Reconstruction Artists Q&A: Denée Benton, Jhanaë Bonnick, Vinie Burrows, Rachel Chavkin & Libby King

In our fifth episode of our Reconstruction Artist Q&As, Denée Benton, Jhanaë Bonnick, Rachel Chavkin & Libby King sit down with Vinie Burrows to ask her questions about her history as an artist, her history with the TEAM, and how she has held on to hope through her life.

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

Vinie: I’m going to answer questions. I’m not going to ask questions. I’m going to answer questions. That’s easier, I think.

Denée: We’ll do the hard part.

Vinie: I was struck by the fact that TEAM doesn’t mention theater at all. It says, “The Emerging American movement.” TEAM.

Denée: Interesting.

Rachel: Actually Vinie, it is technically “Theater of the Emerging American Moment.”

Vinie: Oh, that is a difference.

Rachel: But I actually like… I want you to know our acronym was not intentional. We wanted to be called The TEAM and then an accountant said you need to make that an acronym and so the acronym was our first group writing project. We all had to come up with 10 possibilities and sadly we’ve been stuck with this shit ever since.

Vinie: It grows. The colors in it change. But the basic, I think, is there and I can’t talk about the basics because I wasn’t there at the beginning.

Rachel: I wish you were. It would be different. It’s a new beginning.

Vinie: Oh. And for us, too, in this country.

Rachel: I’m going to let Jhanaë or Denée start. I know I have one question that I’ll ask at some point, but I was interested in you two leading the interview.

Vinie: Okay.

Denée: Jhanaë, would you like to go first?

Jhanaë: I was just about to say, “Denée, it is all you,” to kick us off.

Denée: I’m nervous, Ms. Vinie.

Okay. My question for you: I read your interview with American Theater Magazine, which was so beautiful to get to see this picture of your career in a way that I hadn’t before, and I know as a younger artist, the Reconstruction room has been transformative for me. It was sort of a first experience of its kind and I’m curious for you the diversity of theatrical experiences that you’ve had, has the Reconstruction room felt different for you in any way? If so, how has it felt unique?

Vinie: Well that’s a large question and there’re really many, many answers in it. It was different. It is different. Thank heavens that I was able to get another glimpse of what theater can be without hierarchy, without… and hierarchy is a good word… without hierarchy, with diversity, meaning variety and also including depth. It is easy to change a color using crayon from black or red or green but that is flat. That color is flat. TEAM has depth and richness and also, and I don’t know, this word just occurred to me because I read it somewhere this morning, recently, and didn’t know that it applied also to what TEAM means to me, and that is lustre. L-U-S-T-R-E. I suppose I should have looked it up, the exact definition of lustre.

I’ve always thought of theater as a collaborative movement or instrument or circumstances coming together, combining together, to create, to construct, to reconstruct the human experience and the human is important.

I had been listening to various comments about how our former administration, I’m talking about government administration, talking about Trump, and then I think it may has to go even before him, treated the children at the border and I still believe that someone should be brought up on charges to the Court of Human Rights in the Hague because what was done, taking children away from their parents and very young children also, babies even, and you cannot think about babies by themselves. It’s always a baby with something, with someone, and to take away that feeling, that expression, that sense and sense in all senses. Sensory. The smell of a mother’s body, the feel of a mother’s body. A baby is never alone. They have a someone. And to have that someone taken away, to have that smell, that familiarity, that sensory perception taken away abruptly. Where did it go? And where it went, what does that mean about me? Who am I?

Oh, we really have got to bring up the former government that did that to those children. We’ve got to bring them up on charges. I think that all the organizations that particularly deal with children, pediatric medicine and, of course, sociology and anthropology, because that disruptive, cruel, depriving, taking away that familiar smell, that familiar body, that familiar sensory sensation that a baby has from the beginning, even in the womb, the heartbeat, that was the most cruel government travesty and they should be brought up before the Court of Human Rights in the Hague.

But let’s return… Why am I talking? I’m supposed to be answering questions.

Denée: Yes, but it’s okay. It all feels connected.

Vinie: Well, yes. We can make the connections. Sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint the connections and I think that’s also something that’s taken away from the very young and the young human mammal.

Denée: Yes. I wonder, the Reconstruction room felt so human in that way and that’s why it all feels connected to me with you talking about the travesties at the border and it seems like your work and your career has been so much about tying the human to the art to the world view. You know?

