By Neon Queen Collective (Jessi DiTillio, Kaila Schedeen, Phillip Townsend)
P: How Charles Anderson and his troop were able to articulate visual and material culture through their bodies was really overwhelming for me. Trying to be in the moment but also realize that I am in a moment where black death is just as precarious as it was 400 years ago… After a walk around and I saw the wall with newspaper, The Daily Texan, and stories of social justice paired against sports stories, and you walk around to the other side and there’s these same newspapers whitewashed with images of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and all these people that have been victims of police violence and gun violence in general. It really made me think about the way that black death is not taken as seriously as it should be. It’s so mundane, it doesn’t really stand out.
K: It’s like it’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
J: I thought one of the really striking motifs that all the dancers did periodically from the beginning was laughing really hard, in this way that you couldn’t tell whether they were laughing or crying. I feel like that kind of slipperiness between the bodily expressive gestures was really affective, and was referencing that sensation of “I can’t believe this is happening again.” That’s something in the title, (Re)Current Unrest…that we’re coming back to this over and over and it feels ridiculous and it also feels terrifying and horrible and painful.
P: There is a slippery slope, because you do think it sounds like laughter, but it quickly morphs into something much more sorrowful and dark, and it’s something that seems to never end.
K: It got me thinking about this phrase that- I don’t know if it makes sense except in my head- about the hilarity of grief. The sense that grief is so displacing for the body that in many cases when one experiences trauma, the ridiculousness of the situation and the way that someone has to survive, one has to displace that experience from their body, and it tends to result in the sort of odd, hysteric social interactions. I thought that was one of the most powerful parts of this piece, how all the actions of these figures didn’t seem to logically fit together, but in that moment with the affect of the space and the histories that these dancers were engaging, they made perfect sense. It was like pieces of a puzzle coming together. The intensity of the noise and the movements…it was like there was no way of getting around what was going on around you, it was a constant reminder that these things are happening in a way that the media tends to brush under the rug or misrepresent, because it’s uncomfortable and it’s difficult to constantly be reminded of these facts and of these deaths, but in that space it was so incredibly present, which is why I think we all left feeling so exhausted.
P: For me, it was this corporeal expression of black history. Black people have been on the move in this country since they were extracted from Africa, it hasn’t stopped. It’s always been a fight and a struggle for freedom, emancipation, and equality, and still today this dance is happening. At some point you get tired…of protesting and screaming and asking people to hear you and still not being heard.
J: One of the other things I thought that he [Anderson] conveyed really well was the way that black people are forced to perform abjectness in order to move anything forward. It’s like in this recurrence of violence against the black body, people have to display it to everyone, they have to face the violence over and over, so it seems like a mourning for that kind of experience as well.
The Steve Reich sound piece Come Out from the early 60s that repeated “come out to show them, come out to show them…” referenced Daniel Hamm’s experience with police violence, when he had to “open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them” as proof of his beatings. The way that line repeated over and over, and the dancers were kind of in this joyful mode at that moment in the piece, and they were doing a fist raising gesture in solidarity and activism, I felt like that was pointing to a complex relationship to violence. It’s mourning the fact that the only way to potentially experience change is that people have to abject themselves…the people who are subject to such violence have to continue to live it over and over again until something changes, and nothing is changing. In the background, Charles Anderson projected a Glenn Ligon piece that contained a quote from Zora Neale Hurston repeated. I think that Ligon, and Anderson, and Hurston are all playing with what repetition does. Also, the visual aspect of black-and-white being repeated and merging into one another and becoming this static fuzz…like newspapers being repeated over and over again, or the projected visuals that looked like static on a TV…
P: There’s that phrase about the burden of the black body, and this makes it visible. Someone has to physically re-injure themselves to prove that they have been injured. Who else has that kind of burden?
K: This idea of the burden of proof came out throughout the entire piece, and it was very clear and very powerful. That’s why, as someone who’s more unfamiliar with dance, I found this piece to be so a evocative. The words and repetition start to fall over one another, and invisiblize each other, and they become void of the meaning that they’re meant to portray. Violence against the body separates one…because of the inexpressibility of pain experienced by the body. In this performance the failures of language was in some ways overcome by the expression of dance.
P: Something that caught me by surprise, though I should have anticipated it, were the swings. How quickly the swing became a noose reminded me specifically of Tamir Rice, and how the sights of play and innocence for black people is also a site of death. It made it clear how quickly spaces can be transformed when black people enter them.
I did not prepare myself well for this. I don’t know if I could have.
K: It was hard to sit through, and it was hard to end. The ending was so striking to me because I was skeptical that it was actually over…
P: To me, that’s one of the beauties of the work.
J: It was clear that it wasn’t over, because it’s never over.
P: I don’t remember who talked about this when Tamir Rice was killed, but someone pointed out that when you are black you are never a child, that you are instantly an adult. Being in a black body as a male you are never innocent- you are always perceived as deviant, or a threat. When the dancers made this move like they were riding in a car, it reminded me of Sandra Bland. You’re chilling, then you get pulled over for nothing and all the sudden your life is lost. The fragility of black life in this country is real.
At the end, there was a small mantra, “This is my home, this is my home…” I shouldn’t have to feel like a threat to people. I shouldn’t have to perform niceness to people in my home. It’s never occurred to me to articulate this country as my home. I’ve never thought of this place as being my home, because I’ve never felt comfortable.
The cast to me- the composition of the ensemble- with people of all nationalities, is a statement that this is not just a black problem. It’s a human issue.
