We are thrilled to finally announce the secret project we’ve been working on! The Onassis Foundation and the TRAX podcast network for tweens from public media organization PRX Present ‘Live from Mount Olympus,’ a New Podcast Co-Produced with the TEAM and Co-Directed by Tony Winner Rachel Chavkin and Zhailon Levingston! Debuting free on-demand to audiences everywhere on Tuesday, February 2, with new episodes each Tuesday through March 9, this show combines the magic of audio and contemporary theatre with the power of Greek myth. Check out the audio trailer that’s available now.
The TEAM has another “Devising Within a Democracy” coming up led by TEAM artists Denée Benton and Jillian Walker. The workshop will take place on Thursday, February 11th at 7:00pm via Zoom. You don’t want to miss it! Register here.
In the sixth episode of our Reconstruction Artists Q&A series, JJJJJJerome Ellis chats with our Process Chaplain Milta Vega-Cardona about her life, her connection to the ancestors, and her unique role in the Reconstruction room.
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
JJJJJerome: Oh, Milta! Oh my gosh. You look so… oh, you look so just luminous.
Milta: Thank you. And it’s so good to see you. I miss you all so much. And you’re always on my heart. And I know that you’re doing great. I love all your emails. I’m so excited about the work that you’re doing. I’m so excited.
JJJJJerome: Thank you.
Milta: Yeah. So it’s good to be here with you.
JJJJJerome: I feel the same, Milta. You’re always on my heart. And yeah, I mean, I feel very honored that I get to ask you some questions about who you are in your wide-ranging life. I mean, I’ve had the privilege of learning about your life at different points over the last few years. And I’m honored to learn more.
Milta: Thank you.
JJJJJerome: So yeah. I just want to start with your name. I wonder if you could say your name. I always remember the first moment I heard your full name.
Milta: Okay. So my full name is Milta Zoraida Maria Katalina Vega Cardona. Milta Zoraida Maria Katalina Vega Cardona, which makes sense. Six divided by two is three, which is Ellegua number. He takes care of the crossroads. He is the child and the old man. Appears in times of need and resides in the background. And I feel like that’s been my life. Like that’s been my life. Yeah, and for every one of those names, as you’ve heard me say before, there is a connection to an ancestor, to a ritual, to a process that speaks to Jerome. Not just who I am, but who’s I am. And that’s kind of a cool feeling, right? Like I buy one seat on a plane, but I get five, six. Just people don’t know it.
JJJJJerome: I love that. That image. Oh my gosh. It’s funny. You remind me of… I once was in Brazil, in Salvador, where as you know, there’s a very strong African presence still, and especially in the spiritual and musical life there. And I lived there for nine months. And I remember on the flight back, it just happened to be that it wasn’t a very full flight. And so nearly everybody had the entire row to themselves. And I slept. I lay out the whole row and the flight attendants were very nice about it. It was an overnight flight. So you’re just reminding of the experience of having more seats on the plane. I mean, as you said that, you said every name connects you with an ancestor. I’m wondering if you could speak about even just one of your names, and the way in which it is who’s you are through that.
Milta: Yeah. So I guess the easiest one would be my first name. It is the feminine to Milton, Milta. And it is… the story behind it is that my mother’s oldest brother, Milton, was also her favorite brother. And when she became pregnant, I was not her first pregnancy, but her first brought-to-term pregnancy because she had lost two other pregnancies. And she vowed that she would name this child Milton in connection to her connection to her brother and the Island and our history. And lo and behold, here I am, I’m a girl.
And so, she tells the nurse, at that time, it was the nurse that would fill out this certificate of birth. And so the nurse comes in and asked her, “Well, what are you going to name the child?” And she says, Milta.” And the nurse says, “No, no, no, it’s a girl.” And my mother says, “Yes, Milta.” She writes it out for her, M-I-L-T-A. And the nurse goes, “No, no, no, it’s a girl.”
And then I guess something happened. They just had some kind of discussion and nurse walks away. And my birth certificate comes back with, Girl Vega. So my official name was Girl. And that talks to the incredible power of naming something. We get our spiritual names, right. And then we have to have these official names that conform to structure of the society that we are being brought into. And so for years I had no idea that that was my name. I think I was 13 or 14 that I asked my mom for my birth certificate. And when I looked at it I said, “But I don’t have a name. It says girl.” And my mother was like, “You have a name. You’ve got five names.”
Yeah, no. And I never really had it officially changed except for that… because everything is connected big. Brother’s watching. As I grew older and became more known to the systems, then my name was actually officially changed on my birth certificate. So it’s very interesting. I still have that black and white copy. That funny-looking copy that says, Girl Vega. And thought about the tremendous amount of connection that that created to the life that I was going to have, and the sanctions that I received from my ancestors. My uncle is ibaé, and so is my mother, which means, they’ve transitioned. They’re ibaé. And I got to meet my uncle who also became my favorite uncle, and was an amazing, amazing, incredible man who had-
Milta: Milton. Yeah.
JJJJJerome: Go on.
Milta: He had a lot of glow about him. And my mother just… you could see the love in her face for him. So yeah, that’s a good story for me. It fills me.
JJJJJerome: Oh, that’s-
Oh, thank you for sharing it with me. It’s so beautiful. My mother has four brothers and six sisters. I think I’ve showed. All right, as I think I’ve told you. And she’s the second youngest of the 11. And my uncle, Jeffrey, who is my godfather, he’s the youngest of all the 11. And I don’t think she has any favorites, but they have a very special relationship as the two youngest and him as my godfather. And so when you’re talking about Milton, I was thinking about him too and the godfather, as the family member responsible for the spiritual life of the child, he has… I’ve told him many times he has completely fulfilled that role.
He’s who introduced me to books. He gave me my first book, which I still have when I was six months old. And he introduced me to classical music. He played the saxophone, he went to Columbia and I followed in his footsteps. So that uncle connection is so… and the maternal uncle I feel is so powerful.
Milta: Yes. Yeah. I mean, we’re maternal. Our lineage is maternal. The United States development of codification of power for those that became white thinks that they created something. And actually, they were just following the essence of who we were by moving from paternal lineage to maternal lineage here, for inheritance. In the United States, that’s like a 16-40 law. They would just… they didn’t know. They thought they were doing something. But we came through that lineage. And the universe has developed through that lineage. You guys had 2000 years. You didn’t do so well. So we’re shifting again.
JJJJJerome: That’s right.
Milta: So we’re shifting again.
JJJJJerome: That’s right.
Milta: And you’re right, Jerome. The maternal lineage does create a level of spirituality that… and I believe that that’s where the responsibility lies for all of us. How do we continue to move through the process of lifting, not just who we are, but who’s we are? I don’t leave out my paternal lineage because my father’s mother, Leo the Herb woman, Leo, the Herb woman Librada, ibaé, and which my third sister’s named after was the medicine woman, was the healer, was the priest, was the counselor, was the marriage provider, she brought people together. So yeah. That’s also… I’m very clear that that’s also important.
JJJJJerome: I mean, you use the word spirituality and I’m curious to learn more about your spirituality and your spiritual life. When I talk to you, it pervades every conversation we have. I feel we are both… we both have very, very rich spiritual lives. I’m curious to learn more about that. And I think perhaps through the lens of where are you from? Where were you born? And I’m curious about early experiences of the spirit in your life.
Milta: Yeah. So I’m a Nuyorican. First-generation, born in the projects on 100th Street in Columbia, in Manhattan. I always say that the night two people got drunk that night and they just dropped these buildings in this community that was so rich. I mean, I was born and raised between Columbia University and The Museum of Natural History between Central Park and Riverside. And we used to call the co-ops on 100th Street. We would point to them and say those were the rich buildings because that’s where the white people lived.
And we were, of course, the Latinx people. We weren’t Latinx then, we were Puerto Ricans. Everybody was Puerto Rican. It didn’t matter whether you were Mexican, Ecuadorian, you were Puerto Rican. And our black brothers and sisters, Mrs. Martinbro, ibaé, who kept the community together. She didn’t play. She was like 80 when I met her. And I think that when she transitioned, she was still 80 because she never changed. And early on, I had the great blessings of living in a household that was clear about our spirituality and that was different from the religion that we followed. So we followed the religion of Roman Catholicness, and that came straight through our heritage.
My great grandmother knew that the priest had to be honored that meant paying him off so that he wouldn’t call her a witch. But they worked together because he would come and he would say, “Milta, this is going on. What do we do?” because measles, the Syria, marriage. So they were in deep connection spiritually. In my home, we practiced Espiritismo, which is a space that encompasses our ancestors. It is the spirits of our ancestors that we are honoring. And that space is very sacred in all of the other processes like Santería or Ifa or Lucumí.
The ancestors come first. Nothing happens before the ancestors. They have to say, yes, they have to say no. Okay. And then from there, comes the Gods the OCHA. The first God of the Ocha that opens every ceremony, and that really, you want to pay attention to is Ellegua, right? So although they seem like they’re different, and they each do have their domain, one does not function without the other. It’s very cyclical. It is very intertwined. And I grew up in the 60s and 70s. And we still had to keep our practice underground. It was not something that was sanctioned. It’s still not sanctioned. There are all kinds of rumors about what it is that we do. And the ideology behind it, right. The isms that were created about it were consistent straight through since our ancestors came. Not came were brought. Shackled and enslaved.
