Our second interview is with artists Jhanaë Bonnick and Rachel Chavkin In this interview, Jhanaë discusses with Rachel things such as how directing works in the Reconstruction room, research material they are both obsessed with, and mentorship.
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
Jhanaë: Well, acknowledging nerves.
Rachel: I’ve known you so long.
Jhanaë: I know. I think that’s part of why. There’s such deep affection.
Well, first, saying and sending deep love and hellos. And hoping you receive them with the feeling they are given.
Rachel: I receive them, and I really reciprocate them. I miss you so much. I miss seeing you.
Jhanaë: So much. Yes, yes. Sharing physical spaces.
Jhanaë: I didn’t realize how much I loved it until it was gone.
Rachel: Yeah, yeah.
Jhanaë: Yeah, yeah. Well, I guess we should start off officially with your name and role in our Reconstruction room.
Rachel: My name is Rachel Chavkin and my role… And I should say pronouns she/her, white-identifying artist in the Reconstruction room, which feels useful to say, and my role is as co-director of the piece and a collaborating writer as well.
Jhanaë: Can you talk a little more about that? Both in what co-directing looks like, because I think you and Zhailon do such a brilliant job at it. And also how you balance that with like being so many other things in the process as well.
Rachel: Yeah. That’s such a good question. So I’m going to quote, actually, Denée Benton or reference something that Denée said, who is a performer and co-author of the piece. And Denée was on a panel for the Broadway Advocacy League, which of course Zhailon Levingston, who is the other co-director of this piece, is a organizer for and with, and Denée was talking about the Reconstruction Room. And she was like, “Sometimes I don’t even know who’s directing.” Or “leading,” I think she said. “But I know who’s facilitating.” And I think that word has really stuck, this idea of facilitating, so deeply in a positive way for me. And I don’t want to speak for Zhailon, but he and I have talked about it a little bit and I know to a certain extent it’s resonated for him, because… So the TEAM writes everything through this absurd… I have called it aggressively inefficient.
And I say that with pride, because it feels anti-capitalist in its stance. It feels defensive of time. And time is a principle we’ve talked a lot about in this work. In particular, how white people and whiteness and white supremacy as a system have robbed people of color and Black people, especially, of time. And this idea of being on time. And part of the joy of the TEAM is like with Hadestown, it’s like, “Okay, for Broadway, we’ve figured it out.” And I have been a part of that discussion, but it’s like, “We have four weeks to get ready. The ensemble will start on week one. The principals, since they are returning to the show, will start on week two.” And then you have those many hours and that’s it. And then we’re in tech and then you have two weeks of tech, right? Like there is a rigidness, which has its positive things, right? Like I can’t necessarily give to every project and listen quite in every project in the way that I think the Reconstruction room calls us to, specifically.
Jhanaë: For sure.
Rachel: Do you agree?
Rachel: You work in the freelance world as much as…
Jhanaë: Yeah, absolutely. I think when I was talking to Jerome, I talked about how this room requires, and everyone does it willingly but requires that you bring your whole self to the space. And you just can’t… In some ways it’s so hard to do that in a regimented, “I clock out at 6:00,” room, which is part of the beauty of the… When you were talking about the inefficiency of the TEAM, I was like, “Yeah, but it’s magical inefficiency.” It’s exactly what you want.
Rachel: Yeah, that’s good. Magical inefficiency. I’ll start saying that rather than aggressive inefficiency. It’s much better.
Jhanaë:Yeah. Because also, as inefficient as it is, I mean, I’ve known you longer than the two years we’ve been working on it. And yet that two years feels huge. And I think it’s because of that inefficiency, we don’t… It wasn’t like a one and done week. It’s just ongoing engagement in the process.
Rachel: Yeah. And we get so much shit done.
Jhanaë: Oh my gosh.
Rachel: It’s not like we’re waiting to make decisions. If I think back at the amount of sort of writing that has been both literally at notepads or computers, and then on the feet that you, my friend, have heroically transcribed through these extended improv sessions that we do, that are often character-based, but sometimes they’re just like us beginning to riff in a conversation. It’s so dense. I mean, it’s like being in the middle of the most exciting novel before the novelist has quite figured out, right, what the opening scene is and how they’re going to introduce stuff.
Jhanaë: For sure.
Rachel: So it is not… I was going to use the word productive and somehow that does not feel right either, because that’s like a word based in commodity, but it is a full, full time.
Jhanaë: Yeah. We’ve generated a lot. Like, we could write five plays with the amount of material that was generated. It’s about a dedication to distilling it into the right thing. You know?
Rachel: Right, right.
Jhanaë: Yeah. For sure.
Rachel: That gets back into taste also, which I think is like coming back to sort of the strange role that I think Zhailon and I are discovering together sort of every day of rehearsal and prep for rehearsal. And it’s very live always. And I’ve co-directed on a few projects. Annie Tippe is often a partner of mine and I fucking love it because she and I just care about such different things. She’s like looking… She has one of the most brilliant design eyes I’ve ever known. And I’m like, “Dramaturgy in this sentence and blah blah blah blah blah.” And what’s kind of thrilling is Zhailon is like my favorite human to go see theater with because we actually share so much taste for wildness. And he used the word, “ratchet,” which is from the Ratchet Fashion Show.
So this like unhingedness, I think he and I are both really hungry for. And at the same time, one of the things that feel super important is to make sure that I don’t take for granted that we’re seeing the same things, and further to really try to… Personally, one of my goals is to be led by what I can see or perceive or hear as where the Black taste in the room is going. And that’s not assume that all the Black artists by any means align, certainly when the TEAM was first started by a group of white artists and then began working in racially diverse ensembles, there’s always a multiplicity of tastes.
