Decomposition Instead of Collapse: Playing Changes with Daniel Alexander Jones, Part Two

Collective Editors’ Note: This essay series is by and for the theater community, and hopes to offer regenerative, communal thinking in the face of industry changes. We are providing a brave space for artists and administrators to focus on creating present and future solutions out of, or beyond our past [perceived] failures. This series builds upon Annalisa Dias’ essay Decomposition Instead of Collapse: Dear Theater Leaders Be Like Soil, originally curated and published by Rescripted and Nothing for the Group. To mirror the mycelial intent of this series, we decided to expand our collaboration and partner with 3Views, amplifying this content on multiple platforms. All editing for this series is done on a voluntary basis, and we offer a small honorarium to our writers for their perspectives. We encourage you to support/donate to our platforms so we can continue this important work. Thank you to Stephanie Ybarra, Lauren Halvorsen, and Annalisa Dias for being originating thought partners in this work. This series is published in a commons with 3Views on Theater, Rescripted and NFTG.

You can read Part One of Playing Changes on 3Views, and Part Two below, here on Rescripted.

A note from pharaoh: Re-Membering oneself is a concept I first learned from Daniel Alexander Jones in 2015, on a production of Gem of the Ocean. Borrowed in part from Toni Morrison’s rememory, re-membering is the practice of pulling together oneself from experiences, stories, and the fragmented pieces that are often all we have at our disposal. It’s the act of allowing all of the pieces to arrive at a state of wholeness, and this whole out of the many is a concept critical to be a practitioner of Theatrical Jazz, the practice I would inherit during our time together. 

Jones has become a lifelong beacon for me, someone whose signal I will always look for when I’m lost. He has taught me so many lessons of freedom, of how to walk away and do it all over again, how to never lose your audacity, tenacity, or style, and for the love of all that is sacred – to not give up your voice or the ability to think on your own behalf. 

This piece has been a growth experience for both of us, as I helped Daniel, who has shaped me so deeply with this examination of his own lineages and teachers, the fruits of which you are about to read. Generated as we each stood at our own thresholds, willing each other to step through. This is the work of “playing changes to new meaning.” The practice of urging each other to open up, to name ourselves, to create something new together. Remember.

The core idea of the series that we’ve cultivated, Decomposition Instead of Collapse, is all about what we will craft even as institutions and cultural bastions are being disrupted and dismantled. This requires a conviction of purpose, or as Jones puts it in his virtual liner notes for the album Aten, “deep faith in the emergence of light from the darkness.” Jones effortlessly weaves these teachings of his mentor Dr. Constance E. Berkley with the current challenges our industry is facing, reminding us ever so sweetly, that we’ve been at this edge, this precipice, this portal, many times before. 

PLAYING CHANGES, pt. 2

 

(l-r, The Vassar College Africana Studies Core Faculty, circa 1989-1990. Professors Tukumbi Lumumba-Kasongo, Lawrence Mamiya, Joyce Bickerstaff, Obika Grey, Constance E. Berkley, Norman Hodges, and G. Moses Nkondo)
yesterday

Dr. Berkley, 

I am at your door.

Consciousness. Trust. Tectonic change. I have big questions with tangled roots. Bet. I call my sister-in-arms, Reverend Dr. Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas.

In August of 1987, moments after I’d arrived for my freshman year of college, I ran smack dab into Stacey Floyd. Repping Corpus Christi, Texas, she stood with the buoyant force of a declaration on the pathway between Lathrop Dorm and Strong–the sole all-women’s dorm remaining from Vassar’s women’s college origin. “I met you on the road to Strong,” Stacey reminds me in her inimitable voice, which, almost forty years later, still contains worlds. Had she chosen, she’d have been a legendary actor. 