The spirituality that was held on to, it was held on through adopting whatever region religion was predominant. So I mean, you’ve been to New Orleans so you know what happens in New Orleans. And you know that when those drums are played, everybody comes. We’re called. We’re called to the drums. We’re called to the chanting, we’re called to the singing, we’re called to the vibrantness of it. So yeah, nothing happens without that. The sad part about the truth of racism overall, is that when those that have come to be known as white and those of us that are confused about who we are, when we get cut off at our neck, we’re getting cut off from our spiritual connections, from those things that have saved us, that have taught us.
The DNA knowledge. Not DNA like in your cellular, but in your cellular. Yeah. And when you find that, that’s why people get so excited. Oh my god it feels so good. They’re jumping up and down, and they don’t know what they’re doing, but that’s spirit. That’s spirit. And it happens in the Baptist Church, it happens in the Roman Catholic church, it happens in the Muslim mosque, it happens in the temple. It’s not the ism that’s important in regard to the dogma of religion. It is the connection that we can all make. And having had the opportunity to have experienced every one of those that I spoken to, I find me everywhere. I find me everywhere. Where I am seated is in Santería. And that is my home, that’s my eon, that’s my calling. But listen to your calling, whatever it is. Come on down, come on down. All roads lead home.
JJJJJerome: That’s right. Well, I mean, speaking of many things, speaking of home, speaking of ancestors, speaking of connections, speaking of racism, these are all things that we talk about ongoing in Reconstruction. And you have, I feel like I can speak for myself. You have guided me through those conversations so much. And I’m curious about… I’m curious what you… well, I eventually want to ask what you see your role as in Reconstruction. But first, I’ll ask simply how did you get involved with Reconstruction? How did you intersect with it?
Milta: Yeah, actually it was an email I received, I believe it was from Allie inviting me to come and do a one-day training on racism. And our first conversation, her and I, was, “Yeah, you’re white. And I need to know who’s going to be in the room because I don’t train with just white people. It’s not a healthy thing to do. And I can get into all that, about what does that mean? Because we also don’t throw anyone away. And she assured me that this whole endeavor was predominantly people of Color. But it was white-top. It was iceberg on the top.
And I was referred to Reconstruction overall, by another group that had asked me to come in and do some work. Because that’s how my work gets done. I don’t advertise. I don’t have billboards. It’s by word of mouth. And that has been, I think, the healthiest way of doing this work. And so I came in and you all were together, and you had just had a morning session and you were going to have like a couple of hours with me. And we went through what we went through and I learned about you. And I was enthralled because there were people there from 16 to 96. And I was like, “Yes, this is it.”
And Jerome, as you well know, I have a bias. And that bias is nationally known, my reputation. I tell on myself all the time, so people don’t have to write shit about me. And I say it that it is my total and committed belief that when the artists get it, when the culture makers get it, which is you all, that that’s when you’re singing it, when you’re dancing it, when you are speaking it, when your saxophone is playing it, when the ivory is doing it. I mean, when that is happening, then the veil is lifted and we are moving towards equity, which is liberation. And it’s got to be the culture makers because you create the vision towards the culture that we’re moving towards.
And I think that that’s why it’s so stifling as well. Because whether people know this consciously or they just know, artists have always been the most dangerous people in any society. They’ve been the ones that have always been attacked. Look at what happened here with the McCarthy era. It was the artists that were attacked prior to anybody else. Okay. And still we have red diaper babies because you can’t stop a movement. Not really. You can stifle it, you can hold it back. It can seem like it’s been… but the movement for equity is what anti-racist work is about.
So I entered the room. I met you all, I fell in love. I left, I got a call, some months later, would I joined the TEAM? And I was like, “Join the TEAM? What does that mean?” And the rest is history. I mean, after the residency, oh my God, it’s already more than a year ago in BAM. There was just such… that was just such an amazing space. And how I see myself, as part of the team, is as your curator around racism. I curate the incredible intelligentsia and help to put words out that may be words that we can then use as our diction for the conversations that you all are having. But what happens in that room. And I have walked away in tears and cracking up and feeling like I need to go away to spend some time holding onto it, has been so deeply moving for me and so enriching.
So you all, have just given me so much, so much, and have lifted me so much in regards to continuing to see. Continue to see how far we can go, how much we can push, and how extraordinary the idea of bringing so many different people into one space and watch you, watching how all the socialization begins to drop off and people begin to learn how to truly be gentle with each other. How to truly be present, how to tell on themselves, and how to allow themselves to get called in. You know. It is magic. Magic. Magic.
JJJJJerome: Yeah, it is magic. Yeah. I mean, I feel so grateful that we are all together. And that you are with us and we are with you. And yeah, I have learned… It has taught me about gratitude because when you feel a new form of gratitude, then my understanding of what gratitude even is, it has expanded around you, and around this whole room.
Live from Lodge #274: Holiday Raffle, written and starring TEAM artist Frank Boyd, is a new live-streamed performance centered around the personal items donated by members of a mid-Michigan Elks Club for their annual holiday raffle. You won’t want to miss this funny, earnest and quietly elegiac tribute to 2020.
The performance will be on December 22 at 8:00 pm ET via YouTube Live. Attendees will receive the link on the day of the performance.
In our fifth episode of our Reconstruction Artist Q&As, Denée Benton, Jhanaë Bonnick, Rachel Chavkin & Libby King sit down with Vinie Burrows to ask her questions about her history as an artist, her history with the TEAM, and how she has held on to hope through her life.
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
Vinie: I’m going to answer questions. I’m not going to ask questions. I’m going to answer questions. That’s easier, I think.
Denée: We’ll do the hard part.
Vinie: I was struck by the fact that TEAM doesn’t mention theater at all. It says, “The Emerging American movement.” TEAM.
Rachel: Actually Vinie, it is technically “Theater of the Emerging American Moment.”
Vinie: Oh, that is a difference.
Rachel: But I actually like… I want you to know our acronym was not intentional. We wanted to be called The TEAM and then an accountant said you need to make that an acronym and so the acronym was our first group writing project. We all had to come up with 10 possibilities and sadly we’ve been stuck with this shit ever since.
Vinie: It grows. The colors in it change. But the basic, I think, is there and I can’t talk about the basics because I wasn’t there at the beginning.
Rachel: I wish you were. It would be different. It’s a new beginning.
Vinie: Oh. And for us, too, in this country.
Rachel: I’m going to let Jhanaë or Denée start. I know I have one question that I’ll ask at some point, but I was interested in you two leading the interview.
Denée: Jhanaë, would you like to go first?
Jhanaë: I was just about to say, “Denée, it is all you,” to kick us off.
Denée: I’m nervous, Ms. Vinie.
Okay. My question for you: I read your interview with American Theater Magazine, which was so beautiful to get to see this picture of your career in a way that I hadn’t before, and I know as a younger artist, the Reconstruction room has been transformative for me. It was sort of a first experience of its kind and I’m curious for you the diversity of theatrical experiences that you’ve had, has the Reconstruction room felt different for you in any way? If so, how has it felt unique?
Vinie: Well that’s a large question and there’re really many, many answers in it. It was different. It is different. Thank heavens that I was able to get another glimpse of what theater can be without hierarchy, without… and hierarchy is a good word… without hierarchy, with diversity, meaning variety and also including depth. It is easy to change a color using crayon from black or red or green but that is flat. That color is flat. TEAM has depth and richness and also, and I don’t know, this word just occurred to me because I read it somewhere this morning, recently, and didn’t know that it applied also to what TEAM means to me, and that is lustre. L-U-S-T-R-E. I suppose I should have looked it up, the exact definition of lustre.
I’ve always thought of theater as a collaborative movement or instrument or circumstances coming together, combining together, to create, to construct, to reconstruct the human experience and the human is important.
I had been listening to various comments about how our former administration, I’m talking about government administration, talking about Trump, and then I think it may has to go even before him, treated the children at the border and I still believe that someone should be brought up on charges to the Court of Human Rights in the Hague because what was done, taking children away from their parents and very young children also, babies even, and you cannot think about babies by themselves. It’s always a baby with something, with someone, and to take away that feeling, that expression, that sense and sense in all senses. Sensory. The smell of a mother’s body, the feel of a mother’s body. A baby is never alone. They have a someone. And to have that someone taken away, to have that smell, that familiarity, that sensory perception taken away abruptly. Where did it go? And where it went, what does that mean about me? Who am I?
Oh, we really have got to bring up the former government that did that to those children. We’ve got to bring them up on charges. I think that all the organizations that particularly deal with children, pediatric medicine and, of course, sociology and anthropology, because that disruptive, cruel, depriving, taking away that familiar smell, that familiar body, that familiar sensory sensation that a baby has from the beginning, even in the womb, the heartbeat, that was the most cruel government travesty and they should be brought up before the Court of Human Rights in the Hague.
But let’s return… Why am I talking? I’m supposed to be answering questions.
Denée: Yes, but it’s okay. It all feels connected.
