On being BLK in an anti-BLK world

"Dreams In Black Major" by US duo TaNia (Nia Farrell & Talia Oliveras) would have been one of the most anticipated entries in this year's Stückemarkt. Here they talk about Afrofuturism, the spirit of the ancestors – and wonder if there's a German Kendrick Lamar.

„Dreams In Black Major“ by US duo TaNia (Nia Farrell & Talia Oliveras) would have been one of the most anticipated entries in this year’s Stückemarkt. Here they talk about Afrofuturism, the spirit of the ancestors – and wonder if there’s a German Kendrick Lamar.

During our mail exchange prior to this interview, you mentioned that you both were located on different coasts of the US, while we are in Central Europe. Covid-19, sadly has prevented us from sharing the physical space of Theatertreffen. How is your emotional state right now?

TALIA: Hahaha, I’m struggggliingggggg. As a Capricorn sun with a Sagittarius rising, being disconnected from work and friends has been extremely difficult. That said, I’ve been really rediscovering my love of music during this time and NYC has been rather hopeful with the warmer weather.

NIA: I cannot confidently tell you what day it is and my emotions have been a rollercoaster (not the fun kind). However! Southern California is shining and I’ve gained a deep appreciation of the sun and what the warmth and Vitamin D do for my health.

For anyone who has not had the chance to watch Dreams in Black Major: What is the piece about?

TALIA: From a directorial standpoint, it’s about decentralizing whiteness and holding space for BLK joy and excellence. Which is also exactly why we make a conscious decision to write “BLK” rather than “Black” when referring to people of the African Diaspora – we want to provide agency and individuality to ourselves.

NIA: From a writing standpoint, it’s a celebration of BLK-ness and BLK dreams for the future

Dreams in Black Major is very much situated in a net of Afro-American cultural references. How would you imagine their translation into the context of Berlin & Theatertreffen?

TA-NIA: A central artistic value for us is providing space in our work for collaboration in order to engage with collectivity as well as adapt to the here and now. This is our first cross-cultural exploration of BLK-ness with Dream in Black Major, so your question is something we’re very much curious about as well!

While we use these theories as a jumping off point, we specifically use the “now” space of theatre, what we have in this present moment, to build our Afro-future.

Firstly, we’re interested in not only what it looks like to bring a piece that shamelessly centers BLK-ness, but also what it means to ask non-BLK individuals to engage with decentralizing themselves to a non-U.S. context. Something we became excited about in our most recent iteration of the piece, is providing opportunities for performers to directly insert themselves into the script through their specific BLK references. For example, is Kendrick Lamar as much of a cultural landmark outside of the U.S. as it is inside? Is there a German Kendrick Lamar we don’t know about?? We want to know! Please email hi.talia.nia AT gmail.com if there is.

Afrofuturist theories are crucial to the project. Since this is still a rather uncommon reference point to German, and especially white audiences, would you care to explain what it means to you?

TA-NIA: For a basic definition of Afrofuturism, we recommend reading “What The Heck Is Afrofuturism” from HuffPost. This theory largely involves science fiction technology to reimagine the future. However, the sub-theory that we draw primary influence from is Mundane Afrofuturism. The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto which looks towards Black humanity as the means of speculation in order to re-imagine an Afro-future. We provide these definitions and resources as the beginning of further inquiry. The theory is rather expansive and ever-changing.

While we use these theories as a jumping off point, we specifically use the “now” space of theatre, what we have in this present moment, to build our Afro-future. So while we create utopian environments, our goal is to offer our BLK performers and audience tangible tactics for actualizing their Afro-future.

In a previous interview, you mentioned how Dreams in Black Major deviates from a Western tradition of linear narrative with its focus on climax, conflict, catharsis etc., and rather focuses on the rhythm of dreams, of ritual. Can you elaborate on that?

TA-NIA: We lean on ritual within all of the work we create. At its most base level, we understand ritual as circular, intentional, collective, and multi-dimensional. Together this creates a particular rhythm that disrupts the confines of linear narratives found in Western tradition. Through the process of ritual, we have the agency to create alternative modes of existence and realities. Dreams in Black Major specifically allows performers and BLK audience to practice tangible tactics in order to actualize dreams and create a space of celebration they want to exist outside of the theatrical reality.

When preparing for this interview, we discussed how linear narrative structures are not only Western, that is, white-centric, but also very androcentric in the sense that they resonate with understandings of subjectivity that do not allow for repetition, return, and rupture. Circularity, on the other hand, is something that is commonly associated with the female, as in the menstrual cycle. Is that something that comes into play with your writing and directing, respectively?

TA-NIA:While we recognize circularity is a characteristic of femininity, we embrace femininity as a spirit that can be accessed by all individuals rather than specifically tied to sex or gender.

TALIA: Directorially, I draw heavily from my Dominican and Puerto Rican cultural context and look towards Santeria’s understanding of the feminine as divine, powerful, and flexible. Within Santeria, ritual plays a significant role in facilitating an opportunity for participants to uncover the power of femininity within themselves. I honor this aspect of ritual within my work by creating an environment where performers and audience are able to listen multidimensionally as well as potentially access a state of consciousness in which they’re able to uncover new parts of the self. In our most recent iteration of Dreams in Black Major, this manifested in certain movement sequences where the performers could feel grounded, earthly, and masculine one moment and then spiritual, fluid, and feminine the next. This ability to seamlessly transition between those two aspects of the self offered one example of a tangible tactic to move through the world.

These characters are my ancestors who planted the seeds of dreams and continued to put life into them with each generation. They live through the piece and I live through them.

