Reconstruction Artist Q&A: Jhanaë Bonnick & Jerome Ellis

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.

Jhanaë: Hello.

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?

Jhanaë: Yep.

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-

Jerome: Right.

Jhanaë: But I think something that this room has made clear to me, is that actually, and essentially, it’s the same and that even if there are differences to America, the entity, there isn’t. Black is Black, and the differences that we feel are not felt by America, the entire entity. So, even if I were to feel like there is a difference, that difference is not recognized by the outside world. So, it doesn’t matter at the end of the day. Whether or not I identify as African American, I am in the eyes of the country.

So, the experiences of people who picked cotton instead of cut sugarcane have become my experiences, experientially, even if they were not historically. I always knew that, we’ve made this joke since we were kids, but I think in the last two years, because of talking about it the way that we do, it’s been like, oh yeah, I don’t get it because my parents immigrated here in the eighties. There are aspects of it that I genuinely don’t understand because they don’t understand, but have had to learn and adopt because, whether or not I understand, it is a part of what I am based on the color of my skin in this country. It has been a crazy thing to learn about myself.

Jerome: Yeah, once again, I have had a very similar journey. My parents came in the seventies, and similarly, I had to learn what is already inside of me in the way that you’re talking about it. Yeah, because I also feel like any kind of distinction exists because my parents are from the Caribbean, yeah, that’s awesome, that I recognize or is folded into a large experience. I also feel that way. To me it’s so interesting because, both in Grenada, where my father’s from, and in Jamaica, where my mother’s from, of course most of the people who live there are Black. So, I’ve never had an experience of living in a place where Black people are the majority, and yet still are oppressed in so many ways. I think about my parents, I think about your parents arriving in the seventies and eighties from that environment, to New York City is where they arrived first?

Jhanaë: Yeah, my grandparents came before them, and my parents, my grandparents, and my two older brothers all lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx for like two years.

Jerome: Wow. Yes, I think about them arriving, my mom was 12 when she got here, my dad was 18, and just how did it feel, on so many levels how did it feel spiritually, how did it feel economically? How did it feel visually, especially, my dad lived in St. George’s, in the Capitol, in the city, but my mom lived in the Hills. So then from the Hills to Crown Heights, it’s like, oh my God.

Jhanaë: Right, right. My parents and I actually talked about this a little bit a little while ago, because we were talking about White Castle and why my family, it’s so weird, but I swear it ties back. We were just talking about why my family loves White Castle so much. For whatever reason, that is our thing. It’s because, so my parents moved here in their twenties, and both had bachelor’s degrees already that they got in Jamaica. They moved here because, while my mom could get her PhD in English, in Jamaica, my dad could only get a bachelor’s in art, which is what he studied. So they had to come here for him to get his master’s degree.

They moved here to go to school, to get their masters. They ended up both going to Fordham in the Bronx. But when they first got here, because of immigration and everything, all they could get were fast food jobs. So actually they moved here with bachelor’s degrees, and my dad worked at White Castle when he first got here. But it took my parents a long time of talking to figure out that that’s why we love White Castle so much. But yeah, he worked at White Castle and then he got promoted and worked at KFC. It was like a whole thing. Then all of the paperwork came through and he was able to enroll in school and they bounced that way. But their first jobs here were fast food jobs. Anyway, I don’t know why I just remembered that.

Jerome: No, I love that. Well, it’s interesting because my parents came to New York, but I grew up in Virginia where we don’t have White Castle, but I would visit my mom’s family in New York, and my dad’s family, five, six times a year growing up. So, I ate there maybe once or twice, but I remember always seeing it from when we went there and that’s one of the ways I would know like, Oh, I’m in New York now. There’s a White Castle there. But I think it’s interesting that we are talking about our families and our family history because to me that’s so much a part of the reconstruction process, and Reconstruction Room is, I feel like so many of us have shared and learned in this process more about our families, where we come from, and ancestors, and the ancestral, are such a presence in the room. I’m curious what your relationship is like with the ancestors and whether this room has shaped that at all?

Jhanaë: Yeah, I think, to be totally candid, it’s not something I thought about at all pre 2018. I think mainly because my parents grew up in a very Apostolate Christian church, which is very rigidly Christian. That’s how I was also raised until I was in my teens. So, the ancestors is not, anything that I now might be like, oh, the ancestors, we attributed to that’s all just God, which is not a bad thing, but is what my view of the world was. I think it’s taken, in these last few years, now I have moments where it’s like, oh, actually the two things can live in the same space and spirit. Sometimes it could be the ancestors and sometimes it could be God, and sometimes it could be maybe something else that I don’t have a name for.

Two years ago, that sentence would have been like, I’m sorry, what? But I think I’ve learned, I mean, our room is so incredible. I’ve witnessed it. It’s hard to say a hard no, or never, when you literally sat in the room and witnessed something that can only be described as ancestral happening. We’ve gotten to do that multiple times in this room, you know? I am so thankful for that because I also think that that’s a part of this exploration of Black being an overarching term for actually a lot of different cultural identities, which means a lot of different ancestors, which has been incredible to explore, I think.