We’d both wound our way through Vassar’s academic pathways to become Africana Studies majors, and together we journeyed well into the tall grass of Black political thought. We held eye-opening debates about consciousness–especially the nature of double-consciousness as initially outlined by Dr. W.E.B. DuBois. We studied the evolution of the concept over the Twentieth Century in the United States. We gauged the impact of double-consciousness upon ideas of integration, assimilation, separatism or nationalism, violence or non-violence, et. al. We questioned what aspects of our selfhood were indwelling, prescient, and how we were either responsive or reactive to societal splits. We pierced shadows in one anothers’ thinking,  drawing out vital contradictions, interrogating ideas of loyalty and transgression; we grappled with the willfully ignorant and the trifling among us, which sometimes was us, as we navigated new communities, and invited the risk of unfamiliar choices. 

Only through such challenging discourse could we approach something that felt to us like truth. We practiced being together, awakening, seeking, eyes open. We learned ourselves anew. We fell apart and came together, again and again, remembering in a pattern we’d recognize in so many of the friendships among the artists and intellectuals and activists we studied so closely they felt like kin; learning that lifelong friendships could function like beacons across time’s open ocean. We knew our work had already begun.

Vassar’s Africana Studies faculty underscored the power of the arts to impact human consciousness. I recently spent quite some time looking at the faces in an Africana Studies faculty photo from Vassar’s archive, recalling these beings, the living and the dead, and their lessons. Dr. Tukumbi Lumumba-Kasongo taught us about Negritude, Pan-African political consciousness, and the challenges presented by the growing presence of the media in our lives. The late Dr. Lawrence D. Mamiya, an expert on the history of the Black Church, who founded a landmark program that challenged the carceral state through consistent engagement between students, and people incarcerated in the local Green Haven prison. Dr. Joyce Bickerstaff was first and foremost a teacher of teachers, and was especially gifted in her understanding of children’s literature. Dr. Obika Grey, a rigorous thinker who brought cross-cultural analyses to his work in Political Science. A larger than life historian with indefatigable love for the people, Dr. Norman Hodges, who famously brooked no nonsense. And Dr. Moses Nkondo, then head of the program, a sphinxlike presence whose teaching of global Black literature was itself a kind of poetry. 

Not pictured were the many visiting professors like the late Dr. Blanche Foreman whose expertise augmented the core curriculum, nor luminary visitors to our campus including Gwendolyn Brooks, James Cone, and Margaret Walker Alexander. Near the photo’s center stood my advisor and mentor, the late Dr. Constance Berkley; her mind was the most dynamic and formidable I’d yet encountered. Our faculty’s differences were profound. They harnessed those differences in service of our education, gifting us the ability to understand multiple facets of reality simultaneously. To recall that we are each, always at the threshold between what we know, what we have yet to encounter, and I would add, what we remember.

They introduced us to brave, ethical artists who had embraced the political responsibility of their voices like Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Odetta, and Harry Belafonte. They taught us of the price paid by artists who refused to nod and smile. They told us of the conviction of artists who refused to be dismissed! Artists, they taught, who were committed to their craft. Who developed extraordinary capacity to plumb the depths of the human psyche, navigate shadow, and render their resulting revelations clearly to others through their word, song, or embodied performance. Artists who functioned like Suns. We studied their oratory, poetry, dance, theatre, agitprop happenings, carefully wrought narrative testimonies, subversive humor; and we studied the music, well-evidenced as an immediately accessible medium for transmitting courage, and fueling movements for justice and peace. 

Our professors knew that a well of reserve, of example and witness, was necessary not only to pursue a vision, but to be able to meet the myriad impediments and assaults in the society. Our professors knew human frailty. Knew how vulnerable we are to manipulation. Knew how complicated this business of keeping yourself aligned and  healthy while being of use to the world really was. While they were formally tasked with stewarding our expanding minds, their deepest work was to prepare our hearts–yes, our hearts–for life, by showing us sacred secrets about our consciousness. 

Vassar was tested by a protest and takeover in 1990, during a time of resurgent student activism around the country. We as students had hard lessons about courage and cowardice, hierarchies of power, political coalition and political discord; and so very many lessons about trust: trust that was broken, bruised, discovered, and sometimes  repaired. Our faculty unwaveringly supported us through these challenges. Those lessons and the marks they left are the most difficult, but most important memories I have from college. 