Vinie: I don’t know whether I did it deliberately or whether who I am and where I came from, not only by great, great, great, great, great foreparents but also the immediate family that I had, which was my mother and my brother and remembering where I was living. 143 Saint Nicholas Avenue is where I grew up. All of that is part of me and the immediate environment and then of course this I always talk about, because I feel it so strongly, that who I am as a human being who now calls herself an artist, and it took a long time for me to do that, I just said I was a cultural worker, but now in my 96th year, I can say that I am and I have grown into, and working with TEAM helped that growth, which came at a moment near the end of my mortal life, but enriched so much of what I am now when I call myself a cultural worker and an artist. Make sense?

Denée: Yes. Thank you. That’s beautiful.

Jhanaë: Yes. I’m thinking about connection. I’m thinking back to the first time I worked with you, Ms. Vinie, which is before we worked together with the TEAM, which we worked together at, or after, but amidst Reconstruction’s journey when we did Light Shining at New York Theater Workshop. Yeah.

There’s something you just said about connections that I want to go back about for a second which is just how we make connections and keep them. I feel like in working with you these last few years, I’ve seen the way that you foster these connections with people that run deep and long and so intensely and a perfect example of this is when I saw you a couple of weeks ago you mentioned, I was working with Greg, and you said, “Say hi to Greg for me,” and that night I saw him at rehearsal and I said, and I mean the way that his face lit up when I said, “Ms. Vinie said hi,” was incredible. Can you talk a little bit about how you make those connections so quickly but so deeply?

Vinie: I can’t tell you how. It is probably a part of a process, development, and growth, and do I feel now as I’m almost 100 years old, because in four years, I will be 100, and Whit doesn’t know it but he and I are going to cross Brooklyn Bridge together when I’m 100. He may be walking but somebody will be pushing me in a carriage.

Life is short and art is long. That’s the short version and it’s… I’ve just come to the short version and wonder what the other transition is going to be. But that’s another story. That’s another dream. That’s another movement. That’s another work to be started.

We’re here now and it is something to think that, and I say it with nothing maudlin about it, Sojourner’s oldest daughter, or her older daughter, Ava, will be 18 years old on the 11th. November the 11th, yeah. It’s quite wonderful. And I think of her when I think that there are so many things in her life that I will not be able to share with her. Because when she was born, I was still living in this apartment and Sojourner was always here with her. Sometimes they stayed here so that going up and down, we have a long passageway, I can sometimes see her sort of bobbing along, when she was three and four and five and it’s so wonderful to share some of her early physical growth and mental growth and spiritual growth, to be part of it and to be a little sad that I won’t see other developments but cherish what I did share with her.

I don’t know what else to say. I think… Nesmith, the young man who wrote that story, fascinating young man. I had never thought of myself as being particularly tenacious but he talked about that and I guess it is part of me and it is part of what my foreparents left me because their struggle, their travel, across the Atlantic is where I get my power as an artist. It comes from that long journey across the Atlantic where so many of my foreparents died and some survived. There’s a wonderful story, sort of mythic like, about the enslaved Africans when they got on the shores of the New World or the so-called New World some turned around and walked right back into the water, knowing that they would never again see Africa, never again see their homeland and choosing to make a final and not desperate, a final move. You cannot do this to me. And walk right back into the water with their chains.

Well, part of my power, and maybe that’s the tenacity, comes from those who didn’t make the journey, who didn’t know what those ships meant, didn’t know why they were put together like sardines in a can with their excrement, their blood, their vomit and to be sluiced with water in the mornings, the women to be raped. There is a powerful poem, “Middle Passage” by Robert Hayden, who talks about that in a way that becomes seared in your memory and I say, is still seared in my memory and is often in the memory of others.

I must tell you an anecdote really from my mother, who had belonged to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and actually it was because she belonged to the union, the union had classes for the children of union members that I got involved in radio. But anyway, my mother, when she had retired and the union had cruises to the Caribbean. She went to several Caribbean countries and she went to Trinidad and she said, “The people were so happy!” And she went to Jamaica and she said, “The people were so angry!” All of the righteous leaders came from Jamaica. And then she said, “I came to Barbados and everybody was just right.”

And so she came home and told her family that she was moving everything, lock, stock, and barrel, her chandeliers… what she used to have as a mask, her grand piano, her everything, and she was moving to Barbados because the people were just right.

Jhanaë: My mother would agree with that. My parents are from Jamaica but my mom spent a lot of her… they lived in Barbados for a long time. That’s my mom’s favorite.

