Let’s Talk About It

During the creative process of the performance of learning about Brother General Gabriel, I found it to be very eye opening experience. Being that I stepped into the process just a few weeks later, playing “catch up” made a small difference for me as a student. Though playing catch up happened to be apart of my process, I found that digging into the history and also listening about others experiences I gained more knowledge. The process of learning about the information up to the performance at the Burial Ground help me in a lot of ways because, I am very hands on. I tune into a lot of visual work and being face to face wether it is my work or someone’s work. Stepping into the museum and having a chance to learn from Free happened to be the best experience. Sitting with someone who knows so much history and has so much knowledge was a pleasure.

When working with MK, I found that as the performer at times I would find movement or intentions to be unclear but, it also made me realize that “staying in the moment” played a huge part in this role. As a person I over analyze everything and second guess a lot of my work but, in this case I had to go with the flow and really just stay in tune with everyone else. Feeling the energy of others happened to be where the story telling would come to life.

“Eye opening, moved spiritually, taken back and unity” are the words my mom used to describe her experience. My mother is always my go to person when it comes to receiving feedback. This was her first time at the Brother General Gabriel Burial Ground but this was not her first time hearing about it. When I mentioned that the performance was at the sight, she said “ They were going to turn it into a baseball field”. Instantly I remembered about that being in the paper and on the news. As I ask my mom to walk me through the process of what her most memorable moment of the performance would be she says “ When you all were in the tunnel and when the music would pick up, you guys would pick up the pace as well”. I found that to be interesting only because, we never heard the music. Being that we could connect step by step and beat by beat sent a chill up my spine. “The performance was powerful in itself but the music set the tone, the energy set the tone even higher”. She even talks about how the singing at the end of the performance felt like everyone came together and formed as a unity. It gave insight on African American History but also let people know that the Burial Ground is here. 

As an African American we are often forgot about when it comes to history. So to have everyone come out who have different racial backgrounds was a big deal. The experience will never be forgotten and I am honored that I was able to be apart of the process. 

Creative Process Reflection

The three questions that inspired my reflection are as follows. What aspects of the creative process expanded your comfort zone the most and how did it make you feel in the moment? Who did you meet through the project that inspired you and why? How do you imagine the audience perceived the performance, what aspects may have influenced their perception?

The city of Richmond has so many different opportunities to offer.  Joining a new community or project is something that was extremely exciting but also nerve racking for me. There were many moving parts within this creative project and often I felt lost, having to trust that someone would guide me and that everything would workout at the end. Never knowing what to expect, I kept an open mind to the process used to create this elaborate performance, commemorating the space and our ancestors that brought us here. For me, this performance process expanded my comfort zone, connected me to many people I never would have met, and showed me how a diverse audience can come together and become part of the performance.

The part of the creative process that made me step out of my comfort zone and expand myself was during the performance when we had to make impulsive decisions based on everything we had prepared. It was the first piece I had ever performed where I had to physically interact and react to the audience, which made it difficult to prepare for because each audience reacts differently. During class, we created a set of agreements that we all decided to follow and to keep in mind during the creative process. Two examples of these were to “trust the process” and to “encounter the growing edge.” Both principles came into use as we moved from the studio to the site because I had no idea what was expected, and each rehearsal brought new awareness and material to the project. It wasn’t until the first dress rehearsal we had that I saw that there would be community members performing as well as the four professional dancers that had also been at the first march that we attended. Slowly seeing all these pieces come together made me trust in the process stronger than before because I started witnessing the creative process start to really develop. Although, the process wasn’t through until the final night when we were all present, in costume, and our last piece, the audience, was present.

