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.
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.
by Daniel Alexander Jones
“Everything is in a state of flux. Always. Always… We have to see things in a process, as a state of being that is becoming, that’s always in the present, you have to know the past to know the present, and only when you understand the present based on an awareness of the past, can you understand where the future is going… The future is being created as you’re living in the present.”
-Dr. Constance E. Berkley
I am at your door.
You’ve been gone a long time. I’m awake in the middle of the night. Hear your voice like a call. You taught me to listen to calls.
In the Spring of 1978, my parents bought tickets to a Broadway show and tickets on Amtrak to New York City. They hid a litany of small personal sacrifices from me, putting aside a dollar here or there to manifest that day. They knew before I did that I was an artist. My parents fed my imagination as often as they could with a stream of experiences they hoped would contain the whole periodic table. They knew before I did how I was wired, that I was attuned to the unseen, and, I’m sure, that I was gay. They knew firsthand the virulence of racism, of others’ judgments, of the challenges facing a temperament like mine and wanted to provide me some inoculation against the onslaught they knew was coming for my consciousness. They were unusual in that regard. I was fortunate. Public resources were still flush in my youth: multiple library branches, small but serious public museums, and many dedicated public school teachers. But on this day, they wanted to show me something special, outside what we could touch in Springfield1, or even Boston, our nearest “big city”.
They were right. This trip opened a portal for me to feel my own unfolding center align with radiant possibility in a context far beyond their everyday parameters.
The term egregore was introduced to me by a friend not long ago. It is an esoteric term that describes, in essence, a collective thought form–an entity, even–that can arise from the beliefs of specific groups in place and time. New York City’s egregore was as opulent as it was gritty. It was, boldly, too much at once, and I felt its eyes on me.
My heart was racing. The thrum and rush of hundreds of arms and legs sweeping past. The titanic vault of the buildings. The funk. The old Times Square. That specific, incalculable density of realities colliding, intersecting, and re-coding themselves in plain sight. Each city denizen’s aura contained a map of their own history, glints of their mettle, hints of their secret desires. We moved through the fish-school surges of other bodies in the streets and subways. Operatic energies sketched themselves in the humid air, then dissolved in the spaces between the people. Swift sharp looks from strangers pierced me, and left lingering traces of something that felt both exciting and dangerous.
The theatre on 52nd Street was a hive. A world within a world. So many shiny people buzzing with excitement. The big auditorium collected us all together, set us temporarily apart from the pulsing realities just outside its doors. The huge velvet curtain lifted–an interdimensional veil. The show had jaunty music with sweeping strings and shimmering bells. There was a motley group of young orphan girls wearing frumpy dresses and sweaters who danced like their lives depended on it, including the one with the bright red hair. Annie was played by a gangly, teenaged Sarah Jessica Parker, but it was another performer on that too-big, too-much, perfect day who left my heart ricocheting between my ribs and my throat.
Dorothy Loudon altered physics before my eyes. Her aura filled the whole space. Loudon was, herself, opening a portal. Far more was afoot than her unbridled comedic acting. Through the portal her vital consciousness, intellect, heart, and wisdom entwined vine-like with the fictional consciousness of this imagined villain Miss Hannigan. Each of our imaginations in that room were blazing. Loudon, through her consummate artistry, created a generative feedback loop that amplified and directed the vibrations throughout the hive. A queen bee, signaling, shaping, bridging multiple worlds. And, oh, the joy on my parents’ faces!
As with all stories we inherit, it’s informative to consider their semiotics2 and their contradictions. What are the stories really telling, teaching, and inviting? In Annie’s case, the hustlers are criminals. The children are plucky and colorful, but destined for hard lives, except Annie. She may not have boots or bootstraps to pull herself up by, but she can muster up a show stopping inspirational number that gets her places. Annie is picked to temporarily escape penury because she is “special.” As Annie enters the realm of Daddy Warbucks, the robber baron who ultimately adopts her, we are given to remember that his gold remains the forever standard. In the comic strip Daddy Warbucks is avowedly anti-New Deal, a truth tempered for the stage adaptation. Annie, the orphan, fulfills the stereotypical dream of the downtrodden in every melodrama–to make it big!; rather than the collective dream of equity through economic structural reform and regulation that guided the workers-rights movements of the era. Movements that had resonance with the real-life Federal Theater Project, which had a profound impact across the nation in its brief and controversial existence in the 1930s when Little Orphan Annie was in her heyday.
Many stories were writ that day. Of the love of parents for a child. Of a veteran artist, Loudon, who’d found her moment to shine, and who instead of simply soaking up the light, amplified and beamed it out to audiences, adding layers of humanist witness that bloomed a comic turn into a theatrical tour de force. Story of a city, and a country, in the messy process of finding their way through fragmented times toward some new sense of identity after years of explosive upheavals. Story of an art form that gathers people to open portals across time and space.
