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 Jerome Ellis and Zhailon Levingston. In this episode, Jerome and Zhailon discuss what “role” means in our rehearsal room and in the world, things that are currently haunting Jerome, 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.
Jerome: 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.
Jerome: 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?
Jerome: 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?
Jerome: 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?
Jerome: 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-
Jerome: I live with these things, you know?
Jerome: 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.
Jerome: 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.
Jerome: 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.
Jerome: 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?
Jerome: 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.”
Jerome: 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-
Jerome: 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.
Our second interview is with artists Jhanaë Bonnick and Rachel Chavkin In this interview, Jhanaë discusses with Rachel things such as how directing works in the Reconstruction room, research material they are both obsessed with, and mentorship.
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
Jhanaë: Well, acknowledging nerves.
Rachel: I’ve known you so long.
Jhanaë: I know. I think that’s part of why. There’s such deep affection.
Well, first, saying and sending deep love and hellos. And hoping you receive them with the feeling they are given.
Rachel: I receive them, and I really reciprocate them. I miss you so much. I miss seeing you.
Jhanaë: So much. Yes, yes. Sharing physical spaces.
Jhanaë: I didn’t realize how much I loved it until it was gone.
Rachel: Yeah, yeah.
Jhanaë: Yeah, yeah. Well, I guess we should start off officially with your name and role in our Reconstruction room.
Rachel: My name is Rachel Chavkin and my role… And I should say pronouns she/her, white-identifying artist in the Reconstruction room, which feels useful to say, and my role is as co-director of the piece and a collaborating writer as well.
Jhanaë: Can you talk a little more about that? Both in what co-directing looks like, because I think you and Zhailon do such a brilliant job at it. And also how you balance that with like being so many other things in the process as well.
Rachel: Yeah. That’s such a good question. So I’m going to quote, actually, Denée Benton or reference something that Denée said, who is a performer and co-author of the piece. And Denée was on a panel for the Broadway Advocacy League, which of course Zhailon Levingston, who is the other co-director of this piece, is a organizer for and with, and Denée was talking about the Reconstruction Room. And she was like, “Sometimes I don’t even know who’s directing.” Or “leading,” I think she said. “But I know who’s facilitating.” And I think that word has really stuck, this idea of facilitating, so deeply in a positive way for me. And I don’t want to speak for Zhailon, but he and I have talked about it a little bit and I know to a certain extent it’s resonated for him, because… So the TEAM writes everything through this absurd… I have called it aggressively inefficient.
And I say that with pride, because it feels anti-capitalist in its stance. It feels defensive of time. And time is a principle we’ve talked a lot about in this work. In particular, how white people and whiteness and white supremacy as a system have robbed people of color and Black people, especially, of time. And this idea of being on time. And part of the joy of the TEAM is like with Hadestown, it’s like, “Okay, for Broadway, we’ve figured it out.” And I have been a part of that discussion, but it’s like, “We have four weeks to get ready. The ensemble will start on week one. The principals, since they are returning to the show, will start on week two.” And then you have those many hours and that’s it. And then we’re in tech and then you have two weeks of tech, right? Like there is a rigidness, which has its positive things, right? Like I can’t necessarily give to every project and listen quite in every project in the way that I think the Reconstruction room calls us to, specifically.
Jhanaë: For sure.
Rachel: Do you agree?
Rachel: You work in the freelance world as much as…
Jhanaë: Yeah, absolutely. I think when I was talking to Jerome, I talked about how this room requires, and everyone does it willingly but requires that you bring your whole self to the space. And you just can’t… In some ways it’s so hard to do that in a regimented, “I clock out at 6:00,” room, which is part of the beauty of the… When you were talking about the inefficiency of the TEAM, I was like, “Yeah, but it’s magical inefficiency.” It’s exactly what you want.
Rachel: Yeah, that’s good. Magical inefficiency. I’ll start saying that rather than aggressive inefficiency. It’s much better.
Jhanaë:Yeah. Because also, as inefficient as it is, I mean, I’ve known you longer than the two years we’ve been working on it. And yet that two years feels huge. And I think it’s because of that inefficiency, we don’t… It wasn’t like a one and done week. It’s just ongoing engagement in the process.
Rachel: Yeah. And we get so much shit done.
Jhanaë: Oh my gosh.
Rachel: It’s not like we’re waiting to make decisions. If I think back at the amount of sort of writing that has been both literally at notepads or computers, and then on the feet that you, my friend, have heroically transcribed through these extended improv sessions that we do, that are often character-based, but sometimes they’re just like us beginning to riff in a conversation. It’s so dense. I mean, it’s like being in the middle of the most exciting novel before the novelist has quite figured out, right, what the opening scene is and how they’re going to introduce stuff.
