When I first began imagining Look Back At It, I was thinking about what Black queer folks can look to in the past to bring forward into the future. I was very focused on the idea of planning for seven generations forward, or what it means to craft or live toward a future that we want to inhabit. I was so focused on this, I lost my sense of the present, of what’s happening right now in favor of this romantic notion of the future.
In the research phase, I started to think about the past and how it has shaped some of the conditions I’m not a fan of in the present. In this way, I can clearly see the connection between the uprising last June, the history that led up to it, and the stories that can help uplift and connect to strategies of the present. I’ve been doing a lot of the work solo up until now, writing and being here with myself. But, I just had my first creative meeting with my collaborators yesterday.
I originally conceived this piece as more of a solo show. It wasn’t until working on the application that I realized I wanted to bring other voices in, those of artist-healers who embody different aspects of water, and they weave through the different islands or cycles of the show as holders of the space.
I’ve added a lot of elements that didn’t exist in my initial proposal, including augmented reality, socially engaged components, and collaboration that includes a co-authored text, which is what I’m working on now. I think this all came from more of an embodiment of my research in the time from when I had proposed the work, to now.
I’ve been able to spend time with the physical practice of Filipino Martial Arts. And in this period of training over the past six months, a lot of what I have learned has made its way into what I envision to be the final work. I initiated the work with a more superficial embodiment of the research, but as time has passed, it has now informed so much of my direction. The physical practice behind Filipino Martial Arts, but also esoteric practices, such as prayer and incantations. I’ve been influenced by being present with a group and working and training together. That kind of collaboration, like for you Emily, has come through in my work recently.
Emily, in your script you refer to Audre Lorde’s poem “A Litany for Survival” as a prayer. Is there a connection between collaboration and prayer in your work?
Because of work, I’m not always able to sit down and read to do research, so I’ll listen to people read or to panels on YouTube. In a video I watched about the connection between herbalism and prayer, historian Carolyn Roberts talks about the hidden histories of African American medical practitioners. She mentioned a number of folks from the Black South including a woman who recounts that she had a badly swollen leg, so she went into the forest and she prayed. And God told her to get a bushel of peach leaves and hit her leg with it. And when she did, her swelling went down.
Or there’s the example of Aunt Darkas, who was a conjure doctor. She would go into the forest and pray, and said that God told her which herbs to use in her practice. As I’ve heard these stories and weaved them into my piece, I’ve been thinking about the connection between prayer, survival, and strategy.
My great-grandmother is white, and when my mom joined the Pentecostal church as a young person, she said, “Let her go to church because Black people need that, to be in church.” I’ve been thinking about this connection between Black people and spirituality. I’m interested in the stories of folks who were enslaved, yes, and so forced into Christianity a lot of the time, but who still used the autonomy or the spaces of privacy allowed by religious practice to heal and produce something different than the systems they were in. I’m discovering these ideas, and making connections to Audre Lorde’s work, because it seems to me they’re tapping into the same energy.
The prayer in Filipino Martial Arts is called an orayson and works as a mechanism for defense, but also for attack. The words can both be tattooed on your body and/or serve as a prayer said before you fight, in a moment of danger, or before a battle. They could also be written on a piece of paper placed inside an amulet that you wear. The orayson works in conjunction with the physical practice, the actual technique of fighting.
I’m collaborating with the collective that I have been training with, which is a group of Filipinx women, and we’re writing our own text, our own prayer. I’m interested in the duality of its use. This may be similar to what you were just describing, Emily. The orayson is formed through a synchronism, drawing on Catholicism, but it doesn’t actually serve that religion, it just takes on imagery and elements as a façade.
Caroline, until you made the connection between prayer and self-defense—I don’t think you used that word but, you know, a kind of self-protection—I hadn’t been thinking about prayer in this way. But for me, this has brought to mind some of my research around the Haitian Revolution and the use of ceremony, prayer, and Voodoo there. Of having to mask or protect certain ways of being or praying in forms that are recognizable to the folks who are doing the oppressing, but they have a double meaning that I also feel is connected to the trickster.
