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A Summer on Fire, a Harvest Moon

In Shey Rivera Ríos’s most recent theatrical work, Fire Flowers and a Time Machine/Flores de Fuego y Una Máquina del Tiempo, they offer a vision of fire that lays the ground bare for new possibilities.

Fire Flowers, which takes its name from a song by Rita Indiana, was produced by the Wilbury Theatre Group in October 2020. Under the harvest moon, in the city now called Providence, Rhode Island, the show brought together a cast of rotating artists—people of color, as well as queer, nonbinary, Indigenous, and multilingual people—who invoked the past to envision a more just and interconnected future. At the top of the piece, masked and distanced audiences convened at a “time machine,” which evoked an altar and a garden. Rivera Ríos offered a land acknowledgment and a provocation to be present. They told us about fire flowers, blossoms that spring from the fertile soil after a demolishing flame. After this initial moment of togetherness, the audience split into groups to explore the monologues, movement pieces, songs, and rites that were tucked throughout the grounds.

I worked as one of the volunteer guides who led small groups in cycles around the four performance sites: We sat in a clearing along a dirt path, an open-air atrium, an outdoor courtyard, and a catwalk. We saw a parking lot, a highway, a sky of stars, a river. Lilly E. Manycolors, an Indigenous artist, offered a ritual for grief. April Brown led audiences in an act of birthing future Black girls, singing their names into existence. Gina Rodriguez-Drix commemorated the matriarchs of her family in a bilingual tribute that was part poem, part monologue, and part invocation.

While the individual pieces did not centrally address COVID-19, George Floyd’s murder and the summer of uprisings, or our fascistic political climate, the performances were a deliberately communal act of healing during our time of isolation and scarcity. They traversed languages and modalities. They rooted in themes of death, rebirth, connection, intimacy and hope. They mimicked the fire flowers themselves, blooming from loss.

an actor kneeling onstage

Matt Garza in Fire Flowers and a Time Machine / Flores de fuego y una máquina del tiempo by Shey Rivera Ríos, presented by The Wilbury Theatre Group in collaboration with WaterFire Providence. Photo by Erin X. Smithers.

From the Root: Transformative Justice and Fire Flowers

Fire Flowers came at a time when very little live performance was happening, but when conversations around community-engaged theatre were very much alive. Failures of racism and inaccessibility were detailed this summer by the Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) coalition of theatremakers who wrote the We See You White American Theater demands (WSYWAT), showing how, at many sites of theatre in the United States, real contradictions underpin the work. Theatres make art depicting Black lives without paying Black creators or listening to Black staff. Theatres relegate the deep relational work of community engagement to an underfunded department or individual. Theatres put the work of creators of color in their smallest-capacity spaces. Then theatres write social justice into their mission statements.

I asked Nicole Brewer, anti-racist theatre consultant, director, and founder of Conscientious Theatre Training, what she wanted to happen to theatres that made written commitments in June but showed no policy changes by December. “I don’t know. I don’t have the energy to imagine what happens to them,” she told me. “What I’m hoping is like in any kind of ecosystem, when you take all the nutrients and flood it towards one place. Then what happens [to the old] is the atrophy sets in and it dies. That’s about as far as I want to even go with that visioning, because I’m so excited around the ways people are speaking up now.”

In sharing this vision, Brewer guided me to look to the successes of transformative spaces. Spaces where ancestral knowledge is engaged towards genesis. Spaces of decolonial and anti-racist practice, where theatremakers are devising new structures to share their time, resources, and creative and healing practices.

I found some of the richest insights in my proverbial backyard.

In July, Rivera Ríos, an experienced organizer as well as director, had co-led a community education initiative for Providence residents. Together with artist and activist Vatic Kuumba, they designed a meeting agenda on how to re-envision the city budget. They explained how defunding the police is a step towards abolition.

When the #8CantWait campaign proposed police reforms in June, the #8toAbolition platform responded quickly with counterdemands. Many incremental changes to existing systems ultimately serve to reinforce them: police reforms might feel attractive on principle, but they keep power intact. So abolitionists offer non-reformist reforms as a way to think about long-term strategy. To abolish white supremacy, policing, and prisons, we must pull resources out of the prison system and into healing spaces instead.

The transformative justice practice, pioneered by the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, Mia Mingus, adrienne maree brown, and others, is one such healing space. It is a practice of circles where participants take turns to identify actions, feelings, and structures of accountability. It involves storytelling, listening, and sensory awareness. In the words of Rhode Island artist Becci Davis, “Transformative justice looks like creating pathways for folks who aren’t used to stepping outside of their own experience to be able to do just that.”

Davis was one of the artists in Fire Flowers, a piece deeply invested in making paths of connection across difference. Witnessing Rivera Ríos’s commitment to both abolition and creative freedom, to the political in the artistic and vice versa, I saw how theatre can embody transformative justice practices and reimagine itself in so doing.

“I could not have come up with Fire Flowers and a Time Machine necessarily, in the same way, if I had not been organizing on the ground, listening to the community demand what they need, what they truly, truly need,” said Rivera Ríos, “and then using that energy toward dismantling some of those systems that oppress them, and oppress us, and oppress everyone.”

While the individual pieces did not centrally address COVID-19, George Floyd’s murder and the summer of uprisings, or our fascistic political climate, the performances were a deliberately communal act of healing during our time of isolation and scarcity.

Intimate Networks, Artists’ Offerings

Davis performed “For My Mother,” a meditative ritual that incorporates her poem of the same name. The piece is dedicated to her fourth-great-grandmother, a formerly enslaved woman named Charity Ann, and Orisha Yemaya, a Yoruba water spirit. Davis began seated, wearing a face mask from which silvery skeins of pearl and shell hang. She lit a candle, collected in her palms water from a basin, and smoothed it over her skin.

