The 10th Annual Black Lavender Experience At Brown University’s Rites and Reason Theatre

11 May

Travis Alabanza Black Lavender Experience

Travis Alabanza, The Black Lavender Experience

In April I went to two performances at Brown University’s Rites and Reason Theatre. The shows were part of the theater’s 10th annual Black Lavender Experience, a series of plays, folkthoughts (post-performance talks), and workshops, led by nationally and internationally recognized artists of color from the LGBTQ community. The Department of Africana Studies’ Rites and Reason Theatre is a research and developmental theatre dedicated to giving expression to the diverse cultures and traditions of continental and diasporic Africans and the vast Africana experience. Artistic Director of Rites and Reason Theatre, Elmo Terry-Morgan created the Black Lavender Experience in the spring semester of 1998 in response to students’ request for plays with Black LGBTQ+ content.

The Pink Dress

The first play I attended, The Pink Dress, was written and originally performed by members of the drama club at  Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women’s (LCIW).   The Black Lavender production was performed by local actresses, who were either students currently involved with, or alumni of, Brown University’s Rites and Reason Theatre. The actresses were Anna Hunt, April Brown, Elyssa Perez, Sylvia Ann Soares, Weitong Zhang, and Uchechukwu Onwunaka. Rites and Reason Director-in-Residence, Connie Crawford, directed this production. The play’s title refers to a pink sheath that prison staff used as punishment for women prisoners who presented themselves in a “too masculine way” by altering their state issued uniform: an oversize T-shirt, baggy jeans, and sneakers. The thought was that to wear the sheer, shapeless dress through which your undergarments could be seen,would shame and humiliate the women.

The play, a series of vignettes, celebrated the features and parts of  a woman’s body through word and movement, and was originally directed and choreographed by Ausettua Amor Amankum and Kathy Randels, co-directors of the Drama Club at the LCIW. Odes to their hips, hands, and feet, were akin to a poetic dance celebrating both womanhood and sisterhood. The play’s latter act took place in a dress shop named, “Pinky’s Boutique,” and highlighted the self-doubt a gender non-conforming ex-prisoner faced when looking for work at the shop post prison-release. Actresses posing as mannequins wearing paper doll cut-out tabbed pink dresses, came alive to first, mock, and then empathize with the woman. Is was as if they too, seemed constricted by their roles as mannequins being told what to wear, and how to perform their roles. After facing discrimination for her manner of dress from a co-worker, the woman finds acceptance with the shop’s owner, who focuses on the woman’s strengths instead of her attire preferences and prison record. With the recognition of her humanity, we see the woman’s belief in self begin to grow.

We learned during the folkthought talk, that the vignettes were inspired by an exercise where Ausettua and Kathy Randels, who founded the Drama Club, asked the women to name a part of their body they didn’t like. They found the women had so much to say about the parts of themselves they found fault with. They then challenged the women to write pieces that celebrated these same parts of themselves. Learning this, allowed me to see how the women transformed feelings of self-negation into revelations of self-acceptance, self-love and resilience.

Scholar-in-Residence, Lisa Biggs,who collaborated on this production, sprinkled pieces of her research on women in prison throughout the performance via readings of facts and statistics. Her research gave context to the history, past and present, of the demographic make-up and treatment of women in the prison system. We learned that black women, and other women of color, similar statistically to black men in prison, is disproportianally higher than white women. (Though Lisa and Ausettua both noted that white women are recently the fastest growing demographic within in women’s prisons)  In reference to the evolution of the pink dress as punishment, Lisa shared that prison personnel are biased toward woman who may be gender non-conforming, queer or lesbian, and who they deem  to dress or behave like men. For example, appearing “manly” while wearing large over-sized t-shirts and baggy pants, which happens to be the prison issued outfits for most, these women are targeted as problematic, and tend to receive harsher sentencing by judges, and harsher treatment and punishment once in prison.

Following the performance of The Pink Dress, Taece Defillo, a woman who was formerly incarcerate, and a member of the LCIW Drama Club, performed. Taece, in her 30’s, is currently a member of the performing arts group, The Graduates, which is an off-spring of the LCIW, and is for women who are no longer in prison. The Graduates write and perform plays out in the community to inform others of the conditions one is faced with within the prison system, as well as once released from prison. Taece’s emotional spoken word piece revealed the challenges she faced in  being imprisoned when she had never before gotten into trouble, and the impact that had on her feelings of self-worth, her relationship with her family, as well as the path she now finds herself on.

At the post-performance folkthought, Taece shared that she feels her family still worries about her at times, and she herself at times worries about her own stability in terms of being grounded in a  positive sense of self, and in being able to support herself economically. As someone who believes passionately in the arts as a means of grounding oneself with a sense of purpose, and of feeding one’s soul, I was heartened by Taece’s expressing that despite her own worrying, and her family’s worrying about her, she knows no matter what, with her work as an actress, spoken word artist, and member of the artistic troupe, The Graduates, that she will be all right.

