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Trust Your Gifts with Kelundra Smith

Kelundra Smith: What I tell people is you have to remember that your very existence is evidence that you are the descendant of survivors, so it's in you to be resilient, to have fortitude, to be creative and innovative even when it seems hard.

Chorus: [sings “Remember”]

Yura Sapi: Welcome to season three. Welcome to our liberation. Welcome to the Building Our Own Tables podcast. The Building Our Own Tables podcast is produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. This is Yura Sapi here to support you on your journey of creation towards our collective liberation. How exciting is it to transform our future and be the future ancestors we've dreamed for? May you receive that witch supports you on your journey and release that witch does not. The universe expands as we do. Nature evolves as we do. We remember. We remember. We remember.

Chorus: [sings “Remember”]

Yura Sapi: Let us call upon the four elements that support us: The fire that burns within igniting our imagination, our ability to see into the future. The water that holds us and holds within our memory. The air that lifts us up and carries our stories across to meet each other. The earth, which provides us sustenance, repair. To support us on this journey, let us welcome in all of our ancestors.

We're learning from visionaries who have built their own tables, receiving gems of wisdom to support us along our journey. In today's episode, I talked with Kelundra Smith, a beautiful writer who shares about her journey from a career in arts criticism to releasing new worlds of plays as a playwright that channeled through her in the recent years. Kelundra and I were connected years ago for efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion, meaning the support of bringing more critics of color to the theatre industry. We've connected again at this time to share with you all her wisdom and resources around what you might need as you may embark in a new career focus around your artmaking. Kelundra shares affirmations and ideas support for how to be breaking toxic patterns, working through the inner world, the ways in which we may hold ourselves back, and what kinds of strategies you might take to overcome these inner challenges. With a mission to connect people to cultural experiences and each other. Kelundra Smith, please tell the beautiful listeners about your beautiful self.

Kelundra: My name is Kelundra Smith. I am an arts journalist, theatre critic, and playwright based in Atlanta, Georgia—born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. I come to theatre as one of those kids who used to talk too much in class and that's where they put you. They said, "Okay, if you're going to talk, we're going to put you on a stage." And so, I was one of those kids who was always in… pick the month program: Black History Month, President's Day, whatever it was in school and at church. That evolved as I got into high school and into college into having an interest in performance critique, this idea of criticism as a form of documentarian archiving. Early on, I recognized that the work created by women, non-binary people, people of color, various communities that had been marginalized, wasn't getting the same level of documentation as was the work created by their white colleagues and counterparts.

I kind of found my way into writing about theatre because I was willing to go see different types of performances, whether it was plays, musicals, performance art at the places that weren't getting covered by the local paper at the different places I was living when I was first starting out. I was willing to drive to the more rural communities or the more suburban communities and write about what was happening out there, and so that is kind of how I found my way into a career that then caught the attention of some national magazines and newspapers. Then, I did that for a long time while working a full-time job doing communications at various different places and then this little pesky pandemic hit. I was used to being in a theatre every week for most of my adult life.

Theatre had not yet figured out how to go digital at the beginning of the pandemic. I was at home and then I started writing stories that had been living in my imagination untapped for probably three years. By the time that pandemic hit, I started writing plays, specifically looking at the Black Southern experience. So I have a trilogy of plays set in Reconstruction era Georgia, I have a prequel to A Raisin in the Sun, and I have a play that I'm actively writing about Black and Brown women nurses working at a hospital, being caretakers during a pandemic and how that affects them spiritually. I'm just exploring my way through this theatre thing.

Yura Sapi: That's beautiful. I'd love to hear more about these plays that you've created, these worlds within themselves. I want to hear more about your creations.

Kelundra: It's all connected. Southern art has struggled to be taken seriously and have visibility in all areas of art, but especially in the theatre because theatre so often sees its epicenter as New York or London or insert name of European city. Art coming out of the southeastern region of the United States has struggled to present itself. Southern music is global, but Southern theatre is still trying to get out there. I think the desire to tell the stories that I grew up hearing about my elders and my ancestors growing up, really fueled me to want to write plays, but it's the same thing that fueled me when I was writing theatre criticism and theatre journalism. It was always focused on Southern arts and culture. I think the South is especially important right now because the Southeast is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse regions in the United States of America.