And at the same time, I would say there are just certain… We did that exercise that Deneé brought into the room, the demon exercise. Right?
Rachel: And all the white artists were like, “I don’t like this, this is boring.” Right?
Rachel: And we were saying, “We feel like we’ve seen this character that you’re asking us to play, and that feels not artistically interesting.” And like, at the end of the day, that didn’t fucking matter. Like, what was being asked was, at least in that case Deneé’s taste, which was very much supported as interrogation in the room, by the other artists of color. And so that’s what I mean by like, “Actually my taste can’t be dominant here.” So in some ways I think of myself primarily as a facilitator, whereas with Hadestown, I’m like, “I didn’t like it when you did that. Don’t do that.” You know?
Jhanaë: Right. Right. Right. Yeah. Yeah. I guess because we create as an ensemble of a huge amount, which means that facilitating that is a huge thing that you have undertaken and done with such grace in the last two years. Hearing you talk about it like that from outside of it, it’s like, “Whoa, that is totally what we’re doing.”
Jhanaë: Yeah. It’s kind of crazy. And then we leave and go back to the Hadestowns of the world, and we’re like, “This also makes sense in its own way.”
Rachel: Yeah. And it is actually very relaxing and nourishing. Right?
Rachel: Like, I don’t know, I’m curious if this resonates for you. For me, I’m like, I feel my craft being called in a way that the TEAM room certainly needs me to be a good artist, but it’s not exactly the same thing. Whereas like Anne Bogart was a teacher of mine and there was an assignment that she would give where she was like, “And you have to make an entrance that makes us go, Wow, what an entrance!” And she would call it showbiz sleaze. And Hadestown, there’s a bunch of entrances and exits where I had Anne’s voice in my brain going, “Make an exit that makes the audience go, Wow, what an exit!” And it’s so satisfying. So anyway, which is just to say, I find the freelance world nourishing, certainly.
Jhanaë: For sure. For sure. Yeah. I think it calls on like two different… I like to say stage managing in the TEAM room needs a new name. It’s like, it is what it is, but it’s not what it is, because it requires… I always think that stage managers are artists, but in the TEAM room, I believe that the stage manager is an artist. And I think that’s the difference, is that in the TEAM room no one else is questioning if I’m an artist in the space, and in other rooms, it’s like, “Oh, is the stage manager an artist?” And both things, it takes less emotional… I don’t know the word I’m looking for, but it takes less emotionally to not be artistically involved. So in freelance work, it can be more… I feel like freelance work is more fun and working with the TEAM is more fulfilling if that makes sense.
Rachel: It totally makes sense to me. Yeah. So you have to… What are you going to be called?
Jhanaë: I don’t know.
Rachel: We’ll think about it.
Jhanaë: We’ll think on that. Yeah, no idea. I mean, if you get your way, I’ll be acting, too.
Jhanaë: We’ll just have to figure out what the title of that hat is. I guess one of the other questions that I’m interested in is so to make Reconstruction, we do a ton of research about various different things and have been for two years. So this is kind of a big question, but what are the things that maybe now are still kind of sticking with you, research-wise?
Rachel: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, first and foremost, I think that the thing I think about daily is Hortense Spillers, a Black feminist academic, who Jillian brought into the room and who, terribly, I hadn’t known about. And I think about the lecture that we watched her give, video, and the mic drop at the end of when she leans in, and I know you know this, so I guess I’m just saying it’s for the viewer. But the lecture was about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and the relationship or lack thereof and the rape and what that contract was between those two and how it’s been represented historically and described in lived experience. And at the very end, she leans into the mic and says, “So without freedom, intimacy and love don’t matter. Okay, thank you.”
Jhanaë: “Thank you.”
Rachel: “Thank you.” And leaves. And it’s so deep. So anyway, that and what has haunted me, which is can, should, and if so, how is intimacy achieved? And I think about it, particularly, between a white person and a Black person in an America that is profoundly anti-Black. And I think about it very painfully because I am a white-identifying person who has believed herself intimate with a Black friend since I was a child. And sort of thinking about… and want to spend my life working with Black colleagues, some of whom I hope to be close to. And so the idea of intimacy and everything that is held in that really is for me the emotional nerve center of this whole piece.
But then I also think about fucking William Byrd, quite a lot, who is…
Rachel: … who is a white demon, actually back to the Deneé’s assignment to bring a demon into the room. Is he the founder of Richmond?
Jhanaë: I believe he is. I think he is. I think that’s what James said, yeah.
Rachel: Yeah, Virginian who James brought into the room, and James and Jerome are both from Virginia Beach, Virginia. And James brought in William Byrd’s diaries. Were like pathologically so disturbing.
Rachel: And so I’m haunted by him as a character. And I would say like, he is the face of much of the whiteness that I think about, though by no means it’s totality, when I think about whiteness in Reconstruction.
Jhanaë: Yeah. It’s so funny, I also said intimacy. But also in terms of the intimacy that we as a collective have kind of engaged in. Speaking of Deneé, I’ll never forget, it’s something that I would not have been brave enough to do, but when she came in and just like showed us how she does her hair was like, actually one of the most intimate things I’ve ever witnessed. And as a Black woman, doing that in a room like that is so brave. But I mean, I think it speaks to the room that we’ve created that it was held and received, and it was amazing what happened, I think. Yeah, just funny that we both said intimacy.
So speaking of the things that have been fueling your brain on Reconstruction, what are the things in the world? I mean, we’re going through, I like to think of it as two pandemics in the world at the moment, but what have been the things that are fueling your spirit, that are getting you through the days?
