September 10, 2011

QBWL poiesis: creating space

In my previous post about a queer Black womanist liberation poiesis, I talked about queer space and Black space and what I imagine that being like. Now that I'm thinking about how the next phases of Tulpa's journey will take shape, I am starting to believe that I was not far-reaching enough in my analysis. Rather than define queerness, Blackness, and womanhood as abstract concepts and attempting to create aesthetics from it, what I should have been doing is assuming queer Black womanhood from the start and working on the ramifications for allowing that to express itself. I should have known better than to try to force that reality into a format that was not meant to contain it.

I believe that, instead of trying to fit my selfhood into these neatly defined ideas, I instead need to start by affirming that . . .

I am Black. I am woman. I am queer.

And then asking . . .

Now what?

This shift in perspective is due in part to some soul-searching I had to do about what I wanted for Tulpa, or Anne&Me and the role that each potential collaborator will play. For a while now, I've been reflecting on some of the patterns I enabled in the development and performance of Tulpa, and I come at it from a few conflicting places. At the root of these conflicts was a question: How do I create a space where the queer Black woman voice can be heard as free of distortion as possible? Who is permitted in that space? What are the mandates of that space?

You have to understand why these questions are so essential to creating a praxis that allows me to exist in the fullness of myself.

Oftentimes, in order for the world at large to recognize my humanity, I must excise my queerness, my Blackness, my womanhood. I have to effectively erase the parts of my identity and the experiences I've had - those things that signify my uniqueness as a living, breathing human being - in order to even be allowed entrance into the human family. In a weird sort of cognitive jujitsu, I must mutilate my humanity in order to affirm it.

Given that the world is hostile to my full self - especially to my woman self, my queer self, my Black self - art becomes a sanctuary in which I can feel free to be myself for myself. Ironically, theatre allows full self-expression by giving us permission to fully be other selves. Just as a physical location creates a space that can be filled by the world of a play, the masks we wear create a space that our selves can fill. Through the dynamic interplay of these spaces and selves, a voice* can emerge.

*Here I should probably update my definition of voice as the relationship between the spaces created in the play. Plot, character, theme, and spectacle are aspects of the voice, but they do not define it as I suggested earlier.

But there must first be the space.

And, again, I must return to the question of how I will construct space. As you may have guessed, the creation of space has more far-reaching ramifications than the particulars of, say, blocking or design. It influences the relationships that artists have with each other, perhaps even the relationships that audience members have with one another and/or with the artists.

While it's tempting to simply say, "It all depends" and leave it at that, the fact of the matter is that I am creating a queer Black womanist liberation poiesis, so defining how to create such a space is part and parcel of this effort. If pressed for a concise definition, I would define a liberated queer Black womanist space as one where womanhood, Blackness, and queerness - all these symbols of Otherness - may be fully integrated into that space.  It is a space that embraces Otherness as an essential component of selfhood and one that makes room for fully engaging that Otherness without stating or implying a reduction of the self to Otherness.

In more concrete terms, a liberated queer Black womanist space expresses its Blackness through diunital cognition (both-and thinking), is queerness through embracing difference and fluidity, its womanhood through  birthing spaces via the self. Such a space is liberated because it frees those of us who dwell in these spaces to (finally!) express the fullness of who we are.

Of course, when creating these spaces, it is not simply a matter of stating, "This is what I want." Again, it must go back to praxis. What must be in place for this space to exist? What are the demands this space would place upon those who would step into it?

I honestly haven't thought about it too much, but the main thing that comes up is that it must serve the needs and interests of queer Black women by placing queer Black women at the center of knowledge and authority. This does not allow, say, a Skeeter to swoop in, take our stories, and use them primarily for her own gain. It does not allow someone who is not a queer Black woman to set the agenda, determine the terms of engagement, or control the process. Yet, it encourages self-examination. It encourages intimacy. It encourages solidarity. But it must be free of the taint of domination in order for us to find our own voices and realize our own potential for freedom.

I hope that explains it. Does it make sense?

September 9, 2011

I drank the Facebook kool-aid

Against my better judgment, I joined Facebook. You can find me at

Yes, I am deeply ashamed of myself. Please don't rub it in.

September 5, 2011

reflections on soft power

Adam Thurman has a TEDxMichigan Ave Talk, "Power and the Arts," that's all too brief yet full of amazing insights about the use of power in the arts:

For those of you who don't have 10 minutes to spare, or just want to skip to the good parts, I offer a highlight of the piece that stands out to me:
There are two types of power: hard power and soft power. What we've been using in the arts for the past 50 years is hard power. Hard power is about force. Hard power is about coercion. And we have been master of hard power. We know how to build big buildings. We know how to turn artists into forces of personality. And we know how to argue. [...] Coerce, force, persuade.