Dr. Constance Berkley taught a landmark course for us all on Black Drama. In that course, conducted in the main classroom of New England Building–with its warm wood and vast bright windows–she led us through a series of encounters with the work of playwrights, poets and orators. Her classroom was itself a portal, designed to show us how to move through the greatest questions life would present to us all and how to share what we experienced with beauty and precision. Plays were maps, wrought carefully by artists who had wrestled with their own contradictions through acts of transmutation that we too, Dr. Berkley instructed us, had the capacity to undertake. More than the capacity. Responsibility. 

Inherited precepts of the “American Theatre” often go unquestioned for a long time-that’s one thing I’ve observed consistently as a teacher. Shout out to anybody teaching or learning the multifocal history of the regional theatre movement, of independent small companies, and of idiosyncratic artists and collectives each representing fields that together comprised a larger network alongside Broadway, Off-Broadway, et. al. I note this all to underscore the existence of traditions and institutions that operated outside the lines of the  “American Theatre,” and weathered the gradual collapse of diversity of thought and purpose in the field at large. 

Our professors believed there were many fields we each would till, tend and traverse as sojourners. They encouraged awareness of interconnected energetic fields, themselves indivisible to 40 acre parcels. Shifting, cycling, changing. Our professors poured into us and our soil was rich.

We trained  like our futures depended on it. They did. 

I have been in awe of Stacey’s walk through life since Vassar. She is a prominent theologian and professor who does searching work around Black Womanist Ethics and liberation. She has a beautiful family—a husband she calls “her soulmate and match as a historian” and her daughter whom she calls “the sweet fruit of their love and labor”. Hardly given over to chance, she has played her changes well. Her students claim she “stays woke and ready.” She calls it “the power of the divine indwelling of the Holy Spirit in tandem with the ‘combat breathing’ in human form.” 

The Holy Spirit was gleaned from her Black baptist upbringing in Texas–but her breathing she credits being named from her childhood muse Ntozake Shange whose term “combat breathing,” was gleaned from Frantz Fanon’s description of the breathing praxis of Algerian prisoners of war:

 “There is no occupation of territory, on the one hand, and independence of persons on the other. It is the country as a whole, its history, its daily pulsation that are contested, disfigured, in the hope of final destruction. Under this condition, the individual’s breathing is an observed and occupied breathing. It is a combat breathing.” Shange repurposes this breathing as “the living response / the drive to reconcile the irreconcilable / the Black n white of what we live and where.” 

After laughing up a storm and checking on each other’s people, Stacey and I settle in. Her prior understandings of consciousness have dilated over the years, and experiential insights have given Stacey a particularly potent read on the intersections of  both consciousness, and of our contemporary crises. She led me through this progression:

Double consciousness. DuBois posited that one always feels their two-ness. Black and American. This two-ness begets an experience of split–division between states of mind, states of being. Different rules within and without. Double consciousness was one theoretical gateway to the lived experience of holding multiple, concurrent realities and positions. All while experiencing their political ramifications, all while moving through zones where one or the other “self” may be emphasized or sublimated. Unreconciled, this double consciousness is a seedbed of discord, disease, dissolution. And, perhaps, if you can reconcile that discord? A sort of second sight. Nowadays, the concepts of multiple consciousnesses, multiple and shifting positionalities are widely apprehended and utilized. Consistent throughout is the sense of contrast between one state and another, and of the key real-life impacts of each state.

Tertium Quid: Over time, double consciousness begets a state of tertium quid. This third state arises from the structural schism that ensures an unresolved tension of the two-ness. It is an eternally unmoored state. Potential in a feedback loop. We gonna. We fitna. We bout to. Someday. We shall. One day. Tertium quid is the province of empty promises. It is the place where King’s  rhetorical “dream” is milked and flattened in the face of grave contradictions, to be fed back as mollifying words, thoughts, and (empty) prayers. It is estrangement assuming form.

