What does it mean to grieve in the context of perpetual marginalization and terrorization? What are the contours of grief in the afterlife of ancestral, epigenetic, and intergenerational trauma? And what if what is grieving is the earth itself? What if there’s no way to move on?
Chris Evans’ collaborative, multidisciplinary, multimedia event Reconstructions Performance Ritual is divided into four parts: a gallery installation performance in three cycles (Cycle 1: Find Me, Cycle 2: Grief, Cycle 3: Rage); a staged performance (This Must Break); a procession through Oakland’s Idora Park/Rancho San Antonio/Ohlone Land neighborhood; and a shared meal curated by Thuy Tran. The installation, staged performance, and meal took place over two weekends in March at the Idora Park Project Space at the corner of Shattuck and 56th Street, a former French laundry built in 1934.
In the gallery, grief, rather than a unidirectional and finite process is a cycle that repeats. And rage, rather than operating as a necessary step on the path towards moving on from grief, is the core affect around which the project circles. Reconstructions Performance Ritual is the final installment of the Reconstruction Study Project that Evans began in collaboration with Broun Fellinis saxophonist/keyboardist/vocalist David Boyce in 2015. Each study is an investigation into the affective afterlife of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era in the US. Throughout the work, Evans, dancer/choreographer Byb Bibene, and Boyce embody historical, biblical, and composite characters to explore the question, “What is the liberatory potential of rage?” Evans writes, “The project begins with the premise that we in America are born, in the words of Lillian Smith, onto a ‘Trembling Earth,’ a trembling that began with the first violence done to the First Peoples.”
Idora Park Project Space is the home of choreographer/dancer/director/cellist Evans and her partner in life and art, installation artist/sculptor/exhibitions designer Ernest Jolly. The couple worked on Reconstructions Performance Ritual with Bibene, Boyce, costume designer/vintage clothing store owner/one-woman-show-wonder Regina Evans, lighting designer/visual and performing artist Stephanie Anne Johnson, dancer/choreographer Latanya D. Tigner, and co-producer curator/artist Rhiannon Evans MacFadyen. The number of backslashes alone attests to the range of experiences, interests, and talents that went into the construction of Reconstructions.
I attended the penultimate performance ritual on March 30. What follows is a reconstruction of my trembling conversation with Evans at Idora Park Project Space, in her living room, which had only recently been the site of the staged performance and shared meal segments of the ritual. Evans and I have talked a lot about her process and her ideas over the past few years so there will be under-explicated assumptions throughout our discourse. I hope you will allow yourself to float in the lazy river of our talk and worry not about extracting anything solid from its silty bed.
Sima Belmar: Why does rage follow grief in this work?
Chris Evans: David and Byb have a duet about grief, black men’s grief specifically, the loss of and assault on intimacy and connection. After we finished the shows and in the process of coming back to life, it felt like the earth was grieving, and I didn’t know what to do with that. I think of rage as having this transformative power, particularly the Jim Coble story, which was one of the first inspirations for the piece. Through his rage he transformed his life. How does rage get channeled into transformation? But I think the grief has to happen first because there’s so much trapped energy in people and then the rage can get expressed.
SB: What you’re saying makes me think that moving from anger to grief to acceptance is a privileged order of emotional life. Like maybe you’re angry at your mother or your boss and that anger is getting in the way of feeling the grief over what you didn’t get that you needed in life. This suggests that the playing field is even and it is an individual process of internalizing pain that can eventually give way to acceptance and forgiveness of self and others. But if you are a victim of systemic, structural violence that separates and hierarchizes humanities, then I can see that you’re always already living grieving, and then something has to give for you to feel the injustice, which is radically different.
CE: That direction of anger to grief is a bit of a masculine construct and potentially a western European white construct. For people who are not allowed to express anger, that anger gets buried under grief, and people who are not allowed to express anger are not allowed to be fully human members of a community. The only emotion available for them/us to express is grief or sadness or depression, because if you express anger you’d be killed. I’m interested in how to let that grief move through to find that righteous anger.
SB: How do you feel about what happened in the work that you made? What you were hoping to make visible, palpable?
CE: I feel like this kind of ritual work that I did with this piece, that people like Amara [Tabor-Smith] and Ellen [Sebastian Chang] do, like Dohee [Lee] does, is happening in different places, and it’s as if we’re creating these pools of water that are starting to join. I feel almost funny saying I created this work because it came to me, like I was told, ok, this is your part to do to join the work of these other artists, who have influenced me and been such an important part of my growth as an artist. And the people I collaborated with on every aspect were so much a part of making it realize itself. I think this ritual work is also so much about healing participants. The audiences for this work are diverse and often predominantly people of color. There’s something about this self-healing that is happening within communities that have been traumatized and marginalized.
I asked everyone who worked on the piece what kinds of things they did in order to process, what were their own personal rituals, and Latanya said something that made a lot of sense to me. She said, “I’m never out of it.” So it’s not really a question of processing it and then it being done. The couple nights after the show I couldn’t sleep because I felt like the earth was so sad and weighted upon. [Tears.] It’s such a huge question. There’s nothing I can do to solve that. But I can be in my work about it, around it.
SB: You and I have talked a lot about what it means to listen. I consider myself a good listener but I’m often (always?) responding to what I’m hearing in my head, which doesn’t feel like good listening to me.