Ausettua Amor Amenkum in the folkthought spoke with great determination and passion about the work she and Kathy Randels have been doing at The Drama Club since the late 1990’s, work they volunteered weekly to do for many years before beginning to receive small grants that would support the Drama Club. She also proudly spoke of how they have grown, and have recieved more major funding, most recently from the  Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, in support of the work of The Graduates. Just before arriving at Brown for this performance, The Graduates hosted a weekend long Beyond Incarceration Summit complete with speakers, activists, and artists who share the mission to end mass incarceration for women and girls locally and globally.

Ausettua spoke of the need for people like us who were there at the performance to acknowledge the injustices, the biases against women of color and members of the LGBTQ community within the correctional system, and to act to make the system a better one for people to be able to rehabilitate themselves through education, the arts, and other positive, healthy behavioral and wellness tools and skills, so that people can reintegrate into society and not have to return to prison. Ausettua also informed us of how a recent flooding shut down the LCIW. Many of the women who were a part of The Drama Club have been moved to three different prisons in Louisiana, including the infamous Angola prison for men. Ausettua said that despite the challenges faced with the women being dispersed to different settings, she and Kathy are making sure that the work of the LCIW Drama Club carries on. To learn more about the work of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women’s Drama Club, The Graduates. and the work Ausetta and Kathy do, visit the website: www.artspotproductions.org

 

 

The Pink Dress

                       The Pink Dress, cast and crew

 

Before I step outside (you love me)

In the show I attended the following night, performance artist and poet, Travis Alabanza, gave me life. Even though it was not their job to do that, and, as a white cis woman, I perhaps don’t deserve to use the phrase, “gives me life,” which according to Urban Dictionary  is “anything that you get excited or pumped about; anything that makes you laugh emphatically” ex: “Honey, that dress you got on is giving me life!” But that’s what us white people do so often with black culture–appropriate it. You’ll see what I mean by deservedness a little later.

Note: Travis uses the pronouns they, their, instead of a gender labeling/conforming pronoun like he or she, and while I still am learning the definitions and practicing the usage of people’s preferred pronouns and definitions used to define one’s expanded gender expression and sexuality–something my teenage daughters are much more fluent in than I am–I am using the pronouns they/their here in this blog post. Also, definition of cis, is a person who identifies with the labeled gender they were born with.

Travis identifies as a Black/Filipino, gender non-conforming trans performance artist and writer, and lives in London, England. They opened their performance with a reading from their 2016 poetry book, Before I Step Outside (you love me), a collection written entirely on public transportation about the dangers of being outside in a racialized, trans body. Standing on an elevated platform in the middle of the intimate Rites and Reason black box theater, with multi-layered soundscapes of words and sound enveloping the space, Travis visually and auditorially showed me just how layered and complex simply trying to live free is for them.

Though I can never know what it is like to live as a trans person, through Travis’s skilled and artful performance, I felt the near impossibility of living free when thoughts continuously loop through your mind about what violence you will most likely face once you step outside of your home, on top of the lived interactions that do occur on a daily basis–the uninvited make-up tips from a cis-woman  sitting across from them on the train, the man who spits his coffee so that he can laugh at Travis, while Travis’s grace and humanity allows them to imagine the pain the man must be holding, in that he cannot liberate himself from the pain and entrapment he feels in being who he thinks society needs him to be, or the woman who “mistakenly” trips Travis so that he nearly falls off of the tube platform, only to exclaim to Travis afterward, “I guess you shouldn’t be wearing those heels, ey?”

Travis’s lines about putting headphones on while riding the train, wishing they could simply listen to the music instead of being defense-ready for the outside world, allowed me to consider what I hadn’t taken time to, at that level: what it is like to be oppressed–as trans, gender non-conforming, and a person of color. It made me think of how in my writings about people of color where I focus on cross-racial interactions primarily between black and white Americans, it is rare that I have included the LGBTQ community in my writings. By sharing their experience, Travis let me and other cis people into their world, and the world of “their girls,” as Travis called their trans and queer community of friends.

Travis’s vivid portrayal of a part of their world,  made me realize to live as Travis does, must often be exhausting, soul draining. They also allowed me to consider at a deeper level what trans patients at the psychiatric hospital I work at as an Activities Therapist, may also experience. Though not the same thing, Travis’s layering of their inner thoughts, interactions with strangers, and doing the actual living of their day-to-day life, reminded me of simulations of what it is like to live for some people with schizophrenia, with layering of voices and paranoid thoughts. These simulations show how challenging it is for them to focus on simply living when the voices and thoughts become louder than the conversation someone is trying to have with them.

Travis’s performance also made me think of some of the things our patients share about–the feelings of isolation, of not being wanted, or shunned by family and friends, of not finding romantic love, of dealing with depression and anxiety as they transition, try to decide if they will transition medically, try to figure out if they can afford to transition medically, or to even live in their gender non-conforming body whether they choose to or not, because as Travis said that night, not everyone can be Caitlyn Jenner and afford gender reassignment surgery.