Jhanaë: For sure.
Rachel: So it is not… I was going to use the word productive and somehow that does not feel right either, because that’s like a word based in commodity, but it is a full, full time.
Jhanaë: Yeah. We’ve generated a lot. Like, we could write five plays with the amount of material that was generated. It’s about a dedication to distilling it into the right thing. You know?
Rachel: Right, right.
Jhanaë: Yeah. For sure.
Rachel: That gets back into taste also, which I think is like coming back to sort of the strange role that I think Zhailon and I are discovering together sort of every day of rehearsal and prep for rehearsal. And it’s very live always. And I’ve co-directed on a few projects. Annie Tippe is often a partner of mine and I fucking love it because she and I just care about such different things. She’s like looking… She has one of the most brilliant design eyes I’ve ever known. And I’m like, “Dramaturgy in this sentence and blah blah blah blah blah.” And what’s kind of thrilling is Zhailon is like my favorite human to go see theater with because we actually share so much taste for wildness. And he used the word, “ratchet,” which is from the Ratchet Fashion Show.
So this like unhingedness, I think he and I are both really hungry for. And at the same time, one of the things that feel super important is to make sure that I don’t take for granted that we’re seeing the same things, and further to really try to… Personally, one of my goals is to be led by what I can see or perceive or hear as where the Black taste in the room is going. And that’s not assume that all the Black artists by any means align, certainly when the TEAM was first started by a group of white artists and then began working in racially diverse ensembles, there’s always a multiplicity of tastes.
And at the same time, I would say there are just certain… We did that exercise that Deneé brought into the room, the demon exercise. Right?
Rachel: And all the white artists were like, “I don’t like this, this is boring.” Right?
Rachel: And we were saying, “We feel like we’ve seen this character that you’re asking us to play, and that feels not artistically interesting.” And like, at the end of the day, that didn’t fucking matter. Like, what was being asked was, at least in that case Deneé’s taste, which was very much supported as interrogation in the room, by the other artists of color. And so that’s what I mean by like, “Actually my taste can’t be dominant here.” So in some ways I think of myself primarily as a facilitator, whereas with Hadestown, I’m like, “I didn’t like it when you did that. Don’t do that.” You know?
Jhanaë: Right. Right. Right. Yeah. Yeah. I guess because we create as an ensemble of a huge amount, which means that facilitating that is a huge thing that you have undertaken and done with such grace in the last two years. Hearing you talk about it like that from outside of it, it’s like, “Whoa, that is totally what we’re doing.”
Jhanaë: Yeah. It’s kind of crazy. And then we leave and go back to the Hadestowns of the world, and we’re like, “This also makes sense in its own way.”
Rachel: Yeah. And it is actually very relaxing and nourishing. Right?
Rachel: Like, I don’t know, I’m curious if this resonates for you. For me, I’m like, I feel my craft being called in a way that the TEAM room certainly needs me to be a good artist, but it’s not exactly the same thing. Whereas like Anne Bogart was a teacher of mine and there was an assignment that she would give where she was like, “And you have to make an entrance that makes us go, Wow, what an entrance!” And she would call it showbiz sleaze. And Hadestown, there’s a bunch of entrances and exits where I had Anne’s voice in my brain going, “Make an exit that makes the audience go, Wow, what an exit!” And it’s so satisfying. So anyway, which is just to say, I find the freelance world nourishing, certainly.
Jhanaë: For sure. For sure. Yeah. I think it calls on like two different… I like to say stage managing in the TEAM room needs a new name. It’s like, it is what it is, but it’s not what it is, because it requires… I always think that stage managers are artists, but in the TEAM room, I believe that the stage manager is an artist. And I think that’s the difference, is that in the TEAM room no one else is questioning if I’m an artist in the space, and in other rooms, it’s like, “Oh, is the stage manager an artist?” And both things, it takes less emotional… I don’t know the word I’m looking for, but it takes less emotionally to not be artistically involved. So in freelance work, it can be more… I feel like freelance work is more fun and working with the TEAM is more fulfilling if that makes sense.
Rachel: It totally makes sense to me. Yeah. So you have to… What are you going to be called?
Jhanaë: I don’t know.
Rachel: We’ll think about it.
Jhanaë: We’ll think on that. Yeah, no idea. I mean, if you get your way, I’ll be acting, too.
Jhanaë: We’ll just have to figure out what the title of that hat is. I guess one of the other questions that I’m interested in is so to make Reconstruction, we do a ton of research about various different things and have been for two years. So this is kind of a big question, but what are the things that maybe now are still kind of sticking with you, research-wise?