Rachel: I feel terrible admitting this, but I finally read Underground Railroad, the Colson Whitehead book, which I’ve wanted to read forever. And of course, Amber is going to be in the mini-series of it, and I had just now read it. And so that’s a novel that I have just… It’s one of those things where I just don’t want to talk to people because I just want to keep reading it, I’m almost done with that. And I have been reading a lot of novels in a way that I just have not in a long time because time is usually so scarce.
And so I have to say, I have been enjoying in many ways the pause, which I would wish the health pandemic away in a heartbeat. And of course the other pandemic you’re referencing of white supremacy and racism, both I… Yeah, anyway, I’m going to tie myself in knots thinking about that. But I guess that is actually the other thing that I have been spending a lot of my time, as you said, sort of feeding or nourish and I can’t remember how you phrased it, but what has been consuming my brain is thinking about the movement underway for racial equity in our field, which has been going on a long time. I can think about attending the first Undoing Racism workshop with the People’s Institute that Zhailon and I did together, which I think was in like 2016, maybe, or 2017. And we went with a whole bunch of folks from the Public Theater and it was awesome.
And I know by that point, Stephanie Ybarra had already been organizing a huge contingent of people from the Public Theater and people across the field, and Stephanie is certainly by no means the only one, she’s just the person who I’ve spoken to the most extensively about that workshop specifically. So, it is a remarkable time. I guess this is the tying in knots, because there’s so much to hate, frankly, but also I certainly am grateful for and excited by the calls for change that the Black, Indigenous, people of color across our field, Latinx communities, artists have been leading. And that we have space to be doing that because the field is at a standstill. So yeah, novels and all of the discussions.
Jhanaë: Right. Yeah, I feel that as well. And speaking of, because I know that you are very active in the world of protest and beyond, what are the things that you’re doing outside of Reconstruction and outside of the theater right now?
Rachel: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been texting a lot of people about the New York census. It’s been great. Sadly, it seems like… Because I love… I mean, I know this is like a perverse thing to say, but I actually do really love canvassing. I’m that person who will just fucking knock on your door and talk to you about the candidates. And so I am trying to figure out what the hell to do in terms of working for the Biden campaign in the upcoming months because it seems like probably in-person canvassing is not going to happen. So I’m anticipating a lot of texting, been doing a lot of census stuff. And then continuing to go on Justice for George NYC and look and see where bodies are needed, and being very honored to be a body in space when that is the call. So that’s part of what I’ve been doing.
Jhanaë: Amazing. I have a separate question that wasn’t on the list. I’m sure Laura will edit this part out, but selfishly, I’ve wanted to ask you this for years-
Jhanaë: … which is just as someone who feels intensely mentored by you and wants to pass that onto people who I encounter. Just like, how do you do that when you also hold so many other things with, I’ll use the word again, because I think it applies to you so well, with such grace. How do you do that? And thank you for doing it for me.
Rachel: Oh gosh. Thank you for both asking that, and I mean like, God… Because I mean a huge part of that is just like, I guess this is the beginning of the answer, is not presuming that mentorship is desired. So I was actually going to say thank you for receiving whatever I have been able to give that is of use. When I teach, and I teach a lot of workshops and masterclasses now, I haven’t taught full-time since 2013, but I taught a long time. I taught for over 10 years starting right after undergrad. And whenever a student asks me for advice, I will say I don’t believe in giving advice because I think it is presumptuous. I think it presumes that the given circumstances in my life bear any resemblance to the given circumstances of your life. And then the way that I try to teach is very similar actually to how the TEAM functions in many ways, not that I have in any way a pedagogical or andragogical relationship to the artists in the TEAM room, but what is similar is I just set up assignments to cause a crisis.
And then I will sit with the students while they deal with that crisis. And I try desperately to not tell them how to solve it. I just try to be with them. And I have used the word doula before to sit with them while they’re doing their problem solving. And I think coming back to mentorship that that’s a big aspect of it is I have zero interest in anyone thinking the way I think, because a huge part of the mentorship is actually the learning is for me. I am an energized and filled by the people I work with. And so, it’s an interesting balance. And I want to turn the question back to you and ask, I know you have begun to do some mentoring significantly. And I wonder if there has been a moment over the past couple years that happened between you and a mentee and you were like, “That was damn fine mentorship.” And like, what were the hallmarks of that moment?
Jhanaë: Yeah, I think it’s so funny. I mean, funny in a way that that’s not the word I mean, but engaging to hear you describe it like that, because when I think of moments like that, I’m thinking to Lempicka at Williamstown, where it was Cody and I and three interns kind of doing that, which is wild in its own way. And I actually did exactly what you said a lot, which was they would come to me with, “Okay, how do I do this thing?” And a lot of the work of mentoring them was actually making it so that, with support, they solve those problems for themselves. And now, especially one of them but all of them kind of, are still working and still are grateful for the opportunity to have had to do it themselves as opposed to be told how to do it. Yeah, and I get the most satisfaction when that happens, when I don’t help, and they figure it out on their own. Yeah, for sure.
Rachel: I love that. I love it. Thank you.
Jhanaë: Yeah. Thank you. I’m out of questions.
Rachel: Those have been such beautiful questions.
We’ve started a small interview series with some of our extraordinary artists working on Reconstruction (Still Working but the Devil Might Be Inside). In this first video, writers and artists Jerome Ellis and Jhanaë Bonnick discuss past Reconstruction development, the crucial work Jhanaë has been doing during the pandemic, and quarantine baking.
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
Jerome: My friend.
