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Week 3: Violence, Care and Performance

As we move into Week 3 of Bull City Dignity, our cast members are individually conducting interviews with Durham community members, and we are starting to envision what the final production might look like. In rehearsal, cast members share their experiences with one another - who have we interviewed? What stories have we heard? How do these stories make us feel? How do these stories relate to one another? Which memorable moments will become scenes in our script?

 

As we share stories that we have heard with one another, I begin to feel a heaviness in the room. The students are discussing moments from their interviews that contain a great amount of violence and heartbreak. Folks have shared with us so many powerful and painful experiences of struggle and neglect  - it’s impossible not to feel the full weight of oppressive forces as they act on our communities. We start to realize that the intimacy of story-sharing carries with it a great trust, and that the work we’re doing comes with very important responsibilities. As a project that is dedicated to making art by and for our own communities, we have the power to transform the words of our loved ones into fuel for resistance, and yet it seems counterproductive and harmful to be reproducing painful moments for our audience, many of whom are already marginalized every day. How do we tell stories in a way that’s honest and truthful, but not traumatizing or paralyzingly painful? How do we do the work of uplifting the voices of our community without creating an outside gaze that exploits the very real lived experiences of our loved ones? How do we hold the weight of oppression alongside the need for hope, for solutions and for imaginations of a better world?

 

As facilitators, Dom, Lee, Lara and I long ago came to the consensus that we aren’t interested in a performance of ‘oppression olympics’ - this project isn’t about simply listing social injustices and putting trauma on display. We already know that issues like mass incarceration, police brutality, deportations, healthcare inequality and transphobia exist, and we already know that resistance is necessary; it is neither ethical nor interesting to be centering or fetishizing violence in an already violent world. The question is, how does a project like Bull City Dignity do the work of creating space - for storytelling, for honesty, for empowerment and for care?

 

This week we invited Jesse Zaritt, a dancer, choreographer, teacher and beloved mentor of mine who is currently teaching a class at the American Dance Festival. As a queer Jewish man, Jesse’s choreographic work mainly focuses on masculinity, manhood, queerness, and Jewish solidarity with Palestine. The cast members ask him about how he sees his role in the world as a dancer and a dance-maker. Jesse quotes his good friend Jack Ferver (another choreographer that I love dearly and have had the pleasure of working with), ‘All performance is political. You’re either waking people up or putting them to sleep.’ Jesse says that throughout the years, he’s realized that his mission is to wake people up with his work. He also says that, importantly, as he works with material that is difficult, painful and often traumatic, he refuses to reproduce trauma on stage. He does so by thinking about the transformative power of the performer - we have the ability to use our bodies and our performance to represent and handle trauma in honest and yet imaginative ways. He talks about the power of beauty and humor - when the audience is able to admire a piece of work, or to laugh through the particularly painful moments, we are actively creating space for imagination and resistance where violence doesn’t dictate the ways in which we are able to move through the world. He also talks about abstraction, where we can represent graphic violence with symbols and gestures (such as the use of red jewels instead of blood) that allow the audience to feel the weight of the violence without actually experiencing it.

 

Throughout the next few weeks we will be building our script from the ground up - we’ll be reading through all the transcripts, pulling out moments that we want to see in the play, ordering moments and drawing mind maps to build an outline, and writing scenes one by one. In a couple weeks, we will have a full performance that documents the lives and stories of more than twenty Durham community members. Some moments will make us laugh, some will make us cry, some will make us fear for our futures, and some will fill us with love and joy. As we move forward, I hope that we continue to work with our power to transform - that we hold space for pain and trauma, but we find ways to struggle, to resist, to build and to care our way through that violence. Documentary work allows us to be both honest and imaginative; I hope we are able to make space for conversations, to provide analysis, and to say the important words that need to be said.