Rachel: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, first and foremost, I think that the thing I think about daily is Hortense Spillers, a Black feminist academic, who Jillian brought into the room and who, terribly, I hadn’t known about. And I think about the lecture that we watched her give, video, and the mic drop at the end of when she leans in, and I know you know this, so I guess I’m just saying it’s for the viewer. But the lecture was about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and the relationship or lack thereof and the rape and what that contract was between those two and how it’s been represented historically and described in lived experience. And at the very end, she leans into the mic and says, “So without freedom, intimacy and love don’t matter. Okay, thank you.”
Jhanaë: “Thank you.”
Rachel: “Thank you.” And leaves. And it’s so deep. So anyway, that and what has haunted me, which is can, should, and if so, how is intimacy achieved? And I think about it, particularly, between a white person and a Black person in an America that is profoundly anti-Black. And I think about it very painfully because I am a white-identifying person who has believed herself intimate with a Black friend since I was a child. And sort of thinking about… and want to spend my life working with Black colleagues, some of whom I hope to be close to. And so the idea of intimacy and everything that is held in that really is for me the emotional nerve center of this whole piece.
But then I also think about fucking William Byrd, quite a lot, who is…
Rachel: … who is a white demon, actually back to the Deneé’s assignment to bring a demon into the room. Is he the founder of Richmond?
Jhanaë: I believe he is. I think he is. I think that’s what James said, yeah.
Rachel: Yeah, Virginian who James brought into the room, and James and Jerome are both from Virginia Beach, Virginia. And James brought in William Byrd’s diaries. Were like pathologically so disturbing.
Rachel: And so I’m haunted by him as a character. And I would say like, he is the face of much of the whiteness that I think about, though by no means it’s totality, when I think about whiteness in Reconstruction.
Jhanaë: Yeah. It’s so funny, I also said intimacy. But also in terms of the intimacy that we as a collective have kind of engaged in. Speaking of Deneé, I’ll never forget, it’s something that I would not have been brave enough to do, but when she came in and just like showed us how she does her hair was like, actually one of the most intimate things I’ve ever witnessed. And as a Black woman, doing that in a room like that is so brave. But I mean, I think it speaks to the room that we’ve created that it was held and received, and it was amazing what happened, I think. Yeah, just funny that we both said intimacy.
So speaking of the things that have been fueling your brain on Reconstruction, what are the things in the world? I mean, we’re going through, I like to think of it as two pandemics in the world at the moment, but what have been the things that are fueling your spirit, that are getting you through the days?
Rachel: I feel terrible admitting this, but I finally read Underground Railroad, the Colson Whitehead book, which I’ve wanted to read forever. And of course, Amber is going to be in the mini-series of it, and I had just now read it. And so that’s a novel that I have just… It’s one of those things where I just don’t want to talk to people because I just want to keep reading it, I’m almost done with that. And I have been reading a lot of novels in a way that I just have not in a long time because time is usually so scarce.
And so I have to say, I have been enjoying in many ways the pause, which I would wish the health pandemic away in a heartbeat. And of course the other pandemic you’re referencing of white supremacy and racism, both I… Yeah, anyway, I’m going to tie myself in knots thinking about that. But I guess that is actually the other thing that I have been spending a lot of my time, as you said, sort of feeding or nourish and I can’t remember how you phrased it, but what has been consuming my brain is thinking about the movement underway for racial equity in our field, which has been going on a long time. I can think about attending the first Undoing Racism workshop with the People’s Institute that Zhailon and I did together, which I think was in like 2016, maybe, or 2017. And we went with a whole bunch of folks from the Public Theater and it was awesome.
And I know by that point, Stephanie Ybarra had already been organizing a huge contingent of people from the Public Theater and people across the field, and Stephanie is certainly by no means the only one, she’s just the person who I’ve spoken to the most extensively about that workshop specifically. So, it is a remarkable time. I guess this is the tying in knots, because there’s so much to hate, frankly, but also I certainly am grateful for and excited by the calls for change that the Black, Indigenous, people of color across our field, Latinx communities, artists have been leading. And that we have space to be doing that because the field is at a standstill. So yeah, novels and all of the discussions.
Jhanaë: Right. Yeah, I feel that as well. And speaking of, because I know that you are very active in the world of protest and beyond, what are the things that you’re doing outside of Reconstruction and outside of the theater right now?
Rachel: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been texting a lot of people about the New York census. It’s been great. Sadly, it seems like… Because I love… I mean, I know this is like a perverse thing to say, but I actually do really love canvassing. I’m that person who will just fucking knock on your door and talk to you about the candidates. And so I am trying to figure out what the hell to do in terms of working for the Biden campaign in the upcoming months because it seems like probably in-person canvassing is not going to happen. So I’m anticipating a lot of texting, been doing a lot of census stuff. And then continuing to go on Justice for George NYC and look and see where bodies are needed, and being very honored to be a body in space when that is the call. So that’s part of what I’ve been doing.
