Skip to content

Reconstruction Artist Q&A: JJJJJerome Ellis & Zhailon Levingston

Our third episode of our Reconstruction Artist Q&A, features artists JJJJJerome Ellis and Zhailon Levingston. In this episode, JJJJJerome and Zhailon discuss what “role” means in our rehearsal room and in the world, things that are currently haunting JJJJJerome, and the creation of a “brave space”.

To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.

Zhailon: Jerome.

JJJJJerome: Zhailon.

Zhailon: It’s so good to see you.

JJJJJerome: Oh, you see how wide I’m smiling. So good to see you.

Zhailon: I know. Man oh man oh man oh man. We’re supposed to talk about Reconstruction and talk about your role in Reconstruction and what you’ve been doing with the project and we will, I’m sure, at some point.

JJJJJerome: Yeah, we will.

Zhailon: Also, I don’t know if I’ve ever told you, I think you are the most exact example of manhood that I know.

JJJJJerome: Oh.

Zhailon: I wanted to start the conversation just letting you know that despite what our roles are ever, in our artistic life, in my personal life, I am also curious about what you think your role is in the world? Maybe we can start there and that can bleed into Reconstruction but what do you see your own self as?

JJJJJerome: Well I feel extremely blessed and honored that you have started this way. Thank you for your very kind words. I mean, it’s a beautiful question, Zhailon, and I think I have perhaps several roles. I have been thinking about my grandfather, my mother’s father, his name was Charles and he died back in April, as you know. He was 100, almost 101. He was a minister and a farmer and his father was a minister and a farmer and his father was a minister and a farmer. I learned this last year when I was in Jamaica at the farm he used to run. I think about that kind of like dual calling in vocation, a minister and a farmer. To me both are about, I mean they share many things. One of the things I think they share is a sense of cultivation and patient cultivation and kind of like guidance but also the getting out of the way that guidance can require.

I was reading this book recently and they gave this example, it was like, “The farmer is not responsible for the growth of the plants. The Earth is responsible for that. What the gardener and the farmer do is they try to create the conditions through which the Earth can do what it already is doing. Similarly, the sailor does not sail the boat.” The sailor creates the conditions for the wind to move the boat.” I think of myself kind of in those terms as like, at least what I try to do, is like a vessel in a way or like a kind of channel that if the minister is a vessel of the word of the divine and the farmer is the vessel for growth, I try to be a vessel for something. To me, there’s kind of an emptiness there, too, that it’s like I try to cultivate a kind of emptiness. I try to be the riverbanks as much as I can and try not to worry about the river. To me, one form of emptiness that takes is in my stutter. That when I stop speaking, that’s a reminder to me of a certain kind of emptiness, of verbal emptiness.

In other spheres of my life, aspects of my life, I try to cultivate that. I think of windows, too. It’s like, you ask me what my role is, I think some people’s roles are … Think of a house. Some people’s roles are the beams in the roof and some people’s roles are the floor. I think my role is sort of like a window. That I’m actually there to let something else in. Yeah.

Zhailon: I mean, what’s been so fascinating about working on Reconstruction is also the development of the vocabulary of the room because the way in which you are speaking about who you are and how you move in the world feels, at this point to me, as black and white and plain as saying, “I am the composer. I am the music director. I am the actor, the writer.”

JJJJJerome: Yeah.

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?

JJJJJerome: Yeah.

Zhailon: I’m curious what has that experience for you been like in terms of the relationship between your vocation as minister gardener, or the lineage of minister gardener that lives within you and how you’ve been able to bring that into the room of Reconstruction? Is it useful to think of yourself as a composer in that room or not?

JJJJJerome: Yeah. Zhailon, I’m just bathing in your questions. I love it. Oh, I mean, yeah. Yeah, I’ll begin with what you said about composer, yeah because it’s like the word compose, of course literally means to put together. If I think of it like that, that makes sense to me for my kind of role in other situations where I’m a composer. Reconstruction that doesn’t feel right. I don’t feel like I’m putting things together. I think there are other people who are doing that. For me, yes, so the word composer in that sense doesn’t feel right. For me, there’s something about what I was saying about the windows and I’m looking out of a window right now out into these trees. To me it’s like, in Reconstruction, I do make music and I write as we all do and I perform as we all do. To me, it’s been important for me to do all of those things at the same time and not to privilege one over the other. Again, to me, it’s this thing of the window. Sometimes what’s coming through the window is sunshine and sometimes it’s rain light and sometimes it’s a breeze and it’s like, I try to let whatever it is that’s over here outside the Reconstruction room pass through me as much as possible and get into the room.