The majority of African Americans in the U.S. live in the Southeast, so I think it's important that as the South is experiencing this reverse Great Migration as well as is becoming home to more immigrants and refugees, these stories get documented in history so that people fifty years from now are not sitting and saying the same things we are now of like, "How come I never heard about this and how come I never heard about this?" Because that's been the real reckoning with the way we tell our histories over the last few years.

People are like, "Wait a second, how come my grandmother or my grandfather, no one ever told me about this thing?" I remember having a conversation with a colleague. I was telling her this story about something that happened to my great-grandmother or something of that nature, and she was like, "I'm just so amazed. Never heard this in my life." And I was like, "Well, you can't believe a history is complete If a certain group of people was criminalized and banned from being able to read write and tell their stories." I see part of my role as filling in gaps.

Yura Sapi: Time is not linear. You are not alone. You are never alone. We've been through the cycle before. We're working from the power of our past fighters from before and time isn't linear. Connections happen for a reason. There's a reason I am here where I am. So bask, indulge, refuge in the happenings of now, the happenings of past which will guide to the future, which is also really the past. The Building Our Own Tables podcast is produced in partnership with Advancing Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts. We create liberated spaces like this one that uplift, heal and encourage us to change the world. Check out advancingartsfoward.org to see our gatherings, courses, coaching, and artist residency program. You can also donate to support this podcast in other spaces.

What would you like to share with someone if they were starting to build their own table? What practices would you like to share with them?

Kelundra: Breathe. I know that sounds very, very basic and simple, but dropping breath down into the body is very, very important, so I would say breathe first. The reason why I say breathe is that when you're embarking on building your own table, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed. It is very easy to feel lonely. It is very easy to feel discouraged. What I tell people is you have to remember that your very existence is evidence that you are the descendant of survivors, so it's in you to be resilient, to have fortitude, to be creative and innovative. Even when it seems hard breathing helps to recenter into that place.

Yura Sapi: Do you have a specific breathing exercise or prompt that you can share?

Kelundra: I have an affirmation that I have been saying probably since I was about twenty-five, twenty-six. The repetition of that does something with my breath, so I will share that, which is, "I am humble. I am grateful. I am focused. I am on purpose. I am worthy. I am free of worry. It is already all right." I know, right? You just want to exhale.

Yura Sapi: Yes. Well, immediately my feet planted into the floor, my feet fully expanding onto the floor, feeling all parts. Yeah, that breath immediately exhaled. Do you say that affirmation multiple times?

Kelundra: I say it whenever I need it. Usually there's kind of a "rule of three" or four around these things, but I say it whenever I need it. Sometimes I can say it one time and it's like, "Okay, I'm back." Sometimes it's like, "Okay, I'm just going to say this until I believe it." And it works every single time.

Yura Sapi: Amazing. Yeah. Affirmations are really powerful. I've also worked with some that are around I, you, we. So saying it in the “I,” then saying it in “you,” and saying it in “we” and really meditating on that expansion. I am free. You are free. We are free. And then the visualization too of the we reaching everyone, everything on earth in the universe, connected all through time to feel all of that and then back and back into me and this body here.

Kelundra: I love that. When you say, "I am free, you are free. We are free," you're absolutely right. It automatically makes it like, "Okay, I'm not in this alone." Because loneliness is another... it's a scarcity illusion. Gratitude is a remedy to loneliness, but it's not the cure. Community, I think, is the cure. You're absolutely right. Yes. The other thing I do is I sit at least fifteen minutes just in silence doing nothing every day, and some people call that meditation. I think the word meditation puts a little more pressure on it than I can withstand.

What I have found is just to stop moving and stop doing allows me to be able to, when it is time to get up and go, I move with a lot more ease. So that's one practice. In terms of the discipline, so to speak, of actual creating, I don't wait for these muses to show up. I have learned to take the judgment of quality out of it and just sit down and write, whether it's a hundred words or a thousand words, get it out and trust that you'll be able to edit later, but you have to take the judgment out of the experiment, otherwise you'll never get it done, and that requires some spiritual work too of taking the judgment out of yourself.