Jhanaë: Amazing. I have a separate question that wasn’t on the list. I’m sure Laura will edit this part out, but selfishly, I’ve wanted to ask you this for years-
Jhanaë: … which is just as someone who feels intensely mentored by you and wants to pass that onto people who I encounter. Just like, how do you do that when you also hold so many other things with, I’ll use the word again, because I think it applies to you so well, with such grace. How do you do that? And thank you for doing it for me.
Rachel: Oh gosh. Thank you for both asking that, and I mean like, God… Because I mean a huge part of that is just like, I guess this is the beginning of the answer, is not presuming that mentorship is desired. So I was actually going to say thank you for receiving whatever I have been able to give that is of use. When I teach, and I teach a lot of workshops and masterclasses now, I haven’t taught full-time since 2013, but I taught a long time. I taught for over 10 years starting right after undergrad. And whenever a student asks me for advice, I will say I don’t believe in giving advice because I think it is presumptuous. I think it presumes that the given circumstances in my life bear any resemblance to the given circumstances of your life. And then the way that I try to teach is very similar actually to how the TEAM functions in many ways, not that I have in any way a pedagogical or andragogical relationship to the artists in the TEAM room, but what is similar is I just set up assignments to cause a crisis.
And then I will sit with the students while they deal with that crisis. And I try desperately to not tell them how to solve it. I just try to be with them. And I have used the word doula before to sit with them while they’re doing their problem solving. And I think coming back to mentorship that that’s a big aspect of it is I have zero interest in anyone thinking the way I think, because a huge part of the mentorship is actually the learning is for me. I am an energized and filled by the people I work with. And so, it’s an interesting balance. And I want to turn the question back to you and ask, I know you have begun to do some mentoring significantly. And I wonder if there has been a moment over the past couple years that happened between you and a mentee and you were like, “That was damn fine mentorship.” And like, what were the hallmarks of that moment?
Jhanaë: Yeah, I think it’s so funny. I mean, funny in a way that that’s not the word I mean, but engaging to hear you describe it like that, because when I think of moments like that, I’m thinking to Lempicka at Williamstown, where it was Cody and I and three interns kind of doing that, which is wild in its own way. And I actually did exactly what you said a lot, which was they would come to me with, “Okay, how do I do this thing?” And a lot of the work of mentoring them was actually making it so that, with support, they solve those problems for themselves. And now, especially one of them but all of them kind of, are still working and still are grateful for the opportunity to have had to do it themselves as opposed to be told how to do it. Yeah, and I get the most satisfaction when that happens, when I don’t help, and they figure it out on their own. Yeah, for sure.
We’ve started a small interview series with some of our extraordinary artists working on Reconstruction (Still Working but the Devil Might Be Inside). In this first video, writers and artists Jerome Ellis and Jhanaë Bonnick discuss past Reconstruction development, the crucial work Jhanaë has been doing during the pandemic, and quarantine baking.
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
Jerome: My friend.
Jerome: Hi Jhanaë
Jhanaë: I feel grounded seeing your beautiful face.
Jerome: I feel the same. Oh, I feel the same. I like your glasses, are they new? I really like them.
Jhanaë: They are. It’s my…I don’t really wear jewelry a lot, so I have like six pairs of glasses.
Jerome: Yeah. Oh, wow.
Jhanaë: Yeah, I mixed it up today.
Jerome: Yes. Oh my gosh. Well, I’ll just say, so it can start with just name and role. So, what is your name?
Jhanaë: My name is Jhanaë Bonnick. I use she, her, her pronouns, and I am a stage manager for Reconstruction, which looks very different than stage managing everywhere else, but it’s still technically my title.
Jerome: Well, I’m curious, how does it look differently?
Jhanaë: It’s the ideal, like when I dreamed about stage managing in the world, this process is what it looked like, because it is the logistical scheduling, and making sure that everyone has all the right things, and eventually calling cues. But it’s also having a voice in the process of creating the thing and being emotionally invested in the creation of a piece of art, which you don’t always get to do as a stage manager. So, this has been my favorite thing.
Jerome: Yeah. Oh my gosh. Yeah, I feel that. I remember you saying to me at the end of our first workshop together, in March of 2018, that the week workshop had been, I’m paraphrasing, but it had been the most spiritually fulfilling, or spiritually rewarding, week of your life.
Jhanaë: Absolutely, still holds true two years later. Which also feels wild that that was two years ago. I’m like, I’ve known everyone in this group forever, but no, it’s been two years. No, it still is, and every time we do one, it’s like, guys, I’m going to have the best week this week. It doesn’t matter what happens, this week is going to be amazing.
