreaming, especially dreaming of a future, is speculative work. But speculative work has to be spiritual work.

You mentioned Christina Sharpe earlier. In the first chapter of her book, she asks, “How do we tend to the dead and dying?” She continues to return to that question throughout, and in the last chapter she asks, “How do we survive so that we can continue to tend to the dead and dying? How do we keep putting breath back into the Black body?” And this kind of push toward aliveness, toward reimagining ourselves beyond this moment, even in this face of death and violence and injustice, is so inspiring.

If we’re recognizing that Black queer time must include the past and must include the present, when have you glimpsed the Black queer future you want to exist in? Black feminist scholar Tina Campt says that a Black future tense isn’t just about imagining what will happen in the future but rather working right now toward a future that must happen if we are to survive the present moment. A Black queer liberatory future must happen. That is why we are doing the work we’re doing in the present.

Nkenna: A queer activist I follow on Twitter and their partner were in Nigeria, where their partner was completing Indigenous Igbo rites after the death of their father. Seeing these images of revolutionary Igbo queers back home engaging in processes of Indigenous alignment… I felt I was seeing queer Igbo pasts, presents, and futures in tandem. And then I thought, What are some of the practices, especially those around gathering, that feel to be part of what I have inherited? So much of what is indigenous to my people feels lost, or in need or imagining.

Stokely: What does it mean to embrace impermanence as space for collaboration? I definitely have felt glimpses of the Black queer future I want to see through collaboration. I’m thinking also about nourishment. There’s always food at Black gatherings, and there are different types of ways we can nourish ourselves and keep our communities fed. Finding ways of paying each other well is also a type of nourishment. I would like to see the future where we don’t have to feel beholden to grants and large institutions who can’t really fully see the vision but are holding the purse strings, where individual artists can choose to be part of these institutions because we want to, not because that’s the only way we’re going to get health insurance.

I can’t think about time without thinking about place. What does tending the land look like? What does it look like to get artists to invest in our own land? One of the best experiences of relaxation I’ve ever felt was overseas in Germany. I was at a beautiful art retreat space with a very liberal and international art community, but it was very white, and surrounding us were all these conservative German towns. Still, I spent my days dancing around in a garden, eating beautiful food that was grown on the land, and swimming in the nearby canal. And I was with a small group of other artists of color.

Dreaming, especially dreaming of a future, is speculative work. But speculative work has to be spiritual work.

Nkenna: Home for me has always been the city but when I came to New England for undergrad, I could not deny the way that my body felt after jumping seven feet into the Connecticut River. Or walking ten minutes out of my dorm room and being surrounded by forest. Or seeing mountain ranges off in the distance. That has to be a part of the future. Whiteness doesn’t own nature or our ability to connect with other forms of life.

Stokely: After that Germany experience, some of us were like, How do we recreate this experience in the United States? What are the spaces here for Black artists, and Black queer artists specifically, knowing that not everybody can leave the country? Why do we have to leave in order to feel relaxed enough in our bodies to be creative, to dream, to rest? I’m not saying those spaces aren’t here, because I do think there are lots of movements connecting artists and healers of color with land, but I wouldn’t say I know them.

Nkenna: Queer futures involve being able touch the land under our feet and have it say back, “You’re here, you made it.” And it’s not because we own shit, but because I don’t think any natural land, especially that which has histories of imperialism and Black labor and Black death, can touch our feet without us experiencing something in it. I want us all to be able to really feel that, because I think it changes our bodies.

Our futures involve us being fed and being able to feed ourselves things that aren’t harming us and that we know aren’t harming us. Once we’re fed, maybe a bunch of us are up talking and laughing as loud as we fucking want to. And someone falls asleep because they can, because they feel safe. Imagine just being able to fall asleep despite all the noise around you. I’m thinking of a moment that’s so joyous that falling asleep feels like you’re missing out, but you do anyway, because that’s how at peace your body is. That is in our future.

Stokely: Absolutely. You’re making me think of other Black queer artists who are doing this work right now. Black Power Naps is an installation and performance created and led by Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa that welcomes Black leisure and rest as a form of resistance to white supremacist culture. Kiyan Williams creates these amazing installations out of soil—one of their most recent installations is called Reaching Towards Warmer Suns, where they took the soil from the bank of the James River, which was historically a major port for slave ships in Virginia, and reshaped it into large hand sculptures along the river. Some of the statues are waving towards the water, some towards the sky, some are putting up middle fingers, some are putting up Black power fists.

When I look at that installation, I think about those hands really being animated in movement both with past spirits of the Black captives who were brought here or who didn’t make it, but I also think about the installation as being in conversation with all the different timelines and experiences of Black resistance in the United States and globally.

Nkenna: A young, Black British person, Tianna Johnson, started a group in 2018 called Black Girls Camping. It started with a tweet, “Any Black girls want to go camping with me?” and they’ve had quite a few trips since then. A lot of them don’t know each other beforehand. It resonated with me a lot in this conversation on what nature can give us.

A lot of us are looking for ways to experience leisure, to experience luxury even. There’s this whole movement of Black women allowing luxury into their lives in a way that, while I see the impetus, can reify white supremacist capitalism, which oppresses us. Writer Sarah Ogun said in a tweet, “I want these people trying to do this Black girl luxury to just read Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman.” This work of speculation centers versions of Black girls that the archives erased. It tracks the ways they were creating joy for themselves, or creating moments of happiness, that were always going to be read as deviant or wayward. How might we reframe Black girl luxury to center our pleasure? There is a lens that sees that as deviant, but the girls in Wayward Lives don’t care about that lens.

Thinking about leisure, and then thinking about when we don’t have access to the kinds of spiritual leisure that nature itself can provide, how do we still create those moments of pleasure for ourselves that don’t require us to feed into systems that don’t work for us?

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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.

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