Vinie: She would love it. My mother did love Barbados and she went there, she sold her house in Brooklyn and bought a house in Barbados and went to college in Barbados, graduated from college in Barbados, joined the American Women’s Club and took yoga and stood on her head every Monday.

Denée: Was this all before you were born?

Vinie: Oh no. No, no, no. No, no. She went after she had retired and she went as a union member. They had these cruises that went to different places and she went to the Caribbean. She went to the holy land.

Rachel: That sounds like tenacity.

Denée: Yes.

Vinie: I guess it is. I guess it is.

Denée: It is.

Vinie: I guess it is. Oh, Phyllis. Phyllis was something.

Denée: What years were those that she lived in Barbados? Do you remember?

Vinie: Let’s see.

Sojourner: ’70s and ’80s.

Vinie: How old were you?

Sojourner: The 1970s and ’80s.

Vinie: 1970s and ’80s.

Sojourner: That’s when she went.

Denée: Wow.

Rachel: Powerful.

Denée: I have another question for you. What is the difference to you between being a cultural worker and an artist? You made that distinction.

Vinie: I may have made a distinction but whatever you do, whether it makes a living for you or not, you are a worker. You could be a plumber, an architect, a carpenter, a vice president. I think that there should be dignity in thinking of yourself as a worker, someone who produces something. Yes.

And maybe that may be simplistic but I think there is, I don’t want to use the word nobility, but I’m going to use it, there is nobility in understanding and appreciating the fact that what you do, whether it earns you a so-called living or not, what you do is work… And it’s like the wheels on the bus go round, round, round, well it’s the work that makes it all go round, round, round. Somebody’s work makes the wheels go round. And it’s wonderful to do work, I think particularly work in theater, but… and theater is such a collaborative form, an art form. There’s something to be proud of that you are a part of a community of workers.

I remember having an English professor when I first went to NYU many years ago and he wasn’t so young but he was talking about trying to unionize college professors who didn’t like to think of themselves as workers. Of course, we run into the same problem now with many professionals who don’t think of themselves as workers and many that do. I just love the interns. The medical interns. Those are workers working in the medical field, but they’re workers who want to be paid, want to be recognized for their work.

I would like to hear something from you about how you think of yourself or yourselves, those of you who are listening, as collaborators in what TEAM does or strives to do?

Denée: I feel something that transformed for me in TEAM with the lack of hierarchy that you speak about is that on an equal playing field, we all as our individual artist selves, contributed to the cultural work whereas I feel like in more commercial forms of theater, the director’s here, the designers are over there, the actor’s over here and you don’t get to meld the magic together in the same way. Whereas, I remember Jhanaë was one of my partners in one of the most profound exercises we did when you and Flako were calling the ancestors into the room and Jhanaë’s artistry as a stage manager was just as vital as my artistry as a performer in that moment because it was our souls coming together and I felt limitless in a way and everyone in the room felt limitless.

Our areas of expertise were all kind of titles but you could shed it away at any moment if you felt, if I felt like I needed to design a dress or Jhanaë felt like she needed to sing a song. It was all there and that, to me, made me feel profoundly human and unlimited and I think that crossover between artist and worker and collaborator, it felt vital and my whole body was behind it.

Vinie: That’s what I got also. It was a special kind of magic. TEAM is, it’s a special kind of magic which we hope to replicate.

Jhanaë: Thirded. I think it’s so interesting hearing you talk about the difference between a cultural worker and an artist because I’ve literally never called myself an artist ever and it wasn’t until working with the TEAM that I understood that stage managers were artists in the same way that everyone else in the room is an artist because like Denée was saying, in normal, traditional theater structures, that’s not the case, and I felt an inkling of it when I worked on Primer with the TEAM a few years ago that, “Oh, there’s a different way of doing things. They’re not doing this the normal way,” and in the Reconstruction room, it feels like we took what Primer was doing and burst it wide open and there’s like, it’s even more of that. And so yeah, I completely third it that there’s something that happens in a TEAM room because of the change in the hierarchy and the disruption of it and also because of how we function in that room in terms of how we present ourselves as people first and thinkers first and creators first and titles come somewhere way down the line while we’re working. I think it’s a huge part of that.

Rachel: I have the same feeling, Jhanaë, that when I think about Primer for a Failed Superpower but also just Primer, that title. I’m like this is what we were priming for in so many ways and I feel so moved, Denée, by the word that you used: limitless. I really feel it’s so elating to be in a room where it just feels like everyone’s constantly getting bigger… it’s really exquisite.