The use of mantras has also come to mind. I learned from Alexis Pauline Gumbs that Harriet Tubman would repeat “My people are free” as a sort of mantra. I’ve asked myself what it means for her to have repeated this phrase when objectively her people were not free. It seems to me to have been a form of prayer. With the collective I’m collaborating with I’m interested in finding the ways we can invite the audience into the work of finding the mantras we can create today in the face of what is wrong or preventing our freedom. What does it mean to repeat “my people are free” as a way of opening up that creativity for self-defense, for imagining otherwise?
You both make use of improvisation and interruption as strategies in your work. Is there a connection between these strategies and the diasporic archetypes you also turn to in your work? Emily, you’ve already mentioned the trickster, and Caroline, you’ve named your piece after the figure of the headhunter.
I’m really excited to hear what you have to say about the trickster, Emily. I also think my approach to making resonates from a precarious place, being from the Filipinx diaspora from Australia, particularly in the appropriation that’s in my work. It’s always been a challenge for me to negotiate this. With this particular project, I’m adopting an Indigenous practice, that of headhunting, which can seem quite transgressive.
It can be a difficult concept to understand, especially having grown up conditioned by Western ideologies, but for the Indigenous Ilongot people, head hunting can be used as a way to unburden oneself of grief. To pair grief with violence as a way of healing is potentially illegible for some as a practice. I’m interested in the impenetrability of Indigenous ideas like these.
I don’t know if I’ve ever said what I’m saying now, so I’m gathering the words as I speak. I’ll start by saying I’m interested in the break or rupture, as in what it means to do something unexpected or to use other people’s perceptions or oppressive assumptions against them or against a situation. Playing with that as a means or strategy of survival. In researching the narratives of slave folks, a woman named Mary Ellen Pleasant keeps returning to me. She passed as white, not just for self-serving reasons to gain privileges, but in fact she was actively working to free other Black folks. She amassed a lot of wealth and would use it to fund revolts. When she was outed, or she finally felt comfortable to come out as Black, she was not accepted and was called a Mammy and a Voodoo priestess.
She would walk around San Francisco with this black orb and a cane, playing into this character that people assigned to her. I’m curious to see how playing into tropes to subvert them can lend itself to my performance. The question is also related to how I’m structuring the piece, pushing against a traditional story arc with a beginning, central action, and happy resolution. I’m playing instead with ebbs and flows and almost modeling the show the way my memory works. I’m not always here in the present. Sometimes I’m 10 years ago or I’m two years from now. What does it mean for the show to model that porousness of non-linear time?
I come from that same approach, Emily. It’s a successful methodology of decolonization. I’m really drawn to the Cannibalist Manifesto [Manifesto Antropófago], written by the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade in 1928.I consistently try to apply his idea of cultural cannibalism to the way I work. He suggests we exploit these images or tropes that have been created by Western hegemonic systems that continue to oppress as a way of transgressing them, while being careful to critically reappropriate these images in a way that mobilizes indigeneity.
I often try to do that by using a green screen in my work. To me there’s a kind of trickster strategy for art-making in insisting on these fetishized elements, whether they be from Caribbean culture or in my instance Filipinx culture.
Emily, as you describe the structure of your work, you use water imagery, evoking ebbs and flows, or comparing the parts of your performance to the islands of the show.
This is the first time I’ve referred to the different parts as islands. I’m still trying to find the language for their structure, because it’s not simply Act 1, Act 2. Recently I was listening to the scholar Tiffany King whose book The Black Shoals focuses on Indigenous folks in North America and Black people’s histories. She points out how Black folks have been over-identified with water and a lack of indigeneity or a disconnection from the land. I see the wisdom in this and want to think about this more in the future. Currently, I very much identify with water, and see an importance in identifying with water as a metaphor. I feel divorced in my own sense of self from land; perhaps in an over-identification with trauma I also think of the connection between water and the Middle Passage.
