Issue 1: Queering Across Borders
Sound Goes on Forever:
An Interview about the Making of VESSELS, a Seven-Woman Harmonic Meditation on the Middle Passage, with Co-Creators, Rebecca Mwase and Ron Ragin
By Virginia Thomas June 10, 2019
This video interview took place with VESSELS co-creators, Rebecca Mwase and Ron Ragin, during a lunch break from one of the two-week VESSELS intensives in which they worked with ensemble members on generating movement and developing the sonic landscape and songs of the ritual performance.
VT: So, what is VESSELS?
Ron Ragin: Yep. Soon as Rebecca's done chewing.
Rebecca Mwase: It's like when I try and chew faster, it's harder because now—whatever. It's fine. OK. VESSELS is a seven-woman harmonic meditation on the Middle Passage—that seeks to answer the question, what does freedom sound like in the space of confinement? It's a ritual performance meant to bring honor to the ways and the experiences of Black women, to our cultural and spiritual ancestral practices, that were carried over on the ships that helped us survive until now.
VT: When and how did VESSELS come to you?
RM: Sure. So about—wow—six years ago, I was here in New Orleans at Loyola University listening to Nikki Giovanni. She was the keynote speaker for an MLK Day celebration. And she was talking about the importance of Black women and the importance of Coretta Scott King and her support of MLK, and was also talking about Mahalia Jackson; how she used to sing to open all the spaces that he went to and traveled with him wherever he went and sort of cleared the space, opened the space for people to receive the word; his word, the message.
And then she was also talking about slavery and the Middle Passage. And she was saying that she was really curious for some artist out there to really think about or make work about how these millions of enslaved ancestors were able to survive the insanity of the Passage. And she was naming specific things that happened, like people were shitting on each other and peeing on each other and dying in these droves. And like, how did our ancestors arrive here sane, on these shores sane?
And my immediate response was: I don't know if they were sane. But if they were, it had to be the singing. And if it was the singing, it had to be the women. So that was, like, the genesis of the piece. As an idea, the number 7 felt right, and it felt very clear that my ancestors were giving that to me, as something to work towards.
And it has been now six years. We started working on it in 2015 with some funding from the MAP Fund. And I went to Ghana, Benin, and Zimbabwe and did research on women's ritual, rites of passage, songs, and dances in those three places, which served as the beginning. We started with song and movement as the ground of the devising work for the piece.
VT: The piece is divided into three parts: the world of the ship, the gathering, and integration. Can you speak on how you came to realize these three sections and the work you see them doing in relation to one another?
RM: It was a multi-year process. Initially, there were five different rituals that we wanted to look at. We wanted to look at birth, death, menstruation, marriage, and then war because we talked about how it was really important to show that insurrection was happening consistently and that a lot of the narratives that we hear and have learned about the Middle Passage exclude the fact that women were supporting, initiating, organizing for these rebellions.
RR: And specifically, women were often allowed more freedom of movement and weren't as often shackled on the ships. That served multiple purposes, including making them vulnerable in other ways to the ship captains and crew. The threat of rape was ever-present and other forms of indentured servitude or whatever you might say. Cooking for people and whatnot, but generally women and children had a little bit more freedom of physical movement in particular.
RM: Right. So we started with the rituals… Ron and I got together and were like, let's try out a couple of physical ideas for what this ship world could be. And we wanted to start there because that's what we know the most. Everything else felt speculative, imaginative, like, we don't know what was happening there. What feels right in our bones, what feels right in our spirits, what is the information that we're receiving?
So we started in the ship world and sort of spent probably the first two intensives primarily in the world of the ship and in the world of spirit; we had these extremes. And were talking about, reading about, dreaming about the in-between space.
And I feel like we also were having a lot of conversations about this continuous thread that's coming in and out of the piece around insanity and craziness, and what that means and what that looks like. Like, is talking to your ancestors being crazy or being one with spirit? How does that show up? And where did that live for folks who were in a space of maybe continuous hallucination? Because you don't know what daylight is. Or you do know what daylight is, but that you've been on the ocean for so long, you're stir crazy.