Yura Sapi: Yeah, and I'm even thinking how the breath and the judgment are connected because if we're stuck in this judgment zone, maybe we're not breathing and when you breathe… yeah, there's this gratitude, this feeling of being full and receiving in a way that soothes that energy of despair and that judgment, that cycle. The air that we breathe is the most basic thing that we need that gives us access to function with all of our brain and blood and the systems within. When we don't give our body that, maybe things don't function as smoothly as in line with what we most desire.

Kelundra: Yeah, and it's also a matter of clearing the noise too. My friends laugh at me because I turn my phone off at a certain time of day and they're like, "Are you crazy?" And I'm like, "No." It's like the most sanity-making thing in the entire world because as a creative person, our minds tend to be very noisy anyway because they're full of ideas and because we see things and feel things like all the time all at once. And so I think it's very important to, when you wake up, not have the first voice you hear be any other than your own inner voice and that you have times throughout your day where you can just connect with that inner voice.

The noise is distraction, and it creates a sense of uneasiness a lot of the time, and I think that's really important when it comes to building our own tables because to build your own table, you have to be able to have space for vision, innovation, and imagination. And if you've got everybody's, everything happening within you, then it's hard to access the gift or the thing that is in you and for you. The feeling that I hate the most, so to speak, when you feel like you're head and your body are disconnected, and I'll just like go lay down and be like, "Okay, I've got to get my head and my body in the same place."

I want, whenever I work on something, to be able to say at the end of it, “No people were harmed in the making of this art.”

Yura Sapi: [sings]

Can you speak more about that experience when head and body gets disconnected? How does that end up happening? How do you know that it's happening and what kinds of things can you do?

Kelundra: Mm-hmm. The way I know it's happening, it's usually I'm overanalyzing something which means I'm afraid of something, right? That means I'm usually thinking about what I'm afraid of losing as opposed to what the gain is or what I could learn or what have you. And so the way that I have found helps me get out of that space is to think about what is it that I'm learning here? What is it I'm seeing here differently? What is it I stand to gain by taking this risk or what am I giving by doing this thing that's unknown to me? Did I betray myself in some way? Is that why I'm feeling uneasy? Really asking those inner questions.

You know, they say that scarcity is an illusion. If I get out of the scarcity, that usually helps me to get back connected and sleep. I am very protective of my sleep. I'm unapologetically unabashedly protective of my sleep. I sleep for as long as I want, whenever I want, as much as I can, especially on the weekends. And I have found that for me, when I am well rested it, I show up better in every way and I know how much sleep I need at this age to be able to function. I am not a six hours of sleep and I'm okay person. I need a strong eight to nine, preferably nine.

Yura Sapi: Sleep for me has been important. Thinking about the dreams, this other world I'm able to access, be a part of, thinking as an artist and our creations are inspiration, our intuition. There's really a lot of exciting things that can happen in that time of sleep. My mind is maybe resting, my mind in this world that we're in. And then my body's also resting, but it's also working like it's repairing itself, it's breathing. There's still things happening while I'm sleeping, and my mind is also working because there's dreams that are happening and there's stories being told these two sides, so honor that and be in tune with that. It's also this energy of the sun and the moon, the day and the night. These offerings from our solar system, our world can encourage us to follow these patterns because every day is like a mini life, every day in terms of being able to wake up and start new and then go to sleep and start again

Kelundra: Yeah, every new day. It's a new opportunity. It's a new chance to do something different, to take a step. One of the things that can be very tempting, especially right now, is to forget that life takes a lifetime. It feels like if you're not making leaps, then you're not doing anything, but that is not true. That's just ego talking, and so it's really, really important to have grace with ourselves every day. The hardest thing I will say for me is to have grace with yourself when you haven't had grace with yourself, so that you're not beating yourself up about beating yourself up. Oh, that's the real trick.

Yura Sapi: A cycle, a paradox. Yeah, there was something amazing you said about fear of the unknown, noticing when that comes up for you, fear of the unknown that we feel is happening, experiences happening for the theatre world, microcosm, macrocosms for the whole world, systems of harm, overcoming the fear of unknown as we look to change, transform these systems into something else. All these things that we're naming, that we're working through in ourselves, knowing that it's also something that we're looking to invite the rest of the world to do as a collective.