Apnea. Stacey forcefully recounted the loss of siblings to sleep apnea. This is where she sees us stuck–in a state of apnea. Starved of oxygen and abiding at a precarious edge where a lack of vigilance can lead to sudden death. Unable to rest. What does rest do for us? Why do we need sleep? The body, the mind, the soul do what they cannot during waking hours. Restore. Replenish. Repair. Clear and clean. As many of us who work on ideas over long stretches of time know, sleep is a time when our consciousness can parse, clarify, and weave outside the scrutiny of the controlling conscious mind. Sometimes the insights born from this time accompany us into our waking life. They lie in wait for a break in the music, a break in form, to release their magic, and play into the change. 

Sleep is also the place, historically, when through embodied dreaming, those so attuned can commune with other realms. The ancestral realm. The realms where we make deepest sense of our unfolding experiences. In a state of apnea, we come face to face with the absence of true rest. We weather shrouded passages from dusk til dawn, alongside the presence of those ancestors who stayed sentinel, staring into the depths to guard against night riders of all sorts. 

Second sleep: Finally, Dr. Floyd-Thomas spoke of her experience at this juncture in her life of second sleep. Finding herself sleeping, but waking in the middle of the night. Stark and alert. I once read this was the way folks used to sleep back in the day. One full sleep cycle, then wake in the wee hours, often taking a meal, or reading, or going for a long walk before tucking back in for another full cycle. Stacey refines the description to talk about the power of waking from sleep when the world is relatively still. Aware of the roots reaching into or out from other realms of perception. A vital space between. As a former colleague once reminded me, Sarah Vaughan said “there are notes between the notes.”  This space between, as our eyes adjust to the deep dark, and clusters of potential are revealed. Holy, unscrutinized time. What my elders called God’s hour. 

There are testimonies, tucked inside the archives of our forebears. Of the messages they received in exactly such spaces between! Testimony that would help us build capacity to move beyond the apnea Dr. Floyd-Thomas describes. We have the capacity to remember in multiplicity. Multiple perspectives, multiple truths illumine an encompassing experiential web that offers us medicine to remember. Memory in the sense of Morrison’s “rememory,” an accounting of what has been shattered and scattered. Echoes of an ancient sense of one gathering fragments, then spelling possibility; a strong suggestion of time travel, or even of darning missing patches in time. An ability to hear seemingly impossible chord progressions to platform some new avenue of utterance. 

Among the first things Stacey and I discussed in depth when we met at Vassar was our mutual love for the work of Ntozake Shange. Shange made work that was whole and distinctly itself, befitting an era where a generation of Black artists took it as their responsibility to journey past aesthetic edges, and share new vantage points that could propel and embolden deeper consciousness. While my parents didn’t choose for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf as the Broadway show we saw that day in 1978, that play entered my life like a bolt of lightning exactly seven years later. Shange and her collaborators across all disciplines knew how to play the key changes and weathered the blowback for doing so when their daring invitations often met reservation, rejection, or outright attack for “airing dirty laundry,” not “making sense,” or for daring to stride through the world with lush authorship and ontological swagger. 

Shange’s roots and branches thrived beyond imposed lines. I aligned with her writing in part because the people, stories, voices, and emotional weather patterns populating her work, evoked sympathetic vibration with my everyday world. She put words and phrases in the forge of her mind’s eye, and laid out patterns to map, and invite, an experience of expansive consciousness. Her writing was the literary equivalent of sovereign fields. Sovereign in the sense of shepherded; tended not settled, boundaried not bordered, replete with wild growth. She rendered it all with a precision and interweaving of language, a concordance of patterns, as breathtaking as a field of wildflowers, buzzing with the life drawn to its rich, complex tapestry.

Shange, who knew DuBois and Robeson, among other Movement architects as a child, had furthered the project of freedom. She had done so with love and care for ancestors; honor for those yet-to-be; and an unwavering commitment to the everyday people she was working with and writing for. Like the blues women and poets before her, she knew that the interior of Black folks’ lives was a vast, and as Morrison would say, “inexhaustible subject.” Proof in the pudding for me was in the countless younger artists she and/or her colleagues lifted, challenged, fed, nudged along, grappled with, and charged with purpose. They shook so many of us awake. “Greatness” in an artist, for me, is forever linked to whether they have poured into others.