Jerome: Hi Jhanaë
Jhanaë: I feel grounded seeing your beautiful face.
Jerome: I feel the same. Oh, I feel the same. I like your glasses, are they new? I really like them.
Jhanaë: They are. It’s my…I don’t really wear jewelry a lot, so I have like six pairs of glasses.
Jerome: Yeah. Oh, wow.
Jhanaë: Yeah, I mixed it up today.
Jerome: Yes. Oh my gosh. Well, I’ll just say, so it can start with just name and role. So, what is your name?
Jhanaë: My name is Jhanaë Bonnick. I use she, her, her pronouns, and I am a stage manager for Reconstruction, which looks very different than stage managing everywhere else, but it’s still technically my title.
Jerome: Well, I’m curious, how does it look differently?
Jhanaë: It’s the ideal, like when I dreamed about stage managing in the world, this process is what it looked like, because it is the logistical scheduling, and making sure that everyone has all the right things, and eventually calling cues. But it’s also having a voice in the process of creating the thing and being emotionally invested in the creation of a piece of art, which you don’t always get to do as a stage manager. So, this has been my favorite thing.
Jerome: Yeah. Oh my gosh. Yeah, I feel that. I remember you saying to me at the end of our first workshop together, in March of 2018, that the week workshop had been, I’m paraphrasing, but it had been the most spiritually fulfilling, or spiritually rewarding, week of your life.
Jhanaë: Absolutely, still holds true two years later. Which also feels wild that that was two years ago. I’m like, I’ve known everyone in this group forever, but no, it’s been two years. No, it still is, and every time we do one, it’s like, guys, I’m going to have the best week this week. It doesn’t matter what happens, this week is going to be amazing.
Jerome: Yeah, I feel that way too. I’m curious if you could talk more about the spiritual aspect of it for you. Because I already hear that there’s emotional aspects and that there’s artistic aspects. Of course that they’re all, for me, all mixed together, but I’m curious about that too.
Jhanaë: Yeah, I think it’s that, in the Reconstruction Room, we all show up as our whole selves every day, every minute. Your whole person is a part of every moment. It’s like going to church when you go to church, it’s your whole spirit has to be invested in what you’re doing. We do the same thing when we’re making this play. I think that’s what I mean by spiritual, is there’s no half-assing it. Can I curse?
Jerome: Yes, is my response.
Jhanaë: Yeah, you just can’t half-ass it. It’s like you’re in spiritually, physically, emotionally 100% and that’s how we get the beautiful moments. Even when in the moment, you may not think of them as such. I mean, speaking of that 2018 session, I was telling my boyfriend about it the other day, I think about it all the time, the session where you literally just were teaching us about jazz. Rachel’s like, hey, tell us about that. It’s still one of the most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed. Outside of it, it’s like, he literally just gave you a jazz lesson. But in that room, in that moment, everyone was so present, that it felt much more than that, and still does thinking back on it.
Jerome: Wow. Yeah, I remember that. Yeah, I agree with you. I also felt people’s presence transforming into something else. I had nothing that I had very little to do with, is how it felt for me. The image for me I’m having is this swirling energy that starts to happen in the room. I think it’s because, as you said, and I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but because everybody brings their whole self that it reaches this point very quickly where there’s an end gathering of so much energy, that I feel like is bound by trust.
Jhanaë: Yeah, and I think also when you make a regular show, it feels like it’s how you make regular theater and then how you make Reconstruction. When you make regular theater, yes, everyone is showing up and working towards a common goal, but the investment isn’t the same. Actually, I think a part of that is about the intimacy that we, as a core group of, which feels crazy to say a core group of 30, but as a core group of 30 people, there is this deep, intense intimacy I think, between each person individually and therefore the whole group, that leads to that. Everyone can just feed off of each other in a way that I haven’t witnessed or felt anywhere else.
Jerome: Me neither, and I love interviewing you right now as an individual, because I also feel that there’s this intense intimacy between individuals in the group and then among the whole group. I appreciate the opportunity to have this time with you because it’s helping me reflect on that aspect of these one on one things, because we also have the constituency groups as well. So, that’s another form of intimacy as a smaller group, you know?
Jhanaë: Yeah, I also personally was very excited that it was you because, as we’ve discovered in the last two years, if we really were to sit down with our family trees, we must be related.
Jerome: Yes! Well, I wanted to talk about this. I wanted to say, both you and I are Jamaican and both of our families have settled and lived a lot in Mount Vernon, right?
Jerome: Here in New York. Yeah, I find it very moving and very, there was something else recently, like, my grandfather died on the same day as-
Jhanaë: On the same day. I think it was the same day that my grandfather also died.
Jerome: Yeah, exactly. So there’s this cosmic connection that I-
Jhanaë: Yeah, and it’s deep and real. I think that’s also why when you said two years ago, I was like, there’s just no way.
Jerome: No, it’s not true. Well, I’m curious about how your Caribbeanness inflects your experience in the room. Because something that I remember from that week that has stuck with me, and I think about very often, is you shared something that I think your brother had shared with you, which is that your ancestors had cut sugar cane, not cotton. That as an essential distinction between the Caribbean experience of diaspora and the US. I’m so moved by just how two plants have two different plans. You know, we started off the conversation talking about these beautiful plants you have, and these two plants and the way that they have intertwined themselves with Black people in different ways. So I’m curious if you’re Caribbeanness and Jamaicaness, if that doesn’t inflect your experience in the room?