Vinie: Well, yes. We can make the connections. Sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint the connections and I think that’s also something that’s taken away from the very young and the young human mammal.
Denée: Yes. I wonder, the Reconstruction room felt so human in that way and that’s why it all feels connected to me with you talking about the travesties at the border and it seems like your work and your career has been so much about tying the human to the art to the world view. You know?
Vinie: I don’t know whether I did it deliberately or whether who I am and where I came from, not only by great, great, great, great, great foreparents but also the immediate family that I had, which was my mother and my brother and remembering where I was living. 143 Saint Nicholas Avenue is where I grew up. All of that is part of me and the immediate environment and then of course this I always talk about, because I feel it so strongly, that who I am as a human being who now calls herself an artist, and it took a long time for me to do that, I just said I was a cultural worker, but now in my 96th year, I can say that I am and I have grown into, and working with TEAM helped that growth, which came at a moment near the end of my mortal life, but enriched so much of what I am now when I call myself a cultural worker and an artist. Make sense?
Denée: Yes. Thank you. That’s beautiful.
Jhanaë: Yes. I’m thinking about connection. I’m thinking back to the first time I worked with you, Ms. Vinie, which is before we worked together with the TEAM, which we worked together at, or after, but amidst Reconstruction’s journey when we did Light Shining at New York Theater Workshop. Yeah.
There’s something you just said about connections that I want to go back about for a second which is just how we make connections and keep them. I feel like in working with you these last few years, I’ve seen the way that you foster these connections with people that run deep and long and so intensely and a perfect example of this is when I saw you a couple of weeks ago you mentioned, I was working with Greg, and you said, “Say hi to Greg for me,” and that night I saw him at rehearsal and I said, and I mean the way that his face lit up when I said, “Ms. Vinie said hi,” was incredible. Can you talk a little bit about how you make those connections so quickly but so deeply?
Vinie: I can’t tell you how. It is probably a part of a process, development, and growth, and do I feel now as I’m almost 100 years old, because in four years, I will be 100, and Whit doesn’t know it but he and I are going to cross Brooklyn Bridge together when I’m 100. He may be walking but somebody will be pushing me in a carriage.
Life is short and art is long. That’s the short version and it’s… I’ve just come to the short version and wonder what the other transition is going to be. But that’s another story. That’s another dream. That’s another movement. That’s another work to be started.
We’re here now and it is something to think that, and I say it with nothing maudlin about it, Sojourner’s oldest daughter, or her older daughter, Ava, will be 18 years old on the 11th. November the 11th, yeah. It’s quite wonderful. And I think of her when I think that there are so many things in her life that I will not be able to share with her. Because when she was born, I was still living in this apartment and Sojourner was always here with her. Sometimes they stayed here so that going up and down, we have a long passageway, I can sometimes see her sort of bobbing along, when she was three and four and five and it’s so wonderful to share some of her early physical growth and mental growth and spiritual growth, to be part of it and to be a little sad that I won’t see other developments but cherish what I did share with her.
I don’t know what else to say. I think… Nesmith, the young man who wrote that story, fascinating young man. I had never thought of myself as being particularly tenacious but he talked about that and I guess it is part of me and it is part of what my foreparents left me because their struggle, their travel, across the Atlantic is where I get my power as an artist. It comes from that long journey across the Atlantic where so many of my foreparents died and some survived. There’s a wonderful story, sort of mythic like, about the enslaved Africans when they got on the shores of the New World or the so-called New World some turned around and walked right back into the water, knowing that they would never again see Africa, never again see their homeland and choosing to make a final and not desperate, a final move. You cannot do this to me. And walk right back into the water with their chains.
Well, part of my power, and maybe that’s the tenacity, comes from those who didn’t make the journey, who didn’t know what those ships meant, didn’t know why they were put together like sardines in a can with their excrement, their blood, their vomit and to be sluiced with water in the mornings, the women to be raped. There is a powerful poem, “Middle Passage” by Robert Hayden, who talks about that in a way that becomes seared in your memory and I say, is still seared in my memory and is often in the memory of others.
I must tell you an anecdote really from my mother, who had belonged to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and actually it was because she belonged to the union, the union had classes for the children of union members that I got involved in radio. But anyway, my mother, when she had retired and the union had cruises to the Caribbean. She went to several Caribbean countries and she went to Trinidad and she said, “The people were so happy!” And she went to Jamaica and she said, “The people were so angry!” All of the righteous leaders came from Jamaica. And then she said, “I came to Barbados and everybody was just right.”
And so she came home and told her family that she was moving everything, lock, stock, and barrel, her chandeliers… what she used to have as a mask, her grand piano, her everything, and she was moving to Barbados because the people were just right.
Jhanaë: My mother would agree with that. My parents are from Jamaica but my mom spent a lot of her… they lived in Barbados for a long time. That’s my mom’s favorite.
Vinie: She would love it. My mother did love Barbados and she went there, she sold her house in Brooklyn and bought a house in Barbados and went to college in Barbados, graduated from college in Barbados, joined the American Women’s Club and took yoga and stood on her head every Monday.
Denée: Was this all before you were born?
Vinie: Oh no. No, no, no. No, no. She went after she had retired and she went as a union member. They had these cruises that went to different places and she went to the Caribbean. She went to the holy land.
Rachel: That sounds like tenacity.
Vinie: I guess it is. I guess it is.
Denée: It is.
Vinie: I guess it is. Oh, Phyllis. Phyllis was something.
Denée: What years were those that she lived in Barbados? Do you remember?
Vinie: Let’s see.
Sojourner: ’70s and ’80s.
Vinie: How old were you?
Sojourner: The 1970s and ’80s.
Vinie: 1970s and ’80s.
Sojourner: That’s when she went.
Denée: I have another question for you. What is the difference to you between being a cultural worker and an artist? You made that distinction.
Vinie: I may have made a distinction but whatever you do, whether it makes a living for you or not, you are a worker. You could be a plumber, an architect, a carpenter, a vice president. I think that there should be dignity in thinking of yourself as a worker, someone who produces something. Yes.
And maybe that may be simplistic but I think there is, I don’t want to use the word nobility, but I’m going to use it, there is nobility in understanding and appreciating the fact that what you do, whether it earns you a so-called living or not, what you do is work… And it’s like the wheels on the bus go round, round, round, well it’s the work that makes it all go round, round, round. Somebody’s work makes the wheels go round. And it’s wonderful to do work, I think particularly work in theater, but… and theater is such a collaborative form, an art form. There’s something to be proud of that you are a part of a community of workers.
I remember having an English professor when I first went to NYU many years ago and he wasn’t so young but he was talking about trying to unionize college professors who didn’t like to think of themselves as workers. Of course, we run into the same problem now with many professionals who don’t think of themselves as workers and many that do. I just love the interns. The medical interns. Those are workers working in the medical field, but they’re workers who want to be paid, want to be recognized for their work.
I would like to hear something from you about how you think of yourself or yourselves, those of you who are listening, as collaborators in what TEAM does or strives to do?
Denée: I feel something that transformed for me in TEAM with the lack of hierarchy that you speak about is that on an equal playing field, we all as our individual artist selves, contributed to the cultural work whereas I feel like in more commercial forms of theater, the director’s here, the designers are over there, the actor’s over here and you don’t get to meld the magic together in the same way. Whereas, I remember Jhanaë was one of my partners in one of the most profound exercises we did when you and Flako were calling the ancestors into the room and Jhanaë’s artistry as a stage manager was just as vital as my artistry as a performer in that moment because it was our souls coming together and I felt limitless in a way and everyone in the room felt limitless.
Our areas of expertise were all kind of titles but you could shed it away at any moment if you felt, if I felt like I needed to design a dress or Jhanaë felt like she needed to sing a song. It was all there and that, to me, made me feel profoundly human and unlimited and I think that crossover between artist and worker and collaborator, it felt vital and my whole body was behind it.
Vinie: That’s what I got also. It was a special kind of magic. TEAM is, it’s a special kind of magic which we hope to replicate.
Jhanaë: Thirded. I think it’s so interesting hearing you talk about the difference between a cultural worker and an artist because I’ve literally never called myself an artist ever and it wasn’t until working with the TEAM that I understood that stage managers were artists in the same way that everyone else in the room is an artist because like Denée was saying, in normal, traditional theater structures, that’s not the case, and I felt an inkling of it when I worked on Primer with the TEAM a few years ago that, “Oh, there’s a different way of doing things. They’re not doing this the normal way,” and in the Reconstruction room, it feels like we took what Primer was doing and burst it wide open and there’s like, it’s even more of that. And so yeah, I completely third it that there’s something that happens in a TEAM room because of the change in the hierarchy and the disruption of it and also because of how we function in that room in terms of how we present ourselves as people first and thinkers first and creators first and titles come somewhere way down the line while we’re working. I think it’s a huge part of that.
Rachel: I have the same feeling, Jhanaë, that when I think about Primer for a Failed Superpower but also just Primer, that title. I’m like this is what we were priming for in so many ways and I feel so moved, Denée, by the word that you used: limitless. I really feel it’s so elating to be in a room where it just feels like everyone’s constantly getting bigger… it’s really exquisite.