Shange knew form evolves continuously, and when we cling to old forms we suffocate our own breath. These artists did not seek others’ sanction. They insisted that performance was as important in a living room, or a bar, or a classroom as it was on a formal stage. 

I was taken in as a wide-eyed young artist by Laurie Carlos, Robbie McCauley, and Jessica Hagedorn, three of the original collaborators in Shange’s work. They taught me many chord progressions that kept me free. Taught me the responsibilities of an artist, and patiently helped me to face challenges by letting me see, time and again, their embodied capacity to wake in wee hours and invoke when all seems dire, when the foundations of realities quake-within and without-as an old story comes undone. 

Deep memory platforms our progress. But we are each asked within the tradition to use our own vital voices to accompany and extend the project of freedom. 

Shange wrote about the need for distinctive utterance, as part of revealing multiple truths:

“you never doubt bessie smith’s voice. i cd not say to you, that’s chaka khan singin empty bed blues. not cuz chaka khan cant sing empty bed blues! but cuz bessie smith sounds a certain way, her way. if tina turner stood right here next to me & simply said “yes” … we d all know/ no matter how much i love her/ no matter what kinda wig-hat i decide to wear/ my “yes” will never be tina’s “yes.” and that’s what i want to discuss with you this evening” – “takin a solo/ a poetic possibility/ a poetic imperative,” Shange. 1978.

As I began this piece, we all marked the 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. A recent photo retrospective posted from the LIFE magazine archives showed a range of the marchers, including several color photographs of artists who were integral to the day: Odetta, Lena Horne, Joan Baez. Those faces, so emotionally expressive and full, beautiful and unguarded. I did not perceive any sense of naivete. Rather, in the face of Ruby Dee, in the face of Josephine Baker, in the face of Mahalia Jackson there is no trace of opting out. 

King, apparently, had wrestled with the best way to frame his thoughts that day. He spoke of coming to D.C. to cash the check that had been promised by America. Midway through the speech, Mahalia Jackson shouted to him. “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream…” into the space between, playing the notes between the notes. She uttered and changed chords. By accounts of those there, King turned and met Jackson’s eyes, turned back to the crowd, moved his prepared remarks aside and spoke from a deeper witness, laying out the framework of a vision.

We are well aware of the way the “Dream” speech has been edited down, plucked and polished to serve as a feedback loop of non-action–begetting the tertium quid state, stripped of the socio-political context of the day it was uttered–jobs and justice. It is now common to dismiss the dream out of hand. It has been reduced to an ironic one-liner within some circles. We are well aware of the critiques of King and the Movement at that juncture, many of which any student of the period would understand. The doublespeak and treachery, the impact of CoIntelPro’s irreparable damage to civil rights, and the Faustian bargains of integration. 

Dr. King paid with his life for exhorting a vision of national transformation and bringing the movement into an anti-war stance; an epiphany of possibility. Just as El Hajj Malik al Shabazz aka Malcolm X paid with his life for exhorting a vision of global transformation; an epiphany of possibility, poised as he was at the end of his life to significantly shape global freedom movements. Both lived under threat, isolated for their choices to continue to evolve, and grappling with the rising anxiety of a clock running out of time. They represented thousands upon thousands of people, well known or not, who considered the greatest risks to be silence and complicity; who through the courage of their convictions, moved through and deepened their commitment to justice, and the well being of others.

There’s a reason OGs get heated when you ask them what we’ve lost. There’s a reason so many young artists feel disgust at their forebears, asking “how come we here”? Seems we know so much “about” one another, yet we know so little “of” one another. We don’t all hear the same things, the same aspects, the same invitations. We don’t all want the same outcomes. We cannot hear the whole unfold alone. My mentors put hands in hands, wrested folks away from staid sorrow songs, said listen! Listen here, and here, and here. 

How will we play our changes? Will we find our “yes” in the spaces between? What will be your contribution to the jam? How, why, and for whom will you utter? What will you choose to play? Listen. Listen here. Listen well past sundown as portals open in the deep middle of the night. Hear?

tonight

Dr. Berkley, 

I am at the edge. 