NIA: For me, the association with the feminine spirit lives more in the characters than the structure. These characters are my ancestors who planted the seeds of dreams and continued to put life into them with each generation. They live through the piece and I live through them, and that’s where the repetition, return, and rupture (which is such a fantastic way of putting it) comes into play. The words and actions of Dreams in Black Major are an extension of my ancestral family and their stories, legacies, endurance, and resilience. The characters are mothers of a movement; they give birth to a future and nurture its development. Though I may not know the name of the first person who arrived on this land, I do know she is the strongest person in my family. She survived, made a life, and had the strength to rise and continue. Grace – my name for her – is the backbone of Dreams in Black Major. It’s been a gift to bring the spirit of ancestors into this piece — their names and birthdays, how they spent their hours and never stopped living, and especially how they passed life on. I give thanks to the ancestors for allowing their dreams to grow and transform in and through me.

One theoretical strand you refer to is Audre Lorde’s essay “The Erotics of Power”. Here, she blurs the boundaries between the erotic and the political and promotes desire as a creative force for revolutionary change. What makes her essay so important for you?

TA-NIA: As theory-hoes-in-training, we love Audre Lorde. Our entry point to this essay is rooted in the BLK body. It reminds us there is power within the physical self and gives us permission as BLK persons to engage in our feelings – that of rage, pleasure, grief, etc. We find that this is especially important within the current context of race in the United States where the assault on BLK bodies has become a commonly shared image. We pair this theory with our belief that theatre is an inherently erotic, sensual, and of-the-body form that guides individuals toward uncovering this power in both an inidivual and collective sense. The creative force is a healing force that allows us to turn inward, not out of indulgence, but as a tactic to then turn outward and be free. 

Queer poet CAConrad once said that in their (working-class) experience, there had not been a way of fully experiencing the present, because so much of living meant “being depressed about the past or anxious about the future”. In contrast, the corporeality of Dreams in Black Major, the dances, clapping, singing, are a way of caring for the present, of grounding the performative space in the present. At the same time, the text toys with historical references and points towards an afrofuturist utopia. What is the role of time in Dreams in Black Major? How can we engage with time if we want to create emancipatory experiences?

TA-NIA: Before anything, we want to acknowledge and honor all coping mechanisms for getting us this far. When we started with Dreams in Black Major, we focused on finding liberation within the current moment. In doing so, the piece moves away from a Eurocentric notion of time and instead engages with a time that is multiple. More specifically, the piece celebrates the past without being bound by it, the present without losing sight of what’s ahead, and the future without getting lost in it. As BLK people, we hold all of those times within us always.

All I know is I grew up consuming content I never felt connected to or represented in, so I reject the notion of canon altogether.

However, in the current socio-political-economic-health (the list goes on) climate, we’re finding that the present isn’t always where we want to be. Our sophomore project, MAP TO NOWHERE (things are), explores this need to step away from the present and focuses on re-imagining the future.

At our core, we’re interested in providing tactics for dealing with being BLK in an anti-BLK world. While these tactics might look different from project to project, we will always engage with a circular, malleable, and multiple understanding of time.

How does the somatic aspect of your work translate in times of COVID-19?  Have there been shared physical practices (rehearsals, exercises) that either of you have participated in online that made sense to you?

TALIA: Personally, I’m struggling with the disembodiment that has come with trying to make work during COVID-19.

NIA: Totally! To remind myself that I am more than the portrait that appears on a Zoom screen, my practice, personally and artistically, is leaning into my relationship to space, shape, time, emotion, movement, and story (a shout out to Mary Overlie, the originator of the six viewpoints).

TALIA: I’ve actually found myself leaning into the intellectual. I’ve been reading a ton of theory (even more than usual) and books, watching films, and generally have been looking for sources of inspiration to be applied to projects in the future.

NIA: Definitely — finding inspiration and engaging in genuinely generative processes is huge. What I’m still craving from the artistic productions online is an intentionality beyond crisis when it comes to sharing work and gathering people digitally.

TALIA: So agreed! Rather than force what feels like an impossible act of translation from stage to screen, I’m excited that we’ve been dreaming up alternative modes of creation. (For context, we’re currently in the process of creating an online experiment in devising.) It’s especially interesting for our process, which is so rooted in the collective, to now lean into the individual since that is what is easily accessible right now.

In an interview you said that your lived, not intellectualized experiences were seen as a deficit. In that context, what is the role of the canon for you?

NIA: I actually regret that we said our lived experiences were a deficit in any way. In academic settings, it can often feel this way, but having both graduated and exiting the, at times, restrictions of academia, I can declare that our lived experiences are most certainly enough.

TALIA: Totally agreed and canon, who? I’ve never quite been sure of what the “canon” is, who determines it, and why it exists. All I know is I grew up consuming content I never felt connected to or represented in, so I reject the notion of canon altogether. Instead, I acknowledge all previous art as something to be learnt from and am interested in making new work to challenge the limits of theatre altogether.


Lynn Takeo Musiol & Eva Tepest

Lynn Takeo Musiol, Skorpion, ist freie*r Künstler*in und Autor*in mit dem Fokus auf Klasse, Queerness und Klima. Zuletzt arbeitete sie*er als kuratorische*r Assistent*in beim Berliner Herbstsalon des Maxim Gorki Theaters, ab der Spielzeit 2020/21 wirkt Lynn Takeo als Dramaturg*in am Schauspielhaus Düsseldorf. Seit 2019 ist sie*er Stipendiat*in der Akademie der Künste in Berlin.

Eva Tepest, Krebs, ist Journalistin und Autorin. Über die Themen Kultur und Medien, LGBTI und den arabischen Raum schreibt sie u. a. regelmäßig für die taz, den Tagesspiegel und das Missy Magazine.

Gemeinsam veröffentlicht haben Lynn Takeo Musiol und Eva Tepest u. a. in der taz, in Glitter und in den Metamorphosen.

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