So, then, there is a connection to grief, of a loss of connection to the land. As someone who is here in this country, who is of African ancestry without knowing exactly where my folks are from, there is also a joy when I meet somebody from the diaspora—maybe my homegirl who’s from the Dominican Republic or from Ghana—and and realize, Oh wait, you do that too? The structure of my piece responds to the diaspora and what it means to be connected through these similarities and through water, while also thinking about the connection between Indigeneity and Blackness, especially for Black folks in the diaspora but also on the continent.
A lot of my thinking is inspired by the image of the archipelago; the Philippines consists of over 7,000 islands. What’s interesting to me and maybe to you, Emily, is the way the water connects everybody, but that doesn’t at all imply homogeneity. It’s actually a way of insisting how diverse everybody is. Water doesn’t just flow in one direction; there are more interconnections that can be made, more possibilities. Ordering the acts in a play this way forces the audience to think about things differently.
I’m working differently right now. I’m thinking about impenetrability, nothing porous, nothing being able to get through. It’s been fun for me to go from one way of thinking to the complete opposite. All of the materials that I’m using are bulletproof or bullet resistant. I’m using polycarbonate, which is a kind of acrylic as an alternative to glass, bullet resistant fabrics, along with wood, clay—when they’re fired, ceramics are quite bullet resistant, as well.
And then there is this kind of invisible digital barrier, which is the text of the orayson, also sometimes deemed bulletproof as an added layer of spiritual and psychological protection. This is present as an augmented reality component.
How do you both approach grief and healing, moving those ideas through yourselves to open them up to the world outside you or to your audience?
In crafting the piece, I’ve made room for flexibility, to feel what is happening in the room. I want to invite the audience into the work, to not just passively watch, but to be engaged in such a way that I am able to pick up on what’s happening with them. And if there is a shift, being able to say, “Okay maybe this song can’t be sung like this anymore.” When working through grief or healing, for me and for this piece, there is a necessary commitment to care. To care for the audience in general, but also specifically for Black queer folks, to step into a space and center them, and then to open it up for everyone else to connect to the work.
The grief that I’m contending with in my work is very specific: it is about the experience of what it is to lose your mother. I was drawn to how losing your mother can be a personal loss but also a much broader kind of loss, a kind of postcolonial loss in the diaspora. Collective healing can help that process even for yourself. In the co-authored oración text, we ask ourselves what we need protection from right now, how can this text serve us in this very moment right now. When my mom passed away, it was very helpful to participate in this kind of collective work in my own personal life, so I wanted to bring it into this performance.
The grief that I’m contending with in my work is very specific: It is about the experience of what it is to lose your mother. I was drawn to Saidiya Hartman’s writing, which helped me to link how personal loss is connected to a much broader kind of loss, a kind of post-colonial loss in the diaspora. Collective healing can help that process even for yourself. In the co-authored orayson text, we ask ourselves what we need protection from right now, how can this text serve us in this very moment right now? When my mom passed away, it was very helpful to participate in this kind of collective work in my own personal life, so I wanted to bring it into this work.
When I first started work on my piece, it was originally honoring Black women and queer folks who were either murdered by state violence or experienced of medical neglect or domestic violence. Looking at the intersections of those forms of violence, and connecting to my own story as a survivor, it was obvious that they don’t happen in a vacuum. I was doing a lot of advocacy around survivorship and speaking at different events, but I felt a lot of the work I was doing was being reduced to only a story of pain and the details of trauma in a way that was no longer empowering for me. I was realizing that my grief was not singular; it was connected to systems. When I grieved surviving something horrid, I also was grieving the conditions that created it in the first place. In working with the artist-healers for my piece, I want to honor the pain in a way that we don’t have to replicate harm to ourselves while telling these stories.