We were thinking about what would be the stages that you would need to find yourself again? So, if the body is held in the ship and the spirit can be released or gets released because of trauma, or you choose to go, to separate yourself, to dissociate, then what are the ways to reconfigure yourself? And how could that happen through sonic pathways was where we got to. And what other things happened along the way?
RR: So Rebecca hears Nikki Giovanni speak. Rebecca and I meet the following summer.
RM: Oh, my god, that's so true.
RR: That's when we met we met at Alternate ROOTS.
RM: We weren't even friends yet.
RR: We weren't. But we were friends right away.
RR: And Rebecca said, “Sometime, we're going to make work together.” And I said, “Great.” So, a year after Rebecca heard Nikki Giovanni speak, which was the impetus for VESSELS—it planted the seed—a year after that, I went on a retreat with a bunch of people in arts philanthropy, and we were talking about art and social justice and organizing nationally to build more resources to support artists working in communities like the artists in Alternate ROOTS, of which Rebecca and I are both now members.
And we were on St. Helena Island in South Carolina, which is a very important place for the Gullah/Geechee Nation. And we ended up going on a little tour of the island and some surrounding islands with Reverend Green—she and her daughter took us on the tour—and were taking us to some important sites. And we went to a praise house to have a conversation about what we had experienced on the tour.
In that conversation, Mrs. Green was talking about slaves. She was using the term "slaves" to describe enslaved African people. And someone took issue with that in the group and said, “Miss Green, actually, we—in my community—we don't say ‘slaves,’ we say ‘enslaved African people’ because people's condition is not who they are.”
And [Mrs. Green] paused and took her own issue with that. She said, “Well, if we're going to break that down, actually,” she said, “my people were never enslaved. My people were never enslaved. They lived in the spirit world. They were never—they were never en-slaved. They were spirit bodies. They were somewhere else altogether. That was just their physical bodies. But they were living in another place.” And that was really provocative to me at that time.
So in the early stages, when Rebecca and I were talking about the dramaturgy of the piece, like, what is the journey? It evolved from a play about a young girl who's on a slave ship.
RM: Oh my god, there was that moment. It started off being really narrative-based. I forgot about that.
RR: It evolved from a play about a young girl who was on a slave ship and then all these older women who sort of take her under their wing—when I brought that observation around Mrs. Green's telling of the history of her people never being enslaved, we started to think together about, well, what does that mean for this piece? And that's where this idea of people being in the ship and people being in the spirit came.
And so we said, huh. What does it mean to be in a practice of knowing that you can leave your body if you need to? What were the repertoires of song, in particular, that created pathways for people to make those transits? And how might that have been part of what kept people alive based on the question that Nikki Giovanni brought to us, this freedom that people could find even if it was temporary through these sonic pathways? And then that's where we started to make the connections even deeper into the work that Rebecca had been doing around these songs and dances that were related to the specific moments in women's lives, traditionally speaking, and wanting to really think about this question: what does freedom sound like in a space of confinement?
RM: Right. And as a continuous sonic exploration that didn't just live in the songs themselves. Because at the same time—it's important to say that parallel to this creative process—we were doing an engagement process called Freedom Chamber with formerly incarcerated people, predominantly Black women in New Orleans, with the same questions through story circle and singing. We partnered with Women With A Vision and STAND With Dignity to conduct these workshops. And I remember having conversations with Ron and being like, oh, so when we say "confinement," we're learning a lot more about all of the ways that confinement can happen in the stories that we're hearing from these women. And for a lot of them, music was a way to escape, to not be there, to not be present, or to be present calmly when they were incarcerated. Confinement shows up in a lot of different ways in the body and in the voice, and the practice of freeing the voice became a practice of freeing the body—that helped broaden our thinking about what the sonic world was.
Sound and sonic vibrations go on forever, and have the ability to change space and place—like physical space and place. And so if you're singing in your body, then you're physically opening up space within your cavities.
So then you're physically opening up cellular pathways that didn't exist prior to that. And so what would that be like for people in this specific situation [of confinement]? I feel like this is also another growth in the piece from an ancestral place. So that even the folks who were on the ship in that moment, who are not us, but could be us in another lifetime or in our past lineages or whatever, by doing this work now, we're opening up space that's affecting us and our lineages backwards and forwards. And so what does it mean to think about it, like that sonic stuff sort of expanding outward?
