My friend, and very talented artist, Julie, invited me to a panel talk held at one of Providence’s gems–the arts organization, AS220
The panel, titled I’M AN ARTIST: WOMEN OF COLOR SPEAK consisted of poets Kate Rushin, Sussy Santana, theater director Francis Parra, and actress and theater artistic director, Jackie Davis. The panel was moderated by poet Franny Choi.
The panel began with Korean poet Franny Choi asking the artists how they define themselves–did they define themselves and self-identify as women of color artists or simply as artists? Was “women of color” a label that was limiting, or liberating?
The answers, of course, varied. Kate Rushin stated that she did define herself as an African-American or Black women poet for a number of reasons. Growing up during the civil rights movement, and being embraced by a community of women of color writers when she was starting out with her writing career helped Kate to solidify the way she saw herself. She went on to say she thought the term “women of color”was a term of hope, one that speaks to the idea that women can come together and work together. She feels seeing herself this way is a tool that she can use, a lens for her to look through.
Jackie Davis, actress, and Artistic Director of the New Urban Theater Laboratory, shared that she didn’t know that she was black until she moved to the United States at age nine. Born and raised until that age in Jamaica, she said that she always knew she was Jamaican, but it was this country’s construct of race that told her she was black. Jackie spoke of wanting to be able to reflect to an audience the humanness of people that look like her since it’s rare in theater for people of color to see themselves onstage. Out of a necessity to work and show characters with depth and uniqueness, and to avoid the roles of domestic worker or slave too often given to women of color, Jackie created her own theater company. After sharing about the need for more representation of people of color in theater when “white” theaters do three black plays a year and proudly say, “yeah, we do black theater,” she teased the audience with, “yeah, I’m THAT person.” (I will speak to issues.)
Francis Parra, director of Spanish and Latino theatergroup, ECAS, spoke about being an ambassador of Spanish and Latino heritage and a cultural bridge to the locally diverse community in Providence through ECAS, whose plays are all Spanish speaking works that focus on themes of identity, cultural heritage, and history. She added that she doesn’t let her Dominican heritage, and any associated barriers–language, others’ biases, get in her way of being a thriving artist here in the states. Clearly passionate about theater, Francis believes we all need to keep on going, to follow our dreams and do what we love and believe in, despite any obstacles.
Poet, Sussy Santana, who also hails from the Dominican Republic, had an answer that stood apart from the rest of the panel. She said that she defines herself as an artist, period. Sussy added that while she is definitely influenced by the place she grew up in, (she moved to the U.S. when she was 15) , and she may have dark skin, that is not how she defines herself. “I define myself as an artist. I write about the human condition, about our emotions, something we all have, and what I hope readers can relate to in my writing.”
Poet, Franny Choi, was a nimble moderator, asking questions and re-shaping them based on points of interest she found in her fellow artists’ responses. Her thoughtfulness allowed us to hear more about the question of responsibility or feelings of being burdened by thinking one has to be the spokesperson, or has to always represent one’s race or ethnicity with their work. We were treated to the reading of the amazing poem, The Bridge, by Kate Rushin, which you can hear her read here-–don’t miss out on hearing this!
The idea of the bridge, and Kate’s ending in her poem about being a bridge to one’s self, was later posed as a question to all the artists. It was perhaps here that each woman reflected more on what it means to be a woman artist, or simply, an artist. It was here that Francis tells of how much she loves theater, how it is a great joy in her life that she shares with others. It was here Sussy shares that she feels her writing is how she understands her life. It was when Jackie tells us that without art she would die; that her art keeps her sane. It was when Kate shares that after her mother died suddenly when Kate was ten that family members gave her books of poetry, one by Langston Hughes, and another I didn’t have a chance to record. These books were a comfort, and Kate said poetry helps her deal with her dreams, helps her figure out what she thinks and feels.
After the panel talk, there was a poetry reading, and a film screening, Bloodwork: The Ana Mendieta Story, about Cuban conceptual artist, Mendieta. Mendiata met a tragic, controversial death at age 37 after falling out of her 34th floor Manhattan apartment building window. It was never solved whether she fell, committed suicide or pushed out of the window during a fight with her husband, sculptor, Carl Andre.
I wasn’t able to stay for these post-panel events, but was so glad to have had the opportunity to sit in this local audience that Sussy Santana was pleased to see as diverse, and to learn about these wonderful, talented, dedicated women artists who live and work right in my own back yard. It also sparked some discussion with Julie and I afterward, with Julie noting that she appreciated the honesty and vulnerability these women shared about themselves. For example, Kate shared that she’s sometimes had a harder time defining herself as an artist than a woman of color, because of the idea that one has to have had a certain education, or a certain way of growing up. Julie thought that a male panel wouldn’t have shared or thought to share such things. Another thing that resonated for me along those lines was Kate’s worries about saying “yes” to others too much which made her neglect her own work, and Sussy’s comments about being raised in Dominican culture to always please others. Both said this was something that they had to become aware of and continue to practice saying “no” and taking time for themselves. It seems, essentially, these women had to become that bridge to themselves, so that they could give due time to themselves as artists, and then, have the ability to connect more fully with their audiences.
Thanks to these artists, moderator, Franny Choi, and AS220 for hosting this inspiring event.
www.youtube.com, Kate Rushin Reading The Bridge, posted by luckdial