Stories well up and out. Story of the slow dissolution of one dream. Story of form caging content. Stories of new dreams stirring. Story of artists at the edge in this time of hijacked imagination. 

Your office door was always a portal. A threshold to a realm suspended outside time. We’d converse as your late father’s face stared out from the small picture frame on your desk. 

We were never alone in that office

On the desk is a stack of the 4×6 index cards you used to lecture from. Your cursive spanned each side. Sometimes, in the midst of speaking, you would encounter a change in your thinking, pause, take your gold pen from your bag, break open, and reforge the statement to your satisfaction in real time. 

Every idea is alive, coursing through a field of consciousness in real time. Meanings unfold, meanings move. Remember, you taught, we must change form to stay true to life. 

Feel the big wheel turn. The great ring play. Folks jumping in and out of the circle. In and out of time. Those who fly away at first leave spaces shaped like them and their absence burns. So many blues sung about folks gone away, or going away; chock full of the feelings carried with or left behind. Take care–untended grief can lull feelings out of flow and tempt us to restrict our breath. Don’t get stuck, you taught us; imagine into the space between.

Stories in fragments. Sharp-edged, forbidding, yet demanding to be remembered. Story of the rememberers who sometimes bleed from holding the gathered pieces. Story of the beings who capitulate and drop it all to the ground or turn their heads. Has our most popular story become one of dispensability at ever-exponential scales, ecologically and interpersonally? 

The playing changes each time a player comes and goes, truth be told; and between, it shifts and shifts. Becomings and undoings signified in mysterious ways. So, what of our real-life stories of facing and slaying dragons, exposing the tricksters, breaking the bonds and birthing new names? Have we deemed impossible stories of unsentimental love, transfixing and transfiguring love, galvanizing revolutionary love, restoring, epiphanic love? One friend says, “fuck love” when I read this to them. Well. 

“Anyone who has an experience of mystery at all, knows that there is a dimension, let’s say, to the universe that is not that which is available to his senses.There’s a wonderful saying in one of the Upanishads when before a sunset, or a mountain, and the beauty of this or of that, you pause and say, “Ah!” That is participation in divinity.” – Joseph Campbell

The antecedents of theatre are mystical, ritual performances as ancient as the earliest records of humanity. What can we recollect across epochs let alone centuries about how to play changes? Can we engage rather than avoid discord as a foundational principle of creative process? Productive tensions between accord and discord, between equilibrium and disequilibrium, are fundamentals of life’s becoming. If we abide with these tensions, might we apprehend something of the dimension Campbell described? I’ve experienced awe through theatre, and in the presence of people who make it, who have opened themselves to the mystery, and who keep that portal open–especially in times of heavy shadow. They make brave space in an untrustworthy time. 

Folks used to say “I’m fitna be gone and I won’t be dead,” to get somebody to straighten up and fly right. Some leavings are slow and steady, with over-the shoulder glances back, speculating. Some leavings are liberatory, blazes of glory that birth, not kill. I’ve been gone a long time, Dr. Berkley. Unfolding. Moving. Made a choice a while back at the crossroads, and now I’m here to hear at this edge. Listening outside your door. 

Artists, in our work, and in our processes, uncover a full spectrum of forces, and often help us all articulate those unseen psychological, emotional, and social aspects that quietly but ineluctably determine outcomes. Ancients forecast the gateway to the Age of Aquarius as a time of tremendous upheaval, spun between Saturnian and Uranian polarities. Theatre makers in particular assemble and disassemble whole worlds with regularity. Say hello. Say farewell. Risk not knowing again and again as we play into breaches. Offer what you can of what you know, especially what you know about not knowing to those around you. Don’t discount your insights. 

A remembering. 
A recollection. 
A spelling together. 
Surfacing  a river that’s flowed 
underground 
so long
out of sight
not gone. 

Some never stopped believing in a dream, or a hope and a prayer, or in the power of lending a helping hand. True, some need to stop in order to remember, remember, remember who they are, and whose they are. Get breath, gather grief, then play things through to new meaning. 