RR: Through time.
RM: Through time and space, and then affecting what happened in the past and creating more space and freedom there as it's creating more space and freedom here. [John Berger’s] On the Economy of the Dead was one of the things we read that I feel like sparked those quantum physics thoughts.
VT: What work do you see VESSELS performing in the present as it engages in dialogue with the Middle Passage’s pasts? What is the relationship between healing and trauma within the conversation you are staging in the piece?
RR: The first thing I would say about healing in terms of a framework—because Rebecca talked about the ancestral piece. I think there's also a larger framework of the stories we have about the Middle Passage and our understandings thereof. So Rebecca was talking about some of the ways that insurrection is an untold story and the common fear—the ubiquitous fear among all ship crew and captains of insurrection.
So much of the carceral entity that was the slave ships' reason for being was because of this fear of insurrection. And so the ways in which they wanted to put people on ships that they assumed couldn't speak the same languages, although many of them could, the ways in which they put people on the ships who they knew had inter-tribal, interethnic conflicts—the degree to which they had the men separated from the women, from children, the degree to which they had people chained or kept at all kinds of crazy hours of being gotten up to eat or not, the dissociation of time. All of these things that are now so very much built into our systems of mass incarceration were experimented on very thoroughly in those contexts because there was so much fear of the people who were in power, relatively speaking, in those positions, as crew and ship.
And so what we acknowledge in VESSELS’ creation process, and as we just continue to deepen our own understanding, is that if we look just at the archives, they are necessarily biased and limited. So much of what we know about the Middle Passage as “written and archived” things are written by these white men who had varying positions on whether the slave trade should continue, the transatlantic slave trade, and were advocating for or against that in courts or in ship logs or whatever it was. These were very political documents.
And so the stories of people who had been stolen from their homes and who were Africans taken into this new “American,” context are often invisibilized, expunged from the record, like never even considered for the record, or they're manipulated.
RM: They were never asked.
RR: Right. And so we've always approached this project as a sort of speculative history project, in that we know that we are having to draw upon other information to remember and then piece together some of what we might know about what happened.
And so that's a big part of the healing, too, is giving ourselves the space to not know in the process and to learn as we go based on what comes up through our bodies, through our process.
RM: Yes. And also-- so Ron talked about healing the story, which I think is very important, also healing the places and the spaces. The initial reason we wanted it to be an outdoor site-specific show is because I'm really into that. And we were like, oh, the places, like, the physical spaces that enslaved Africans—[where they] boarded ships, got off ships, were taken around in slave coffles, were picking cotton—like, all of [those places] are also traumatized. The land is traumatized as well. And so what does it mean to bring healing to a space through this ritual performance?
And as we began to conceive of the tour along the eastern seaboard, then we're able to touch—and again, back to this idea of sound goes on forever—to sonically shift those spaces, to physically and energetically shift those spaces, to be in conversation with folks who are doing work around mass incarceration. We're working with Black women who are working in mental health, who are working along ancestral lines and doing ancestral lineage transmutation work, to all of these different sort of pieces where the healing connects. And then that can be a part of transforming those spaces and places as well as the people who are there, as the spirits who are there, and the stories that we tell.
And so it's interesting now that we're not starting in New Orleans. We're actually starting in Philly. We're not doing it in October. We're starting in Philly in March, which is one of the first places that enslaved Africans—enslaved Africans, not free Africans, but enslaved Africans landed here. So just thinking about trajectory is interesting. I'm curious when we're done touring, being like, what is the map of our journey?
And a lot of stuff comes up ancestrally that then comes up for people personally. And I feel like one of the things that's been true to Ron's point is there's been a lot of personal transformation as a part of this process that I know me personally had not intended, that, that was a thing that was going to happen, but has grown to be a significant chunk of this work.
Both of our spiritual practices, in particular, our ancestral spiritual practice have deepened significantly over the course of making this work because they had to in order for the work to be what it is. And that has included deepening what we do collectively, like as a unit of two, how we've engaged in our community, particularly here in New Orleans, and created spiritual containers. And some of those people are healers for this work.
