Tonight’s rehearsal conversation about reporter Tom Blackman brought to mind Paul Laurence Dunbar‘s famous poem, We Wear The Mask… which then made us think of Kehinde Wiley‘s video project called “Smile.” (We shared some other works by Wiley in a previous post.) Both pieces speak to the social masks Black men and boys are forced to carry with them, and we’re interested in how these artworks may resonate with Tom, Tramarion, Flat Joe, Coach Brackett, and characters across the world of the play. We offer a glimpse of these two artworks, below.
Smile by Kehinde Wiley
“Smile is a four-channel video artwork Kehinde Wiley began while completing his MFA at Yale University in 2001. The artist revisited the project 15 years later, once again asking young men he found on the streets of New York to smile unceasingly in front of a camera for one hour. Within the video, the young men can be seen stoically submitting to discomfort and humiliation as their expressions distort under the pain and duress of the pursuit to appear happy.” — Curatorial Notes from Roberts Projects (emphasis mine)
The paintings below, all by contemporary Black artists, remind us deeply of Sabrina and Lena. We’re especially responding to the ways that these large scale portraits elevate their subjects, reminding us of the significance of everyday people’s lives — especially the lives of Black women — much the same way that Inda does throughout the play.
Continuing from our previous post about the works of Betye Saar, we wanted to share a few more powerful pieces.
“The Long Memory”
“Slipping From Paradise”
“Slipping From Paradise,” a large-scale hand-made paper piece combines Saar’s interest in the process of hand-made paper and the iconography of the occult. Such universal symbols as lightening, the crescent moon, the planet Saturn, a snake, an open palm, and the four card suits are depicted in vivid colors. – Curatorial notes from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Two views of “Guardian of Desires” — Verso and Front, 1988
One of Saar’s altar structures, in this piece “a strangely ominous figure stands [on the front], mummified with a half cat, half skull face. The background is made from a circuit board that resembles the night sky with stars and a variety of constellations. Yet, despite the works apparent whimsy, it is also dark and mysterious. Like many of Saar’s works, “Guardian of Desires” can be viewed from the front or the back; the rear of the sculpture revealing a more sinister narrative with small silver body parts hanging like limbs from the trees. There is an obvious association with the lynching of young black men in the South, yet there is also a deeply spiritual sensibility at work here as these shapes, as with the human souls lost during that horrendous and bloody time in our human history, are fortified through loss which is emblematic in the tarnishing of the silver.” — Africanah.org
We’re really digging works by contemporary artists — like the performance of Grief Objects from last week — and have been exploring resonances between various artworks’ subjects and the characters within the play. The dramaturgy team will be sharing images in a series of posts as a way to continue to provide new pathways into the emotional topography of the play and its story. Enjoy!
* * *
In the rehearsal room, we’ve been thinking a lot about ancestral knowledge/blood memory as a counter to ancestral trauma. Our conversations brought the work of Betye Saar to mind, especially her 1969 assemblage “Black Girl’s Window” (see below).
Artist Jasmine Weber writes in the online journal Hyperallergic: “‘Black Girl’s Window,’ Saar says, is a self-portrait. ‘It tells about my past, present, and future,’ she explains. ‘Inside of each pane, I put something that I felt had to do with my life. Her complicated thoughts about destiny, fate, and the internal conflict of her Black and white ancestry are imbued in the imagery behind the black silhouette.”
On the occasion of Saar’s retrospective at MOMA in late 2019, Weber/Hyperallergic returned to the topic. Weber notes, of the currently-95-year-old artist (emphasis mine):
Saar has been equal parts philosophical, mystical, and political since the nascence of her artistic career. At 40 years old, Saar began her foray into assemblage — the aggregation of objects into the shrine, totems, and sculptures that she is best known for — after a visit to the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), where she first encountered the sculptures of Joseph Cornell. His artworks […] piece together paper, found objects, and gems into surreal cornucopias.
Already studied in design and graphics, Saar soon began to fasten her own fantastical dioramas in picture and window frames. She treated them as open portals into which she could build new, dimensional worlds out of objects with personal, spiritual, and historical charge. Saar finds great inspiration in her heritage, embedding tokens of her Black, Irish, and Native American ancestry alongside symbols of astrology and mysticism (the artist’s astrological sign, Leo, appears consistently throughout the exhibition), metaphysically juxtaposing the inner and the outer self, the earthly and the celestial.
A definitive presence in Saar’s work is the legacy of antiblackness; she names the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the stimulus for her political artworks.
About this particular artwork, Jasmine Weber continues:
Framed by a worn wooden window, nine small boxes create stages for nine small scenes: two young Black children embracing; stars and moons; an aged daguerreotype of Saar’s maternal grandmother; a lion. The silhouette of a woman with a close-cropped afro, a stand-in for Saar, peers out of a whispy curtain. Her eyes, made of a lenticular, shift and blink, oscillating between intimate and external. It’s all in the eyes; the shifting, gazing, reflecting eyes.
It’s tempting to not snap the window’s latch and let it all out; it hums with energy. This is an artwork that’s living. It has a soul in the most literal sense — each of Saar’s assemblages carries a bit of her. Many Black women, myself included, can see themselves in this work.
Company One Theatre has been based at the Boston Center for the Arts for more than a decade, and one of the best things about it has been the opportunity to connect with other resident and visiting artists on the campus (like our longtime studio neighbor, Elisa Hamilton!). In a true moment of serendipity, we realized that the BCA’s Spring 2022 Run of the Mills residency — which culminates in 2 performances this week — is deeply connected to the thematic work we’re undertaking in our own rehearsals. And we’re rehearsing just feet away from the BCA’s Mills Gallery. What luck!
Laila J. Franklin has created Grief Objects, a “multidisciplinary gallery walk and performance” that invites audience members to “explore a collection of personal objects — physical and digital — that have been archived in grieving processes over the last 3 years in a space activated by live dance and sound performers.”
The play Black Super Hero Magic Mama takes us through a harrowing journey of a mother’s grief, her fight to reclaim her own mind, and perhaps to heal. That journey is catalyzed by the comic book her murdered son created. As a “grief object,” the comic book possesses enormous charge and power. We’re so curious, how will resident artist Laila J. Franklin reckon with the similarly changed flotsam of life after a loss? The pre-show materials for Grief Objects offer this prompt:
Why do we hold onto these objects? How do the objects of grief constantly object to grief? When do they become gifts?
This Friday, our cast members and dramaturgs will attend Grief Objects. We can’t wait to see how Laila’s work might illuminate our own explorations of grief and healing.