K: There were these figures that I can only think to call orators – they were standing on soap boxes making that deafening stomping noise that was impossible not to associate with gunshots, over and over and over and over, in a way that had an opposite effect to language. The violence of the situation became even more clear as those sounds were repeated. The really tall white male dancer that you couldn’t miss wherever he was in the room, at times he kept slipping in-and-out of this ally mode. At certain points he was close with the other dancers, and then he would separate and become a perpetrator of violence, but was brought back into the group in the end, which I think was one of the most painful parts of the piece: this feeling of having to move on and move forward without any sort of reparations.
P: Yes. Even as we were just getting seated I noticed that there were elements of crunk incorporated into the choreography, and I thought about how crunk is this genre or style of dance that comes from protest. Anderson seamlessly meshed this with contemporary elements of dance. It was really hard to tell them apart if you weren’t familiar with the style…it goes back to what we were talking about earlier in the ways that representations of difference become so normal that you can’t see the difference. Protest just becomes white noise.
J: I was interested in the tap dance as well. That seemed intentionally reminiscent of minstrelsy. It seemed also related to that slipperiness between laughter and pain.
P: I feel drained. I cannot tell you how hard it was for me to not crumble in that performance, especially towards the end, there’s something about Sam Cooke. He always pushes me over the edge, I have to tell myself, “don’t do it!” But also the fact that I have to tell myself that I can’t express sorrow…I’m sure has some sort of connection to this work. Who the hell is going to hear my tears, anyways?
K: I think it’s also really important to note the makeup of the room, and the locality of the piece. All the newspapers on the wall were The Daily Texan. There was definitely a sense that this piece is pointed in any space, but especially in Austin, which is rapidly making its communities of color feel more and more unwelcome and more and more unsafe, it’s important to remember location. The deeply traumatic parts of the piece make you want to find connection with others, but there’s also this sense that you can’t. It’s important to notice how different people connect…
P: Or disconnect.
K: Exactly. Some people got up after the performance was over and hugged friends, giggled…it wasn’t that they weren’t necessarily any less affected by the piece, but it was a way of disconnecting from that space because it was so difficult to be there.
P: This performance for me felt violent. I don’t know if it was Anderson’s intention, but I felt assaulted. It really made me feel uneasy. The moment where the swing transformed into a noose, it reminded me of lynching photographs and postcards.
Then, whenever I hear James Baldwin’s voice, it always puts me on edge. It’s always at a moment of contestation or protest, or him having something to say about the affliction of black people. In addition to hearing his voice and seeing the images on the screen of Martin Luther King, Jr. being interviewed, I knew that something bad was going to happen.
J: Did you all feel like there were moments of joy and redemption in the performance?
P: I did feel like there were moments of joy, but they quickly transformed into wailing and crying, there’s a blurring.
J: There is a moment where everyone was dancing and getting excited about activism, then that orator figure was like, “Who the fuck are you?!”
K: There was definitely an element of spectacle. All the figures at points were putting on this mask of joy, but I was never convinced. I’ve been thinking a lot about Junot Díaz’s recent op-ed for The New Yorker, where he writes about his sexual trauma, and how following that he put on a mask as a protective device, but he became so attached to the mask itself that he could never take it off. To take off the mask would basically mean to destroy him, to shatter him. I was thinking about that as I was watching the dancers. At times they had these really excited faces, but the inherent violence of the structure that they were in made the whole experience very unsettling. I didn’t feel a sense of joy. I can see that slippage, but I was very conscious the entire time that there was a tower of ladders next to us. I was thinking about this idea of the state and its all-knowing eye, and I felt like it was watching me throughout the performance. The swings, the ropes as curtains… There was very much a sense as soon as I walked in that the infrastructure of the space with setting this up to not be a good situation.
P: Right. When I walked around those ladders, and I thought it was a tree, I saw this sign posted pointing with arrows for “whites” to go one way and “blacks” the other. This was clearly designed to disrupt the way we inhabit that space. You’re put in a space that’s dividing you and classifying you, and I’m happy I didn’t see that before I sat down.
I could not smile, and I was confused by people who could.
K: My reaction was the same as yours. The idea of smiling, the idea of talking to someone, the idea of touching someone and connecting in any way with another human being in that space felt so impossible because of the depths that performance brought me to. In those moments of darkness, you want to be able to connect to the people around you, but that space left me with a sense of skepticism about my ability to do that. It left me skeptical that there would be something on the other side of that connection.
This is something I usually try to avoid during performances, and I definitely leaned into during this one, but taking notes is my defense mechanism. When I feel uncomfortable about something, I start taking notes about it. It’s like an academic distancing that this performance was trying to disallow. This interpretive mode that I’ve been taught into…you go into a space, you absorb it, you interpret it, and then you tell everyone else what it’s supposed to mean. That performance made this very difficult to do. The more important part of that performance is that you come away with an inability to describe, and an inability to rationalize. You cannot rationalize what happened in that room. You cannot rationalize the amount of violence that happens in this country daily, especially to people of color. It’s an impossible rationalization to make, that people do anyways. The mental gymnastics that people have to do to get into that mode of explaining away deaths and violence and trauma…
P: I take your point about writing being a defense mechanism. The things I wrote, were the things that I didn’t want to think about in the moment. To think about the things that I wrote…I wouldn’t have been able to make it through the piece.
The moment when Charles went around the room counting: 400 years, 300 years, 200 years, 100 years, and then he started talking about what happened in 1865…when is a change gonna come? It seems like this conversation has been happening forever, and there is no resolution, there is no end in sight.