And what we've each gone off and done individually to deepen our work as spiritual practitioners, as healers and energy workers, like, I was not on that trajectory. I think I was dabbling in it before this and now I'm like, oh, right. I'm a healer. These are things that I-- like, doing ancestral work on all of these levels is a thing that I'm supposed to be doing. And this process has pushed, cajoled, encouraged, and roped me in that as part of the work.
RR: And I think that's been for everybody to different degrees, particularly for people who have come back to the process multiple times. I think everybody recognizes that it requires a lot of them. And I think the other thing to say is, we haven't done everything right.
RM: Absolutely not.
RR: That we started this process, and I think that's also part of the healing and the learning, too, is we weren't prepared the first time we did this.
RM: Not at all.
RR: We didn't know how intense was going to be to—I mean, we “knew.” But we didn't know how much. We were like, “This is going to be a lot.” But it was way more than we realized. And so I think we've been blessed with a lot of grace—particularly from the women who have participated in the early intensives.
RM: Yeah. They were so loving and sweet to us and our mistake making—like, continuous mistake making.
RR: Yeah. And I think, too, we have elders and siblings who are calling us in.
RM: Gently and lovingly.
RR: Sometimes forcefully…I think that the beauty is that we have circles of accountability in the work. And I think also our divine and benevolent ancestors have shown up for us consistently, even when we weren't prepared.
RM: I think another thing that this work is healing, unintentionally, is dominant European ways of making work, that has been a consistent base that we've had to resist and have fallen into. I mean, for me, personally, that's how I was trained. Like, you work, and you work hard and you work until you're exhausted and falling apart. You don't come and expect people to feed you or to have meals for you or to make sure that you get—or have a body worker show up and give you massages.
RR: And that gets back to this Black feminist approach that we are still forming. And I think another thing about it is time. We've been developing this work to get in—as a collective thing. Rebecca has been developing work for six years. I've been helping co-shape this work since 2014 when we first had that conversation. We brought people into process together starting in 2016. So I mean, the timeline for this has been so long. And that has been part of the healing, too. We cannot rush this. It would be irresponsible to make something like this under normal time frame of we—
RM: Nine months.
RR: —rehearse for three months.
RM: Six months.
RR: And then we perform it. I mean, really we've even had to be changed.
RM: Letting go of control process and ego.
RR: Yeah. All that. [We] have had to really change our notions of time. We can have the most wonderful plans and goals for an intensive. And part of what we've learned is that those will never be what actually happens.
And that part of what this piece has asked us to embody is water in all of its waves and being.
RM: We are the oceans.
VT: Who are the dancers in this piece and how has that changed over time?
RR: We always hold it as a clear intention and we've been able to live into that practice more of hiring Black women artists here in New Orleans and really prioritizing Black women who are from, as in born and raised, here in New Orleans. And now we have an ensemble that really reflects that. In the early days, we were more like, who are our friends who we know are down for this really experimental journey? And as we've gone on throughout the years, we've been in increasing alignment with that value.
RR: The bodies in this piece that are centered, the experiences are those of Black women. And we've been very intentional about that from jump, in terms of who is being invited into the ensemble and how we've built any audition processes we've had, the conversations that we're having. It's very important to us that we prioritize time, resources, energy. And part of what we're learning is part of what's been communicated so clearly to us from people who have been a part of this process, which has unfolded with two or three moments of what we call intensives, where we bring everyone together, mostly in New Orleans, save for one that we had in Ghana in Accra at the University of Ghana Legon. But almost all the other intensives have happened with Black women here in the States. We bring them to New Orleans. We're basically in a laboratory setting in studio, in process, for seven to 10 days, and we just make stuff. It's like this iterative process of making.
RM: This is number seven.
RR: This August intensive here at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. I'm just saying it out loud.
All those folks—I remember at the end of the first intensive, we paid people. We gave them their checks and they're like, “We get paid for this?”
RM: Oh, my god, I remember that.