 

Most of our interviews are conducted by one cast member, accompanied by one of the four facilitators. At the end of our interviews, we like to ask our interviewees if there are any last stories they would like to tell, either about themselves or about Durham, or if they have any words for young folks or people in Durham. One interviewee’s words, while incredibly simple, feel particular special and important to me: No, just thank ya’ll, for letting me be one of ya’ll participants. Both of ya’ll can use it to do something. To bring awareness. Okay? Alright.

 

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Week 2: Reflections

by Leoncia Gillespie

About a year ago I wrote the following journal entry, from the perspective of an anxious, seventeen year old, Bull City Dignity cast member. Now, I’m an anxious, eighteen year old, Bull City Dignity Co-director.  Sometimes it’s difficult processing what it means to be one of the “responsible” people in the BCD space, and I still find myself looking to Lara and Cindy for answers. There are times that I even feel the need to ask the students if I’m doing a good job, because most of the time I still feel like one of them. However, I think that’s one of the unique aspects of Dominique and I’s roles. We’ve been in the same position as them before. While this year’s cast is by no means identical to last year’s cast, they still have some of the same basic needs and questions; Dom and I can relate to that. As I struggle with the pressure of having a “leadership role” in the project, I find that it’s most helpful for me to reflect on the feelings and thoughts I had last year as a cast member. This is what was on my mind a year ago:

I’ve been trying to tell people about the show. I find myself starting off by telling them the name of our group. This is followed by a lot of hesitation, and an awkward process that feels like me playing tag with words. I’m always it. This game of constantly grappling for words that describe the show is not the result of my lack of knowledge, but the result of the show having a sort of fluid foundation. Everytime I tell someone about the show, I am brought to the realization that it’s so much more than what can be explained through a brief summary. I am reminded of everything I have learned and experienced with the Bull City Dignity Project. My experience with learning lines and understanding the meaning of a script as it continues to undergo edits seems to be the shortest accurate representation of the show. We’re putting on a performance about Durham, “back then” and “now.” And, when I get in the car to leave rehearsals, I can see the current Durham. It’s not dormant. It’s not the same everyday. Like the script, it is constantly being tweaked and changed.  Everyday now, I’m reminded of the fact that we are not just recording random stories and conversations on paper. The words and stories we hear from activists, family members, and city officials convey emotions that could only be felt by those immensely impacted by change. These dialogues reflect present and past feelings evoked by recollections of events like the construction of highway 147 and the passage of Amendment One. We’re transcribing interviews containing various perspectives on information that still impact our lives and our community. I can literally see the apartment complexes being built. I drive on highway 147 and see the city surrounding me. This ride now consequently reminds me of historic divisions, both physical and social. I see the protests. I see the news. I see the art. Gentrification, anger, passion, creativity…all molding the environment where I live, commute, and breathe everyday.

Then, people ask me about the show, and in my mind they are asking me about Durham. This used to just be “the city that I’m from” or “the place I’m growing up in.” Durham used to be a minor detail in my story, worth noting, but hardly worth some deep or glorious explanation. It was just a city. My house, my family and my friends were home, not Durham. It’s funny. This is my 17th year in this world...in this city, and it feels like I’m just now letting all of my weight really connect me to the soil. My eyes and arms are just now opening up and allowing me to actually become a part of the space, rather than simply existing in it. I listened to Lamont Lilly’s interview, during which he talks about artists making this city dope and being able to live here because the housing had generally been affordable. As a poet that spoke to me, because that meant I could return to Durham and know that I would be returning to a place where I could thrive. However, he also spoke about changes being made, as they relate to the pricing of housing, which seem to be making that idea less realistic. It was revelations like the aforementioned one that really made me start thinking about how important the history and current state of this city is, and also how relevant it is to my life.