Sometimes that takes the form of sound, sometimes that takes the form of words, sometimes it takes the form of movements, sometimes it takes the form of me being silent and just kind of sitting in the corner and watching and listening. To me, yeah, it’s not … Composing here it feels too, yeah, too … Yeah, putting together is not resonating with me as much as, again, letting through. For me, that requires a kind of spiritual poise in the room that … It speaks to the vulnerability that I, and I think everybody in the Reconstruction room experiences in their own way, but a vulnerability that there’s ancestors in the room, there’s spirits, there’s children, like literal … Two of our cast members have been pregnant over the course of the writing. Three actually now. There’s new life coming in. There’s so much ghostly and ancestral and future being activity all in the room with us that for me, part of my vulnerability there is like, I try to be as open as I can to listening to those spirits who are with us and sometimes those sprits have a song and there’ve been moments with you, moments with Mrs.Vine and Jillian and Ian and James and Amber and Denée and really everyone.

It feels, in fact, silly to name names because I’ve seen it happen with everyone where the music passes to somebody else and it passes from person to person and if … Another thing I think about the word composer is it can be kind of limiting to me because to me, the composer, the word composer has such, of course, a long European history. To me, one of the connotations it carries is like it’s a lone figure who is making music whereas the way I see the music happening in the room is it’s something you catch. Something that enters you like haunts you for a while and then moves on. I try to keep myself open to that and that can be really intense in the body. You don’t know where certain things are coming from. I grew up in Pentecostal churches, including my grandfather’s and speaking in tongues is a very every day thing. When the spirit comes, then you open your mouth and you try to convey something, yeah.

Zhailon: You used a word that is in my next question and also the idea of spiritual poise I think is fascinating and I think I only want to work with people who have spiritual poise so that will become the new marker. I was going to ask, what has been haunting you lately? I don’t mean that in a necessarily negative or positive term. Just what has been haunting you?

JJJJJerome: Yeah. Well, I think… I can do a show and tell, in fact. What’s been haunting me, I have this sheet of paper, this is from September 16th and I have a table over here that has … On September 16th I began making a sheet a day. What the sheet is, is I copy out by hand, I copy out an advertisement for runaway slaves from either the 18th Century or 19th Century. This one is from Maryland, February 1st 1798, and for those who don’t know, in newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries if you were a master and you had a slave who ran away you could place an ad in the newspaper and you could give a description of the slave. Their name, this one is very common, this one has a lot of the common things. You’d say their age, how dark or light their skin is, what they were wearing, and then if they have any identifying characteristics on their body like a scar or a limp. In my case, if they have a stutter.

I’ve only been focusing on ads of slaves who stutter. This one says, it’s about a pair of slaves who are brothers, Will and Tom. Will, when he speaks quick he stammers a little in his speech. He’s 30 years of age, he’s by trade a carpenter, he saws well had at the whipsaw. They offer a reward and they say where they think they’re heading. This says, “Will writes pretty well and if he and his brother are not furnished with passes from others, they will not be at a loss for them but upon proper examination, may be discovered to be forged.” So there’s little lightning flashes of a biography of these slaves because often this is the only information that we have about them. I’m utterly captivated by them and they’re so painful to read and also there’s so much … I feel such a hope that the very act of running away is such an act of resistance and rebellion and it’ll say often what date it was placed.

There was this other one that was placed in June and in October the ad is still appearing every week so you gather that the slave is still gone and that the reward is raised. Then in November, the ad goes away so then the question is did the master give up or was the slave caught? I’m sure some of them were not caught and they escaped. These have been haunting me and what I’ve been doing with them as sort of an ancestral practice which is very much born out of, in some ways, our practices in Reconstruction. Especially when people have brought in primary sources. We have several people that brought in excerpts from people’s diaries and journals and just the intense specificity of a primary source and how specific it is when you encounter a piece of writing that was not intended as literature. This has a very utilitarian purpose that all the details, the stuff about the passes that they can forge passes because one of the brothers knows how to write. The detail I find so powerful and worthy of a novel. This is not a novel. This is not written for that purpose. It’s written and it’s very specific because they want to increase the odds that they will get back what they think they own.

It says, “They were wearing upper jackets lined with flannel and overalls of a drab color.” What I’ve been doing, and this has been inspired by another object lesson. I also think about, I think in French the word haunt is connected with the word inhabit and I think about something that is haunting you is inhabiting you and that also you inhabit what is haunting you. I’m literally like-

Zhailon: Yeah.