Kelundra: Right. Yes. I mean, you're absolutely right. Theatre as an industry right now is completely in a space of the unknowns. No theatre producer, whether you're talking about on Broadway or in the regions, anticipated that 50 percent of the audience was not going to return or that the audience had drastically transformed the way that they want to engage in the theatre over the course of the last two years. There's a real opportunity here to do everything differently and community engagement and audience engagement standpoint, that starts on the individual level as all things do. When we get into the collaborative group team dynamic that is theatre, the hierarchal structures have to change. I want whenever I work on something to be able to say at the end of it, "No people were harmed in the making of this art." So that has to be the collective intention every time.

The thing is, until something becomes familiar, and it becomes habit and it becomes second nature, you have to constantly bring consciousness to it. If you're trying to say you want to eat more fruits and vegetables every day, until you get that habit formed of eating those fruits and vegetables three to four times a day, you've got to think literally every time. So it's the same thing when you are trying to usher in a paradigm shift essentially. It's like you have to be bringing consciousness to it in the brain, in breath and body, every single day all the time, because if you don't, you'll just fall back to what you know.

Chorus: [sings “Time is Not Linear”]

Yura Sapi: Time is not linear. You are not alone. You are never alone. We've been through this cycle before. We're working from the power of our past fighters from before, and time is not linear. Connections happen for a reason. There's a reason I am here where I am, so bask, indulge, refuge in the happenings of now the happenings of past which will guide to the future, which is also really the past.

Kelundra: I was raised Christian, shocker growing up in the South, and my mother used to often repeat the Bible verse, “Our gifts come without repentance,” that your gifts will make room for you. Often as creative people and as we're building our own tables, the biggest hurdle is to trust the gift.

Yura Sapi: Believe in ourselves. Just like Tinkerbell, it's to be able to believe that what you want is possible because when we don't believe it's possible, that becomes the reality.

Kelundra: And it can be very challenging sometimes to believe it's possible when you don't have examples or when there are external barriers that make it harder.

Yura Sapi: When the examples haven't been documented, like you said.

Kelundra: That's the thing. It's not that it hasn't been done, it's that the example hasn't been documented.

Yura Sapi: For you because maybe people do get something and it's through oral traditions, but yeah, I mean there's a lot of things that have happened. We don't necessarily all have that access to get information in all kinds of ways.

Kelundra: Exactly. My hope is that the more the storytelling landscape expands…. If the internet can do any amount of good in this century, hopefully it's that it is a distributor and a disseminator of stories of those who triumphed, stories of those who overcame, stories of those who were afraid and did it anyway. That's the hope.

Yura Sapi: Yeah, I think the key for using the internet and not letting it use you, for me, has been in that cell phone break type of energy that you shared. Being intentional about what I'm doing when I'm plugging in to something that connects me across time and space. The internet is magic in a way when I'm intentional about saying, "Okay, I'm going to go in and I want to do this. I'm looking for this." I say my intention out loud or I've written it down. It'll be there for me when I open up the internet too. Yeah, I mean, sometimes it can be this type of understanding of I know what I'm looking for, and so when I see it, I'm able to respond. And I also do think there is this energy that I nflowing with earth and nature and everything when we have something already that we're working towards, it's coming closer as well in that spiritual way.

Kelundra: Absolutely. That is another shift that happens in the building of our own table. So many people I've heard since I learned that I could say no, learned that I didn't have to say yes to everything out of fear that if I didn't say yes, this opportunity or this thing wouldn't come. One of my favorite quotes is from the writer, Michelle Walgreen. She says, "The end of it is our lives can be stripped very close to the bone and we can begin again." There's a visual artist, Annie Gordon, he says, "You have to be able to..." they create something that's like a masterpiece and destroy it, so to speak. All of it is getting at this idea of not getting so attached to the chase or the pursuit of the thing, because really what's happening is that through creating, we become more of who we are and our lives are the example. Our lives are the light that we radiate and the artistic product is just the evidence, so to speak.

Yura Sapi: Wow. Yeah. Important advice to center self, especially one focused on creating a project or with this vision in mind, know that the current moment, the current place is what we have. The present is really where we're at.

