By Kaila Schedeen
The performance starts now.
These are the words that greeted people upon entering the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural, and Genealogy Center for Taja Lindley’s The Bag Lady Manifesta. Participants were each handed a closed black plastic bag and told to bring it with them into the theater space, at which point they would open it and follow the instructions within. As we entered the theater and sat in black trash bag-wrapped chairs, creating a muted cacophony of squeaking and shuffling, we opened our bags to find slips of paper with a question, blank sheet of paper, and pencil.
While the answers to those questions ultimately remain in that room and amongst participants, the act of answering them began a process of unleashing led by Lindley, who guided the audience in a meditative ritual aimed towards a collective unburdening. After I had answered my question and placed it back in the crinkling shopping bag in my lap, I sat uncomfortably in my chair, readjusting each time I had drifted far enough down on the slick material that I was sufficiently close to sliding off. The sounds from this collective dance happening around the room blended into the sound from the looped video projected on the screen, haphazardly assembled from taped-together white plastic trash bags. As Lindley’s image moved across the plastic screen—dressed in a series of outfits formed from torn and stretched plastic bags—I glanced around the stage and took in the plastic-covered chairs and white trash bags filled with what was later revealed as more plastic bags, black balloons, and dozens of crumpled pages printed with the photos and identifying information of Black men and women murdered by police in the United States.
Suddenly the music changed and the lights came on, revealing Lindley descending from the back stairs in an all-white outfit of lingerie and plastic. I watched, captivated, as she gracefully descended and performed a one-woman burlesque, removing and dropping pieces of her costume around the room until she was only clothed in pasties and underwear. Lindley’s calm self-assuredness, her dazzling sex appeal, and her joyful choreography came to an abrupt stop however as the music turned to an ominous ticking. The stripped-down woman left there transformed into someone else altogether. She was no longer an object for consumption, but a force to be reckoned with.
At intervals Lindley would transform in this way, pulled away from the audience by a force that consumed her body in shivers, convulsions, and unfamiliar intonations. In these moments I felt less like a participant than a voyeur. There was a ritual element to her possessions, as each time this happened Lindley would adopt more pieces of black plastic clothing hidden around the room. At the same time as this physical costuming was happening, it was countered by an emotional stripping down that often included the audience. After a gut-wrenching monologue by Lindley herself in which she revealed past traumas, participants were asked to do the same. Each time plastic bags were stretched, torn, and refashioned for integration into the participant’s ensemble. This ritual was not about forgetting. It was about cleansing and making room for that—and those—which we cannot afford to lose. In Lindley’s own words, it was about growing gardens out of graves.
One must understand Lindley’s conjuring in that space as a deeply interactive one. As we watched her enter the theater and transform from character to character and costume to costume, the emotional landscape of the room transformed with her in ways that demolished any barriers between us. The feelings left behind included joy, shock, fear, confusion, empathy, and ultimately, trust that the vulnerable cores of ourselves remaining were in capable hands. This collective unburdening was immensely touching and powerful. The performance closed with Lindley directing us to open the white trash bags around the room and uncrumple the pages inside to name the people listed on them. As we yelled louder and louder over the plastic cacophony around us, we remembered them.
I still hold those feelings and those names as I wake up to a world of political turmoil, hatred, and violence against Black lives. But rather than sit immobilized, I will instead continue to remember. Remember those who were taken too soon. Remember so that their lives continue to have meaning. Remember so that we may grow gardens out of graves. Say their names.
Jamar Clark, age 24:
On November 15, 2015, Jamar Clark was shot by Minneapolis Police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Two police officers, Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze, were involved in the shooting and were subsequently placed on paid administrative leave.
No charges filed.
Aiyana Jones, age 7:
Shot and killed during a raid conducted by the Detroit Police Department’s Special Response Team on May 16, 2010. Officer Joseph Weekley was charged in connection with Jones’ death.
All charges were dropped.
Andrew Hill, age 27:
On March 9, 2015, in Chamblee, Georgia, near Atlanta, U.S. Air Force veteran Andrew Hill was fatally shot by police officer Robert Olsen. Hill suffered from mental illness and was naked and unarmed at the time of the incident.
Officer Robert Olsen was charged on two counts of felony murder, one count of aggravated assault, one count of making a false statement and two counts of violation of oath by a public officer.