When the velvet veil descended - that portal closed. We made our way with the throng of people outside, into the city evening, and walked back to Penn Station. I tripped some internal breaker and cried the whole train ride home, so overwhelmed was I by the day. The foundations of my lived reality had quaked. I had experienced a quantum, accelerated invitation to my consciousness. The play, the city, the people were like melodic phrases, but the day itself had been the song.
The next week, my Dad placed the LP of Annie in my hands. For several years, my friends and I were as apt to put “Hard Knock Life,” “Tomorrow,” or “Easy Street,” in our little routines as we were songs by our favorites– Donna Summer, Diana Ross, and Michael Jackson. My memories of that time are whole-cloth memories, full of light and shadow, and a wide range of feelings. A rich mysterious set of chords moving from minor to major and back again, indicative of our complex and beautiful community.
Neighbors would inevitably be gathered on somebody’s porch to swap stories, Marvin or Stevie or Aretha sounding out of the car radio and into the dusky summer air. Our hometown hero was a restaurant called Friendly’s, famous across New England for their ice cream, made from a secret family recipe. Regularly, Dad and I would pick up paper cups of their black raspberry or chocolate chip ice cream or watermelon sherbet for family and friends. Meanwhile a corporate behemoth was stirring–setting its eyes on world domination: McDonalds had launched the Happy Meal. And soon, my friends and I, like kids across the country, were hooked like fish on lures by the idea. Each colorful box contained a toy like Christmas in July! A shiny hunk of plastic in lieu of real food. Friendly’s would be sold to the Hershey’s Corporation, which altered the ice cream recipe for mass production.
Signs and symbols bobbing and weaving at the end of a decade as marked by disillusionment, buried grief and rage, as it was by its many revolutions. Facing a choice between the deep and challenging work of systemic change, and a bright, sunny, hollowed-out tomorrow tasting of sugar sweet aspiration. We were spitting distance from Ronald Reagan’s election. From the resulting launch of his anti-New Deal policies that would define the coming decades, dealing grievous blows to my communities, the nation, and in so many ways, the world that America would make its marketplace. Drums were programmed. Hair teased and sprayed. Shoulders padded. Eyes set on elusive plastic prizes, as insistent major chords drowned out political dissonance, and waveforms were compressed for maximum volume. Out of many, just one.
Care requires capacity. Most folk I talk with proclaim we have less and less capacity. I’ve watched the violence of growing class disparity unfold throughout my lifetime. Grace Lee Boggs taught us to see in terms of centuries not just decades, and I can see how a turn away from heterogeneity - a multiplicity of artistic approaches and convictions - slowly starved the roots and the imaginative branches of an interdependent reality. A reality held together by the care of everyday people who continued in the face of dwindling resources. They acted from a sense of mutuality that is now threadbare in many communities -not for lack of desire but due to the crushing impact of the times.
Our headline stories today? War. Born, in great measure, from the legacy of centuries of settler colonialism. Across the sea parents spell stories to comfort their children as bombs fall on their heads and multiple generations are turned to dust. Human brutality unchecked and unleashed with impunity. Fires. Floods. Extreme heat waves. Seven million people dead (over one million in the United States) from a pandemic. Constant storm of gun violence. Ongoing uptick of white supremacist and Christian nationalist terrorist activities. A steady flow of legislative shenanigans achieving a long-planned rollback of hard-won rights, chief among which is revocation of bodily sovereignty for over half the population. Metastatic crony capitalism. New feudalism fantasies. A wave of megalomaniacs to trump Daddy Warbucks, buying things and blowing them up in a display of hubris so over the top that even the Ancient Greeks might have suggested dialing it back. More and more “fixed” aspects of the so-called American Experiment pried loose, becoming unstably oscillating variables. In our cities, ever increasing numbers of people are forced into the streets, carrying the material evidence of their lives in broken shopping carts. A range of opportunistic social and cultural infections threaten to consume what healthy tissue remains connecting us all. Oh, yeah, and to read the serial headlines “The American Theatre” seems to be imploding.
So much is coming undone. That is not a new insight, I can hear many say. No, it is not. But is there something absent now in particular? Something to do with our connective tissue, with the visibility and accessibility of networks of care, and of brave engagement with our stark contradictions? I’m listening, as the chords progress with great uncertainty for what we will play into being. As above, so below. As without, so within. Reading the codes and keys of “The American Theatre”’s current, precarious identity crisis, and seeing the sharp edges of broken trust within it, it’s clear we face a crossroads in consciousness as much as anything.
- Springfield, Massachusetts
- The serial comic strip Little Orphan Annie’s initial publication in 1924 predated the birth of my parents by just over a decade, Dad was born in 1935 and Mom in 1937, both in the heart of the real-life Great Depression.