Jerome: Yeah, I feel that way too. I’m curious if you could talk more about the spiritual aspect of it for you. Because I already hear that there’s emotional aspects and that there’s artistic aspects. Of course that they’re all, for me, all mixed together, but I’m curious about that too.
Jhanaë: Yeah, I think it’s that, in the Reconstruction Room, we all show up as our whole selves every day, every minute. Your whole person is a part of every moment. It’s like going to church when you go to church, it’s your whole spirit has to be invested in what you’re doing. We do the same thing when we’re making this play. I think that’s what I mean by spiritual, is there’s no half-assing it. Can I curse?
Jerome: Yes, is my response.
Jhanaë: Yeah, you just can’t half-ass it. It’s like you’re in spiritually, physically, emotionally 100% and that’s how we get the beautiful moments. Even when in the moment, you may not think of them as such. I mean, speaking of that 2018 session, I was telling my boyfriend about it the other day, I think about it all the time, the session where you literally just were teaching us about jazz. Rachel’s like, hey, tell us about that. It’s still one of the most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed. Outside of it, it’s like, he literally just gave you a jazz lesson. But in that room, in that moment, everyone was so present, that it felt much more than that, and still does thinking back on it.
Jerome: Wow. Yeah, I remember that. Yeah, I agree with you. I also felt people’s presence transforming into something else. I had nothing that I had very little to do with, is how it felt for me. The image for me I’m having is this swirling energy that starts to happen in the room. I think it’s because, as you said, and I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but because everybody brings their whole self that it reaches this point very quickly where there’s an end gathering of so much energy, that I feel like is bound by trust.
Jhanaë: Yeah, and I think also when you make a regular show, it feels like it’s how you make regular theater and then how you make Reconstruction. When you make regular theater, yes, everyone is showing up and working towards a common goal, but the investment isn’t the same. Actually, I think a part of that is about the intimacy that we, as a core group of, which feels crazy to say a core group of 30, but as a core group of 30 people, there is this deep, intense intimacy I think, between each person individually and therefore the whole group, that leads to that. Everyone can just feed off of each other in a way that I haven’t witnessed or felt anywhere else.
Jerome: Me neither, and I love interviewing you right now as an individual, because I also feel that there’s this intense intimacy between individuals in the group and then among the whole group. I appreciate the opportunity to have this time with you because it’s helping me reflect on that aspect of these one on one things, because we also have the constituency groups as well. So, that’s another form of intimacy as a smaller group, you know?
Jhanaë: Yeah, I also personally was very excited that it was you because, as we’ve discovered in the last two years, if we really were to sit down with our family trees, we must be related.
Jerome: Yes! Well, I wanted to talk about this. I wanted to say, both you and I are Jamaican and both of our families have settled and lived a lot in Mount Vernon, right?
Jerome: Here in New York. Yeah, I find it very moving and very, there was something else recently, like, my grandfather died on the same day as-
Jhanaë: On the same day. I think it was the same day that my grandfather also died.
Jerome: Yeah, exactly. So there’s this cosmic connection that I-
Jhanaë: Yeah, and it’s deep and real. I think that’s also why when you said two years ago, I was like, there’s just no way.
Jerome: No, it’s not true. Well, I’m curious about how your Caribbeanness inflects your experience in the room. Because something that I remember from that week that has stuck with me, and I think about very often, is you shared something that I think your brother had shared with you, which is that your ancestors had cut sugar cane, not cotton. That as an essential distinction between the Caribbean experience of diaspora and the US. I’m so moved by just how two plants have two different plans. You know, we started off the conversation talking about these beautiful plants you have, and these two plants and the way that they have intertwined themselves with Black people in different ways. So I’m curious if you’re Caribbeanness and Jamaicaness, if that doesn’t inflect your experience in the room?
Jhanaë: I think so. I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned, actually, in the Reconstruction Room, because when I told that story, it’s like a joke my brother tells. We don’t get it because it was sugar cane, not cotton, it’s like a-
Jhanaë: But I think something that this room has made clear to me, is that actually, and essentially, it’s the same and that even if there are differences to America, the entity, there isn’t. Black is Black, and the differences that we feel are not felt by America, the entire entity. So, even if I were to feel like there is a difference, that difference is not recognized by the outside world. So, it doesn’t matter at the end of the day. Whether or not I identify as African American, I am in the eyes of the country.
So, the experiences of people who picked cotton instead of cut sugarcane have become my experiences, experientially, even if they were not historically. I always knew that, we’ve made this joke since we were kids, but I think in the last two years, because of talking about it the way that we do, it’s been like, oh yeah, I don’t get it because my parents immigrated here in the eighties. There are aspects of it that I genuinely don’t understand because they don’t understand, but have had to learn and adopt because, whether or not I understand, it is a part of what I am based on the color of my skin in this country. It has been a crazy thing to learn about myself.