A curiosity about this city’s history and general presence has been awoken in me. I have so many questions myself, and now people are asking me questions. I feel like all I have to give them is more questions and some crayola drawn, rudimentary pictures. It’s as if I’m an eager artist, but still cautious and unskilled. The answers I have right now are simultaneously incomplete, unfinished, colorful, simple and complex.  Maybe that is what our show is… maybe that is what Durham is. I am not sure yet, but I want to find out or at least continue searching and exploring. It is my 17th year here, in Durham; there is only a year until I leave for college, and my journey in this city feels like it is still in its beginning stages. I do not think I am late, because I do not believe that a time constraint can be put to discovery and learning. Furthermore, the information that is available for myself and others to uncover is endless. So, at this point I think the best way for people to obtain some idea of what our show is about is for them to spend time walking around Durham. Explore downtown, Tobacco Road, Hayti, Geer Street, and Fayetteville Street; talk to the people who have experienced the changes that these areas have undergone. Welcome the idea that change is complicated. There will be times when it should be praised, times it should be scrutinized, and most importantly, times when it should be challenged.

 

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Bull City Dignity: Year Two

On the first floor of the West Duke building, as the work day is ending and Kenan’s office is emptying for the night, the cast members of Bull City Dignity come into our rehearsal space for the evening’s workshop. Lee, Dom, Cindy and I have pushed the tables and chairs to the edge of the room, and we sit in a circle with the cast in the middle of the carpet, swapping advice on transcription techniques and telling stories from the past week’s interviews.

This is the second year of the Bull City Dignity Project, a public history program that brings together high school students from across Durham to create a work of documentary theater crafted from oral histories they’ve conducted with members of the community across generations. The nine weeks of the program pack in quite a bit: the cast begins by choosing research topics to explore in their interviews. Then they practice learn basic ethnographic methods, write questions, and head out to conduct 2-3 oral histories a piece. After transcribing the interviews, the students sit down to write, considering the ethics of representing the testimonies on stage. They rehearse lines, practice movements, rewrite and rearrange, and eventually, perform for audiences across Durham-- at the Hayti Heritage Center, the Durham Arts Council, and at Duke University.

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Week Four: Facilitators, Difficultators, and Making It Work

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Week Four: Facilitators, Difficultators, and Making It Work

Moving into the fourth week of rehearsal, Lara and I have gone back and forth about how best to facilitate the writing process. Good facilitation can be elusive; it dances somewhere in the middle between unilateral leadership and anarchic consensus. It also demands keeping one eye on the product and the other on the process. Navigating these many balancing acts during the rehearsal process, I think back to a theater class at Duke with Jeff Storer, who once told us, “a director’s job is to create community.”

Lara and I long ago abandoned the image of ourselves as the “teachers” of Bull City Dignity. As Paulo Friere argues in Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Augusto Boal echoes in Theatre of the Oppressed, learning is a two-way street. We shouldn’t see students as “empty vessels” for our wisdom; often they know just as much, or more than we do. This is particularly important when it comes to discussing the community history of Durham.  As two co-directors from Washington, D.C., we’re outsiders. Our role in facilitating conversations about Durham’s history is not to lecture, but to create an environment for dialogue and mutual learning. Sometimes, though creating a collaborative space means we’re at the front of the room less, it often takes much more work. It’s not infrequent that Lara and I will stay for an hour after rehearsal talking over our group dynamics and what we can do better. Should we have corrected our student who kept interrupting her castmates? How much should we allow one actor to write on their own without feedback from others? Did we take up too much space in that last conversation?

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Week Three: Community Landscapes

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Week Three: Community Landscapes

We invite Dr. Jules Odendahl-James of Hidden Voices to join us for a workshop on documentary theater. As the students crowd around the table in our usual classroom, I sense something strange in the atmosphere of the room. Our discussion with Jules, about the Outsider Festival, the forms of documentary theater works and the work of Anna Deavere Smith, isn’t out of the ordinary for a discussion in Bull City Dignity. I’m suddenly struck by the Duke-ness of the seminar table, with Dr. OJ at the head and Kari and me at either side, as the students lean over their notebooks dutifully taking notes.

 

    It was in one of these East Campus seminar rooms that I remember first really thinking about the power of design to change the way we experience space. One of my first-year political science professors was lecturing on the architecture of my native city, Washington, D.C. We talked about the architecture of the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial-- A scar in the earth, we described it. A gash in the landscape.

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