And Ms. Vinie I feel like you, maybe because you carry so much, like you carry so much history and literature that you have at your fingertips and also so much personal history and literature and life, that it makes the room so large.
And as for what you were asking about like how do I think of myself as a collaborator in that room, it’s like a call to keep up slash to play whatever part you getting bigger helps others get bigger and sometimes that can mean, I know as a White person in the room, White-identifying person, being smaller, how that plays into it or what the shape of your energy is but it’s just so… It’s yeah. You used the word magic, Vinie, and it does feel like an alchemy that is constantly tended to by everyone.
I was going to ask you, Vinie, thinking about all that history, what do you think you know now as artist or cultural worker, that you didn’t know when you were Andre’s age? So mid-70s? Which is a whole blessed generation?
Vinie: That demands more thought to see if I can isolate sections of growth or does one just move into it? As the child, and you have joy of watching Whit, such a joy to watch the development of the young child, how they move into the next stage so effortlessly. Why is it so difficult for adults? Why don’t we learn from them, you know? Why don’t we learn from them?
Well, what we must learn from them: it’s that song from South Pacific. “You’ve got to be carefully taught to hate.” It’s not there. That baby doesn’t have it. That baby who has to have someone. It’s not just baby. The human mammal has to have someone. That’s why I said we have to take those sons of bitches to the Court in Hague for what they did to those children, taking them away from their parents. What a sin. What a Goddamn sin that is. Someone should pay for it.
Denée: Ms. Vinie, I’m struck by the audacity of America to keep adding on to sins. To already have such a history of stealing babies from their mothers. We came from lineage of those people. To have the audacity to do it again strikes me. And for you to have lived through so much of the 20th century and now in the 21st century, where do you get your hope? Where do you get your energy to see these things happening again and again and see the insidious violence? Do you see real change and if not, where do you get your fire to say we can get this right?
Vinie: Fire? I don’t know. Hope. I think to look at a child is to be filled with hope. I’m thinking of those two little boys, two infant boys who were found with their umbilical cord still tied to them. I don’t know if you read about it. Two little infant boys. And you wonder the desperation of the person that took their lives away. Where were the others around, that probably young woman who carried the two boys to term and then was able to wrap one in a plastic bag and another in a blanket? There are, in this world that we live in, many obscenities and I don’t know what led that person, we don’t know who it was, we assume that it was a young mother, who killed those two infant boys but her sin, if you want to call it a sin, pales into insignificance when we think of the 600 odd children taken from their mothers at the American border or the millions of children born in this country in the various ghettos and barrios and reservations who are doomed from the beginning of their young lives because they are persons of color.
We have a lot to do and we are privileged to know what our role is and to in some way, work on these things. That’s the tenacity, I guess. To see what is wrong and John Lewis would say, “Make good trouble.” Make good trouble.
Vinie: I really, I was never part of that company, even though Lonnie lived upstairs and I knew Doug and I see Doug occasionally now. That was when I was beginning the solo shows. My husband was in Berkeley and I was here, holding the fort down, and had to make certain that the rent got paid. So I said the only thing I know how to do is act and I was on The Today Show I think. Yes, it was The Today Show and so many college professors called that show and they wanted to know who that person was who talked about African American history and I discovered, and I had good Times review, and I realized that I was… mother was a middle management person and people called and college professors called and I was able to answer their questions and send out and that’s how that began. Going through my apartment, I was looking at some of my early solicitation letters. They were really very, very funny.
Denée: Solicitation letters of people asking you for things? Or you putting your work out there?
Vinie: My putting my work out. Yes. Some of them are very funny. “It just so happens that I will be in your area with my one-woman show, “Walk Together Children,” please see the Clive Barnes review enclosed and can offer you a special rate.” As soon as I got one person, then I called — Oh, well I should, maybe I shouldn’t. Well, oh, yes, this is between us. Maybe somebody else will find out about it — But someone called me and wanted to know how they could help me and I think was it. But anyway, he said he had, it was a man, he had a telephone number that I could use to call any place in the country, any time, but be sure it was a public phone and not my own phone so they couldn’t trace the number back to me. So I would just… he gave me the telephone and I went out and started making phone calls and then when they’d get responses, I would write letters and that’s how it started. It really was a question of, now that I think of it, as tenacity and that person, whom I never met, but I used that telephone number.
Now, haven’t I said enough?
Jhanaë: Ms. Vinie, I don’t think you could ever say enough.
Denée: You’ve never said enough.
Vinie: I should listen to you. Well, what I didn’t talk about in terms of TEAM is joy. Because there’s joy…
Oh, where is the phone?
Sojourner: I got it.
Vinie: All right. I think the joy is from our community. Community of workers, community of people with a similar dream and hope and yes, hope and wishing to make and to be part of the necessary change in our world community. Because we are citizens of the world. Our poor beleaguered Earth and what we’re doing to it. As we demolish the Earth, we demolish that which sustains us. The Native Americans say: “white man rapes his mother.” Rapes Mother Earth. And that’s what we do.
But, we do not give up. We join together, struggle together, and we will make a change for our children and our grandchildren. Even until the seventh generation and I’m so happy to be part of this movement because that’s what it is, it’s a movement. A community of workers and lovers.
Denée: Ms. Vinie, were any of your family members artists or cultural workers? Would you call them… I know your mother was a dressmaker?
Vinie: She was a dressmaker, yes. And she was an artist.
Denée: Was anyone a performer?
Vinie: She was an artist. I remember taking her down to Gold Street and seeing an elaborate stonework that… oh, I can’t remember the name of the woman artist, but my mother looked up and she said, “I could do that.” You know?
Vinie: “I could do that.”
Denée: Wow. Any performers, musicians or actors or writers?
Vinie: Many. Some of them known and some of them unknown. Sometimes, you go to a performance, not particularly on Broadway stage or even on an off-Broadway, but you see something, a sort of magic that infused that company that night. That was part of what makes the world go on. So, we continue. We continue to work together, to love one another, and to continue. Continue as a team, as a collaborative effort.
And that’s the end. Unless there’s another question.
Libby: Hi, Vinie.
Vinie: Oh, hi.
Libby: You know the time. I just got out of class. I wanted to be here so bad. My class is here. Can I show them to you? We’re having a social distanced viewing of our devised piece we just made. They’re all here.
Denée: Hi class.
Vinie: I saw some of it.
Libby: Sorry to interrupt.
Rachel: I think we were just… Vinie was bringing us to a beautiful close. I don’t know if… I mean, I agree that we could go all day. I don’t know if Jhanaë you had like a final thing, or you feel…
Jhanaë: No, I think any question I ask now is like 45 minutes later, because we would just go.
Denée: Did you have a question prepared, Libby?
Libby: I did have one.
Vinie, I was just going to ask you about how you’ve, because you’re a mom, and I wondered how that changed or impacted your life as an artist?
Vinie: Enriched it. Yes. I made so many mistakes, so many mistakes, as a working mother. Our society doesn’t make it easy, as you know, to work and to be a mother but at the end, looking at my two adult children, because I have a daughter and I have a son, and looking at their children, I don’t… or I’d say I feel less guilty about what I didn’t do and know that I did the best that I knew at the time and I love them but love isn’t always enough. I didn’t know how to set boundaries and it made life difficult for both of them but they have come through.
Libby: How many grandchildren do you have?
Vinie: Oh my heavens. Sojourner’s two and Gregory’s two. That’s four.
Petri Project artist Sanaz Ghajar is passionate about the Children’s Heart Foundation, which funds congenital heart defect research in children.
Reconstruction artist Kate Freer supports Manna-hatta Fund, which supports Indigenous peoples forcefully displaced in New York City and the US.
TEAM Associate Producer Maya Davis supports Ancient Song Doula Services, which offers Doula Services to People of Color and Low Income Families and trains doulas to address health inequities within communities.
Reconstruction artist Kristen Sieh supports both the National Resource Defense Council, an organization committed to safeguarding the earth, and SBP that provides disaster recovery relief in New Orleans.
Petri Project artist Ellpetha Tsivicos is passionate about the Cyprus Children’s Fund, which provides relief for displaced children in Cyrpus, and the Street Vendor Project, which supports the rights of NYC Street Vendors.
Reconstruction co-director Rachel Chavkin loves NYSYLC, which raises funds to support undocumented youth in NYC.
Reconstruction artist JJJJerome Ellis supports the Okra Project, which provides home-cooked food and culturally specific meals to Black Trans People.
TEAM Interim Producing Director Laura Elliott is passionate about Girls on the Run NYC, which builds self-confidence, inner-strength, and body positivity to middle-school girls through running.
The TEAM is offering two “Devising Within a Democracy” workshops this fall. On November 14, the TEAM artists who brought you RoosevElvis, Libby and Kristen will lead a workshop focused on character creation. Then on December 3, Reconstruction co-directors Rachel and Zhailon will lead a devising workshop focused on directing and facilitating the devising process. Learn more here.
Our fourth episode of our Reconstruction Artist Q&A features our brilliant co-directors Rachel Chavkin and Zhailon Levingston. In this episode, Rachel and Zhailon discuss “wildness” and how it applies to the Reconstruction room, as well as adapting to freelance life in the middle of the pandemic.