Jerome: Yeah, once again, I have had a very similar journey. My parents came in the seventies, and similarly, I had to learn what is already inside of me in the way that you’re talking about it. Yeah, because I also feel like any kind of distinction exists because my parents are from the Caribbean, yeah, that’s awesome, that I recognize or is folded into a large experience. I also feel that way. To me it’s so interesting because, both in Grenada, where my father’s from, and in Jamaica, where my mother’s from, of course most of the people who live there are Black. So, I’ve never had an experience of living in a place where Black people are the majority, and yet still are oppressed in so many ways. I think about my parents, I think about your parents arriving in the seventies and eighties from that environment, to New York City is where they arrived first?
Jhanaë: Yeah, my grandparents came before them, and my parents, my grandparents, and my two older brothers all lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx for like two years.
Jerome: Wow. Yes, I think about them arriving, my mom was 12 when she got here, my dad was 18, and just how did it feel, on so many levels how did it feel spiritually, how did it feel economically? How did it feel visually, especially, my dad lived in St. George’s, in the Capitol, in the city, but my mom lived in the Hills. So then from the Hills to Crown Heights, it’s like, oh my God.
Jhanaë: Right, right. My parents and I actually talked about this a little bit a little while ago, because we were talking about White Castle and why my family, it’s so weird, but I swear it ties back. We were just talking about why my family loves White Castle so much. For whatever reason, that is our thing. It’s because, so my parents moved here in their twenties, and both had bachelor’s degrees already that they got in Jamaica. They moved here because, while my mom could get her PhD in English, in Jamaica, my dad could only get a bachelor’s in art, which is what he studied. So they had to come here for him to get his master’s degree.
They moved here to go to school, to get their masters. They ended up both going to Fordham in the Bronx. But when they first got here, because of immigration and everything, all they could get were fast food jobs. So actually they moved here with bachelor’s degrees, and my dad worked at White Castle when he first got here. But it took my parents a long time of talking to figure out that that’s why we love White Castle so much. But yeah, he worked at White Castle and then he got promoted and worked at KFC. It was like a whole thing. Then all of the paperwork came through and he was able to enroll in school and they bounced that way. But their first jobs here were fast food jobs. Anyway, I don’t know why I just remembered that.
Jerome: No, I love that. Well, it’s interesting because my parents came to New York, but I grew up in Virginia where we don’t have White Castle, but I would visit my mom’s family in New York, and my dad’s family, five, six times a year growing up. So, I ate there maybe once or twice, but I remember always seeing it from when we went there and that’s one of the ways I would know like, Oh, I’m in New York now. There’s a White Castle there. But I think it’s interesting that we are talking about our families and our family history because to me that’s so much a part of the reconstruction process, and Reconstruction Room is, I feel like so many of us have shared and learned in this process more about our families, where we come from, and ancestors, and the ancestral, are such a presence in the room. I’m curious what your relationship is like with the ancestors and whether this room has shaped that at all?
Jhanaë: Yeah, I think, to be totally candid, it’s not something I thought about at all pre 2018. I think mainly because my parents grew up in a very Apostolate Christian church, which is very rigidly Christian. That’s how I was also raised until I was in my teens. So, the ancestors is not, anything that I now might be like, oh, the ancestors, we attributed to that’s all just God, which is not a bad thing, but is what my view of the world was. I think it’s taken, in these last few years, now I have moments where it’s like, oh, actually the two things can live in the same space and spirit. Sometimes it could be the ancestors and sometimes it could be God, and sometimes it could be maybe something else that I don’t have a name for.
Two years ago, that sentence would have been like, I’m sorry, what? But I think I’ve learned, I mean, our room is so incredible. I’ve witnessed it. It’s hard to say a hard no, or never, when you literally sat in the room and witnessed something that can only be described as ancestral happening. We’ve gotten to do that multiple times in this room, you know? I am so thankful for that because I also think that that’s a part of this exploration of Black being an overarching term for actually a lot of different cultural identities, which means a lot of different ancestors, which has been incredible to explore, I think.
Jerome: I’m curious, what has been something feeling your spirit in these last few months?
Jhanaë: I thought about this question before, and there have been three things I think that quarantine has blessed me with, I think is actually the only way I can think of it. One is that I’m in a relationship that actually began and flustered because of COVID. I think that the way that our lives as New Yorkers who make theatre are pre COVID, I don’t know that this would have worked out, just in terms of time and space and energy. But having the time to put in the work has made a relationship possible and he’s wonderful, so I’m very thankful for that.