Jhanaë: I think so. I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned, actually, in the Reconstruction Room, because when I told that story, it’s like a joke my brother tells. We don’t get it because it was sugar cane, not cotton, it’s like a-
Jhanaë: But I think something that this room has made clear to me, is that actually, and essentially, it’s the same and that even if there are differences to America, the entity, there isn’t. Black is Black, and the differences that we feel are not felt by America, the entire entity. So, even if I were to feel like there is a difference, that difference is not recognized by the outside world. So, it doesn’t matter at the end of the day. Whether or not I identify as African American, I am in the eyes of the country.
So, the experiences of people who picked cotton instead of cut sugarcane have become my experiences, experientially, even if they were not historically. I always knew that, we’ve made this joke since we were kids, but I think in the last two years, because of talking about it the way that we do, it’s been like, oh yeah, I don’t get it because my parents immigrated here in the eighties. There are aspects of it that I genuinely don’t understand because they don’t understand, but have had to learn and adopt because, whether or not I understand, it is a part of what I am based on the color of my skin in this country. It has been a crazy thing to learn about myself.
Jerome: Yeah, once again, I have had a very similar journey. My parents came in the seventies, and similarly, I had to learn what is already inside of me in the way that you’re talking about it. Yeah, because I also feel like any kind of distinction exists because my parents are from the Caribbean, yeah, that’s awesome, that I recognize or is folded into a large experience. I also feel that way. To me it’s so interesting because, both in Grenada, where my father’s from, and in Jamaica, where my mother’s from, of course most of the people who live there are Black. So, I’ve never had an experience of living in a place where Black people are the majority, and yet still are oppressed in so many ways. I think about my parents, I think about your parents arriving in the seventies and eighties from that environment, to New York City is where they arrived first?
Jhanaë: Yeah, my grandparents came before them, and my parents, my grandparents, and my two older brothers all lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx for like two years.
Jerome: Wow. Yes, I think about them arriving, my mom was 12 when she got here, my dad was 18, and just how did it feel, on so many levels how did it feel spiritually, how did it feel economically? How did it feel visually, especially, my dad lived in St. George’s, in the Capitol, in the city, but my mom lived in the Hills. So then from the Hills to Crown Heights, it’s like, oh my God.
Jhanaë: Right, right. My parents and I actually talked about this a little bit a little while ago, because we were talking about White Castle and why my family, it’s so weird, but I swear it ties back. We were just talking about why my family loves White Castle so much. For whatever reason, that is our thing. It’s because, so my parents moved here in their twenties, and both had bachelor’s degrees already that they got in Jamaica. They moved here because, while my mom could get her PhD in English, in Jamaica, my dad could only get a bachelor’s in art, which is what he studied. So they had to come here for him to get his master’s degree.
They moved here to go to school, to get their masters. They ended up both going to Fordham in the Bronx. But when they first got here, because of immigration and everything, all they could get were fast food jobs. So actually they moved here with bachelor’s degrees, and my dad worked at White Castle when he first got here. But it took my parents a long time of talking to figure out that that’s why we love White Castle so much. But yeah, he worked at White Castle and then he got promoted and worked at KFC. It was like a whole thing. Then all of the paperwork came through and he was able to enroll in school and they bounced that way. But their first jobs here were fast food jobs. Anyway, I don’t know why I just remembered that.
Jerome: No, I love that. Well, it’s interesting because my parents came to New York, but I grew up in Virginia where we don’t have White Castle, but I would visit my mom’s family in New York, and my dad’s family, five, six times a year growing up. So, I ate there maybe once or twice, but I remember always seeing it from when we went there and that’s one of the ways I would know like, Oh, I’m in New York now. There’s a White Castle there. But I think it’s interesting that we are talking about our families and our family history because to me that’s so much a part of the reconstruction process, and Reconstruction Room is, I feel like so many of us have shared and learned in this process more about our families, where we come from, and ancestors, and the ancestral, are such a presence in the room. I’m curious what your relationship is like with the ancestors and whether this room has shaped that at all?
Jhanaë: Yeah, I think, to be totally candid, it’s not something I thought about at all pre 2018. I think mainly because my parents grew up in a very Apostolate Christian church, which is very rigidly Christian. That’s how I was also raised until I was in my teens. So, the ancestors is not, anything that I now might be like, oh, the ancestors, we attributed to that’s all just God, which is not a bad thing, but is what my view of the world was. I think it’s taken, in these last few years, now I have moments where it’s like, oh, actually the two things can live in the same space and spirit. Sometimes it could be the ancestors and sometimes it could be God, and sometimes it could be maybe something else that I don’t have a name for.
Two years ago, that sentence would have been like, I’m sorry, what? But I think I’ve learned, I mean, our room is so incredible. I’ve witnessed it. It’s hard to say a hard no, or never, when you literally sat in the room and witnessed something that can only be described as ancestral happening. We’ve gotten to do that multiple times in this room, you know? I am so thankful for that because I also think that that’s a part of this exploration of Black being an overarching term for actually a lot of different cultural identities, which means a lot of different ancestors, which has been incredible to explore, I think.
Jerome: I’m curious, what has been something feeling your spirit in these last few months?
Jhanaë: I thought about this question before, and there have been three things I think that quarantine has blessed me with, I think is actually the only way I can think of it. One is that I’m in a relationship that actually began and flustered because of COVID. I think that the way that our lives as New Yorkers who make theatre are pre COVID, I don’t know that this would have worked out, just in terms of time and space and energy. But having the time to put in the work has made a relationship possible and he’s wonderful, so I’m very thankful for that.
Jerome: I’m so happy to hear that.
Jhanaë: Yeah, he’s really great. It’s also given me that same time and energy to call Japan a lot. My brother and sister in law live in Japan and I have a niece that I would never get to talk to, but now it’s like once a month, I get up at eight o’clock in the morning, and it’s nine o’clock there, and we call and we talk, and she blows kisses. It’s like the best thing in the world.