And what we're learning now [...] is the limits of hard power. [...] Now we have to transition to a second type of power. And that is soft power. Soft power is defined as the ability to bend people toward your worldview through attraction, not force. [...] What's your worldview? What do you believe in? Don't tell me what you do. I don't care what you do. I've observed that someone else who does what you do, and they're probably better than you. [...] What's the point of all this? [...] How do we get better at telling the world what we believe? And then, let's take it one step further: How do we show what we believe?
This is an fascinating line of thinking in light of my recent work with Tulpa, or Anne&Me, as well as a couple of my most recent posts about writing artist statements.

This may surprise people who only know me online, but it takes a lot of physical and psychological resources for me to interact with people. In public, and around people I don't know well, I tend to be extremely reserved. Part of this is my natural introversion, so I feel deeply uncomfortable when thrust into an unfamiliar environment with a bunch of strangers and being expected to perform socially. So when I am present and engaged in such a situation, it really means something. It's not something I'm doing just because it's something to do. It also means that when I talk about myself, I don't like feeling as though I have to puff myself up to seem capable, important, or worthy.

As you may guess, this means I suck at selling myself. But when I am invited to share something I'm passionate about that means a lot to me, it's a lot easier (not easy!) for me. I don't know if it's because it relieves most of the anxiety by taking the onus off me as a person, if it's because my enthusiasm becomes apparent and therefore contagious, if it's because I'm tapping into something greater than myself that speaks through me, or some combination of these or other things. The result is that it's much easier to talk about myself and what I do when I can focus on passion, vision, and purpose.

This would, if Adam's TEDx Talk is anything to go by, put me firmly on the side of soft power when it comes to the way I orient myself as I use the energy and resources I have. More than that, though, I tend to be deeply uncomfortable with hard power. If I were to hazard a guess, it may have something to do with the fact that, in my experience, whenever I have felt or was mistreated, it has been because of a misuse of hard power - especially in the form of actual or perceived authority. It's not that I hate it; after all, we all use both forms of power. However, I do tend to be very distrustful of it because of my experience with people using hard power to violate my boundaries.

As a result, using and receiving soft power as opposed to hard power feels very different for me. Soft power feels like an invitation. "This may be something you're interested in because blah blah blah. Would you like to join?" Hard power feels like an ultimatum. "Do what I want or lose something precious. Do what I want or you fail at life."

That's not to say that's what really happens, or that's what people are really trying to do. But I often receive it that way. As my social consciousness grows, I've become increasingly sensitive to how hard power functions within systems of oppression. While there is the obviously problematic nature of hard power when it is used by a privileged person against a non-privileged person in discussions about oppression, there is also the question about the use of hard power in the service of dismantling systems of oppression.

Put simply, hard power doesn't work. It doesn't work because it comes from external sources trying to breach into your internal processes. Although it's a great temporary fix, and it can have immediate and effective results when trying to convince powerful people to make a decision about a specific act, it fails to undermine the internal processes that uphold these systems. As social justice activists are increasingly starting to notice, books, articles, statistics, workshops, advertising, and other methods of instruction and argument cannot prompt a person to change themselves if they don't want to or see a need to change.

What does lead to lasting change? Friendship. Marriage. Family. Religion. The things we value most about our lives. The things that can be reached only through soft power.

For instance, the person who sticks to a diet and exercise regimen won't be the one who's bought into all the weight loss advertisements or all the articles that prove how healthy eating and exercise is good for you and will lead to a longer, fuller life. It's the elderly man who wants to be there for his granddaughter's graduation. The person who quits smoking is not the one who has read all the studies about how cigarettes will kill them. It's the 30-something woman who nearly dies from a stroke with so much left they want to do.

It's the same thing with social justice. Real change comes from our connection to what has intrinsic value to us. It's a White woman who gets into a serious relationship with a woman of color and sees a tiny bit of what she goes through then decides that the world should not be that way. It's the pastor who sees the pain homophobia causes the brightest and most exemplary members in his congregation. It's a mother realizing that her son has actually always been her daughter, and what it means to support her in a reality rife with trans misogyny.

Since theatre, like all arts, creates and reflects the world we live in, it is inherently an agent of soft power. So why aren't we seeing more individuals, organizations, and institutions using the tremendous soft power that is already a part of what makes theatre so vital? I honestly don't know, but I think it's worth clearing up some potential misconceptions that may be limiting our ability to notice and nurture the soft power all around us. This is all based on my experience with tapping into soft power. Other people's understanding of it may be different.

Soft does not mean weak.
Let me give you an anatomic example. Compared to muscle and bone, the vagina is soft and pliant. But babies come out of there. Speaking of theatre in terms of passion, values, and purpose allows the work itself to accommodate many forms, building experiences and relationships on the way. But when it gains momentum, it becomes an irresistible force. Like pussy for people who like pussy.

Soft is resilient.
When you talk to people who have experienced catastrophe, pay attention to the things they say when they talk about how they got through it. The common thread I've noticed is hope. Hope is the ultimate soft power. Hope lends courage, tenacity, and resourcefulness to people and places where they would not be expected to dwell. Hope does more than help people survive. It gives us the ability to heal and to live.