JJJJJerome: I live with these things, you know?

Zhailon: Yeah.

JJJJJerome: You know what I mean?

Zhailon: Yeah I always think of hauntings as.. it’s not these things that won’t let us go but things that we won’t let go.

JJJJJerome: Yeah, yeah. So there’s this book, Zong!, it’s written by this poet M. NourbeSe Philip and what she does in this book, the book is a book of poetry and there’s a legal case from the 18th Century as well about a slave ship where the captains got off course and in order to, I believe because they needed to save rations or something, they threw overboard over 100 slaves that they had captured in Africa and were on their way to the Caribbean. Then they filed an insurance claim against the insurance company to get insurance money and the insurance company was like, “We don’t owe you any money because you murdered these people.” They’re like, “Well that’s cargo so we threw them overboard.” There’s a two-page legal case that is the only record we have of these people. We don’t have any other records. What she did is as she sometimes talks about in an interview, she locked herself inside the text and she wrote a series of poems restricting herself to the words that were used in that case and using no other words.

What it started out at first was literally just only using those words. So like the word ship, the word water, the word Africans, the word insurance claim and she would rearrange these words to make poems. Then eventually what she did at a certain stage in her process was she then would take the words and see if there were any anagrams you could make from them. So the word apprehension she could then make the word son. Then more poems evolved from that. The way she sometimes talks about it is how do you tell the story that can’t be told? How do you tell the story of this horror when all you have is a legal case that is just a bunch of white dudes in England arguing over insurance money. How do you tell the story? What I, inspired by her method, I then have been writing poems and now songs by restricting myself to the words in each ad. Every day I’ve been focusing on a new ad.

For example, in this one that I was showing you it says that, “Will is capable of the use of tools in almost any work.” Then it said, “When he speaks quick he stammers a little in his speech.” Then I wrote the line, “Stammers are tools for almost any work or stammers are saws for speech.” I start to find … It’s amazing. It’s like all these things just start to arise that were not intended by the master who placed the ad and that even I’m not intending in a way because I’m restricting myself to the master’s words. How does one find truth and even beauty and music through the master’s words? My practice right now is to do this every day for one year.

Zhailon: Wow.

JJJJJerome: Starting on the 16th, a week ago. That’s what’s been haunting me and it’s just like, it’s endless. It’s just like …

Zhailon: That’s amazing.

JJJJJerome: Yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah. I started singing and making songs from them, too. Yeah, it’s an ancestral thing.

Zhailon: To me that’s such a beautiful blur between what we were talking about earlier, which is the vocation of your humanity out of the world and your artistic vocation and this weird dance mix and how I think Rachel refers to what she encourages people to bring into the room is their individual artistic agenda. It feels like that marriage is a part of the individual agenda we hope to keep gathering in the Reconstruction space which just makes me think about how … I can’t remember what the gospel song is but it’s basically like, “If I had a thousand tongues I couldn’t tell it all.” There’s something about this process that feels like we’ll never be able to tell it all. Even just listening to you talk about those ads and what you’re doing with them and somehow you’re giving us access to what has been previously, I think, experienced as inaccessible. To me, that’s another form of that window, right? You are creating a window for more to be told and I think at least it’s part of my hope in Reconstruction that we’re doing some of that work, as well. Creating a window for more to be told with the acknowledgment that if we had a thousand tongues we cannot tell it all.

That’s just some of the things that it’s making me think about. I guess the last thing I want to ask you or just pose to you and invite your musings on is just, figure out how to word it, I don’t love the idea of a safe space in a rehearsal room or in any kind of artistic context but I do love the idea of a brave space. I just wonder what has your relationship been to the Reconstruction room and moments of feeling the ground shake beneath you? What has your experience been in terms of how the room has supported those moments of vulnerability, danger, fear, questions, doubt, existentialism? Do you feel like a sufficient container is being created? Can you speak a little bit to that?

JJJJJerome: Yeah. I really do feel that it’s such a sufficient container has been created and is in the process of being created constantly. I do feel that and … Adrienne Maree Brown‘s idea of moving at the speed of trust has been so fundamental in the Reconstruction room and fundamental for me. I was not introduced to that idea until the Reconstruction room and feel that happening constantly. What I think about what that is like, something about speed and tempo in music that like, to me there’s something about the Reconstruction that’s like … Yes, we move with the speed of trust or we practice that but also the speed changes. The speed is not constant and I feel like the room and the people in the room … I feel such a great … I think part of why I feel like in moments of danger my experience of them has been … I really appreciate your resistance to the phrase, “Safe space,” so I’m also going to avoid the word safety. In moments of danger I have felt a trust that the danger, it’s like I have felt moments of fear but within the fear there is the absence of fear.

