From Containment to Expansion: A Tenderloin Meditation

By Marvin White

Vocal activist Melanie DeMore leads a Skywatcher community processional through the Tenderloin
Photo by Deirdre Visser [Image Description: Melanie is a brown skinned Black person with their dark brown hair in locs, wearing a white button up shirt as they sing into a microphone, leading a community procession, also wearing all white attire, through the Tenderloin.]

With From Containment to Expansion ABDProductions /Skywatchers Ensemble marks a decade of radical community-centered art making in the Tenderloin. This work heralds a future in which we celebrate, illuminate, and amplify what is powerful and unique in our most disinvested neighborhood. In honor of this work, we invited poet and GLIDE’s Minister of Celebration Marvin K. White to reflect and prospect with ABD/Skywatchers on the work of Skywatchers and this upcoming multidisciplinary performance piece.

—By Minister Marvin K. White

The seed does not contain the flower. The sun does not contain the fire. The eye does not contain the vision. The body does not contain the dance. The mouth does not contain the song. The knee does not contain the prayer. The pencil does not contain the testimony. The spark does not contain the fire. The eye does not contain the tear. The ore does not contain the iron. The iron does not contain the chain. The tree does not contain the lynch. The blackness does not contain the danger. The wing does not contain the flight. The moon does not contain the howl. The desert does not contain the sand. The water does not contain the ocean. The ocean does not contain the water. The machete does not contain the cut. The cane does not contain the sugar.

The tongue does not contain the lie. The gun does not contain the murder. The circle does not contain the infinity. The path does not contain the way. The silence does not contain the nothingness. The stone does not contain the monument. The end does not contain the totality. The library does contain the gods. The universe does contain the galaxies. The neutrality does not contain the peace. The future does not contain the past. The past does not contain the future. The bone does not contain break. The suffering does not contain the blessing. The survival does not contain blessing. The recovery does not contain the blessing. The pitch does not contain the tar. The hit does not contain the run. The neck does not contain the choke. The poet does not contain the poem. The sky does not contain the watcher.

Containment Zone: A complex conjunction of high crime and civic neglect common to low-income urban areas around the world. Borders of urban containment zones are enforced by a combination over-policing at the periphery and under-policing within, with hostile design of public space enforcing these borders.

The Tenderloin is often referred to as a Containment Zone by neighborhood activists calling out decades-long institutionalized civic neglect. Skywatchers, a Tenderloin-based performing arts ensemble, upends the concept of containment, exploring instead what is rich, profound, and transformative that the neighborhood and its residents also contain: radical acceptance, resilience, creativity, and fierce compassion. With this work we call for the celebration and expansion of these superpowers which hold the seeds of our collective and shared liberation.

ABD/Skywatchers’ upcoming work, From Containment to Expansion, moves with the community artists of the Tenderloin from relegation to determination. The stories push back against popular notions the Tenderloin is where you end up. But for the resident/artists, the Tenderloin is not where you are put on punishment. The Tenderloin is not Karma. The Tenderloin is not paper towels on a spill. The stories that Containment to Expansion dares to utter are about volition.

Poor folks, black folk, women folk, queer folk, drunk folk, drug folk, most folk have to choose to be here. The actors and performers and musicians, through word and rhythm making, say that they are not fighting to hold on, that they are fighting to break free; Free from the invitation to become crises actors in the exploitation film. They are fighting against type and willfully choosing not to be cast as “Crab in The Barrel No 1, Turf Warlord, Rose in Concrete, Broken Bottle No. 3, Abandoned Baby Stroller, Building Piss, or Stop and Frisk.”

The Tenderloin does not mean what you think it means. Does not mean invisible. Does not mean small. Does not mean nothing. The Tenderloin is not “marked” as in “target” but “marked” as in “glyphed.” The truth shared in From Containment to Expansion, is the Tenderloin Codex and everything gon’ make sense when they decipher the Tenderloin. Everything gon’ be clear when they know its coal that’s singing, not the canary. They gon’ know, the bird don’t speak for us, if the bird sing a song about us being dangerous. It’s deep, but it’s not complex.

Skywatchers Ensemble members in a large group onstag
Photo by Deirdre Visser [Image Description: Central dancer with brown skin and short cropped hair wears a white dress as they gaze powerfully into the distance, while seven dancers move in an arc in the background, watching them intently, also in all white attire.]
From Containment to Expansion will draw on histories of resistance, from the liberatory movements of the Gullah people of South Carolina’s lowlands to Martin Luther King Jr’s Poor People’s campaign of 1968, up to and including the BLM and current iteration of the Poor People’s Campaign. The performance, though based deeply in movement, will employ spoken word, drumming, stick pounding, and song, including a commissioned sound score by internationally recognized singer, choral director, and vocal activist Melanie DeMore, whose artistic and musical history is deeply embedded in the liberatory power of collective song. Working in close collaboration with Skywatchers’ 20 member ensemble, DeMore blends African roots and rhythms, stick pounding, and African American spirituals to create improvisational and participatory choral arrangements.

We talk to God in the Tenderloin. I know God talking about me cuz my ears burning. I know I’m somebody’s prayer. Different from being prayed for. Godliness is a choice I make every time I enter a door or a dream. A conversation not an order. God don’t got no more than ten commandments anyway. Ain’t no glass ceiling between us and God. Ain’t no heaven between here and God. Ain’t nobody standing in the way of my promotion. I walk to work every day. You’d know that if you decided that living was your job. Your breath smell like Goddrunk. God the designated driver. God get you home safe. God make you laugh like they do in the movies. That’s what that feeling of silliness, of lucidity, of divinity is. That’s what this story is. Difference is, this morning don’t need to spill Mary’s blood. Your radio set to wake you up to the miracle station. This show, inventory your space. Rent God a room. Let God reside in you. Offer this, your body as the one to view this human condition through. We are an expansion of God’s territory. God don’t end in the Tenderloin. Forever don’t skip over the Tenderloin. If you hear me singing, “Increase My Territory,” I ain’t asking for more, I’m asking less. That’s the lessen. I’m in the thought of God. Thought of God. Make sense? So unselfish. So much honor. I’m in service. I’m stronger in this wake then when I laid down sleep. I’m go do what is expected of me. You heard right. I’m expected. And anything expected cannot be contained.

This article appeared in the Spring 2021 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.