Having an audience there really played to the principle of embracing the growing edge because it made me try something I’ve never done and make fast decisions on my feet. Having a large audience also changed the dynamic of the performance because it made the space feel occupied and alive. We were working in the medium of bodies which is much harder to navigate then open space. It also made me think a lot, even during the performance, about what the audience thought of the performance and how they may have felt occupying the stage. It also made me think about how everyone was looking at the same performance, but no one was seeing the same thing. I felt the reactions to the performance were very diverse, just like the audience that came to witness the piece. Depending on each person’s background and biases they would interpret the performance differently. Those coming with some background knowledge on Brother General Gabriel would understand and maybe enjoy the performance more than someone who has no idea about what had taken place. It was also interesting to compare my own view of the performance with some of my friends, because they were getting the full effect of the performance with the music, whereas we were dancing in silence. Some of my favorite comments that I heard from the audience after the performance were, “I loved the running part in the tunnel because it felt like you were pushing through the masses.” Another was, “I don’t know how you did it, but you were perfectly with the music, it was like each move had a note.” The second comment was personally very intriguing, and I wish I had gotten a chance to listen to the music while we performed. Peoples reactions to the piece were interesting to watch as we moved through the sections because there were so many different responses, which made each performance unique.

This project also created an opportunity to build community. In the weeks we were working on the project we got to know students, faculty, and community members that we may have never gotten the chance to meet otherwise. One of these wonderful people was Free Egunfemi who was one of the co-directors of the project. When we went to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture to visit the exhibit “Determined,” it was inspiring to listen to her story and beliefs of why and how she had started Untold RVA. Her conclusion was that for her it was about lifting up the stories of the black lives in the way she wanted to and not to rely on others. It was educational and inspiring to hear her opinion and to think of my own when it came to the subject of black lives in Richmond. Being in a group where everyone respected each other’s opinions it was refreshing and mind opening, getting to talk about these different issues.

Overall, this creative process was very different from anything else I have ever participated in and I am glad I got to be apart of it. Before this project I had never explored topics of racism in death and what it means to disrespect a burial ground. It was also fascinating to see how a community has been built to support and fight for the African Burial Ground and that we were able to join that community for a little while.

 

Process Reflection

Why was it important to perform at the actual burial site rather than another location or stage?

The Brother General Gabriel performance was a site specific performance at the burial ground. In my opinion, the essence of the performance and how it resonates with the dancers and the audience would have been completely different. Choosing to perform on the burial ground allowed the opportunity to bring awareness about historical/modern injustices, community building, and it adds a spiritual and more genuine commemoration element.

The burial ground does not have any markings that notify people about the land. It is also right next to ongoing traffic and infrastructure. The area is loud and chaotic which is not an ideal place for a burial ground. If the burial ground were for white people, it most likely would have tombstones and other markings. The city would go through more length to make sure the burial ground is peaceful and respected. Richmond neglected the burial ground and not a lot of people know it exists unless some educates them about it. Even residents of Richmond who lived there for the majority of their lives did not know about the site. Therefore, the site-specific performance allowed people to become aware of the space and hopefully try to learn more about it and start conversations. If the performance was on a stage, people would have not gotten the same message or feeling. The audience probably would have been a little bit confused and they probably would not have taken further steps to educate themselves about the land. Performing at the burial ground allowed people to physically see the land they pass by carelessly everyday. It also appealed more than just sight and captured the attention of other senses: smell, touch and sound. The activation of the audience’s senses improves their mindfulness of the present and can improve their memory for the future. They can recall how they felt in the moment because more than one sense was working. The site-specific element made the performance more personal and forced people to be on the land that was neglected.

When people watch a performance that is performed on a stage, they just sit in their seats, stay to themselves and just watch the show then leave. However, for the Brother General Gabriel performance, people had to interact and move with others in order to see the show and to be involved in it. It is a different feeling to be standing and walking around to watch performers rather than just sitting and turning the head to shift focus. The performance brought dancers with different skill levels and the community together at the same location and at the same time to experience a powerful gift. Having to stand and move side by side with many neighbors creates different energies that unites people and forms connectivity between them. Also, since the performance was site-specific, people were able to join the performers with ease. Furthermore, the ending of the performance was very impactful for everyone involved because everyone was joined together with singing and moving through the space. It would have been harder to achieve audience participation if they were seated in an audience and there was limited space to move due to seats, a stage and four walls.