It’s kind of like when you’re in a house that you feel is well built and there’s a storm happening outside. You might feel the house shake in the wind and there might be a moment of fear within that but within the fear, there’s the pleasure of like, “Oh, but this feels, in fact, really good because the house is so well built.”

Zhailon: Yes.

JJJJJerome: And there’s a pleasure in that. Or the pleasure when you’re camping and it’s really cold and you’re in that sleeping bag and you know that if you step outside the tent that you would freeze your little booty off immediately but inside that sleeping bag it’s perfect and there’s in fact a, for me, there’s a savoring of the cold. It’s like, “Yeah, let it be cold because I’m here.” Something about that that I feel in the Reconstruction room and I think part of that, what I was saying about speed is I feel like the people in the room have … Again, all this for me it’s important to emphasize the fact that it’s an ongoing practice and it’s not something that is, “Oh, we did that. We established trust and now we’re good. I feel like it’s constant. To me, there’s a constant sense of being attuned to shifts in tempo, shifts in energy. Again, like I was saying earlier about the spirits, shifts to like, “Oh, is there a spirit here right now?”

I feel like there’s such a fine attunement to that. That makes me feel, or within that I feel a great, like a different sense of trust within that. That is not unlike the way I feel with playing with a very sensitive musician where I know that if I increase the tempo just a little bit that they’re going to respond to that in a way that is sensitive and feels good. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to speed up, too, because there’s something very beautiful that happens in music sometimes where one person’s speeding up, the other one actually slows down to kind of hold that. That’s kind of how I feel in the room a lot of the time is just like that there’s a sensitivity that is so fine that yeah. One person can be like, “You know what, right now, I need to actually not play in time with y’all and I need to actually go find my own meter.” Even that is held.

Polymeter is of course something that we’ve talked about and that James has brought into the room and I think Polymeter, for those who don’t know, is a musical phenomenon found in many different musical cultures, including a lot of West African cultures where you’ll have one person playing an instrument in one meter or one rhythmic structure and then you’ll have someone else playing something in a different rhythmic structure and there’s a very special kind of musical effect that happens when those things are allowed to exist in their autonomy while also being in relationship to each other that it doesn’t sound like chaos. Each reveals the complexity of the other and something that I think James talked about is like you can’t listen too closely to the other person because you need to listen to yourself to maintain your rhythm but you also need to be listening to them. I feel like that pertains to the container of the room.

I also think about a spiders web. I think about how spiders silk, I think by weight, has more tensile strength than steel. I believe I read that somewhere. Even if that’s not true the concept moves me. I think about spiders, though, when you come upon the forest it can be invisible. You don’t even see that shit and then you come upon it, it’s just like-

Zhailon: Right.

JJJJJerome: Then the whole thing is revealed and you know, you can just feel how strong it is and yet also how not weak, but how fragile it is. I can swipe my hand through it and it’s gone but the fact that I can swipe my hand through it and it’s gone doesn’t mean that it’s not incredibly strong. I think about that kind of strength that I feel like we, in the Reconstruction room are developing, too. I also feel like in this forest with the spiders and you shake one of the trees that the web is attached to, the whole web shakes. I feel like that happens in the room, too. When certain forms of intensity or power or energy or force come through the space that the web, the web itself, feels it and it holds it so far at least. Again, I think it’s an ongoing thing. I feel extremely grateful to be a part of that process. I learn from it all the time.

Zhailon: To me that’s one of the most beautiful illustrations of democracy which is, I think, kind of what we’re trying to get at at the room together. It’s invisible until it’s not. It’s fragile, it’s strong, you see it, you don’t. It can come in many different shapes and forms so yeah. We could literally talk all night obviously. I’m going to stop us here because we just cannot tell it all.

JJJJJerome: That’s right.

Zhailon: We cannot-

JJJJJerome: Cannot tell it all.

Zhailon: Tell it all.

JJJJJerome: Had we a thousand tongues.

Zhailon: Yes.

JJJJJerome: That’s it.

Zhailon: Thank you, Jerome. I love you, brother.

JJJJJerome: Love you, Zhailon. Love you, brother.