Soft does not mean easy.
I don't know about you, but I wasn't fortunate enough to be born knowing what I'm here to do or who I'm meant to be. I still don't have any certainty about those things, but I have a better grasp on it than I did. It took trial and error. It took serious soul-searching. It took making a commitment despite the cost. Finding and pursuing your Why (as Simon Sinek calls it) is not easy. It takes the ability to be honest with yourself and the willingness to cut off things that detract from your Why.

Soft power is not determined; it is revealed.
The hardest thing about using soft power is the fact that you can't force it. Like a seed taking root or a flower starting to blossom, you cannot create soft power just because you say you want to. Sometimes the hardest thing about soft power is the fact that you sometimes have to just stop, wait, and watch. It's very much like the way people describe being pregnant. You have all these mysterious processes leading to something wonderful. But in the meantime you're subjected to cravings and mood swings and pain in weird parts of your body. Once it's over, and you recognize your child, you finally see what it all meant.

This post has gone on long enough, so I want to hear from you. What is your relationship to hard and/or soft power? How does this affect the way you go about doing things? How does this reflect who you are as a person? What other thoughts and insights do you have to share?

September 3, 2011

healing and transformation: a brief introduction to my artistic self

On my LiveJournal, there is a post entitled, Why I'm Doing This. It is a collection of quotes from people who reached out to me to tell me how Tulpa, or Anne&Me has helped heal them or has transformed how they think about the issues the play raises. When I reflect upon this, I see that as a playwright, I act more as a shaman than as an author. Through my plays, I lead the audience into an alternate reality where they can find healing and transformation. This parallel grows stronger with each piece that I write, making it an essential part of my process and purpose as an artist.

Shamanism reveals itself most clearly in the structure of my plays. In each script, I take people to a different world where they encounter essences – spirits, if you will – of forces we confront everyday yet do not always recognize. This experience helps change thought patterns and start conversations that are so important to us, yet are so frightening to have. Stripped of everyday dross, this gives people the opportunity to face and name these things in order to overcome them.

This may seem strange considering my commitment to advocating social justice. Talking about spirits and other worlds seems ephemeral in comparison to the daily realities of systemic oppression. As someone who lives at the intersections of several oppressions, when I run into racism, sexism, and/or homophobia, it hits me like concrete. At the same time, what is racism but a ghost that lingers and haunts our lives? What is sexism but a spirit that seizes control whenever given the opportunity? What is homophobia but a demon that feeds on the hate and fear of those in its grip, and devours the pain and suffering that fear and hate cause?

Aesthetically, this mystical approach to current realities means that my plays are steeped in mythology, religion, fairy tales, folklore and even astrology. These have been the wells of inspiration I have drawn from since childhood. I have yet to outgrow this inclination to “play” with reality, to make literal and concrete what is often abstract and allegorical. So my works lend themselves to a stylized approach to staging. They have much in common with non-Western theatrical forms such as Noh drama and Butoh, religious rituals based in Vodou and indigenous traditions, and role-playing games that take place in fantastic or science fiction settings.

In thematic terms, there is a strong current of Otherness in my work - other worlds, other beings, other times - due in no small part to my own experience with Otherness. Living as a queer Black Jewish woman makes Otherness an ever-present reality. No matter where I go, I am some form of Other. Please do not misunderstand; I have no desire to be "normal." Yet life as a perpetual Other does come with a certain amount of internal and external strife. By laying this bare from the perspective of the Other, my work transforms Otherness from a source of powerlessness and isolation to a source of knowledge and freedom. Through this process, I hope to heal and transform the world by showing how I heal and transform myself.

September 2, 2011

artist vs. audience? maybe not.

At the 2AMt blog, Aaron Andersen asks if we really want to be like Apple.

In my comment responding to the post, I reveal my fully fledged nerd status when I said:
Sometimes I wonder about this artist/audience division. Speaking for myself, I write plays like the ones I like to or want to see. So in a weird, roundabout way, I am the audience too. This does gel with my experience with roleplaying games, where the creators of the content are the same as its audience (generally speaking).

To what extent is it likely that we often set up a dichotomy between artist and audience that doesn't have to be there? What would our relationship to our work be like if that distinction was not there (or was at least heavily muted)?
Just in case you had doubts about how big a nerd I am, I came to theatre from roleplaying games. And no, a few sessions of D&D ain't what I'm talking about. I mean whole shelves taken up by White Wolf Games, Dungeons & Dragons, and indie RPGs that most people probably never heard of. And let's not talk about the games I designed myself.

During a brief Twitter conversation, I shared that what made roleplaying games unique is the fact that the audience and creators of a game are typically one and the same, so the division between artist and audience doesn't necessarily exist for me. I don't think about the audience as though I'm somehow separate and aloof from it. As a matter of fact, I write the things I want to see.

Does the fact that I create content by itself put me in a different category from the rest of the theatre-going community? I suppose one could argue that I bring specialized knowledge or expertise to the process, but I don't doubt that there are theatre-goers who have a broader and deeper knowledge of theatre than I do and who can probably articulate their ideas about it much better than I can.

Are artist and audience really separate in some fundamental way? If so, where does the division between artist and audience lie?