RR: And we had told them that they were going to be paid. So it wasn't a surprise in terms of it was new information. But I think—even people who have been in the process again—we get to the end and they get their check and we say, “Yeah. You get paid for this.” We talked about it. We think it's really important to pay people. And I think part of what that surprise is is that people felt so much healing and benefit and transformation coming from the process that it felt like compensation in and of itself, or like some sort of valuing of them that they were able to be in the process at all. So yes. Black women at the center, in terms of the creation of the work, and in terms of the sharing thereof.
VT: Who else has touched this work? How is it connected to your community-based justice practice in New Orleans?
RM: Other things to note about healing work and our intentions around it—so I talked about the ancestral work and ancestral healing. To be more specific about that, you could consider that one—there's always an ensemble spot for the ancestors, and that there are multiple ways that we hold that.
We have an altar in the space. We were doing intentions every day. We have healers that we brought in intensive number 2 because we were like, oh, this stirs up a lot of stuff with us. And we're working with the ancestors. And even if we weren't intentionally working with them, they've shown up. And we need to actually have ways that are beyond, at that point, any of our capacities to be able to transmute this energy and to also work with spirits, because that's the real thing. That's a real skill that, in our first ensemble, one person had, and that person was also in the ensemble. It was too much for that one person to be doing.
And so bringing in healers, Black women who are skilled, versed, knowledgeable practitioners of African and Black and brown indigenous spiritual practice and traditions to hold the container for us while we're making the work, while we're sharing the work. At this point, I think it's been three or four intensives that we started doing this: they come at the end of our intensives and help us ground at the end of every day so that the folks who are in the ensemble and the rehearsal room, ourselves, the ensemble designers, everyone, whoever's here can spiritually and energetically ground. Because we are exploring dense, traumatic history, and shit comes up.
So we have a dear friend, Jessica-- Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson, who is a Middle Passage and slavery historian at Johns Hopkins University. And she's been sort of parallel with us, coming, engaging in our process, writing about our process, offering wisdom about our process since the beginning. She's amazing. Until now, we have not had the same continuous group of ensemble members, which was a challenge. But one of the things that she said about that when I was complaining over wine one night, you know, being frustrated, was that part of the Middle Passage sort of philosophy is like, if we can take people from a bunch of different places to the same places and continually rotate them out of space, they can't ground and they can't find home.
And so what does it mean to create a container and a process that allows for grounding for multiple people to move through that—and she was like, so you're doing it in reverse, which I found super profound and very useful in helping to anchor, for me, the necessity of our process being the way that it was as an artist who also wants to control all of the things. And so I think, similarly, with the healing work—or the healing work that this process is engaging in and trying to be a part of—that all of these layers were not all there in the beginning.
VT: How do you approach funding, especially when you travel to new places?
RR: Yeah. I would say our touring approach is still evolving. And it's going to evolve in practice. So the touring piece is we want to keep those concentric circles of healing—for Black women to be in the audiences, to be really intentional about the context, historically and geographically, in which we're doing our work, and to also really think about narrative and all of those ways we're bringing it into being, especially thinking about also the centering of Black women and sort of the Black feminist praxis being foundational for this work.
We're also really thinking about what kind of partners we have wherever we are and what kind of funding we get and how we use it.
RM: And share it.
RR: Right. So the using being part of the sharing. And so our general goal is to have a network of partners wherever we travel that may or may not already be in relationship with each other. So when you think about a place like Philadelphia, our anchor presenter partner that's producing the work when we're in town is the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Early last year, they saw that we had gotten this grant from…
RM: The New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Theater Project Creation and Touring Fund.
RR: And reached out to us and said, “This sounds really interesting.” So we've been in conversation with them. And they along with Junebug Productions have now come on as co-commissioners of this work, which will premiere, now, at Annenberg and then return to New Orleans where it was developed for a New Orleans premiere, hopefully, in the fall of 2019.
So given that we now have this partner that is Annenberg that is committed to providing significant financial resources and some space and technical capacity for this work, it helps us anchor the performance part. But we've always known that that wouldn't be sufficient because we want Black people to be there, and most of these institutions that have resources do not have large Black audiences. We want, specifically, Black women to be there. We want to make this work available to Black people wherever it goes, knowing that the healing is directly intended for Black women and folks of other genders who also identify as Black.