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
Rachel: Zhailon. I’m happy to be here with you.
Zhailon: I’m happy to be with you, Rachel.
Rachel: Just for the people watching at home, will you give a brief who you are and what your role is on Reconstruction?
Zhailon: My name is Zhailon Levingston. I am a freelance artist, director, storyteller, writer, performer, sometimes. And on Reconstruction, I am serving in a co-directing, writer capacity.
Rachel: What does co-directing mean to you?
Zhailon: Well, let me take out my manifesto. What does co-directing mean to me? Well, I think I would have to start with talking about what collaboration means to me first and then get to co-direction. I want to only be making things that feel bigger than I am as an individual. And so I have known this about myself for a very long time, and I have known for a long time that the only way to do that is to be in collaboration with other people. And actors collaborate on stage, musicians collaborate in a pit, a creative team kind of collaborates together their ideas around a director’s vision. And it always felt as if to me, there is a collaboration between directors that hardly ever gets to happen. And I think that’s true in life in that directors aren’t in rooms with each other enough, don’t get to steal from each other enough.
We don’t get to use each other’s vocabulary enough. We don’t get to bounce off of each other’s energy enough and obviously very true in the work as well in that there are some projects that very clearly say they want to just be directed by Zhailon Levingston for very particular reasons. But then there’re some projects where I don’t feel pressures about a kind of hierarchal understanding of where vision is coming from at all times. And I think Reconstruction is an example of a project where that feels true to me and I think the projects that feel like that are projects where I feel more like a doula or more like a facilitator or more like a pastor in a church than I do a director with some kind of finalized vision to give to the room. I think in Reconstruction, the center of the room is so much about big questions.
And I think that that room is particularly looking for directors to be just asking impossible questions of the room. And I think within that context, it’s much more fun to be doing that in collaboration with another director, trying to get to the most impossible questions possible. And I think that working with you in that capacity makes that really achievable and exciting, and I think keeps the space stable enough, but also embracing a certain kind of destabilization that actually pours into the work of Reconstruction. Reconstruction doesn’t really want to be built on a completely fixed foundation that in some way it wants to be built on a foundation that is rather malleable and fixed enough. And I think in shows or contexts wherein the show just wants to be fixed enough, it allows for two directors to come in and have ideas colliding in order to make something greater than both of them. If that answers the question.
Rachel: It answers so many questions and that raises so many other questions. I also have so many questions but I just want to honor the word destabilize as a project of reconstructing. Jhanaë gave us that beautiful image of like taking apart a building brick by brick vs bulldozing a house so, either way, the project of de-stabilizing, I’m very struck by that. Thank you. There’s so many corners. Will you talk a little bit about, so going back to directors for a moment and you brought up the idea of stealing from. Who are the directors that you have been nurtured on and raised on and film, could be people who don’t even consider themselves like “directors.” “Musicians.” How have you grown into seeing the way you see or pursuing what you want to see?
Zhailon: Well, I mean, now this person is just a friend of mine, but they started as a mentor. And this is a director out of Louisiana who runs a community theater and runs a children’s theater as well. His name’s Jared Watson. And he was the first person to let me in on what the process of directing look like.
And before I went to college and got wild and wanted to create work, that was doing really crazy things. I was like directing Winnie the Pooh and directing Alice in Wonderland and directing, choreographing Pippin. And what was important about learning from Jared is he gave me this foundation of process and preparedness that as someone who did not go to school for directing, I think allowed me to be in the same conversation as people who were coming up at the same time as me, because I had had many years of having to put on a musical in two weeks with very little resources, working with people who were not professional actors who had jobs to go to and, or school to go to in the morning, where in the schedule was like, if you do not finish this scene today, there is no time to finish it.
Rachel: I would think about that as like an incredible muscle and the opposite of another word you just said, which I’ve heard you speak very inspiring about, which is wildness. So how did the wildness come in to play?
Zhailon: Well, the work inspired the wildness. And so I think something that people don’t understand about directing is that directing is a thousand different jobs. And just because you’re doing one project, you’re just doing one part of directing, usually because there’s a reading, there’s a lab, there’s a workshop, there’s a concert. And for most of directing, as you’re coming up, as I’m coming up, my experience is you don’t get to be wild. You have to get the job done. And so that initial education was so valuable because it allowed me to work a lot. And for people to know me and for me to be efficient and get the kind of opportunities to then be wild, i.e. working with the TEAM, working on Primer, working on Reconstruction, working on some of the freelance work that I do. And I think the content inspired the wild as it was getting the opportunity to work on the material I wanted to work on.
And that material happened to be wild. And that material happened to not want to be contained by a certain kind of efficientness. So, I don’t know, that’s kind of how it came to be. I don’t know if I’m answering the question.
Rachel: You are.
Zhailon: I think what’s underneath all of those processes that feel untraditional or wild or not bound by industry expectation is a real confidence that underneath it all, we will make something. And that comes from like a certain kind of structure of making things with cardboard in two weeks with no money. And so it allows them for me to be wild and say, there’s 60 people in the room and we’re going to make something we’ve never seen before and who knows what it’ll be?
Rachel: What do you like find yourself, feeding yourself? As a director I think a lot about what I am intaking to nurture and grow. And I’m curious, what have you, or are you now feeding yourself with to grow this appetite for wildness?
Zhailon: And just to even go into wildness a bit more, what I mean by wildness is a space that is void of any kind of traditional structures, be it institutional or otherwise, that wildness is a place that artists have to go. They have to go to the wild because something happens there that the public doesn’t see in order for them to reenter society in a certain kind of way in order to make.
So wildness is also about doing work that isn’t about explaining to an audience something, but about showing them how they already the thing that they want to other. So it’s like empathy on crack because it’s one thing to empathize with other people on stage it’s kind of traditional theatrical model. And it’s another thing for the theater to be forcing you to empathize with the parts of yourself that you have denied and, or demonized and, or shame. And it also, I think, protects the artist who is traditionally othered in society. So wild art and a wild process is a process that is saying, we’re not teaching you anything other than showing you what you already know about yourself. And we know that thing you know about yourself, but you have lied to yourself that you don’t know about yourself is the most dangerous thing to reveal to you. That the wild is also a dangerous space to be in.
Rachel: The word that’s coming, sorry, I have something in my eye, but we’ll keep going. The word that’s coming to my mind, which rings against another word you used when you talked about a preacher is testifying. Like the artists pose to the wild and comes back and testifies to an audience.
Zhailon: That’s completely right. We testify the audience bears witness. And I think that’s the combination I’m trying to get to. Both are active, neither are passive. How do you get the audience to bear witness to an event. Things I’m inspired by right now that I think feed into that always hip hop. Always hip hop. I’m obsessed with the history of hip hop. I’m obsessed with the history of not just hip hop music, but hip hop fashion, not just hip hop fashion, but hip hop vernacular. I mean, it is the last great art form that we can look to that completely tells the history of us. And it tells it in a way that is wild. And I say us, I mean, America, you can look at the beginning of hip hop and trace it all the way to now and pull from so many things. I think that all of the artists or at least the Black artist coming up in my generation are coming up in an air of Kendrick Lamar.
And I think that is going to have huge ramifications in 10 years. I think we’ll be able to look back at this time and be like, “Oh yeah, we can trace not only, commercial music history through the lens of this revolutionary artist, Kendrick Lamar, but we can also trace theater through that history as well.” And that’s really inspiring to me. Radical theology is really inspiring to me mostly because I see the rehearsal room as a church. I see, really the rehearsal room as the ultimate piece of art that I’m trying to make and that the show is spilling over out of this process. Radical theology allows me to look at the rehearsal room as a kind of radical church that I don’t get to experience outside of the rehearsal room. So a church that embraces doubt questions, mystery, leans into it, tries to grow a certain kind of existentialism and allows for everyone to be in the space to quote Robert O’Hara, “a place where everyone is welcome, but no one is safe.”
Rachel: Do you think that everyone can be in that kind of space? Are there particular things you find yourself grafting towards in collaborators?
Zhailon: I don’t think that everyone be in that space. I would hope that everyone would want to be in that space. But, if you are an actor or you are an artist or a creator of any type who desperately needs the crack cocaine of linear plot and or time to express yourself, you probably can’t be in a space like the wild that I’m trying to create. And to pull it from something you say a lot, which is like, anti-racism work is incredibly inefficient, and not saying just all this work is anti-racism work. It isn’t, but to be in a room where you’re really trying to create an event of the rehearsal itself is an incredibly inefficient thing, just objectively. And I would say that it takes an actor who was really looking to stand, or I won’t just limit it to actors, but an artist who’s willing to stand on the edge of the cliff. Who’s wanting that already and just wanting you to create some kind of safety net for them. And I find that there’s lots of artists who rather not be on the cliff.
Rachel: It’s not comfortable on the cliff.
Zhailon: But to me, I don’t know what we’re making for, if we’re not making from that place.