Kelundra: And I'm not always good at it. At all.

Yura Sapi: Yeah, no. That's the importance of the journey as well.

Kelundra: When we talk about the industry around creating, there's also this sense of urgency. I have no more allowance for people putting a sense of urgency on something that's not urgent. I am the first to say now that we have lived through a global pandemic, we know what an actual emergency is. Anything that does not rise to that level no longer gets treated with a sense of emergency. And that's just what it is for me, and that also helps, especially when there are deadlines piling up sometimes because that can be very paralyzing. I'm a part of a program in Atlanta, it's called Black Women Speak. It's a national new play network program that's in partnership with Horizon Theatre, and they are developing nine new plays by Black women playwrights from the South. You know, that deadline is like staring me down. I absolutely, as a professional, want to meet my deadline, but at the same time, I can't make the deadline an emergency.

Yura Sapi: I mean, yeah, submitting something as an emergency is not… the energy is like, yeah. I think the word deadline, I've shifted in my language. Sometimes I say life date, birthdate, due date also works. This energy of death when it's something that has so much life and it's so exciting.

Kelundra: Absolutely. Because it is, you're bringing something to life and we call it a deadline. We wonder why that energy kind of follows the process, right?

Yura Sapi: Being on the side of giving something on a due date, a life date, and then also when we're in the position of giving that date to someone else. So when it's something that we're commissioning or working with someone, especially when we're building our own tables, we end up bringing people to this table. And so being on the other side, making those conscious decisions of what we're asking of others, not putting things on others as emergencies when they're not, that's also something I'm reflecting on, that give and receive and being on both sides.

Kelundra: As a producer or midwife, however you term it, or doula, I've gotten more conscious about saying, "I trust you and I would like for you to trust you to do this because I believe you can, and I want you to believe you can." I also, I'll say, "Okay, this is what I'm thinking, but is that realistic? Is that reasonable? Is it feasible?" And it's creating an atmosphere where people can ask for what they need, and a lot of that comes from being bold enough and brave enough to ask for what I need, and that is another habit. That's a muscle that has to be built. Ask for what you need, understand that people may tell you no, and then decide whether you still want to participate. And know that if you decide that you no longer want to participate, that the opportunity that you may have perceived it as being will come around again in a way that won't stress you.

Yura Sapi: Yeah, absolutely. Being open to what we do want and graciously passing along what is not serving us.

Kelundra: We're all figuring out a new way of being, and I think that it'll be a lot easier if we join hands and do it together as opposed to turning our backs, and I think that's what artists are for. Theatre artists are agents of empathy. Theatre, to me, is one of the most powerful tools we have in society for spreading empathy to the masses. I believe that the new work we're seeing in various spaces certainly is reflective of people who are aiming to do that. I hope that we get to see more of it and that there's a fearlessness that our culture around theatre is able to inhabit, that we embrace the experiment. That's what I'm doing is just embracing the experiment. I'm writing my own work. What does a trilogy about Reconstruction era Georgia look like? I don't know. Working it out.

Yura Sapi: Yeah. And there is that future version of you that does know.

Kelundra: Absolutely. Trust the gift.

Yura Sapi: Thank you so much, Kelundra.

Kelundra: Thank you.

Yura Sapi: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts on iTunes, Google Podcast, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.

This is is Yura Sapi. You can find out more about me at yurasapi.com or follow me on Instagram or LinkedIn @YuraSapi. Thanks for joining us.

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Thoughts from the curator

I hear talk about wanting for racially diverse populations to “get a seat at the table” or “bringing chairs to the table for POC,” meaning that we want our people to have a position at existing organizations and institutions with decision making power. For me, a few years ago, I decided to not focus on infiltrating existing organizations, but rather start my own. I know I’m not alone. With the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, this podcast checks in and learns from BIPOC founders of various organizations in and related to the theatre industry changing the game, making new things happen within, and expanding beyond white and euro-centric experiences. We will learn from these incredible visionaries who have created their own tables of arts institutions, movements, collectives, initiatives, and more. We learn about their processes, pathways to success, and challenges they've overcome. This is an outside-the-classroom leadership learning from folks who are doing the things.

Building Our Own Tables

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