Then the last thing is that I learned to bake in quarantine, which does feel very Brooklyn, millennial, but I did learn to bake. I’ve been doing a lot of baking and dropping things off for friends and just giving it, I don’t keep it for lots of reasons, but baking and giving it away has actually been my form of ministry this quarantine. I feel like I do it like two or three times a month. I just randomly bake and drop things off at people’s houses. That’s what’s getting me through, I’ll have a rough day, and I’m like, okay, well I’m going to bake something for someone else and it won’t matter that today was weird, and hard, and awkward, or whatever it was, someone’s getting vegan chocolate chip cookie.
Jerome: Yes, oh my gosh. I am fueled hearing about this. This is so wonderful.
Jhanaë: Well, let me know when you’re back in Brooklyn, I’ll drop off some cookies.
Jerome: I will, I am back in Brooklyn, but I’m gluten free.
Jhanaë: I’m up for a challenge.
Jerome: I mean, if it’s ever aligning with you to make something gluten free, then I would really welcome it.
Jhanaë: It is aligned, it’s here, and it’ll happen.
Jerome: Thank you, Jhanaë, oh my gosh, thank you!
Jhanaë:: Of course.
Jerome: Well, let me see if I have any other questions. Oh, I’m curious about two other things. Is any research that you have become obsessed with through this work or any lines of inquiry?
Jhanaë: Yeah, I think two, they aren’t connected at all. One has been, we talk a lot about intimacy in this room. So I’ve just been thinking a lot about that and what that word really means and how we foster that between any people, let alone between two people of color, two people who are of different races, a man and a woman, there are just so many combinations that lead to intimacy, and they all look different. So definitely that, and then on a very different vent that has nothing to do with anything, but that’s kind of fallen out of reconstruction work, I’m obsessed with punctuation. I’ve said this to you, you’re smiling. You’re like, yes, I know, but I do. I’m obsessive punctuation. Em dashes are my favorite, I just think that they’re so great.
We do so much performative action with punctuation, most of that unconsciously, because you’re not thinking about the punctuation as an act of anything really. It’s just like, that’s how you make a sentence, but punctuation as protest. What can punctuation function as is something I’ve been very, very interested in. I’m like, can I go to grad school for punctuation? How do I do that? Yeah, those have been my two obsessions lately.
Jerome: Oh, wow. It’s either going to be a half hour conversation or a four hour conversation.
Jhanaë: It’s true.
Jerome: Well, I wanted to ask also if there’s anything about outside work you wanted to share, or anything about yourself? Anything else that’s going on? I mean, you’ve talked about these three blessings that have come into your life.
Jhanaë: Yeah, I think in terms of outside work, the only other thing that is fun, and interesting, and new, and scary is, I’m working with a group of Black female-identifying theater artists to create something new. Something that is very hard to describe, but at its core, it will be about consolidating Black Power within the theater industry to create both bargaining power and community, because it feels like across disciplines that Black artists are just disparate. We don’t get places to be altogether. So creating a place where that can happen, and through that, we can have power to hold people genuinely accountable. Because I think that a lot of new groups are forming and they’re doing amazing work. One of the problems we’ve been talking about in this group is that a lot of times we’re asking for accountability and not saying who we’re accountable to. I think something we said on like the first call for this new thing that is unnamed, is us, you will be accountable to us. So that’s very new, and crazy, and exciting, and scary, and amazing. It’s slow going, but hopefully there’ll be some traction in the coming weeks.
Jerome: Thank you for sharing that. I feel very blessed hearing about that, and I send just all warmth to you and the group.
Jhanaë: Thank you.
Jerome: Yeah, of course. I think it’s necessary and essential what you’re creating.
Jhanaë: Yeah, hopefully.
Jerome: Well, Jhanaë, I feel good about stopping there. Is there anything else you want to say?
Jhanaë: I feel great.
Jerome: My answer is no.
photo by Catherine Krebs
We are delighted by the write-ups that our Petri Project, Quince received. It was a delight to work with Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez and Ellpetha Tsivicos on their work and exploring the ways we can safely enjoy live theater during the pandemic. Check out press articles below:
American Theater Magazine: https://www.americantheatre.org/2020/08/26/how-i-broke-my-theatre-fast-with-a-celebration-called-quince/
This month, we’ll be supporting our Petri Project, Quince with outdoor socially distanced public performances that integrate COVID-19 safety precautions into the world of the show. Quince, written and created by Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez and directed and created by Ellpetha Tsivicos, is an immersive theatrical experience where we invite audiences to enter a not-so-traditional quinceañera featuring the story of Cynthia, a 14-year-old Mexican American girl confronting her queer identity on the eve of her special day.
Performances will be at the People’s Garden in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Performances are:
- Friday, August 21st at 5:30 pm
- Friday, August 21st at 8:00pm
- Saturday, August 22nd at 5:30pm
- Saturday, August 22nd at 8:00pm
Runtime is 75 minutes
Tickets are free but must be reserved ahead of time due to limited capacity. You can reserve your ticket here.
Please read below on our COVID-19 Safety Precautions & Protocols:
The People’s Garden is a large outdoor community garden and we have hired crew members trained by an OSHA certified COVID-19 Production Infection Control Agent to help maintain strict social distancing between audience members and performers. Audience seating will be set 6-feet apart and groupings will be no larger than 2-4 individuals from the same household. Our crew members will also help us keep audience capacity limited with no more than 45 individuals for each performance.