Rachel: Will you talk about from your seat…so Reconstruction is a mixture as this particular conversation maybe manifests of artists of color, primarily Black-identifying artists, either African, identifying as Black American or Caribbean American and then white-identifying artists. And I wonder if you can just talk a bit about what you have seen. I think of us directors as, obviously we’re kind of watchers in many ways and just the enjoyment of watching someone navigate problem-solving, so I’m curious what you have seen from your seat in the Reconstruction room as people like prepare to, or stand on that edge that you’re talking about. And it’s the difference between the white-identifying actors and the Black-identifying, not just actors, but actor writers, everyone does multiple things. I’m just curious what you’re seeing in the room.
Zhailon: I think the biggest thing that I observe kind of like whenever we’re in process for Reconstruction, the thing that is overtly present to me on the daily is every person, no matter who they are making the choice to be in the room, there’s a difference between I got a gig, so I’m going to go do the gig and making a very specific choice to show up every day.
And I think it’s what makes the kind of work that we’re doing distinctive from just kind of anti-racism work in any other sector is we don’t have to be doing this. We don’t have to be showing up. We don’t have to be requiring this much of each other. So we’re already saying, setting up in the kind of ethos of the room that we all are going to make the choice to do this work. And I think that radically shapes the energy by which we get to pull from to make the work that we’re not convincing people that this work is valuable. We’re not convincing them that this work is easy. We’re not convincing them that there’s even going to be a rainbow at the end of the work. That they’re coming in with their own individual agenda and then making a choice to use Reconstruction as the blank canvas of projecting that agenda.
And what that makes possible is the other thing that I see so clearly in Reconstruction, which is the real investigation and rigor around the question of whether or not Black artists and white artists can work together and carry the same amount of weight, distinctive weight, but the same amount of weight. Is that possible? Is it possible for us to tell the story we’re trying to tell without an overt power imbalance, both structurally and also artistically and emotionally, is it possible for us to leave this room lighter than when we came?
And I think that that is a question I have not heard investigated in any other room that I have been in over the course of the last two or three years, which is, can we actually have an equitable process that isn’t just about the institution, but an emotionally equitable and artistically equitable process wherein we are asking of white artists to draw upon something they cannot explain and make from that? Because when that has happened in the Reconstruction room, art that I think is greater than all of our imaginations has been born.
And in some way, it is as much a spiritual journey as it is an artistic one because it inherently connects you to something larger than yourself that stretches back farther than your memory and stretches forward farther than your imagination. And that is ultimately what we, as Black artists know, we have the power to access and to be able to be in a room where we share that ability and knowledge and technology, spiritual technology. With my artists is something I have way more stamina for it than just explaining what it’s like to be Black, which happens far less than people would think in the Reconstruction room.
Rachel: Talk about spiritual technology. I don’t know if this relates in your brain to radical theology, but what are some spiritual technologies you’ve seen at play in the Reconstruction room and maybe give us specific examples.
Zhailon: There’s this idea of light heavy light and light heavy light means, or is this idea that in life you go through life and things are light and things are airy and things are awesome and then things get heavy. And if we stay in that heaviness, we think that there is no other outcome. Or if we try to escape the heaviness, I’m sorry. We tried to escape the heaviness. We think there is no other outcome, but heaviness. But if we lean into the heaviness, what we find out is there’s a light at the end of the heaviness that’s actually brighter than the light that preceded it.
And that’s a technology I watch all the time in Reconstruction, which is a light and then a moment of real heaviness and a moment of real existentialism and a moment of real, like are we going to make anything and a moment of real like what’s going to happen? And is there anything that can grow from this work? And then the choice everyone makes to just keep going into that void a bit further, and then a light that comes out of it that creates this remarkable piece of art that no one can really explain how we got there. That’s light-heavy, and then a light that’s even brighter than the light that preceded the heaviness. And that’s just an example of a spiritual technology that I see in the room all the time.
Rachel: What’s one of your favorite moments from the Reconstruction room of creationism? Just one.
Zhailon: A favorite Reconstruction moment. I mean, favorite in the sense that it was just such a huge breakthrough and was hard and was allowed for work to happen past that light to happen past the heaviness was I think the day that all the white performers had to come in and exorcise their own ancestors was an incredibly hard day. I don’t think that we could make the show without that day happening. And just for people listening, we give prompts and homework assignments to the actors. And sometimes they go home and do something with them. And sometimes we make in the room with these prompts and the prompt, I don’t remember who gave it, was it Jillian?
Rachel: It was Denée.
Zhailon: It was Denée. She gave the prompt for the white actors to take a narrative from either their own literal lineage or a lineage that wasn’t literally theirs, but that they could claim as white people and exercise it in front of us. Let that story that could be troubling and dark and messy and evil come through them in some way. And to me, that’s the ultimate example of carrying equitable, spiritual, and artistic weight, because it’s something that we as Black people can’t do. We don’t have that same kind of weight. We are called upon to articulate our trauma all the time, but it’s a distinctive kind of weight we were asking the white performers to bring in. And the work that came in I think was incredibly personal. And I don’t know if that’d be been ever articulated like this in that the Black performers in the room did not comment after each white person did their piece.
And what it really was an example of is the fact that white artists have to watch us create art out of our trauma all the time. And they do it without any consideration of what we may have gone through to produce that trauma. And it was for 35 minutes or however long we did it, an example of the roles reversing and for us to consume you all in a certain kind of way. And I think the difference is that Black people never want to fully consume whiteness. And so in some way it was very hard for us to do that. Where the reaction was not incredibly entertaining. It was not something that we wanted to go on forever and ever.
Rachel: Let me continue with that because I think that the same, I’m saying this as one of the white artists who didn’t, I’m not ultimately going to perform in the piece, but I did that assignment. I brought in, I think Denée had just like assigned us to bring in an ancestor and an ancestor of “whiteness”, like not my fucking shtetl ancestor necessarily who sits in… and I tried to look in that lineage, but ended up deciding on one of the major advocates against busing. And ultimately then someone who’s spoken in pretty lightly veiled code against desegregation. And, and I chose Northern ancestor as well because it was something we were talking about it in the room, but I know all the white identifying artists were tearing, I mean, it was so contorted, spiritually, the fight against that assignment initially be in part because of what you just said. I think there was a tremendous fear of hurting the room, literally bringing in these spirits who we don’t want in our beautiful room. So I’m just responding to that of, it’s not necessarily pleasant work.
Zhailon: And so I think in some ways it changes the way then white people consume our work as something that is not, you’re able to see it as something that isn’t just objective that isn’t just also something to take for granted as something that is easy or fun or possible for Black people to produce. And less heart-centered rooms, the inability to show up in that way every day can get you fired or prevent you from getting the job in the first place.
Rachel: So I know we’re almost out of time because you’re busier than I am between.
Zhailon: That is not true.
Rachel: I think it’s true actually between freelance life, which is like all over. And I want to ask like two final questions, maybe return slightly to a more terranean versus like subterranean level. How is your freelance life developing in this moment? And how does that sit in your brain with this wild work? And are they the same or are they feeling very differently? I’m just curious, what your experience right now?
Zhailon: Well, It’s a interesting question. I think ultimately I feel blessed in this moment because I do get to make, and a lot of people don’t get to make right now. That’s why I think ultimately there’s just like a lot of gratitude, but even within this online kind of moment of storytelling that we’re in, yes, there are gigs, for sure, gigs and then there’re places where I’m trying to innovate. And I think being able to workshop my musical, A Burning Church at the Ice Factory Festival at the New Ohio was a real moment of innovation that we didn’t know that we were actually working towards. We were trying to just answer the question of how are we workshop and musical online, which we hadn’t seen done yet. And how do we do it in a way that doesn’t look like you’re watching a zoom play, which we hadn’t seen done yet.
And what has happened since then is we’ve gotten so much feedback from other creators that doing that work has inspired them to keep creating through this time and let them know that the things that they create aren’t for not, because we can’t be in a room together and we’ve gotten lots of really, really lovely, random emails from people that were like, I didn’t think I could think of the musical in this way, and now I can, and it’s going to allow me to keep working on my thing. And so I think there’s a mix of shit I just have to do to pay rent, which is fine.
And also, I think there’s always going to be a part of me that is trying to innovate in the form no matter what the form is, no matter how frustrated I get with the form, because I think particularly in musical theater, and this is kind of pulling from George C. Wolfe philosophy, that it works best when people who are more talented than the form are pushing against the form. And if you break too many of the rules, it doesn’t work. And if you don’t break any of the rules, it doesn’t work. And so than some way the event of musical theater successfully lives at the intersection of that tension and that tension as possible to escalate, even on zoom.
Rachel: I love the idea of being, I can’t remember the word you just used, whether it’s more creative than the form. I know you didn’t say more clever than the form.
Zhailon: More talented than the form,
Rachel: More talented than the form. What talent does a form have. It’s so interesting. So my last question, and then I’ll ask if there’s anything else that you want me to ask quickly is you want to run an institution someday? I’ll ask that.
Zhailon: I have historically said I didn’t, but I do understand that there is something in my personality that is built for that. And so I think I don’t want to run the kind of institution that does not leave space for me to go into the wild when I need to. But if I find that institution, then I think things get a lot more enticing. I think ultimately, and I’m going to say this now because I have a relative that says, if you can’t say it for yourself, no one will say it for you. I know I will be a mogul. And I don’t say that from a place of cockiness. I say it from a place of, I move best at scale at large, large scale. And in this world that we live in, that is people who move best in that way become moguls. And I know there will be some kind of leading of a big, big team one day, and I don’t know what that form will take, but that will surely happen.