And Ms. Vinie I feel like you, maybe because you carry so much, like you carry so much history and literature that you have at your fingertips and also so much personal history and literature and life, that it makes the room so large.

And as for what you were asking about like how do I think of myself as a collaborator in that room, it’s like a call to keep up slash to play whatever part you getting bigger helps others get bigger and sometimes that can mean, I know as a White person in the room, White-identifying person, being smaller, how that plays into it or what the shape of your energy is but it’s just so… It’s yeah. You used the word magic, Vinie, and it does feel like an alchemy that is constantly tended to by everyone.

I was going to ask you, Vinie, thinking about all that history, what do you think you know now as artist or cultural worker, that you didn’t know when you were Andre’s age? So mid-70s? Which is a whole blessed generation?

Vinie: That demands more thought to see if I can isolate sections of growth or does one just move into it? As the child, and you have joy of watching Whit, such a joy to watch the development of the young child, how they move into the next stage so effortlessly. Why is it so difficult for adults? Why don’t we learn from them, you know? Why don’t we learn from them?

Well, what we must learn from them: it’s that song from South Pacific. “You’ve got to be carefully taught to hate.” It’s not there. That baby doesn’t have it. That baby who has to have someone. It’s not just baby. The human mammal has to have someone. That’s why I said we have to take those sons of bitches to the Court in Hague for what they did to those children, taking them away from their parents. What a sin. What a Goddamn sin that is. Someone should pay for it.

Denée: Ms. Vinie, I’m struck by the audacity of America to keep adding on to sins. To already have such a history of stealing babies from their mothers. We came from lineage of those people. To have the audacity to do it again strikes me. And for you to have lived through so much of the 20th century and now in the 21st century, where do you get your hope? Where do you get your energy to see these things happening again and again and see the insidious violence? Do you see real change and if not, where do you get your fire to say we can get this right?

Vinie: Fire? I don’t know. Hope. I think to look at a child is to be filled with hope. I’m thinking of those two little boys, two infant boys who were found with their umbilical cord still tied to them. I don’t know if you read about it. Two little infant boys. And you wonder the desperation of the person that took their lives away. Where were the others around, that probably young woman who carried the two boys to term and then was able to wrap one in a plastic bag and another in a blanket? There are, in this world that we live in, many obscenities and I don’t know what led that person, we don’t know who it was, we assume that it was a young mother, who killed those two infant boys but her sin, if you want to call it a sin, pales into insignificance when we think of the 600 odd children taken from their mothers at the American border or the millions of children born in this country in the various ghettos and barrios and reservations who are doomed from the beginning of their young lives because they are persons of color.

We have a lot to do and we are privileged to know what our role is and to in some way, work on these things. That’s the tenacity, I guess. To see what is wrong and John Lewis would say, “Make good trouble.” Make good trouble.

Now, another question.

Rachel: Ms. Vinie, I wanted to ask you actually about your work with the Negro Ensemble Company.

Vinie: I really, I was never part of that company, even though Lonnie lived upstairs and I knew Doug and I see Doug occasionally now. That was when I was beginning the solo shows. My husband was in Berkeley and I was here, holding the fort down, and had to make certain that the rent got paid. So I said the only thing I know how to do is act and I was on The Today Show I think. Yes, it was The Today Show and so many college professors called that show and they wanted to know who that person was who talked about African American history and I discovered, and I had good Times review, and I realized that I was… mother was a middle management person and people called and college professors called and I was able to answer their questions and send out and that’s how that began. Going through my apartment, I was looking at some of my early solicitation letters. They were really very, very funny.

Denée: Solicitation letters of people asking you for things? Or you putting your work out there?

Vinie: My putting my work out. Yes. Some of them are very funny. “It just so happens that I will be in your area with my one-woman show, “Walk Together Children,” please see the Clive Barnes review enclosed and can offer you a special rate.” As soon as I got one person, then I called — Oh, well I should, maybe I shouldn’t. Well, oh, yes, this is between us. Maybe somebody else will find out about it — But someone called me and wanted to know how they could help me and I think was it. But anyway, he said he had, it was a man, he had a telephone number that I could use to call any place in the country, any time, but be sure it was a public phone and not my own phone so they couldn’t trace the number back to me. So I would just… he gave me the telephone and I went out and started making phone calls and then when they’d get responses, I would write letters and that’s how it started. It really was a question of, now that I think of it, as tenacity and that person, whom I never met, but I used that telephone number.

Now, haven’t I said enough?

Jhanaë: Ms. Vinie, I don’t think you could ever say enough.

