A ROVING ELEGY: The Anastasio Project

By Marvin White

September 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

At the Eastside Arts Alliance’s rehearsal of The Anastasio Project, a multidisciplinary mobile public performance, young people are engaged in improvisational work that will eventually be a public offering. “Raw” is too cliché a word to use to describe the depths of movement and narrative the performers are being led through and toward. For José Navarrete and Debby Kajiyama, NAKA Dance Theater founders and collaborators on the upcoming The Anastasio Project, their creative process is careful to not knife along the same wounds the young artists experience on the streets of San Diego, Mexico and East Oakland. Navarrete and Kajiyama’s deep training in the issues of racial equity, race and shame, the prison industrial complex, and gentrification, as well as intersectional conversations of race and media, make them gentle guides—in the way that Harriet Tubman was a gentle guide. What the rehearsal and its activities, discussion and experiments do so beautifully is not retraumatize black and brown bodies, nor reinforce systemic oppressions, but give the artists distance from the racism, state-sanctioned brutality, and border violence they themselves have experienced. Here at the Eastside Arts Alliance rehearsal they are working the stories through their bodies. Their trials will becomes witnesses to the project’s namesake, Anastasio Hernández-Rojas.

The artists are being asked to use their crafts to take creative responsibility for the story of Anastasio Hernández-Rojas’ death. In their hands, out of their mouths, through their performance and retelling of his story, the Mexico-born Hernández-Rojas, who lost his life at the hands of United States Border Patrol agents in May 2010, becomes not a saint or martyr but a cousin named Oscar Grant or an uncle named Rodney King, whose truth would not lay in or be lost to the reporting of corrupt police, agents, forces and agencies that allow the dehumanization of black and brown people. Navarrete and Kajiyama work with the artists to find their personal border stories, their stories of being patrolled and policed, and ultimately to find their boundaries and decide if they will honor them, stay within them, or recognize what they keep them from. Are borders to be danced across, or can a poet send a word, a cry for help through? Are the boundaries political, personal, self- or state-imposed? Do you know your place? How do we make whole our lives when we are asked to leave our homes, expend our physical and mental capital on a job that barely pays, then return home under threat and empty? How do we remember joy?

Simone, a dancer, is playing and finding her way through a course of ropes tied around two poles that are spread about 15 feet apart. The only instruction is to improv for 10 minutes and not to think. The room is full of thoughts: sex trafficking, police harassment, dreamless families, gun violence, truth and reconciliation. It is quickly understood that improvisational dance and survival both require instinct. We must always trust our gut. We must not think twice about whether there is enough space to go under, between or through. We must trust that we know our way even when laws, redlining, gentrification or reduced infrastructure have tried to erase our paths. The metaphors come easily. If the strings are an entanglement, a thread in fabric, a weave, how will you unknot your body? If the strings are a fence, laundry lines, musical measures to add notes to, Simone might have to be able to scale barbed wire, use a clothespin as protection, or dance. Maybe in the face of ropes that section off families, blocks, communities and generations from economic and employment opportunities, Simone is a jazz dancer. Maybe this Chinese jump rope and cat’s cradle is her riff that she has to imagine herself climbing through.

Kevin, a spoken word artist, enters into The Anastasio Project’s rehearsal space where Simone’s improvisational piece still lingers. “I am not here to entertain you,” Kevin shouts, then begins his poem. He quickly makes the poetic case that the slanted news coverage depicting black and brown bodies at the receiving end of police brutality as uncontrollable, rowdy or resistant creates a culture of voyeurism. The televised brutalities against black and brown bodies become “The CNN Hip Hop of the ’hood,” Kevin says. People are not moved so much as they are entertained. But “I AM NOT HERE TO ENTERTAIN YOU!” he shouts. Kevin makes physical the consciousness of the poem. This poem knows that it is being watched. The poem knows that it is suspect. The poem carries a bat and the poem paces the floor erratically. The poem is looking for an outlet for its rage and the only people that will look a black or brown person’s poem in the eye are the police. Kevin’s border poem recalls the ways in which we are not listless people, that we have destinations and people expecting and praying for our safe returns. Kevin’s poem insists that he will not become the monster that he is seen as or portrayed as.

This is surely what this social justice inquiry, what this voicing made physical, and this physical made voice, this poetic and dance work, is ramping up its energy for: a spellbinding performance of The Anastasio Project. We are not afraid of our dead. We are not afraid to speak truth to power. We are not afraid to stand on our front porches, stand on BART platforms, stand on either side of the Mexican border, stand in solidarity with victims of police brutality and call the names of the dead. The Anastasio Project is shaping up to be a ceremony, a stations of the cross, Días de los Muertos. There is a creative accounting of all of the systematically broken people in The Anastasio Project. There is also a holding accountable the police state perpetuation of crimes against peoples whose brokenness will signal their demise.

[A hush falls across the room. The energy particles are scattered and attention is on the man who has entered the Eastside Arts Alliance. He walks across the room and disappears through another door in the rear. When our brain and blood cells realign, someone asks, “Do you know who that is? It’s Bobby Seale.” The same Bobby Seale that, along with Huey P. Newton, founded the Black Panther Party for self-defense in Oakland. Radical, righteous and revolutionary sign that The Anastasio Project is being called forth from the past, present and future? Check.]

The Anastasio Project, with the guidance of Navarrete and Kajiyama, is surely the embodied outcry and the poetic testimony. It is the cell phone video that signals the police brutality. It is testimonies from mothers of dead sons entered into evidence that refute the lies that black and brown bodies are worthless. The Anastasio Project is a roving elegy that does what only art can do: transcend borders.

The Anastasio Project is a multidisciplinary mobile public performance that kickstarts an investigation of race relations, state brutality and border violence. NAKA Dance Theater created The Anastasio Project in collaboration with Eastside Arts Alliance muralist Leslie Lopez and video artist Steven Sanchez, as well as a cast of youth and adults from East Oakland and San Francisco. The work includes stories from the East Oakland community, a sound and video system on wheels, dance, theater, murals and a topic that is relevant to all of us!

The Anastasio Project will take place at the Eastside Cultural Center September 19-21 at 8pm. Additional mobile performances will happen through 2015 at local community events and festivals. Visit and Like NAKA Dance Theater on Facebook for the latest dates and locations.

More information at nkdancetheater.com.

This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of In Dance.

Marvin K. White, MDiv, is currently serving as the Full-time Minister of Celebration at GLIDE Church in San Francisco. He is a graduate of The Pacific School of Religion, where he earned a MDiv. He is the author of four collections of poetry: Our Name Be Witness; Status; and the two Lammy-nominated collections last rights and nothin’ ugly fly. He was named one of YBCA's “100” in 2019. He is articulating a vision of social, prophetic and creative justice through his work as a poet, artist, teacher, collaborator, preacher, cake baker, and Facebook Statustician.