Rachel: Oh my God, I love that. I can’t wait to buy your products.
Zhailon: Oh Man. It may just be face cream after all this COVID stuff is over.
Rachel: Is there anything else that, I mean, I could talk to you for days and happily spending years and hopefully our lifetime talking, but, is there anything else that you want to talk about in this moment?
Zhailon: There’s just so much that could be talked about, but no, I think the only thing I will say is that I have a really strong sense that we will be the first historians of this time that we’re living in. We meaning the poet, meaning the artist, meaning the storyteller will be the first historians of this time. And so when it feels like we must hop out of our vocation, do not listen to that voice deeper and deeper and deeper into your vocation. Because if not, we won’t really know the truth about this time.
Rachel: Thank you for that. Thank you for this and for you.
Zhailon: Thank you.
Rachel: That’s it. have a good day becoming a mogul.
Our third episode of our Reconstruction Artist Q&A, features artists JJJJJerome Ellis and Zhailon Levingston. In this episode, JJJJJerome and Zhailon discuss what “role” means in our rehearsal room and in the world, things that are currently haunting JJJJJerome, and the creation of a “brave space”.
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
Zhailon: It’s so good to see you.
JJJJJerome: Oh, you see how wide I’m smiling. So good to see you.
Zhailon: I know. Man oh man oh man oh man. We’re supposed to talk about Reconstruction and talk about your role in Reconstruction and what you’ve been doing with the project and we will, I’m sure, at some point.
JJJJJerome: Yeah, we will.
Zhailon: Also, I don’t know if I’ve ever told you, I think you are the most exact example of manhood that I know.
Zhailon: I wanted to start the conversation just letting you know that despite what our roles are ever, in our artistic life, in my personal life, I am also curious about what you think your role is in the world? Maybe we can start there and that can bleed into Reconstruction but what do you see your own self as?
JJJJJerome: Well I feel extremely blessed and honored that you have started this way. Thank you for your very kind words. I mean, it’s a beautiful question, Zhailon, and I think I have perhaps several roles. I have been thinking about my grandfather, my mother’s father, his name was Charles and he died back in April, as you know. He was 100, almost 101. He was a minister and a farmer and his father was a minister and a farmer and his father was a minister and a farmer. I learned this last year when I was in Jamaica at the farm he used to run. I think about that kind of like dual calling in vocation, a minister and a farmer. To me both are about, I mean they share many things. One of the things I think they share is a sense of cultivation and patient cultivation and kind of like guidance but also the getting out of the way that guidance can require.
I was reading this book recently and they gave this example, it was like, “The farmer is not responsible for the growth of the plants. The Earth is responsible for that. What the gardener and the farmer do is they try to create the conditions through which the Earth can do what it already is doing. Similarly, the sailor does not sail the boat.” The sailor creates the conditions for the wind to move the boat.” I think of myself kind of in those terms as like, at least what I try to do, is like a vessel in a way or like a kind of channel that if the minister is a vessel of the word of the divine and the farmer is the vessel for growth, I try to be a vessel for something. To me, there’s kind of an emptiness there, too, that it’s like I try to cultivate a kind of emptiness. I try to be the riverbanks as much as I can and try not to worry about the river. To me, one form of emptiness that takes is in my stutter. That when I stop speaking, that’s a reminder to me of a certain kind of emptiness, of verbal emptiness.
In other spheres of my life, aspects of my life, I try to cultivate that. I think of windows, too. It’s like, you ask me what my role is, I think some people’s roles are … Think of a house. Some people’s roles are the beams in the roof and some people’s roles are the floor. I think my role is sort of like a window. That I’m actually there to let something else in. Yeah.
Zhailon: I mean, what’s been so fascinating about working on Reconstruction is also the development of the vocabulary of the room because the way in which you are speaking about who you are and how you move in the world feels, at this point to me, as black and white and plain as saying, “I am the composer. I am the music director. I am the actor, the writer.”
Zhailon: It’ll be interesting as we try to communicate what we’re doing in this room to people outside of this room. This kind of new way of thinking about our role in the room because I think in some ways what we’re trying to get at is a space we’re in, what you’re talking about, which for me sounds like your vocation. How do we bring the vocation of our humanity into a room wherein it’s meeting the vocation of our particular artistic gift?
Zhailon: I’m curious what has that experience for you been like in terms of the relationship between your vocation as minister gardener, or the lineage of minister gardener that lives within you and how you’ve been able to bring that into the room of Reconstruction? Is it useful to think of yourself as a composer in that room or not?
JJJJJerome: Yeah. Zhailon, I’m just bathing in your questions. I love it. Oh, I mean, yeah. Yeah, I’ll begin with what you said about composer, yeah because it’s like the word compose, of course literally means to put together. If I think of it like that, that makes sense to me for my kind of role in other situations where I’m a composer. Reconstruction that doesn’t feel right. I don’t feel like I’m putting things together. I think there are other people who are doing that. For me, yes, so the word composer in that sense doesn’t feel right. For me, there’s something about what I was saying about the windows and I’m looking out of a window right now out into these trees. To me it’s like, in Reconstruction, I do make music and I write as we all do and I perform as we all do. To me, it’s been important for me to do all of those things at the same time and not to privilege one over the other. Again, to me, it’s this thing of the window. Sometimes what’s coming through the window is sunshine and sometimes it’s rain light and sometimes it’s a breeze and it’s like, I try to let whatever it is that’s over here outside the Reconstruction room pass through me as much as possible and get into the room.
Sometimes that takes the form of sound, sometimes that takes the form of words, sometimes it takes the form of movements, sometimes it takes the form of me being silent and just kind of sitting in the corner and watching and listening. To me, yeah, it’s not … Composing here it feels too, yeah, too … Yeah, putting together is not resonating with me as much as, again, letting through. For me, that requires a kind of spiritual poise in the room that … It speaks to the vulnerability that I, and I think everybody in the Reconstruction room experiences in their own way, but a vulnerability that there’s ancestors in the room, there’s spirits, there’s children, like literal … Two of our cast members have been pregnant over the course of the writing. Three actually now. There’s new life coming in. There’s so much ghostly and ancestral and future being activity all in the room with us that for me, part of my vulnerability there is like, I try to be as open as I can to listening to those spirits who are with us and sometimes those sprits have a song and there’ve been moments with you, moments with Mrs.Vine and Jillian and Ian and James and Amber and Denée and really everyone.
It feels, in fact, silly to name names because I’ve seen it happen with everyone where the music passes to somebody else and it passes from person to person and if … Another thing I think about the word composer is it can be kind of limiting to me because to me, the composer, the word composer has such, of course, a long European history. To me, one of the connotations it carries is like it’s a lone figure who is making music whereas the way I see the music happening in the room is it’s something you catch. Something that enters you like haunts you for a while and then moves on. I try to keep myself open to that and that can be really intense in the body. You don’t know where certain things are coming from. I grew up in Pentecostal churches, including my grandfather’s and speaking in tongues is a very every day thing. When the spirit comes, then you open your mouth and you try to convey something, yeah.
Zhailon: You used a word that is in my next question and also the idea of spiritual poise I think is fascinating and I think I only want to work with people who have spiritual poise so that will become the new marker. I was going to ask, what has been haunting you lately? I don’t mean that in a necessarily negative or positive term. Just what has been haunting you?
JJJJJerome: Yeah. Well, I think… I can do a show and tell, in fact. What’s been haunting me, I have this sheet of paper, this is from September 16th and I have a table over here that has … On September 16th I began making a sheet a day. What the sheet is, is I copy out by hand, I copy out an advertisement for runaway slaves from either the 18th Century or 19th Century. This one is from Maryland, February 1st 1798, and for those who don’t know, in newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries if you were a master and you had a slave who ran away you could place an ad in the newspaper and you could give a description of the slave. Their name, this one is very common, this one has a lot of the common things. You’d say their age, how dark or light their skin is, what they were wearing, and then if they have any identifying characteristics on their body like a scar or a limp. In my case, if they have a stutter.
I’ve only been focusing on ads of slaves who stutter. This one says, it’s about a pair of slaves who are brothers, Will and Tom. Will, when he speaks quick he stammers a little in his speech. He’s 30 years of age, he’s by trade a carpenter, he saws well had at the whipsaw. They offer a reward and they say where they think they’re heading. This says, “Will writes pretty well and if he and his brother are not furnished with passes from others, they will not be at a loss for them but upon proper examination, may be discovered to be forged.” So there’s little lightning flashes of a biography of these slaves because often this is the only information that we have about them. I’m utterly captivated by them and they’re so painful to read and also there’s so much … I feel such a hope that the very act of running away is such an act of resistance and rebellion and it’ll say often what date it was placed.