The product of involving historical injustices present and the aspect of community building is having a genuine spiritual and commemorative event. If the performance happened in a different location then the land would not have gotten the true commemoration that it deserves. People got the opportunity to actually walk on the burial ground and get to feel energies of old ancestors whose lives were horrifically lost. This was an emotional event. Additionally, the performers physically touched different aspects of the land. The bricks of the walls under the bridge had human contact, the trees, the grass, the steps, the ledge and even the air. Physically touching the land allowed for a better chance of feeling spiritually connected to the theme and ancestors. The site-specific performance also highlighted how the land does not get the peace and respect that it needs. During the performance, cars and people were passing by and noise was present. The dancers performing through the distractions showed strength and determination to give the land the awareness and attention that it deserves from the city and its people.

How does the museum visit and the performance process / performance day differ from each other?

The exhibit “Determined” and the Brother General Gabriel performance both  presented topics of discussion about racial injustices but they were presented in different ways.

The majority of the exhibit presented textbook-like information which did not make it personal. It discussed the facts and dates from the start of slavery but then it skipped many years until it reached the present. The exhibit skipped many years as if nothing bad was going on during that time which added to the superficial and insincere quality of it. The walls even go from red, to orange, to brown, to green, and then to purple. It made it seem like society was bad during the time of slavery but since slavery “ended” and we had a black president then everything is better now. The colors symbolized pain and darkness and transitioned to a good and hopeful tone. The group discussed that the exhibit tried to cover up the reality and try to divert people’s attention to the successes of black people in America but do not highlight that the problems still exist. Injustices from history still exist today but they evolved which is why people think things have gotten better but in reality it has not. The exhibit missed a personal aspect of their history telling. Adding connections from history to today is necessary and it was lacking.

Contrastingly, the performance presented information in a much more personal way. It also included fact information with signs and with the use of headphones that presented information to audience members. The museum presented more information and gave people the chance to read and receive at their own pace but the audience members during the performance could only hear the information once and had to move on. The personal element plays a bigger role than just stating facts. When people feel personally connected to something, they are more likely to do more research and take action to fight for whatever cause. The site-specific performance presented a neglected area that currently shows a lack of justice for black people while the “Determined” exhibit presents information about the present as if all of the problems became nonexistent.

What aspects of community building talked about in class present themselves during the performance creating process?

In MK’s class, a set of class etiquette rules and agreements were established which included: trust (trust, practice, build), respect (where can respect appear and how: spatial awareness. Aware of feelings, allow agency) kind confrontation (its okay to disagree), encounter the growing edge, everyone has value, collective accountability, move forward in 2s and move back in 3s. During the performance creating process I think that trust, collective accountability and move forward in 2s and move back in 3s presented themselves.

When I am involved in a performance, I am used to having structure and having a  general sense of the process and the final product. For the Brother General Gabriel Performance process, I found that MK did not have a clear idea of the end product and was still continuously working through different ideas all the way up until the last dress rehearsal and the shows. Unfortunately, I lost faith in the project along the way because I found the uncertainty in things to be discouraging. I had to remind myself that I made a commitment to the class and the performance and had to trust that everything will workout at the end and trust in my own abilities to set those changes into my body. I had to sit back and go through the process one day at a time and just go with the motions.

Collective accountability came into play because everyone had to come to class meetings and rehearsals in order to show commitment and to keep the intentions alive. It is important as performers to respect rehearsal times and to be completely present. If everyone stays mindful of their roles and contributes 100% of their energy than the project is able to progress over time. For the performers, the accountability aspect can simply appear when we reminded each other to go over certain sections of the choreography to practice. Everyone played their roles in the project which allowed for a great performance.

Moving forward in 2s and moving backwards in 3s related to the creative process because the project was constantly changing and the performers always had to adapt to changes and different expectations of how something is going to happen. One day the dancers would learn a set of choreography but then the next day it would be completely scratched. Ideas and inspirations were always forming and the dancers always had to work with that process. It did not seem like we accomplished a lot during each individual meeting but overall we ended up learning a whole performance. It reminded me that not everything can happen in a day but some things need months or even years to prosper.

Midterm Reflection

Creative process (what constitutes the movements? What inspires the choreographers’ story-telling? The visit to VMHC, slave trails, the burial ground, check-ins).

Planning

If you’re an artist, you’re going around galleries, you’re looking at book to get that level of inspiration.” (Taylor, n.d.)

Looking back at the creative process and production of Brother General Gabriel at the former Richmond City Gallows, makes me think about how the people behind this production plan the whole thing. Most importantly, what inspired the story telling?

