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.