There was this other one that was placed in June and in October the ad is still appearing every week so you gather that the slave is still gone and that the reward is raised. Then in November, the ad goes away so then the question is did the master give up or was the slave caught? I’m sure some of them were not caught and they escaped. These have been haunting me and what I’ve been doing with them as sort of an ancestral practice which is very much born out of, in some ways, our practices in Reconstruction. Especially when people have brought in primary sources. We have several people that brought in excerpts from people’s diaries and journals and just the intense specificity of a primary source and how specific it is when you encounter a piece of writing that was not intended as literature. This has a very utilitarian purpose that all the details, the stuff about the passes that they can forge passes because one of the brothers knows how to write. The detail I find so powerful and worthy of a novel. This is not a novel. This is not written for that purpose. It’s written and it’s very specific because they want to increase the odds that they will get back what they think they own.
It says, “They were wearing upper jackets lined with flannel and overalls of a drab color.” What I’ve been doing, and this has been inspired by another object lesson. I also think about, I think in French the word haunt is connected with the word inhabit and I think about something that is haunting you is inhabiting you and that also you inhabit what is haunting you. I’m literally like-
JJJJJerome: I live with these things, you know?
JJJJJerome: You know what I mean?
Zhailon: Yeah I always think of hauntings as.. it’s not these things that won’t let us go but things that we won’t let go.
JJJJJerome: Yeah, yeah. So there’s this book, Zong!, it’s written by this poet M. NourbeSe Philip and what she does in this book, the book is a book of poetry and there’s a legal case from the 18th Century as well about a slave ship where the captains got off course and in order to, I believe because they needed to save rations or something, they threw overboard over 100 slaves that they had captured in Africa and were on their way to the Caribbean. Then they filed an insurance claim against the insurance company to get insurance money and the insurance company was like, “We don’t owe you any money because you murdered these people.” They’re like, “Well that’s cargo so we threw them overboard.” There’s a two-page legal case that is the only record we have of these people. We don’t have any other records. What she did is as she sometimes talks about in an interview, she locked herself inside the text and she wrote a series of poems restricting herself to the words that were used in that case and using no other words.
What it started out at first was literally just only using those words. So like the word ship, the word water, the word Africans, the word insurance claim and she would rearrange these words to make poems. Then eventually what she did at a certain stage in her process was she then would take the words and see if there were any anagrams you could make from them. So the word apprehension she could then make the word son. Then more poems evolved from that. The way she sometimes talks about it is how do you tell the story that can’t be told? How do you tell the story of this horror when all you have is a legal case that is just a bunch of white dudes in England arguing over insurance money. How do you tell the story? What I, inspired by her method, I then have been writing poems and now songs by restricting myself to the words in each ad. Every day I’ve been focusing on a new ad.
For example, in this one that I was showing you it says that, “Will is capable of the use of tools in almost any work.” Then it said, “When he speaks quick he stammers a little in his speech.” Then I wrote the line, “Stammers are tools for almost any work or stammers are saws for speech.” I start to find … It’s amazing. It’s like all these things just start to arise that were not intended by the master who placed the ad and that even I’m not intending in a way because I’m restricting myself to the master’s words. How does one find truth and even beauty and music through the master’s words? My practice right now is to do this every day for one year.
JJJJJerome: Starting on the 16th, a week ago. That’s what’s been haunting me and it’s just like, it’s endless. It’s just like …
Zhailon: That’s amazing.
JJJJJerome: Yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah. I started singing and making songs from them, too. Yeah, it’s an ancestral thing.
Zhailon: To me that’s such a beautiful blur between what we were talking about earlier, which is the vocation of your humanity out of the world and your artistic vocation and this weird dance mix and how I think Rachel refers to what she encourages people to bring into the room is their individual artistic agenda. It feels like that marriage is a part of the individual agenda we hope to keep gathering in the Reconstruction space which just makes me think about how … I can’t remember what the gospel song is but it’s basically like, “If I had a thousand tongues I couldn’t tell it all.” There’s something about this process that feels like we’ll never be able to tell it all. Even just listening to you talk about those ads and what you’re doing with them and somehow you’re giving us access to what has been previously, I think, experienced as inaccessible. To me, that’s another form of that window, right? You are creating a window for more to be told and I think at least it’s part of my hope in Reconstruction that we’re doing some of that work, as well. Creating a window for more to be told with the acknowledgment that if we had a thousand tongues we cannot tell it all.
That’s just some of the things that it’s making me think about. I guess the last thing I want to ask you or just pose to you and invite your musings on is just, figure out how to word it, I don’t love the idea of a safe space in a rehearsal room or in any kind of artistic context but I do love the idea of a brave space. I just wonder what has your relationship been to the Reconstruction room and moments of feeling the ground shake beneath you? What has your experience been in terms of how the room has supported those moments of vulnerability, danger, fear, questions, doubt, existentialism? Do you feel like a sufficient container is being created? Can you speak a little bit to that?
JJJJJerome: Yeah. I really do feel that it’s such a sufficient container has been created and is in the process of being created constantly. I do feel that and … Adrienne Maree Brown‘s idea of moving at the speed of trust has been so fundamental in the Reconstruction room and fundamental for me. I was not introduced to that idea until the Reconstruction room and feel that happening constantly. What I think about what that is like, something about speed and tempo in music that like, to me there’s something about the Reconstruction that’s like … Yes, we move with the speed of trust or we practice that but also the speed changes. The speed is not constant and I feel like the room and the people in the room … I feel such a great … I think part of why I feel like in moments of danger my experience of them has been … I really appreciate your resistance to the phrase, “Safe space,” so I’m also going to avoid the word safety. In moments of danger I have felt a trust that the danger, it’s like I have felt moments of fear but within the fear there is the absence of fear.
It’s kind of like when you’re in a house that you feel is well built and there’s a storm happening outside. You might feel the house shake in the wind and there might be a moment of fear within that but within the fear, there’s the pleasure of like, “Oh, but this feels, in fact, really good because the house is so well built.”
JJJJJerome: And there’s a pleasure in that. Or the pleasure when you’re camping and it’s really cold and you’re in that sleeping bag and you know that if you step outside the tent that you would freeze your little booty off immediately but inside that sleeping bag it’s perfect and there’s in fact a, for me, there’s a savoring of the cold. It’s like, “Yeah, let it be cold because I’m here.” Something about that that I feel in the Reconstruction room and I think part of that, what I was saying about speed is I feel like the people in the room have … Again, all this for me it’s important to emphasize the fact that it’s an ongoing practice and it’s not something that is, “Oh, we did that. We established trust and now we’re good. I feel like it’s constant. To me, there’s a constant sense of being attuned to shifts in tempo, shifts in energy. Again, like I was saying earlier about the spirits, shifts to like, “Oh, is there a spirit here right now?”
I feel like there’s such a fine attunement to that. That makes me feel, or within that I feel a great, like a different sense of trust within that. That is not unlike the way I feel with playing with a very sensitive musician where I know that if I increase the tempo just a little bit that they’re going to respond to that in a way that is sensitive and feels good. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to speed up, too, because there’s something very beautiful that happens in music sometimes where one person’s speeding up, the other one actually slows down to kind of hold that. That’s kind of how I feel in the room a lot of the time is just like that there’s a sensitivity that is so fine that yeah. One person can be like, “You know what, right now, I need to actually not play in time with y’all and I need to actually go find my own meter.” Even that is held.
Polymeter is of course something that we’ve talked about and that James has brought into the room and I think Polymeter, for those who don’t know, is a musical phenomenon found in many different musical cultures, including a lot of West African cultures where you’ll have one person playing an instrument in one meter or one rhythmic structure and then you’ll have someone else playing something in a different rhythmic structure and there’s a very special kind of musical effect that happens when those things are allowed to exist in their autonomy while also being in relationship to each other that it doesn’t sound like chaos. Each reveals the complexity of the other and something that I think James talked about is like you can’t listen too closely to the other person because you need to listen to yourself to maintain your rhythm but you also need to be listening to them. I feel like that pertains to the container of the room.
I also think about a spiders web. I think about how spiders silk, I think by weight, has more tensile strength than steel. I believe I read that somewhere. Even if that’s not true the concept moves me. I think about spiders, though, when you come upon the forest it can be invisible. You don’t even see that shit and then you come upon it, it’s just like-
JJJJJerome: Then the whole thing is revealed and you know, you can just feel how strong it is and yet also how not weak, but how fragile it is. I can swipe my hand through it and it’s gone but the fact that I can swipe my hand through it and it’s gone doesn’t mean that it’s not incredibly strong. I think about that kind of strength that I feel like we, in the Reconstruction room are developing, too. I also feel like in this forest with the spiders and you shake one of the trees that the web is attached to, the whole web shakes. I feel like that happens in the room, too. When certain forms of intensity or power or energy or force come through the space that the web, the web itself, feels it and it holds it so far at least. Again, I think it’s an ongoing thing. I feel extremely grateful to be a part of that process. I learn from it all the time.
Zhailon: To me that’s one of the most beautiful illustrations of democracy which is, I think, kind of what we’re trying to get at at the room together. It’s invisible until it’s not. It’s fragile, it’s strong, you see it, you don’t. It can come in many different shapes and forms so yeah. We could literally talk all night obviously. I’m going to stop us here because we just cannot tell it all.