Speak: RACE



1968 was a tumultuous year: Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated; the Vietnam War was losing support; Muhammad Ali was found guilty of draft evasion; and Apartheid in South Africa was in full swing. Civil disobedience movements broke out around the world. The Tlatelolco Massacre exploded ten days before the opening of the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, as police and military troops shot into a crowd of unarmed students who were peacefully protesting state brutality. Olympic medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith were vilified and expelled from the Olympic Village when they raised their fists and lowered their heads in the fight for human rights as the national anthem played during their medal ceremony.

We entered the creative process for our latest work, RACE, meditating on this historical context, while witnessing the present day displacement of poor people in the preparations for the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and during the Super Bowl in San Francisco. When we decided to present work in the Tenderloin (TL) as part of Dancers’ Group ONSITE program, Darryl Smith, co-artistic director of the Luggage Store Gallery, encouraged us to connect with Anne Bluethenthal/Skywatchers, who has a five-year presence building relationships and making art there. We’re currently guest artists with Skywatchers, and since last Fall we have been hanging out and getting to know residents of three SRO (single resident occupancy) hotels in the TL. The thematic framework of disenfranchised communities fighting for social justice on a global scale still feels relevant, but is open to transformation as we dig deeper into the stories and concerns of TL collaborators.

As we think about the forces that oust San Francisco’s most vulnerable residents, we ask ourselves how we can work against the impetus of displacement, “cleaning up” and ultimate erasure of folks in the community. Artists can unwittingly be vehicles of gentrification. What strategies can we use instead to increase the wellbeing of the community? What can we learn from the stories of Tenderloin residents? How do they perceive the forces of gentrification and respond to the realities of living inside a racist system that puts profit before people?

Photo by Dierdre Visser
Photo by Dierdre Visser

Our premise is to create dances based on the stories of TL residents, using an approach adopted from the film After Life (1998) by Hirokazu Koreeda. In the film, a production team rallies around each person in order to make a film that actualizes the essence of the feeling in their stories. The team’s role is to be of service to the individual whose story is being examined and portrayed.

In the making of RACE, some of the central questions we ask ourselves are:

  • How can we center the experiences of the people whose stories we are highlighting and jointly create performance that is aesthetically compelling? Making an aesthetic decision about how to represent someone’s story is a point of privilege. Can we find a way to navigate the process that resonates with the individual and the community, avoids re-traumatization, and uses artistic rigor to support a feeling of pride and power?
  • How can we creatively work with the unpredictable nature of the community we are working with? Participants may not be able to show up to rehearsals or performances for a number of reasons related to economic status, mental health, substance abuse, and the necessity of navigating institutions that profit from poverty (as Bluethenthal calls it, “the poverty-industrial complex”). How can we make a performance by and about certain individuals if they might be absent from the process or show up on their own terms?

We’ve been asking for advice from a small group of artists. Although we don’t have any definitive answers, the conversation has been rich and has given us an insight into how others have worked through these questions. See the end of this article for a list of artists who have contributed to this discussion.

  • Be transparent about the work you do as an artist. Talk about the purpose of regular rehearsals, the methodology, what happens leading up to a performance. This gives folks an understanding of the process and also allows them to say what doesn’t work for them.
  • Assume that everyone you meet has valuable knowledge to share and can offer you unexpected new perspectives. Then focus on the dialogue/exchange/give-and-take that happens in the artistic process. As artists, we bring a certain set of skills to the making of the work. In the same way, community performers each bring their own expertise about their stories and aesthetic preferences.
  • Don’t buy into the idea that because people are poor, they don’t desire excellence or precision. Folks from working class and poor communities can be some of the most artful, the most conscious, the most thorough. Often people get stripped of their opportunity to pursue something that is refined, to clarify what they are saying, because of their circumstances. How can you use your skills to facilitate this expression?
  • Acknowledge the tension between your own artistic impulses and the responsibility you take on when using other people’s lived experience as material. Those lived experiences deserve to be treated with the same level of artistic care that we give to other stories. By keeping the bar high, you are doing a service to their stories. Participants should feel proud of their participation.
  • Don’t erase history; don’t erase complexity. If some of the stories you gather don’t fit with what you came here for, be conscious of what you are editing out. Perhaps the story that needs to be told isn’t what you planned.
  • Be prepared to support your collaborators in ways that allow them to participate as fully as they want to participate. This may mean providing rides to rehearsals, support at doctor’s appointments, simply listening, or waiting for hours for them to appear.
  • If performers are not able to show up at the specific time and place for a performance, contemplate what their absence means. What is the story inherent in that? Do we come up with a “Plan B” performance that has video recordings of the performers that we can show at the appointed date and time? Or do we ask the audience to wait (an hour or longer?), explaining that the performances may only begin when the community performers arrive? Should we appoint “guardians of the stories” who are trusted members of the community who have been trained to represent on behalf of a performer who might not always be able to show up?
  • Think about “the exit.” When you go into a community to collect their stories, don’t leave a big hole when you are finished. Think about what you are leaving behind. Is it a community garden? Is it wireless internet in the building? (Yes, it’s true that with Twitter right across the street, some supportive housing in the TL still has no internet connectivity.) These are initiatives that Anne Bluethenthal/Skywatchers have already been spearheading. How can we support their realization? Can we really separate the experience of making art with the community and the challenge of solving real, everyday practical problems?

These are some of the questions we are asking ourselves as we continue the development of RACE. We hope you will join us in August and September to see what has unfolded.

RACE is a collaboration between NAKA Dance Theater (José Navarrete & Debby Kajiyama), Shakiri, Kevin O’Connor, David Molina, Steven Sanchez, Ian Winters, and performer-collaborators Simone Nalls, Hector Torres, Michael Turner, Jr., Kim Mays, Rita Whittaker, Lee Staples, and additional members of Anne Bluethenthal’s Skywatchers Ensemble. Many thanks to the artists and organizations who have engaged in dialogue with us. Special thanks to Anne Bluethenthal and Dancers/Skywatchers; Darryl Smith of the Luggage Store Gallery; and Moira Brennan, David Sheingold, Kim Savarino, Lauren Slone of the MAPFund who so generously hosted an artist convening to brainstorm solutions to artistic questions. So grateful to these artists who offered the advice in this article: Daniel Alexander Jones, Gesel Mason, James Scruggs, Jim Findlay, Juliana May, Geoff Sobelle, Allison Orr & Krissie Marty of Forklift Dance Works, Samantha Blanchard, and Joshua Kohl and Crow Nakamura of Degenerate Art Ensemble.

NAKA Dance Theater, led by Debby Kajiyama and Jose Navarrete, creates interdisciplinary performance using movement, theater, art installation, multimedia, and site-specific environments. nkdancetheater.com