Portals. Edges. Time and space. No aspect of the difficulties faced actively engaging the truths of our time, and working to make meaningful change, will be more uncomfortable than the despair awaiting us if we do not undertake the effort to respond to the call of this moment. 

I’d say there is no hiding place, but some folks do in fact have hiding places. There, they avoid accountability for their own role in forestalling change. Most artists I know have no guaranteed shelter, no fallback plans that sit right with their souls as the remaining heterogeneous fields, with their incongruous, imperfect tangles of community are being clear cut, often out of economic necessity, so we are told, again and again. This has been one great heartbreak of our time: again and again, investments that lead to public repair are jettisoned in favor of private comfort and exclusion. Like a slow motion train-wreck. 

I don’t know what the word is for that, Dr. Berkley, for spying the hungry ghost patterns across time, unfolding, unfettered, and often unacknowledged despite the call by so many to pay attention. To ask why am I doing this? Whose am I? What is the call? What is my response? 

I have seen some miraculous theatre artists stop violence in its tracks. I know that live performance can still align us in real time to the full bandwidth of our perceptions and our imaginative capacities, and do so in an intentionally congregational context. But, right about now? Chords are changing so quickly and I listen. While listening, I remember to move my feet. Great wheel turning. I’m dancing at the edge and that’s right where I need to be. 

It’s always the crossroads. It’s always dying. It’s always being born. It’s never what it was. It’s not yet what it will become. We are becoming now. What will we choose? What will we choose? 

I reach in my pocket and pull out the gold pen, Dr. Berkley, the one your son gave me after your passing, before his untimely passing, the pen you used to break open our language and remind us to refine our living ideas in real time. I write what I continue to believe to be the most vital line from the fields in question, from the fields that raised me, those through which I’ve passed, and somehow from the fields ahead: 

“i found god in myself/ and i loved her. i loved her fiercely.” – Ntozake Shange

That love has sound. Anything we love fiercely will demand of us our full becoming, our bravery, our bodies in motion in service of justice and care. Our epic stories are sounding now. I assert the artists of this time are in fact spelling them out. Artists are singing our pathways across chasms and conflagration, repairing breaches and planting seeds. Now, maybe some are singing past the edge. Maybe some are keeping their cards close to their chests, biding their time, keeping it fresh. Maybe some–denied platform or support, or the favor of the flavor of the day, are tending wild gardens within, more lush and fruitful than you’ll ever know. More people in all sorts of roles in and out of institutions are listening against the grain. There are many people holding so much together. 

Edges. Outskirts. Fields full of people making ways out of no way. Canny folk who may have decided not to show their hands this time. You thought one day we might remember how to let go of what we’ve grown certain about and realize we are truly home in motion. The blues women knew, you can sing yourself loose.

It’s hard to hold a network at diminished capacity. All is ever becoming. An unwieldy weave of impossible histories, catastrophes, miracles, and somehow continuance. And there is love. And there is bottomless grief. And there is the vital fire of new eyes and new days. And there is  grace if we choose it. I see grace as the only thing holding us in flow as we come undone. Together. Dr. Berkley, you knew we would. You knew we would have to. Come undone. For you remembered, always, who and whose we are. And you believed we could and would remember. Ourselves.

I turn the knob and open the door. 

L-R: Dr. Constance Berkley, Daniel Alexander Jones, 1990.

On Daniel Alexander Jones: Unpredictable & unbound, Daniel Alexander Jones has excelled in interdisciplinary & experimental performance, music, literature, & traditions of art as civic practice. Accolades include a TED Fellowship; a Doris Duke Artist Award; a Guggenheim; and the Alpert Award in the Arts. Jones’s collection of performance texts, LOVE LIKE LIGHT, is published by 53rd State Press. Projects include BLACK LIGHT (Public Theater); DUAT (Soho Rep); RADIATE (Soho Rep & national tour) & PHOENIX FABRIK (Pillsbury House Theatre). Hailing from a working class neighborhood in Springfield, Massachusetts, he holds degrees in Africana Studies from Vassar College, and Theatre from Brown University. Jones is currently a Producing Artist at CalArts’ Center for New Performance. He lives in Los Angeles.

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