Jerome: I’m curious, what has been something feeling your spirit in these last few months?

Jhanaë: I thought about this question before, and there have been three things I think that quarantine has blessed me with, I think is actually the only way I can think of it. One is that I’m in a relationship that actually began and flustered because of COVID. I think that the way that our lives as New Yorkers who make theatre are pre COVID, I don’t know that this would have worked out, just in terms of time and space and energy. But having the time to put in the work has made a relationship possible and he’s wonderful, so I’m very thankful for that.

Jerome: I’m so happy to hear that.

Jhanaë: Yeah, he’s really great. It’s also given me that same time and energy to call Japan a lot. My brother and sister in law live in Japan and I have a niece that I would never get to talk to, but now it’s like once a month, I get up at eight o’clock in the morning, and it’s nine o’clock there, and we call and we talk, and she blows kisses. It’s like the best thing in the world.

Then the last thing is that I learned to bake in quarantine, which does feel very Brooklyn, millennial, but I did learn to bake. I’ve been doing a lot of baking and dropping things off for friends and just giving it, I don’t keep it for lots of reasons, but baking and giving it away has actually been my form of ministry this quarantine. I feel like I do it like two or three times a month. I just randomly bake and drop things off at people’s houses. That’s what’s getting me through, I’ll have a rough day, and I’m like, okay, well I’m going to bake something for someone else and it won’t matter that today was weird, and hard, and awkward, or whatever it was, someone’s getting vegan chocolate chip cookie.

Jerome: Yes, oh my gosh. I am fueled hearing about this. This is so wonderful.

Jhanaë: Well, let me know when you’re back in Brooklyn, I’ll drop off some cookies.

Jerome: I will, I am back in Brooklyn, but I’m gluten free.

Jhanaë: I’m up for a challenge.

Jerome: I mean, if it’s ever aligning with you to make something gluten free, then I would really welcome it.

Jhanaë: It is aligned, it’s here, and it’ll happen.

Jerome: Thank you, Jhanaë, oh my gosh, thank you!

Jhanaë:: Of course.

Jerome: Well, let me see if I have any other questions. Oh, I’m curious about two other things. Is any research that you have become obsessed with through this work or any lines of inquiry?

Jhanaë: Yeah, I think two, they aren’t connected at all. One has been, we talk a lot about intimacy in this room. So I’ve just been thinking a lot about that and what that word really means and how we foster that between any people, let alone between two people of color, two people who are of different races, a man and a woman, there are just so many combinations that lead to intimacy, and they all look different. So definitely that, and then on a very different vent that has nothing to do with anything, but that’s kind of fallen out of reconstruction work, I’m obsessed with punctuation. I’ve said this to you, you’re smiling. You’re like, yes, I know, but I do. I’m obsessive punctuation. Em dashes are my favorite, I just think that they’re so great.

We do so much performative action with punctuation, most of that unconsciously, because you’re not thinking about the punctuation as an act of anything really. It’s just like, that’s how you make a sentence, but punctuation as protest. What can punctuation function as is something I’ve been very, very interested in. I’m like, can I go to grad school for punctuation? How do I do that? Yeah, those have been my two obsessions lately.

Jerome: Oh, wow. It’s either going to be a half hour conversation or a four hour conversation.

Jhanaë: It’s true.

Jerome: Well, I wanted to ask also if there’s anything about outside work you wanted to share, or anything about yourself? Anything else that’s going on? I mean, you’ve talked about these three blessings that have come into your life.

Jhanaë: Yeah, I think in terms of outside work, the only other thing that is fun, and interesting, and new, and scary is, I’m working with a group of Black female-identifying theater artists to create something new. Something that is very hard to describe, but at its core, it will be about consolidating Black Power within the theater industry to create both bargaining power and community, because it feels like across disciplines that Black artists are just disparate. We don’t get places to be altogether. So creating a place where that can happen, and through that, we can have power to hold people genuinely accountable. Because I think that a lot of new groups are forming and they’re doing amazing work. One of the problems we’ve been talking about in this group is that a lot of times we’re asking for accountability and not saying who we’re accountable to. I think something we said on like the first call for this new thing that is unnamed, is us, you will be accountable to us. So that’s very new, and crazy, and exciting, and scary, and amazing. It’s slow going, but hopefully there’ll be some traction in the coming weeks.

Jerome: Thank you for sharing that. I feel very blessed hearing about that, and I send just all warmth to you and the group.

Jhanaë: Thank you.

Jerome: Yeah, of course. I think it’s necessary and essential what you’re creating.

Jhanaë: Yeah, hopefully.

Jerome: Well, Jhanaë, I feel good about stopping there. Is there anything else you want to say?

Jhanaë: I feel great.

Jerome: My answer is no.

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