Masks will be mandatory for all audience members and performers at ALL times. We will be providing custom “Quinceañera” themed masks for all attendees upon arrival, and individuals can switch their masks or take it home as a keepsake. Performers will be masked and distanced from audience members and we will use sound equipment to help with acoustics.
Audience traffic flow will be regulated within the garden by our safety crew members. Upon arrival, audience members will be split into two groups “Track A” and “Track B” that will help regulate traffic to audience seating and provide two unique experiences for the guests in and out of the garden. Additionally, crew members will thoroughly disinfect all surfaces, seating areas, equipment, tables, etc. between performances. Run time is 75 minutes and we will be clearing the garden an hour before each performance.
We’ve partnered with The Buren Bar and Grill (1223 Broadway, Brooklyn, NY), around the corner, to provide clean, sanitary bathrooms for all attendees. Stop by before or after the performance for the “Quince” cocktail.
On August 1, we’re reuniting the extraordinary artists from the TEAM’s beloved show RoosevElvis for a live-streamed reunion reading via Play Per View. Tickets to the reading and 100% of the proceeds after artists feeds will benefit the Emergency Release Fund. Get your tickets here.
June 2, 2020
15 Commitments (+ Counting) and the Context For Them
Note: THIS IS A LIVING DOCUMENT AND IT WILL CONTINUE TO GROW AND CHANGE.
The events of this past week, and this past spring, which pile upon the raw sedimentary layers upon layers of violence done to Black people in America since 1619, are devastating for this company of artists, in addition to the country.
WELCOME: I want to say at the outset that I would be honored to share this with artists and audiences of color broadly, and Black artists and audiences specifically (and to hear thoughts in return!)…and/but also I hope my Black colleagues are prioritizing taking care of themselves and their loved ones today, and being cared for in return. These thoughts and commitments have ended up primarily directed at white colleagues. The TEAM was founded in 2004 by 6 white artists, and I believe our history of perpetuating systems of white supremacy and our subsequent work to address that unacceptable reality, and to decolonize ourselves and this company, are likely all-too-familiar to many colleagues, ensembles and institutions. My hope is this is of practical use to them.
Enormous gratitude to those colleagues & collaborators, Black and POC, and white, who have helped me shape this.
CONTEXT (feel free to jump ahead to commitments): I am writing this as the Artistic Director of the TEAM, an ensemble founded in 2004 with the goal of making work about American history, mythology, and the present moment. We acknowledge that collective liberation is not a state, but an ongoing struggle to do better, be more just, interrogate our practices and assumptions, and be willing to make regular changes to how we do things in the face of what we find we’re doing well or poorly. We believe that racial diversity is inseparable from and core to excellence. We are now deconstructing our company’s membership structure, and figuring out how to re-constitute ourselves collectively. We are a collaborative writing ensemble, that creates via a consensus-driven process rooted in the belief that the total might be greater than the sum of its parts – so it REALLY matters who is in the room.
I am also writing this as a freelance director who works to create spaces that are not simply inclusive, but pro artists of color, and in particular pro-Black.
In the coming days, some of the artists who have worked with the TEAM may also write-down/film thoughts that we will post – we want to amplify those collaborators who may want to speak, but we also don’t want any of our collaborators of color, and Black-identifying collaborators in particular, to be called upon to do any labor that it is incumbent upon white artists to do.
The TEAM is now making a new work called Reconstruction, which involves over 25 artists writing/making/performing/designing, about half of whom are white-identifying (ie “people who have come to be known as white”) and half of whom are artists of color, most of whom are Black-identifying with either African American or Caribbean American heritage. For Reconstruction, we are focused on the question of intimacy, which for brevity’s sake I will here define broadly as a deep and shared understanding of ALL that makes up a given interaction between humans in America, including all those sedimentary layers of racism and violence I referenced above. We’re interested in intimacy, and IF and HOW it might be possible – between people of color, between Black people, between white people, and between a white person and a Black person – in an America that has been and remains lethally anti-Black.
To work on this piece:
- We have taken anti-racism workshops as a company, and have hired a facilitator (herself a person of color) who is providing guidance as a “process chaplain” through the intensely demanding process for our new work, Reconstruction.
- We have tried to ensure that whiteness is de-centered as much as possible in a room still led by a white director, and I would say we have often failed at this point. Though authorship is truly shared quite equally in a TEAM work, in the past my taste has been a kind of final decider, and that feels inappropriate for this piece…
- We have invented and participated in rituals of healing and mourning and exorcisms.
To continue work on this piece, and to continue forging a truly pro-Black arts space I propose we commit to:
- Commission a Black scholar to track our process from here forward, and ensure her independence in witnessing, analyzing, and critiquing both what is successful and unsuccessful about our attempt to create a pro-Black arts space within a white-led institution. We will make her writing available to the wider field, with the goal that it will be of use to other institutions and ensembles.
- Interrogate our pay structure and discuss what Reparations mean for the TEAM specifically. We have always paid everyone collaborating on a show the same as a company, which I think has tremendous merit. But also we have come up against the fact that the emotional labor of this work is particularly draining on the artists of color and Black-identifying artists in the room. How should we meet this? Should they get paid more? Should we allocate additional funds to be donated to a social justice organization(s) determined by the artists of color so that their added emotional labor is tied directly to funding that is meaningful to them? For discussion.
- Always present the finished work Reconstruction in tandem with a significant anti-racism workshop for the community (at least a weekend long)…We will also discuss whether it’s better this workshop precede or follow the production.
