A global event.
A flattening of privilege, color and creed.
A virus with no boundaries
Certainly no interest in discussing philosophy
Traditions or dreams.
This unearthed ignorance and destruction
This cypher of hope and human life
Forced a pause on what Was and a reckoning on what will Be.
The great question arising from the bowel-like-depths of humanity is “What Now?” To begin the process of finding any foothold in a grounded response it seems necessary to recall the beginnings of this pandemic journey, starting March 15, 2020. I lived in Brooklyn NY at the time, Crown Heights, to be specific, a gentrified neighborhood working hard to hold on to a sense of community engagement and civic responsibility; even as high rises and their corresponding bottom floor grocery villages sprout on every intersection of commerce and foot traffic; a popular neighborhood, filled with bars, restaurants, coffee shops, yoga studios and bodegas. The decomposition of personal identity through isolation, racial injustice incessantly playing across all media platforms, and the loss of friends and community members is imperative to remember, from which live theatre and practices inclusive of this art form’s resilience would eventually grow.
The first 3 months of the pandemic, nothing but sirens every 10 minutes for 24 hours, 7 days a week could be heard, supposing we exclude the banging of pots and pans at 7pm sharp Eastern Standard Time. If you know anything about New York City real estate, in gentrifying neighborhoods especially, you are well aware that “space” is a word seldom used in regards to square footage, rather something one needs away from their roommates and or apartment. I found myself for the first time jealous of the mice that undoubtedly live inside the walls, or under the floorboards, or frankly anywhere the eye seldom sees, because they could come and go with ease, socialize without fear of death, and eventually return to their hidden abodes filled with stories from the day’s adventures.
As the first quarter was waxing into the second quarter of pandemic year one, the death of George Floyd and countless other black and brown bodies filled television screens, social media platforms and spurred action online and off as calls for justice could be heard echoing down avenues and flooding inboxes with heedful dings. As a black queer man from the South, injustice and ignorance played an integral part in my development. This moment however was different. I felt as though my entire identity had been shattered, all of the pieces I had used to build a “self” were now scattered, broken and fragmented upon the floor of my shoebox apartment and an ancestral portal deep below my coccyx floor opened wide, a wound from which wailing pain and rage exploded, coupled with the death of friends and community members, all of whom one was unable to visit and witness passing on to the other side. All things combined, my psychology took quite a hit. In all honesty, I broke apart, completely, utterly, painfully, quietly, ugly.
The next chapter would invite a rebirth, a reclamation and redefining, a reimagining and restructuring, and an intrinsic belief began to sprout in my awareness, something I knew but had drowned out for so long. I was capable of more. The systems and institutions of influence throughout my life repeatedly failed to inform me of such, rather kept me from knowing this fact. When “We See You White American Theater” was dispatched, I felt seen, and yes, a change was necessary for our industry. Surprisingly, the companies I hope to return to when the shitstorm of shutdowns ended, were immediately engaged in breaking down this manifesto piece by piece and building a plan of action for the next 5 years to address every element applicable to their institution. Great River Shakespeare Festival was one of these institutions and the summer of 2021 found me performing again for the first time since November 2019!
Moving forward, it is imperative that theater begins, continues and structurally shifts into a “walk the walk, not just talk the talk” mentality. Diversity and representation are at the core of any enduring expression. This comes from top brass to lowest PAID intern. Respecting mental health, funding EDI engagements, creating space and funding for marginalized groups to gather and celebrate resilience, actively working to ensure all voices are heard and encouraged to participate in the process of theater making, providing more time off and less hours worked for technicians, and casting decisions made with an eye to the future rather than that of the past are all beginning steps Great River Shakespeare Festival has taken. However, the most encouraging quality they possess is the self-awareness to know this takes time and dedication; they will not get everything right. They have a 17 year structure that is going to take time to RE-structure, but sitting passively by is no longer an option.
My whole life I have felt on the outside looking in. That has led to a dulling of my light and potential. The process of breaking apart and rebuilding myself led to the full engagement of what once was solely a coping device, my poetry. A poem titled “Fullness” in my newest collection, “Bounty: a pilgrimage in process,” states:
There’s a pearl inside
A sternum-buried brightness
It’s everything I own and know
What I thought was shining before
I’m realizin’ was just a glow.
Can I trust you, World?
Or will you steal my pearl?
I have since decided to trust the fullness of my presence, my voice and thoughts, my vision for the world I see possible. The question however, still remains, as it has for centuries, in all forms of being and expression: What Now?