CE: We talk so much about listening and there’s so little listening that actually happens. For the staged performance, when you walk in you’re hearing a story told in a language that most people wouldn’t recognize. It was the Ohlone language Chochenyo, the first language spoken on these lands by human beings. There was a night when people were buzzing with questions about the language, all of this talking. I didn’t want you to necessarily understand it. I wanted its meaning to come into your body. I wanted you to be in a state of not knowing and still allow something to come in. So at the last performance, Rhiannon read something I wrote about listening to the audience—that this is an opportunity to listen and let the unknown come into your body through your pores, through your ears, without you trying to capture it in words. I hope people had some experience of that because I think it’s key for anything to change.
SB: You asked me to do some writing about this work. What does a writing that’s a listening look like? Why write about a ritual performance? What does the writing serve?
CE: Part of it is practical, to have the documentation. Part of it is I have felt fairly invisible as an artist and being made visible. Most of my collaborators are not as visible as they should be. They are super talented, accomplished people who don’t get enough support for what they do. And you’re who I wanted to write about it because I’ve talked to you a lot about this, I know you’re going to be aware of racial dynamics, you’re thinking about history, you’re thinking about the embedded racism that is throughout so many of our artistic structures and institutions. And I was also curious to see what you would do. Your writing is a continuation of the work in a different form.
I’ve been trying to practice listening in making this project. Not just listening to people—listening to place, the non-material world, the past, things we may not see or that do not fit into our rational understanding of a thing to be listened to. So in order to make this piece I had to keep trusting and keep listening. This didn’t come from inside me. This came from somewhere else and I listened. That allowed me to see and hear and create things that I couldn’t have done without that. I have this image of you writing and you doing that sort of meditation and that sort of listening and seeing what comes and trusting that.
SB: Ok. I want to be fiercely honest. I feel bereft because I wasn’t really present enough for your show. [Tears.] It was really shitty timing for me. I wasn’t even supposed to be here. I was supposed to be in New York but I had to cancel the trip. It was such a low point and then I missed the gallery section and I’m angry at myself for that. I feel like I let you down. Like I betrayed something. Like I was supposed to show up in a certain way and I didn’t. So I was already having trouble connecting to the performance because of my own shit, which, truth be told, happens at almost every performance until I have a chance to arrive, settle in, await the moment that pulls me into feeling, into an experience. While I wait, I watch the dancing, the technique, the patterns. I get into design thinking. I start to ask questions about the work and make connections. I begin to think about how I’d write about what I’m witnessing.
When I entered this space, I thought, Why aren’t we in a circle? (I was making assumptions about rituals needing to transpire in circles.) Then you invited audience members onto the stage. I loved watching them watch us as we listened to the unbearable litany of numbers, dollar amounts and ages from the auction block. It went on for a long time and the air became thick with grief and rage, but also more minor affects like discomfort and irritation.
Then, the minute you began playing the cello, I felt physically moved by its sound and by where you go facially while you’re playing. I felt like I was being rolled around viscerally. That was when I stopped resisting the work and ceased to feel like I’d fucked it up by the time I got there.
You mentioned water earlier. I felt the performance to be a container rather than the water itself, a vessel for the flow of grief and rage. I felt like I was being held by the performance for my own nonsense, which may have nothing to do with what was motivating this work. I think I’m telling you that I wanted to rise to what you made because of how I know you. [Full crying now.] I felt a certain responsibility to the work.
CE: When you said that you felt like you were in a container and you were having all of these feelings—that’s ritual. It’s not performance. That was my goal. I want people to feel and I want it to be a place of healing. I think that’s my work in this world, to help all of us heal in different ways. You had a whole journey and I think that’s amazing. You’re saying you weren’t present but you really were.
SB: Like Clementine! She’s a character in a children’s book series, who is always getting in trouble for not paying attention at school. But she always asserts, “But I was paying attention!”—just not to the lesson, rather, to the sky outside or a classmate’s pigtails. Tell me a bit about your experience while performing in the work?
CE: In the gallery we were excavating. Here, in this artificial, theatrical space, it was about reconstructing. I became a different person in here. I felt my fierceness and my authority. I wasn’t just excavating and listening and having things channel through my body. I was full with that and I had something to say. It was very different. I felt my own rage in here.
SB: Fierce is how I felt your presence here.
CE: The archetype I was embodying was about in-between-ness and invisibility and the deep feminine. To stand up and be seen and heard unapologetically was a powerful experience in front of an audience. It was me and not me. I felt like I became an ancestor spirit that was saying, You need to hear me. I was Dorcas, a biblical character, a seamstress, who had a group of widows who were her disciples, I think. In the story she dies and St. Peter raises her from the dead. I read that story as this transition from matriarchal to patriarchal religions and that being risen from the dead was not a good thing but rather an appropriating thing, where she becomes a symbol of the power of patriarchal, monotheistic religion. So it was a violence.
Though the interview drops off here, Chris and I continued talking over rice cakes and hummus in her living room that had been the theater space, that had been the ritual space, that continues to be a space that welcomes ghosts to help heal us all.
 “ […] a story passed down to David from his great uncle about a family relative named Jim Coble. Sometime around 1910 in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma Jim Coble killed 10 white people in the town’s general store. Eluding the inevitable posse that ended for so many in lynching, Coble and his family escaped to Mexico where David still has relatives” (reconstructionstudy.net).