So now, given that, we've actually been doing cultivating work since 2016, going to cities where we thought we might want to tour and starting to meet with people. We took early trips to Philadelphia, to Boston, to New York, to Richmond, to Baltimore and to Providence. And also have been cultivating people we already know in the South.
And so we've been working in Philly—we've gone twice now to just meet with folks, tell them about this project, meet elders in the Black community, meet artists who have been doing work that's at all related to this, and drawing upon existing relationships and broadening those relationships to do so. Now, as we have a six month timeline looking out at Philly, the conversations have already been started. The partnerships, albeit nascent, are hopefully ready to be activated. And we're able to really architect with folks what the six months leading up to this performance are going to look like.
So there's an intentionality around knowing that equity is not a thing, in the arts nonprofit ecosystem for sure, not in this country in general, and that Black women's stories, bodies, histories, energy—
RR: —has largely been exploited or invisibilized. And so we know we have to do a lot of leg work. And the fundraising that we're doing to bring our work to any community we want to do in partnership with folks there. And we want to make sure that we are expanding the pie, rather than being like, ooh, this expensive production's coming and so it's going to eat up all the resources in what might be an under-resourced space.
So we're happy to be working with geniuses on this like Sage Crump and Kiyoko McCrae, who have done this kind of touring work with Junebug Productions, with Complex Movements, and learning from our elders, our big siblings, to help us really think about what it means to move ethically into other places where we haven't been developing this work.
There is also some funding, and we've been blessed enough to get it, for work that has this need for time and for development. There's not a lot out there, but praise the lord we got a lot of the ones that were—
RM: It's an absolute blessing because I don't—I mean, this is the thing. So, I feel like there's been periods of time in this process where Ron and I have been like, gratitude practice, individually and collectively. And it's one of those things that strikes me every time I think about the trajectory of this work, where I'm like, someone was like, sure, we'll give you $35,000 to just go on a research trip. What? Like, who does that?
RR: And then come back and make some stuff.
RM: And then come back and make some stuff that's super rough.
RR: And it doesn't have to be a performance.
RM: It doesn't have to be a performance. You can share it with us or not.
RR: That's the MAP Fund, by the way.
RM: That's the MAP Fund. They're amazing. We love them. And then give us money again to make a performance, and then be like, just holler at us when you're done—[we would] love to come see it. I mean, particularly because we're Black artists, we're Black artists who are not well known, who didn't come out of particular programs, particular schools, had particular teachers. Like, that is not a regular thing.
And still the—I know I have immense gratitude because I know—that's one of the many ways it is very clear to me that this piece is supposed to be happening and that I'm being guided, and that all Ron and I are doing is just to steward it. We're like, OK, now go this way. No? OK. We are working with and for not just ourselves. That's helping. I'm like—what are the things on boats that?
RR: Sails? Rudders?
RM: Yeah. One of those two things, probably sails.
VT: How do you think of queerness taking place in VESSELS? What happens to queerness as a concept under the lens of this performance?
RM: Yeah. The queerness thing is so interesting to me.
RR: See, we haven't talked about this enough.
RM: We really haven't because whatever. OK. So in my mind, everyone's gay. I generally approach the world as if everyone is a gay person. Here's the thing. I feel like the way that we understand queerness is very Eurocentric. Because people have asked, “Well is VESSELS explicitly gay? Like, is it about lesbians?”
And I'm like, there's not, like, a lesbian love story in the middle of a slave ship. What the fuck is wrong with you?! It's infuriating to me. And it is about Black women loving each other. And as someone who has an expansive love practice, as someone who believes very much in same-sex relationships, and considers myself queer, for me, VESSELS has also been a practice of just loving other Black women. And I, personally, believe that loving other Black women is a revolutionary act. And to be able to do that and mirror each other and see each other and love on each other and laugh with each other and work on healing each other through healing yourselves, and rubbing on each other and talking about each other's booties and twerking all the time and supporting each other and eating food together and rubbing each other's backs is, like—it is queerness.