Such practices appeared in many of the pieces, something Davis was moved by. When she attended the performance as a visitor, she noted recurring themes and symbols among different artists: connection to the earth, the body, and the voice—“cleansing through water and fire,” she said. A method of “ancestral work,” as Rivera Ríos describes it, united the individual and the separately created pieces of Fire Flowers, in an emergent resonance.

At each site, artists directly invited audiences into intimacy or, in Davis’s words, to witnessing. This reminded me of what Guna and Rappahannock artist Monique Mojica once asked of her own practice: “What stories would I tell if I started from a place of connectedness instead of from a place of rupture?”

“There’s a lot of white cis male performance art that’s very much self-hatred and self-flagellation, or stamina work, putting their bodies in extreme situations,” Rivera Ríos told me. While they have respect for the practice, they added, “I feel like that’s very much a kind of guilty, male energy that doesn’t understand itself.” That was not the performative mode of Fire Flowers. Rather, they said, “We femme spirits or non-binary spirits come in many cultures with a practice of ancestors, of healing.” This commitment to healing—to find redress, reconciliation, new futures—is present across Rivera Ríos’s work.

In August, prior to Fire Flowers, Rivera Ríos had curated a series of artists for another multisite piece, the Wilbury Group’s Decameron, on the same grounds. The night I attended, I saw Orlando Hernández perform. Unlike in Fire Flowers, I was a spectator and not a guide.

Hernández entered the space wearing a cloth mask over his nose and mouth. He sat down and removed it. A pair of shoes waited on a short platform in front of his chair. He recounted an experience from just a few nights earlier: he had been performing at a community event in a park; afterwards, a white man approached him and complimented his dancing. “Did you learn in this country?” the white man asked. (Hernández was raised in New Jersey.) “There was just something so primal about it,” he went on.

Hernández told us about the word “primal.” He spoke of the white Western obsession with linear time, which idolizes European enlightenment and relegates Indigenous and non-Westernized practices in the “undeveloped” past. He told his story to our all-white audience, maybe to communicate, I will hear your words. I will make you truly hear them too. “Where are you breathing life from?” he asked us, “And from whom?”

Then he began to dance, but first he put on a new mask with a different purpose altogether. Made of a fine, mesh-like substance, it transformed its expression as he moved. With his chin tipped down, he appeared brooding. As he lifted his gaze to the sky, the anger melted into earnestness. I did not—could not—know his face behind the mask. Perhaps it, too, was a safeguard; it kept a distance.

To abolish white supremacy, policing, and prisons, we must pull resources out of the prison system and into healing spaces instead.

The Necessary Nutrients: Funding and Fire Flowers

In that strategic distance I now find a space for reflection. When Hernández asked, “Where are you breathing life from,” I thought of where the performance took place. Both Decameron and Fire Flowers were produced by Wilbury Theatre Group, a white-led institution, on the campus of the WaterFire Arts Center in the Valley, a low-income neighborhood surrounded by gentrifying ones. While the exact statistics vary, reports indicate that it is, along with adjacent Olneyville, one of the least white neighborhoods in the city.

This is the neighborhood that houses perhaps the most famous player in the city arts scene. In 2018, WaterFire received almost two million dollars in grant funding and donations. Their 2017 season sponsors included Bank of America, the City of Providence, Cox Communications, and the biopharmaceutical company Gilead, underscoring the tight relationship between arts, industry, and government that is emblematic of the nonprofit industrial complex (NPIC), which is described by the INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence coalition as the network of state- and foundation-funded institutions whose politics may be co-opted by the forces that fund them. While WaterFire enjoys significant funding and support, its surrounding community lacks resources.

It is difficult to make simple conclusions about the financial relationships between big nonprofits such as WaterFire and the work of Rivera Ríos. Fire Flowers does resistant, collective work. However, its existence in this form required the long-distance cooperation of corporate backers. Its rootedness in transformative justice, abolitionism, and collective healing were resistant to its financial circumstances, which are, after all, the financial circumstances of much nonprofit theatre. What might this production’s relationship to the NPIC teach us about building the anti-racist, co-created theatre of the future?

She noted recurring themes and symbols among different artists: connection to the earth, the body, and the voice—“cleansing through water and fire,” she said.

The Vision: Present and Future Blooms

As Brewer said, the nutrients within the ecosystem must be directed towards healing spaces—like those opened in Fire Flowers. Navigating this act of building transformative theatrical spaces within the dominance of the NPIC requires imagination. It requires strategic approaches to change, ones that recognize the creative and material consequences of making theatre. I see these spaces, structures, and strategies in Rivera Ríos’s work, both in Fire Flowers and their organizing: Opening a vulnerable space of resistance and communal care. Trusting audiences with intimate ancestral practices and histories. Paying artists during a pandemic. Teaching. Protesting. I see these strategies at Free Street Theater in Chicago, which paused theatrical production in the month after George Floyd’s murder to provide direct service to their communities, and at Penumbra Theatre in Minneapolis, which has re-envisioned itself as a center of racial healing.

These community engagement tactics see theatremaking as only one of many tools for abolition and decolonization, wielded with the awareness that land repatriation, reparations, sovereignty, and freedom are not just figures of speech. This commitment to seeing the whole picture, to redirecting the flow of resources away from corporations and towards communities, is a transformative approach. Theatre invested in transformative justice is complex, but it is happening. Deep in the soil, the fire flowers have taken root.