- Ensure meaningful racial diversity in our audiences, with a focus on Black audiences, and think as deeply about the design and dramaturgy of the audience, as we do about the piece itself. Beyond ensuring affordable tickets, and guaranteeing that no one will be turned away for lack of funds, examples we will look at include the “Black Outs” that were such a beautiful, vibrant part of Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, and the equity Taylor Mac and Niegel Smith and team built into the audience re-arrangements during 24-Hour Decade.
- We will also discuss how to ensure impact on our white audiences, because I want Reconstruction to be of use in bringing change, which includes instigating
- Develop a new company structure, including potentially abolishing or radically re-conceiving the idea of “membership.” We’ll develop a model that is collectively envisioned by our artistic community and representative of the racial make-up of the country that it’s our mission to interrogate, with an emphasis on equity and amplifying previously underrepresented voices.
Additionally, in my freelance theater life I have committed and/or do commit to:
- I will ensure that no one is the only one of “themselves” in the room – whether that’s a trans or Black artist, or an artist with a disability (and of course, thankfully, NONE of us are ONE THING!). I will also ensure this type of determination remains nuanced and is not left to my white-gaze alone, because that leads to assumptions and erasure all too often of multi-racial artists and light-skinned artists of color. I will also not lose sight of the intense reality of colorism in America (and globally). ALL of this must be thoughtfully factored into every decision made about staffing and casting.
- I will invite people to bring their WHOLE selves to any room I lead, allowing the artist to determine their boundaries in the room.
- I will ensure that every creative team I help assemble has genuine racial diversity.
- I will ensure that every cast I help assemble has genuine racial diversity.
- I will use my highly privileged platform as both a white woman and a successful director with a high degree of visibility to advocate for equity with clarity, without sentiment, and with real practicality.
- I will not use the word “diversity” in a sloppy or coded manner, but instead be explicit when I am talking about racial diversity (vs. age diversity, economic diversity, gender diversity, etc). Further I will be clear and cognizant of whether I mean artists of color broadly, or Black-identifying artists specifically, etc.
- I will not accept jobs that I feel are better held by an artist of color, which includes frank discussions with writers about their goals and values. This does not mean not working with writers of color or helping to tell stories about characters and communities of color, by any means. But I commit to being fit for and engaging in transparent conversations about what I can and cannot bring to a project.
- I will support my white colleagues with both love and clarity, as we begin or continue deepening their practice of decolonization.
- If I fail, I will acknowledge that failure and continue forward.
Thank you for reading. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with me with any thoughts, critiques, or questions. Rachelchavkin@gmail.com.
Zhailon Levingston is a Louisiana raised writer, director, performing artist, and activist. He co-founded #WORDSONWHITE, an arts and activism campaign based in New York from 2016-2018. He recently directed “Neptune” at Dixon Place and the Brooklyn Museum, “The Years That Went Wrong” by David Zheng at The Lark and MCC. Other credits include “The Exonerated” at Columbia Law School and “Chariot part 2” at SoHo Rep for The Movement Theatre Company. He is the associate director “Primer for a Failed Super Power” with the TEAM and “Runaways” at The Public with Sam Pinkleton. He was associate director for the Genesis plays at the 14th street Y! Most recently he directed “Mother of Pearl” at the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center and “Chicken and Biscuits” at Queens Theatre. Zhailon is the resident director at Tina the Tina Turner Musical on Broadway.
This past January, we expanded our Petri Projects Program inviting project proposals from our wider artistic community and by establishing a new project selection process that featured an artist-led panel rooted in participatory budget models. We have planned seven incredible Petri Projects for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 seasons. This inaugural “Petri Cohort” includes: Jessica Almasy, Frank Boyd, Jerome Ellis, Sanaz Ghajar, Modesto “Flako” Jimenez, Orion Johnstone, Libby King, Zhailon Levingston, Liliana Padilla, Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez, and Ellpetha Tsvicos. Read more about their projects here.
We at the TEAM would like to extend our care and love to all who are being impacted by the spread of COVID-19. We are in awe of the generosity and resilience that our theatrical community has displayed during this time. There have been many resources shared and wondrous creativity displayed across social platforms. Below, we have shared some resources that might be beneficial to all of you in our community.
- PAAL COVID Emergency Fund for Artists with Families: PAAL is creating an emergency fund to help artists with families who are suddenly unemployed. Consider donating to this organization and helping parent artists. Also, if you’re home with young children, PAAL is offering virtual dance classes and storytimes, led by theatre artists. Find out more here.
- Actors Fund Emergency Assistance: The Entertainment Assistance Program functions as an entryway and guide through The Fund’s many programs when you’re facing personal or work-related problems.
- No Neighbors in Need NYC: This is a quick guide for New Yorkers to contribute to the fight against the Coronavirus, and to help neighbors in need.
- Arts and Culture Leaders of Color Emergency Fund: The Arts Administrators of Color Network is offering funds for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) artists and administrators who have been impacted by COVID19 nationally.
- Foundation for Contemporary Arts Fund Emergency Grants: These grants provide urgent funding for visual and performing artists.
- The Indie Theater Fund COVID19 Emergency Grant: The Indie Theater Fund is offering $500 rapid relief grants to indie theater companies and artists in need due to closings around COVID19.
- COVID19 Freelance Artist Resources: This is a crowd-sourced shared Google Doc with resources on preparation, emergency funding, health, and mental health resources and more.
- Artist Relief Tree: This fund is set up to support artists, particularly freelance artists who have been impacted by the global health crisis. If you have the means, consider donating.
- HowlRound “Ways of Gathering During COVID19”: HowlRound has put together resources for how to move your programming and work online.
For more resources please visit ART/NY’s website. We thank them for their efforts to provide so many resources to our community.