Denée: You’ve never said enough.

Rachel: Agreed.

Vinie: I should listen to you. Well, what I didn’t talk about in terms of TEAM is joy. Because there’s joy…

Oh, where is the phone?

Sojourner: I got it.

Vinie: All right. I think the joy is from our community. Community of workers, community of people with a similar dream and hope and yes, hope and wishing to make and to be part of the necessary change in our world community. Because we are citizens of the world. Our poor beleaguered Earth and what we’re doing to it. As we demolish the Earth, we demolish that which sustains us. The Native Americans say: “white man rapes his mother.” Rapes Mother Earth. And that’s what we do.

But, we do not give up. We join together, struggle together, and we will make a change for our children and our grandchildren. Even until the seventh generation and I’m so happy to be part of this movement because that’s what it is, it’s a movement. A community of workers and lovers.

Denée: Ms. Vinie, were any of your family members artists or cultural workers? Would you call them… I know your mother was a dressmaker?

Vinie: She was a dressmaker, yes. And she was an artist.

Denée: Was anyone a performer?

Vinie: She was an artist. I remember taking her down to Gold Street and seeing an elaborate stonework that… oh, I can’t remember the name of the woman artist, but my mother looked up and she said, “I could do that.” You know?

Denée: Yeah.

Vinie: “I could do that.”

Denée: Wow. Any performers, musicians or actors or writers?

Vinie: Many. Some of them known and some of them unknown. Sometimes, you go to a performance, not particularly on Broadway stage or even on an off-Broadway, but you see something, a sort of magic that infused that company that night. That was part of what makes the world go on. So, we continue. We continue to work together, to love one another, and to continue. Continue as a team, as a collaborative effort.

And that’s the end. Unless there’s another question.

Libby: Hi, Vinie.

Vinie: Oh, hi.

Libby: You know the time. I just got out of class. I wanted to be here so bad. My class is here. Can I show them to you? We’re having a social distanced viewing of our devised piece we just made. They’re all here.

Denée: Hi class.

Vinie: I saw some of it.

Libby: Sorry to interrupt.

Rachel: I think we were just… Vinie was bringing us to a beautiful close. I don’t know if… I mean, I agree that we could go all day. I don’t know if Jhanaë you had like a final thing, or you feel…

Jhanaë: No, I think any question I ask now is like 45 minutes later, because we would just go.

Denée: Did you have a question prepared, Libby?

Libby: I did have one.

Hi Denée.

Vinie, I was just going to ask you about how you’ve, because you’re a mom, and I wondered how that changed or impacted your life as an artist?

Vinie: Enriched it. Yes. I made so many mistakes, so many mistakes, as a working mother. Our society doesn’t make it easy, as you know, to work and to be a mother but at the end, looking at my two adult children, because I have a daughter and I have a son, and looking at their children, I don’t… or I’d say I feel less guilty about what I didn’t do and know that I did the best that I knew at the time and I love them but love isn’t always enough. I didn’t know how to set boundaries and it made life difficult for both of them but they have come through.

Libby: How many grandchildren do you have?

Vinie: Oh my heavens. Sojourner’s two and Gregory’s two. That’s four.

Sojourner: He’s got five – he’s got five: Adrienne, Nicole, Uri, Gregory, and…

Vinie: And then all the grandchildren.

Sojourner: Those are the grandchildren.

Vinie: I have great grandchildren.

Sojourner: I don’t know about them.

Vinie: Julian. Julian.

Sojourner: To answer the question, Gregory has multiple, more than five and I’ve got two.

Rachel: Thank you, Sojourner, for filling that in.

Vinie: Thank you. Thank you my dears.

Denée: Thank you, Ms. Vinie, this was a blessing.

Vinie: Yes.

Rachel: Agreed. Thank you.

Vinie: We give to each other.

Denée: Amen.

Vinie: Amen.

Jhanaë: Which, speaking of Ms. Vinie, total sidebar, but thank you for your cornbread recipe which I tried and was successful.

Vinie: Oh, it never fails.

Jhanaë: It was so good.

Rachel: I need a cornbread recipe.

Vinie: I’ll send it on. I’ll send it on. I really will. Sojourner, remind me.

Sojourner: Cornbread recipe. All right. Yeah.

Vinie: Thank you. Thank you.

Rachel: Thank you.

Denée: We love you.

Vinie: Thank you for being part of my life.

Rachel: Love you.

Denée: We love you so much.

Jhanaë: Thank you for being a part of our lives.

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