At work I strive to be the model of acceptance and challenge co-workers, mostly male, who on rare occasion have said things like “I’m not going to call them by the name they choose to call themselves..” when a gender non-conforming person comes in with their given male name, but wish to be called a “female” name. And, I wonder, in a chicken and egg kind of way in regards to their mental health, did they always have anxiety and depression, and suicidal ideation, or did it manifest when they decided they would do what it took to live free in the body and gender expression true to them.

But don’t get me wrong. I am not perfect either, and know that I have exoticized or patronized individuals from the LGBTQ community. Travis reminded the audience that trans, gay, queer, and gender non-conforming people are not up for human consumption. Cis-straight women and men sometimes see their contact with people from the LGBTQ community as entertainment, kitsch, flamboyant, and exotic. Whether at a drag show, sitting across from someone on the subway, on television, or at a club, we do what Travis shares about. We think we have license to tell a man in drag, a complete stranger, that we love them, as we perhaps touch their dress or hair, or, like that woman on the London tube with Travis, we might that feel we can share make-up advice.

Travis let us know otherwise.

Their message was that we must see people as the human beings, the individuals they are, and not how our gender regimented society has narrowly defined gender since the beginning of time. The second thing that Travis reminded us about was that despite them admitting that their poetry reading was pretty intense and dark, that they, of course, also experience great joy in life. At their Rites and Reason Theater performance, they felt it their duty to show us what we don’t know–the oppression–and the need to not look away at what it feels like for Travis to live in their body on a daily basis, and to also let us know that we don’t always deserve to witness their joy, or at least not yet that evening.

Travis brilliantly improvised the second half of their 90-minute performance, unbeknownst to me that they were improvising, and that that was something new they tried for our performance, as to not sustain the intensity of the beginning poetry reading which Travis noted was written two years ago, but to lay bare their experiences, and to teach us. Not unlike when white people are told they need to get woke and educate themselves about racism and white privilege, Travis let us know that cis people need to learn more, and put themselves in touch with ways how to learn more about the lives of trans and gender non-conforming people.

In a caberet style of bantering with the audience, a dance vignette to Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, and great comedic timing, Travis did share some joy through their sense of humor. Their delivery that straddled the line of being funny and dark at once, like “everyone’s lonely, bitch..” as a snarky response to how cis people ask them “how does it feel to be trans? are you lonely?” or the smile for the recording camera whenever they referred to their college performance at Miami University in Ohio. Travis had packed a dashing summer outfit because they thought they were going to Miami, Florida instead of the drab midwest campus they ended up on..”I had a very nice time, Ohio…” they smiled as they glided around the perimiter of the theater floor.

Then came the trans joy audience experiment. (SPOILER ALERT for those catching future Travis performances)

Letting us know we didn’t yet earn the right to experience trans joy, because as Travis shared with us, “we’re a lot of fun when left to our own devices..me and the girls have a great time together..,” Travis called for three volunteers from the audience to assist them. Taece Defillo, who I recognized from the Black Lavender Festival’s performance the night before, The Pink Dress, volunteered.  Travis graciously thanked Taece, but said in this case,  while her labor was appreciated in last night’s performance, they wanted white people to do the work for this one. The young black man sitting next to me, laughed, and then seemed to nervously retract his laugh as he gave me the side-eye seeing that I was white. I wished he knew I was perfectly okay with his laughing.

Travis gave the three white women that volunteered, each a pointy, colorful birthday hat like the ones we remembered having as kids, complete with elastic chin strap, and a placard with various sayings which I cannot recall–did they point to trans joy? Travis had the three women stand on three corners of the square floor space, close to the edge of where the audience seating began and instructed them to close their eyes, and to dance sadly, as he demonstrated, in head-down, slow-motion movements. Travis then put on the most bouncy dance music, and told all cis, straight people to close their eyes. He said that we weren’t allowed to open them until they told us we could. When our eyes were closed, Travis invited all trans people, and all members of the LGBTQ community to come dance with them.

The intensity of that moment, for me as a person who wanted to open her eyes and to witness the joy, the shrieks of delight and laughter I could hear, and yet be told it was not for me to experience, was intense. I didn’t earn the right that evening. Not yet. As I sat there, I could barely contain myself, the joy I felt bubbling inside of me, like I might float up to the ceiling ala Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after drinking the secret soda. It was out of reach for me to be free for just that moment. Perhaps that is how it sometimes feels to live as a trans person every day. To feel free, until you step outside.

To learn more about Travis Alabanza’s work: travisalabanza.co.uk

To learn more about Rites and Reason Theatre: https://www.brown.edu/academics/africana-studies/rites-and-reason-theatre

To learn more about the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women’s Drama Club: www.artspotproductions.org

To learn more about The Graduates: www.thegraduates.net

Photo credit: Brown University

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