Jerome: I’m so happy to hear that.
Jhanaë: Yeah, he’s really great. It’s also given me that same time and energy to call Japan a lot. My brother and sister in law live in Japan and I have a niece that I would never get to talk to, but now it’s like once a month, I get up at eight o’clock in the morning, and it’s nine o’clock there, and we call and we talk, and she blows kisses. It’s like the best thing in the world.
Then the last thing is that I learned to bake in quarantine, which does feel very Brooklyn, millennial, but I did learn to bake. I’ve been doing a lot of baking and dropping things off for friends and just giving it, I don’t keep it for lots of reasons, but baking and giving it away has actually been my form of ministry this quarantine. I feel like I do it like two or three times a month. I just randomly bake and drop things off at people’s houses. That’s what’s getting me through, I’ll have a rough day, and I’m like, okay, well I’m going to bake something for someone else and it won’t matter that today was weird, and hard, and awkward, or whatever it was, someone’s getting vegan chocolate chip cookie.
Jerome: Yes, oh my gosh. I am fueled hearing about this. This is so wonderful.
Jhanaë: Well, let me know when you’re back in Brooklyn, I’ll drop off some cookies.
Jerome: I will, I am back in Brooklyn, but I’m gluten free.
Jhanaë: I’m up for a challenge.
Jerome: I mean, if it’s ever aligning with you to make something gluten free, then I would really welcome it.
Jhanaë: It is aligned, it’s here, and it’ll happen.
Jerome: Thank you, Jhanaë, oh my gosh, thank you!
Jhanaë:: Of course.
Jerome: Well, let me see if I have any other questions. Oh, I’m curious about two other things. Is any research that you have become obsessed with through this work or any lines of inquiry?
Jhanaë: Yeah, I think two, they aren’t connected at all. One has been, we talk a lot about intimacy in this room. So I’ve just been thinking a lot about that and what that word really means and how we foster that between any people, let alone between two people of color, two people who are of different races, a man and a woman, there are just so many combinations that lead to intimacy, and they all look different. So definitely that, and then on a very different vent that has nothing to do with anything, but that’s kind of fallen out of reconstruction work, I’m obsessed with punctuation. I’ve said this to you, you’re smiling. You’re like, yes, I know, but I do. I’m obsessive punctuation. Em dashes are my favorite, I just think that they’re so great.
We do so much performative action with punctuation, most of that unconsciously, because you’re not thinking about the punctuation as an act of anything really. It’s just like, that’s how you make a sentence, but punctuation as protest. What can punctuation function as is something I’ve been very, very interested in. I’m like, can I go to grad school for punctuation? How do I do that? Yeah, those have been my two obsessions lately.
Jerome: Oh, wow. It’s either going to be a half hour conversation or a four hour conversation.
Jhanaë: It’s true.
Jerome: Well, I wanted to ask also if there’s anything about outside work you wanted to share, or anything about yourself? Anything else that’s going on? I mean, you’ve talked about these three blessings that have come into your life.
Jhanaë: Yeah, I think in terms of outside work, the only other thing that is fun, and interesting, and new, and scary is, I’m working with a group of Black female-identifying theater artists to create something new. Something that is very hard to describe, but at its core, it will be about consolidating Black Power within the theater industry to create both bargaining power and community, because it feels like across disciplines that Black artists are just disparate. We don’t get places to be altogether. So creating a place where that can happen, and through that, we can have power to hold people genuinely accountable. Because I think that a lot of new groups are forming and they’re doing amazing work. One of the problems we’ve been talking about in this group is that a lot of times we’re asking for accountability and not saying who we’re accountable to. I think something we said on like the first call for this new thing that is unnamed, is us, you will be accountable to us. So that’s very new, and crazy, and exciting, and scary, and amazing. It’s slow going, but hopefully there’ll be some traction in the coming weeks.
Jerome: Thank you for sharing that. I feel very blessed hearing about that, and I send just all warmth to you and the group.
Jhanaë: Thank you.
Jerome: Yeah, of course. I think it’s necessary and essential what you’re creating.
Jhanaë: Yeah, hopefully.