The planning stage of this production wasn’t something that was explicitly revealed to us, the students from UR and VCU. Both the production team and the performers had different parts to play, so I can only share the point of view of the students (or maybe just my own). I do believe that we were familiarized with the content of the performance from the beginning of the class. From creating a class agreement – which was done collectively, to visiting the slave trail/burial ground and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, I have learned more about the value of being part of the community and the power that it holds in making a change.

The visits to the performance site, i.e. the burial ground, had always made me feel driven toward the idea of being part of this production. It gave me a sense of purpose, knowing that we are performing here for a reason – to commemorate Brother General Gabriel and the rest of the enslaved who were buried six feet under. When I did the tour at the slave trail, walking through the tunnel and out in the open field, I felt a sense of peace despite the horrible thing that had happened on that very ground. Also at the same time, I had goosebumps just thinking about what these people had gone through and what was the last thing that they saw before they were killed. It was for me, an adequate orientation to learn about the place and its history, it was a form of research done before we delve into learning the movements for the performance.

The visit to the museum on the other hand, had given me more perspectives on how the history of slavery in Richmond is told from the point of view of the museum committee. We were asked to tour the museum by ourselves, to synthesize the information on our own. To enter without much expectations or assumptions. As someone who has never read American history textbooks used in schools, I did not have anything to compare with the information exhibited in the museum. I wasn’t sure if anything was missing or anything extra was presented. Regardless of how the history was told in the museum, it could not steer away the fact that what happened in the past was utterly unspeakable. Getting immersed with all of this information, perspectives and experience – had helped me to understand why Brother General Gabriel’s event is important for the production team. It helped to prepare me to be part of the production team and the community that is trying to make a change. It was a good orientation for me.

To sum up the planning stage of the creative process, I’m including this quote from James Taylor:

With all these stages, there tends to be a better environment in which to do them. In this first stage, what we tend to find through research, is that working in a quiet environment is really best for the research stage. That’s perhaps no surprise, which is why we see academics or authors in libraries, that is why we see musicians, headphones on, listening to inspiration from other artists.”

Incubation, insight and evaluation

These three stages have little involvement from the student performers. I could however, based on my observation, witnessed MK; the director and choreographer, going through this process. She would sometimes think out loud and that allowed me to get a bit of an understanding of her thought process. It was never a fixed planning and a lot of things changed during the rehearsals. Things were modified, included or taken out in order to deliver the intended messages.

Elaboration

This is where you do the work. You just get on with it, you start to test and to micro test, and get more feedback on your ideas as well.”

During the rehearsals that we had a week before and on the week of the Brother General Garbriel’s event, a lot of testing and micro-testing happening on the site. As a student performer, I was involved in this process as while rehearsing and assisting the technical team. I could see MK trying out some ideas and making decisions on what is best to be included in the performance. She would just step back and watch the whole rehearsal and would come up with changes for improvement. A few ideas were weighed in and considered and would be added accordingly, so the whole process was flexible and not rigid. It was fascinating how everything eventually fell into place, fit like jigsaw puzzle pieces though it was vague in the beginning.

The whole five weeks of familiarizing with the history of the African American burial ground had helped me to understand the purpose of Brother General Gabriel event. The creative process involved (especially the planning stage) did enrich my knowledge about the history of Richmond and assist me in engaging with the production team.

Reflection

Choose a moment from the past few weeks, and narrate it for someone wanting to take this class or attend events next year. Develop the story as if you were still in the moment and expand on key details and interesting pieces of the moment. 

As soon as I stepped out of the taxi with my 4 peers, we began making our way to the side entrance of the Virginia History and Culture museum and contacted MK to meet up with her. We were greeted by her glowing face and radiant smile and she thanked us for coming. A few minutes later the other 4 girls joined us and we were given a brief explanation and introduction about the exhibit.

“This is my first time here, I haven’t seen it yet,” MK said, “so we’ll be experiencing it together.” Well, what have you at least heard about it? I thought. What if it isn’t any good?

