Reconstruction Artist Q&A: Jhanaë Bonnick & Rachel Chavkin

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.

Rachel: Yeah.

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?

Jhanaë: Absolutely.

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?

Jhanaë: Yeah.

Rachel: And all the white artists were like, “I don’t like this, this is boring.” Right?

Jhanaë: Yeah.

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.”

Rachel: Bonkers.

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?

Jhanaë: Yeah.

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.

Rachel: Yeah.

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…

Jhanaë: Wow.

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.

Jhanaë: Yeah.

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-

Rachel: Yeah.

Jhanaë: … which is just as someone who feels intensely mentored by you and wants to pass that onto people who I encounter. Just like, how do you do that when you also hold so many other things with, I’ll use the word again, because I think it applies to you so well, with such grace. How do you do that? And thank you for doing it for me.

Rachel: Oh gosh. Thank you for both asking that, and I mean like, God… Because I mean a huge part of that is just like, I guess this is the beginning of the answer, is not presuming that mentorship is desired. So I was actually going to say thank you for receiving whatever I have been able to give that is of use. When I teach, and I teach a lot of workshops and masterclasses now, I haven’t taught full-time since 2013, but I taught a long time. I taught for over 10 years starting right after undergrad. And whenever a student asks me for advice, I will say I don’t believe in giving advice because I think it is presumptuous. I think it presumes that the given circumstances in my life bear any resemblance to the given circumstances of your life. And then the way that I try to teach is very similar actually to how the TEAM functions in many ways, not that I have in any way a pedagogical or andragogical relationship to the artists in the TEAM room, but what is similar is I just set up assignments to cause a crisis.

And then I will sit with the students while they deal with that crisis. And I try desperately to not tell them how to solve it. I just try to be with them. And I have used the word doula before to sit with them while they’re doing their problem solving. And I think coming back to mentorship that that’s a big aspect of it is I have zero interest in anyone thinking the way I think, because a huge part of the mentorship is actually the learning is for me. I am an energized and filled by the people I work with. And so, it’s an interesting balance. And I want to turn the question back to you and ask, I know you have begun to do some mentoring significantly. And I wonder if there has been a moment over the past couple years that happened between you and a mentee and you were like, “That was damn fine mentorship.” And like, what were the hallmarks of that moment?

Jhanaë: Yeah, I think it’s so funny. I mean, funny in a way that that’s not the word I mean, but engaging to hear you describe it like that, because when I think of moments like that, I’m thinking to Lempicka at Williamstown, where it was Cody and I and three interns kind of doing that, which is wild in its own way. And I actually did exactly what you said a lot, which was they would come to me with, “Okay, how do I do this thing?” And a lot of the work of mentoring them was actually making it so that, with support, they solve those problems for themselves. And now, especially one of them but all of them kind of, are still working and still are grateful for the opportunity to have had to do it themselves as opposed to be told how to do it. Yeah, and I get the most satisfaction when that happens, when I don’t help, and they figure it out on their own. Yeah, for sure.

Rachel: I love that. I love it. Thank you.

Jhanaë: Yeah. Thank you. I’m out of questions.

Rachel: Those have been such beautiful questions.

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