Editors Note: Gloria Oladipo has created an incredible audio version of her Purview. Listen below or read the transcript, which has been edited for clarity.
Hello! My name is Gloria Oladipo, and I am here to give a Purview of a show I saw at the lovely Wooster Group called Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me.
Side note: I have always wanted a podcast, and doing an audio recording of this is extremely fun. I am very excited to get into what I think is an incredible and really creative show. I think there's a lot out there right now, a lot of trends in playwriting and theatermaking. And gosh, how exciting and grateful I feel to be able to see somebody–the lovely duo of Eric Berryman and Jharis Yokley–really just bring a new level of artistry and creation to this incredible tradition.
So for those who don't know, we'll do a little breakdown of what the show's all about. The show Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me is a reflection on love, told through a number of toasts. Toasts are, essentially, narrative poems that are recited within Black social gatherings. That is the description from the New York Times’ wonderful profile of Mr. Berryman. And essentially these toasts are ballad-like. They center around a subject and involve a lot of different characters, oftentimes it can be animals… One of the toasts I remember was about a pimp. One was based on the man, a Black man, who survived the Titanic. Just people who, when I think about it, tend to not necessarily live in the front of our collective society. There's something really lovely about being able to find and hear these poems and hear from people who we don't get to often hear from.
So, I just wanted to start by saying that. [Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me] is joyful, amazing, really creative. I don't say that this is like, “Oh, wow, interesting!” Because that's really not how I mean it. I really mean it–there's a personal reflection in this somewhere–but I just really mean it in the sense of like… so often when it comes to theater that uses all types of the senses, including lights and projections and background video and live music, all these different components, sometimes a lot of it can feel ornamental. But with this piece in particular, if you lose one aspect of it, you're missing out on a huge chunk of it. There's something just really special about what these two have created to tap into all the senses required for this incredible form of storytelling.
I don't get asked to write a ton of personal things anymore. When I went to see this piece, I thought a lot about this idea of the “legitimacy” of art and the everydayness of art. And that just made me smile and feel so happy in a real way. It's hard out here, it's hard out here in so many ways. You know, it's hard in a post-pandemic–and pre-pandemic world–where we're told constantly that art is not valued.
For those who are within theater spaces, it's no secret that we are in a moment of change. Depending on who you ask, that change feels different. And within that change, we're seeing a lot of things fall to the wayside. We're seeing a lot of institutions buckle down and some just disappear. I think there's something really inspiring and lovely about this notion that these toasts and other oral storytelling traditions are “Art” with the capital A. They live! They don't necessarily need to be framed or put on in an institution, but when they are, it just means that more people get to experience them. I think for me, that made me really feel that art exists all over. And for theater, especially; even if every theater in America were to suddenly fly away, there is still art and connection and storytelling taking place.
For those who don't know, I come from a Nigerian Christian household in Chicago. In childhood, we would have these weekly prayer meetings, right. All of the aunties assemble—it's like my biological family is there, we have all of our aunties. For those who know, you know what an auntie is. And for those who don't know, an auntie, of course, is a blood relative, but also just really any elder who exists in your community.
In these prayer meetings, I can never really quote a prayer. I feel like the language and the words that leave someone's lips when they're in direct communication with God are something that you really can’t bottle up. It's something you have to sit and be within. And I think about that as a very reverent experience, but also as a very poetic, artful thing that happens behind closed doors. It may never be seen on a stage necessarily, but it’s still a form of expression and storytelling happening.
I also think about all of these moments of “art of the everyday” that happen. If you're blinking, if you're scrolling on your Instagram–this is the old lady in me coming out–don’t be on your phones too much. But for real, there is so much art and expression happening every day that we just miss, because we're not paying attention, because we live in an ongoing hellscape, or because it hasn't been checkmarked off by somebody else.
I think of this particularly when seeing this show at The Wooster Group. These toasts were collected in an album of folk poetry as well. Overall, I think that it's interesting and palpable, as an artist and writer and person in the world, to just say that art is everywhere in every capacity.
As I was researching, I really thought about the idea of the white gaze, not as a starting place, but as something that came to mind. Because I saw that specifically Johnny Depp and Jeff Buck were accused–“alleged,” as we say in journalism speak–of actually stealing some of the lyrics from a toast for a song they did. So we kind of think, “whoa,” that is so interesting and messed up and really ridiculous. That here you have this toast, with a kind of poetry to it; these talks can get pretty raunchy, but there’s also a purity, in the sense that it just exists. It’s not meant as a commodification. It’s not meant to be sold. It’s just a tradition of having exchanges with people. So to have this white person come in and attempt to monetize off of it is so wild to me. And again, it just goes to show how grateful I am to have it on a stage, and to think about, in different contexts, how people see the inherent artistry of toasts but then don’t want to credit them properly. They don't want to archive it as a form of storytelling. They want to take it, reproduce it, and make money off of it.
I just want to really give a shout out to The Wooster Group, to Eric, to Jharis as well. People who are willing to take these toasts and place them in the appropriate context and just really respect the artistry. I also want to give props to Bruce Jackson as well, who recorded the initial album that this is all based on, and to the work that has been done to emphasize the archival of this as well. So that's all my reflections for today. Again, shout out 3Views for the opportunity to engage in this, especially in this format of audio speaking. I feel like this is something I wanted to talk about. Thanks everybody.
Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me is playing now through February 3 at The Performing Garage in New York City.