Jerome: Well, Jhanaë, I feel good about stopping there. Is there anything else you want to say?
this past November I had the good fortune to stay up at a farm cottage in northwest New Jersey to write for ten days towards the TEAM’s current / upcoming project RECONSTRUCTION (still working but the devil might be inside). it was a vivid, visceral, and deeply intimate experience focusing in on response material to the TEAM’s 2009 play Architecting, which originally looked at Gone With the Wind, rebuilding after hurricane Katrina, and in large ways the ethics and politics of gentrification that occurs in America when corporate / capitalist aims, largely under the direction of white affluent citizens, dominate a landscape still writhing from the inequities and racial divisions stemming back to the civil war. now, in 2019, we call back to that origin work with a response recalibrated to incoroporate a parallel company of artists of color (our original production was largely populated by non black artists) to (post Charlottesville) handle Gone With the Wind as more than just a literary artifact but as a Confederate monument –– and to potentially surrender Architecting’s experimental storyline (but a narrative nonetheless) for a form that is more dance theatre piece with tech and poetry and rigorously scored original music and song.
during my time at the farm, I wrestled with what voice I could give or produce for the project writing solo as a 38-year-old female fourth generation Eastern European / European immigrant American who has come to be known on most if not all standardized forms as white, when the story in 2019 is undeniably so deeply identity-centric and the complications of writing for anyone else’s experience are undeniable, representation and authenticity being – in my opinion – one of the foremost political pursuits of art makers today. with an exacting and at times overwhelming sense of responsibility, I waded into very muddy spiritual waters attempting to write and create from both a hyperconscious and unconscious place of unknowing. the beginning process of generating art for and with the TEAM is always for me mystical and uncharted. but this experience was exquisitely separate from my prior 15 collaborative years in that it marked the first time I was sent to keep the flame of the project lit as an individual rather than in a typically heavily populated democracy-driven writers room of on average 13-plus wildly distinct humans with madly divergent aesthetics and processes. in some instances I was able to exchange materials electronically with collaborating artist Jerome Ellis who would riff on audio files and videos I haphazardly edited and he’d re-edit and send back. this was the first time I worked largely with voice memos as my medium. it felt like the text didn’t want to live solely on paper IE in one dimension. in my private work as a writer I’ve been deeply interested in the concept of seance, ghost invocations and rituals, having felt that the inundation of social media, frequent updates, podcasts, linear and subjective narration have run their course and in many ways exhausted their promise. the American musical as being retrofitted in the work Rachel Chavkin is collaborating with on Broadway to me is a cipher for the experimental world’s forms: how do we get to a new nontraditional sound and structure that speaks to the heightened state of our current American awareness without insisting that at any moment only one thing can occur? how do we access and amplify the danger and positive potentiality of the racially charged American psyche of an audience thro performance architecture in ways we have not seen before? so I feel like I was writing a ghost story, by lighting candles and sitting in the near dark alone in the woods and trusting whatever voice started to pour forward. sometimes that was a tormented note of Margaret Mitchell, dead but unburied, failing to atone for her sins or falling short of truly being able to reckon consciously with exactly what she had done, modernity of the now not being her forte. sometimes that work was a lament and a chest pounding, drawing from the images of a funeral march for New Orleans from our play in 2009.
when I emerged from my writing on day 7 or 8, beginning to see my journey home in 48 hours sight, it was only then that I realized I had actually gone some place. it was like I had burrowed into this somewhat deep and damp tunnel just below most of this country’s ground, where the dead live – the recent, the ancient, all the bodies that have been slain and continue to be slain for reasons of capital and control. I feel that on this ten day reclusion, I found that my contribution to the project may be to sing the voice of the dead, more so than the wrong or the right, but to chime in and resurrect some imagined call from them to us, the living. so for me, it’s not about what anybody’s tweeting out. it’s a call from the beyond that makes me want to write anything down in 2019.
while at the cottage I also spoke to everyone I could see – waitresses at the local small-house-like diner, the groundskeeper, an itinerant actor (visiting from out of state). these people told me about their lives and the lives of the dead who’d come before them, and I listened with the thirsting ears of a blind seeker feeling out their path, and their wisdom and humanity made it into the blood of everything I thought up. for me, to write IN a place is inevitably to write that place down. even the trees.
Earlier this month, The TEAM convened for a week of development on our newest project, currently titled Reconstruction (Still Working but the Devil Might Be Inside).
It was a truly amazing week, with a roomful of insanely amazing artists and collaborators. The whole group included Brenda Abbandondolo, NJ Agwuna, Jessica Almasy, Denée Benton, Maddy Foster Bersin, Jhanaë Bonnick, Vinie Burrows, Rachel Chavkin, André De Shields, Jerome Ellis, Jill Frutkin, Amber Gray, Jeremy O. Harris, Kimille Howard, Modesto “Flako” Jimenez, Libby King, Artem Kreimer, Allie Lalonde, Ian Lassiter, Zhailon Levingston, Jake Margolin, James Monaco, Kristen Sieh,and Nick Vaughan.
We’ll be posting about the next phases of the project, and we’ll be keeping the Reconstruction page updated with new developments. But for now, feel free to visit our BREAKING GROUND page, which has details on our upcoming fundraising part for Reconstruction, which will take place on Thursday, June 14th!