We proceeded to enter the museum, received our tickets, and met Free Egunfemi. Before we went into the museum, she said, “I’d like for us to talk about this exhibit before we enter the experience. Let’s have a seat and chat a little.” So, we all walked into one of the museum rooms, which looked like a cafeteria-auditorium duo, and introduced ourselves to Free Egunfemi. We began to tell her our names, where we were from originally, the college we attended, and a superpower we wished we had. After brief introductions, Free then began telling us about the role she plays within the Richmond community and why she felt it was necessary to attend this exhibit.

“The stories and memoirs we’ll see are what the museum has chosen to put out there,” she acknowledged. She knew of many members on the commission board which curated the exhibit. While she had nothing negative to say about the individuals or about the board itself, I heard a sense of skepticism in her voice as to what this final exhibit–being showcased to the public and the entire world about the 400-year old history of African Americans from being enslaved to gaining freedom– would look and feel like. 

From the moment that I walked into the museum, I felt a similar sense of skepticism. I saw familiar names all over the museum of people who contributed to the exhibit and were being paid some sort of honor and tribute to. The names were those of white men and women primarily and had also contributed to the University of Richmond, a predominantly white school. This fact in itself made me a bit uncomfortable because I could imagine my predominantly white professors (who teach my predominantly white peers) and my school’s predominantly white donors telling the story of African-American slaves and struggles from 1619 to now– that image was not the most settling. 

Free concluded our chat with a deep breath, thanked us for coming, and told us to enjoy the exhibit. We all got up, made our way to the stairs and entered the current setting of darkness. All eleven of us, walked into the exhibit and began at either one of two sides from the entrance. There were pictures, and plagues, and archives, and I was still looking for a good reason why the museum curated this exhibit in the first place, aside from the fact that it was the 400th anniversary. I kept thinking, is it because we’re in Virginia, home of the Confederacy? Is it just something everyone’s doing down South, so are all states doing something like this? Or is it because of Free and similar organizers and heavy hitters like herself–people that aren’t afraid to ask questions and demand answers.  

Throughout the entire exhibit, I kept wondering how these stories were chosen. From Nat Turner’s Revolt, to the information on NAACP’s involvement with public school segregation, to Woolworth’s lunch counter, the excerpt on Gladys West, and the quote from Dr. Carter G. Woodson. These stories seemed to be biographies and short clips, rather than memoirs and anecdotes. There was some interesting information presented, in such impassive methods, and such important, crucial information lacking. 

I thought about what Free had said, and I thought about what I knew about Virginia, the struggles and adversities African-Americans faced not only in this state, but in the country, and I thought about what I wanted people to know about my ancestors and my culture. The battles, physically and mentally, we had to overcome, the strides and long journeys we took with nothing but pain and grief on our backs. This the exhibit show that? Was it supposed to exhibit that side of the 400 Years? Was the exhibit even big or long enough? Without measuring of sizes and shapes, was the content at least big or rich enough? Did it leave anyone with a better, deeper understanding? 

These questions popped into my mind one after another and I couldn’t seem to find the answer to not one of them, on my own. So, after we all got the opportunity to look closely into the exhibit and the images, graphics, interactions, and displays, we all made our way back downstairs at outside. 

At first, no one had much to say, but it was obvious that it was a result of our mind vigilantly wandering. MK asked a question or two, received small short answers and just wanted to know where our ideas and thoughts were at the time. She began speaking a bit more and adding on the information she had in her head, and she even added that ironically there was nothing displayed or brought up about Gabriel–the reason why we all went. 

The class has a focus specifically around Gabriel and we implicitly expected to see him or his story in some form of nature. MK sounded a bit disappointed and slightly upset. As someone who learned about Gabriel in one of her first classes at Richmond, entitled, “Slavery in Virginia,” I also expected Gabriel to be mentioned or alluded to in some way, form, or fashion.

After viewing the exhibit, I think it’s safe to say we were all a bit disappointed and concerned about the outcome of the exhibit. However, the topics and people that the exhibit lacked, gives us the ability to tell those stories ourselves–similar to what we did at our event a few weeks ago. 

We cannot rely on museums and the public to showcase our history and lift up our ancestors. We need to put on our own shows, performances, events, and exhibits to let the world know of our history, culture, and past. If no one else does, we need to stand up for our ancestors and pave the way for our generations in the future.

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