Because we are taught not to love ourselves, and the world is definitely taught not to love us. And so if we're able to love ourselves, we've just blown up everything that is formative about the dominant culture's way of loving people, generally speaking, and [towards] us in particular. So that's how I feel about queerness in the piece.
RR: This gets a little bit into genderqueerness and thinking about some of the gender pieces, but I'll say this—that as a person who is a man and identifies as such, it's been very interesting to be asked to be in spiritship with this work with Rebecca. And so a lot of the work for me has also been encountering gender socialization and internalized patriarchy and sexism, I think, probably for all of us. But it's felt specific for me as a man to also then be in a position of leadership inside of this work.
And so I wouldn't necessarily say the work has been queer-themed for me, necessarily, in an identity space, but definitely in a practice place. So what does it mean for me to move outside of normative structures of ideas about what it means to be in leadership in an artistic process? How has my gender socialization been connected to the ways that I approach directing, for example? The musical trajectory of one of our movements? And so thinking about consensus, thinking about consent, thinking about being in a space of not knowing and being totally cool with that, letting things be emergent, thinking about facilitating as opposed to directing, thinking about offering as opposed to demanding. So I think there are some very, just, in practice things that we are all learning together how to counter norms that I think because of the structures that we and white cis hetero patriarchy—
RM: Capitalist blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
RR: That we're all queering our own notions of what it means to make work. And I think the fact that Rebecca and I identify as queer, prismatic, expansive Black people is a part of that, but not the only reason for it. And not everybody who's been in this work identifies as queer. But many people do.
RM: Or prismatic.
RR: Queer, prismatic—like, language is a question. But we are not necessarily going by the book of what anything “should” look like in terms of their love, sex, or partnership choices—
RM: Or gender choices.
RR: —or desires, or whatever.
RM: Any of it.
RR: All of it. Really, all of it. And also seeing how that is creating space. I think that's part of the healing. This is a place VESSELS has been; a place in which all of that is welcome.
And one of the ways in which I think this piece is continuing to grow is really thinking about, for the people who identify as women and who choose to be a part of this ensemble, what does that mean for them in the context of this work, but also in the context of their lives? And so I think we're sitting with a lot of questions. And I think queering is very much praxis in this piece. And there are queers, identified queers who are also in the process of making it. I think it's all of the above.
RM: Yeah. It's an exploration. It's not a destination.
Ron Ragin: I write, sing, compose, and make interdisciplinary performance work that integrates sound, text, and movement. My creative interests include music of the African Diaspora, embodied ancestral memory, improvisational creative processes, liberation aesthetics, and the development and maintenance of spiritual technologies. I grew up in Perry, Georgia and received my earliest musical training at the Saint James Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. I’ve had the honor of performing with brilliant souls like Amara Tabor-Smith and Grisha Coleman, studying my crafts with luminaries such as Joy Harjo and Brenda Wong Aoki, and being a soloist on Christopher Tin’s Grammy Award-winning album Calling All Dawns.
Rebecca Mwase (they/she) is a Zimbabwean-American theater and performance artist, creative consultant, producer, and cultural organizer working at the intersection of art and social justice. They have trained with ArtSpot Productions, Dah Theater, the Highlander Center for Research & Education, Urban Bush Women and Junebug Productions in cultural organizing, devising and storytelling. Supporters of her work include Alternate ROOTS, the Rockefeller MAP Fund, TCG, and NEFA. They are also a 2016 A Blade of Grass-David Rockefeller Fund Joint Fellow in Criminal Justice. They are a co-founder of LOUD and serve on the board of the Network of Ensemble Theaters.
Virginia Thomas (she/her/hers) is a PhD Candidate in American Studies. She works on queer archival theory and practices, gender, family, racial violence and visual studies. Her dissertation explores the submerged connections between lynching culture and nuclear family formation through the photographic medium, specifically looking at the family album as an object of racial violence. She is currently the Interdisciplinary Opportunities Fellow at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities, a Spalter Teaching Fellow at the RISD Museum, and a Graduate Fellow at the Pembroke Center of Gender and Sexuality Studies. She will be a Visiting Assistant Professor at Brown in Spring 2020. She holds a Masters in Public Humanities from Brown and a B.A. in American Studies from UNC Chapel Hill.