The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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JUNE 2023 Issue
Dance In Conversation

Voicing Together

Following their performance inspired by and created within the Toni Morrison Papers at Princeton University, artists Mame Diarra Speis and Daniel Alexander Jones reflect on what Morrison can teach us about the limitations of institutionalization and individualism in art and life.

Mame Diarra Speis and Daniel Alexander Jones in rehearsal. Photo: Princeton University, Ryan Halbe.
Mame Diarra Speis and Daniel Alexander Jones in rehearsal. Photo: Princeton University, Ryan Halbe.

When Nicole Watson, Associate Artistic Director at the McCarter Theatre Center at Princeton University, received an invitation to curate performances in conjunction with the university library’s exhibit Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory, open through June 4, 2023, she immediately knew she did not want to take the obvious route of staging Morrison’s unfinished plays. First, she told me in a brief conversation preceding this interview, she was uncomfortable with the idea of presenting work that Morrison may not have been pleased to see performed. Even more importantly, she felt that the truest way to honor Morrison’s legacy, and serve her own curatorial interests, was to commission living Black artists who create and perform their own multidisciplinary work.

Initially, she commissioned Mame Diarra Speis, dance artist and co-artistic director of Urban Bush Women, and Daniel Alexander Jones, playwright and performer, to make two separate works. Though the commissions encouraged open-ended research and an emphasis on process, the two absolute requirements were that the artists must come in-person to the Morrison Papers, and that they must offer a public performance. Once Speis and Jones entered the archives and the creative process, they found they had a deep, synergetic bond that ultimately led them to collaborate on a performance presented March 24th and 25th in conjunction with a three-day symposium also organized around the exhibit.

As discussed in the conversation that follows, this impulse toward collaboration and collectivism rather than individual artmaking and glory-seeking is itself a way of honoring Morrison’s memory. After a year and a half of research and creation and two public “offerings,” the artists shared their reflections on what Morrison and her archives can teach us about us.

Hallie Chametzky (Rail): What was your way into Toni Morrison and into this work? You receive this invitation, this commission, and you go to the archives. You have to find an “in” point—where did you begin?

Mame Diarra Speis: My beginning didn’t actually start with entering the archives. I’ve been in relationship with Toni Morrison’s work for years. Reading her work, pulling out pieces of her writing to use as research, to use just in life. So, for me, entering the archives at Princeton University was not the beginning. It was like “oh, now I’m going deeper into the work, into understanding this person, this artist.”

Daniel Alexander Jones: I would agree with that. My relationship with Morrison is very old. I come back to the principle of “call and response”—this invitation was the call. It’s not just that we were going to make work with the archive, but that we were going at this particular historical moment, our current moment of such tectonic change in the arts.

The day that we first went to the archive, Professor Womack [Autumn Womack, assistant professor of English and African American Studies and curator of Sites of Memory] presented, along with three of her assistants, this incredible presentation for Mame Diarra and I where we were guided through the nature of the archive for Morrison’s work, and we were shown certain objects. They also had this video presentation and there was this large screen TV. Largest screen TV I’ve ever been around. Morrison’s face was there looking at us. Within the world of Black art, what she represents to so many of us is this person who is able to achieve this certain type of public sovereignty of her own voice, and who spoke on behalf of us in such a powerful way. I also felt that “in” was a “you better get this right.”

Rail: Speaking of her large presence, both physically on that screen and in our lives, do you have a sense of what about Toni Morrison’s life, work, or legacy specifically lends itself to this sort of multimedia, multidisciplinary performance investigation?

Jones: I know she loved art and artists. She trusted and believed in artists as leaders, thought leaders, imaginers and manifesters of futures. In her work there is music, there is visual art, there is dance, there is storytelling, there is theater, there is drama. As an artist, there are so many doorways that are open in her work to enter from a particular discipline, and there’s fertile ground there because she was an interdisciplinary artist whose primary medium ended up being fiction or essay.

Rail: You talking about Morrison as a lover of art and artists makes me think of her work as an editor. Editing can be a thankless task so often, but if you really love artists it’s this very gracious thing.

I’m wondering whether you can talk to me about what you shared, and how you feel that the performance embodied or conversed with Toni Morrison?

Speis: We knew that there was a synergy between us when we first met. I knew of Daniel, and I think, Daniel, maybe you knew of me.

Jones: Yes.

Speis: But we had not actually had any crossover with each other until we came into the Toni Morrison work and instantly felt a connection and knew that we wanted to somehow… we didn’t know what it would be. And we allowed ourselves to not know what it would be until we got into the space together. That was really important: this was a calling, so we were going to be in response to whatever surfaced for us. We defaulted to trusting that whatever came up for us individually would find its way in this beautifully woven conversation with each other and with Toni Morrison.

Mame Diarra Speis and Daniel Alexander Jones in rehearsal. Photo: Princeton University, Ryan Halbe.
Mame Diarra Speis and Daniel Alexander Jones in rehearsal. Photo: Princeton University, Ryan Halbe.

As far as what came through as themes… a constant has been truth telling. We’re here, we’re truth tellers. We were clear we didn’t want to be in the proscenium; we wanted intimacy. We wanted to strip whatever the constructs and ideas are around being in that kind of traditional space. We wanted to create space, to create the world that people were entering. One way of doing that was that Daniel brought in a table and coffee pot—we created a kitchen. For me, the kitchen is a truth telling space. You get what you don’t want to hear, what my grandmother said: “those come to Jesus moments.” You get care, you get loved up on, you get to be in relationship with people. For me, the kitchen space is a space that is full of energy, it’s an honest space. It’s the space where I know that I can be a whole person. That was a very important element of the work that we could always return to.

Jones: As an artist, I am intentionally speaking more and more about the fact that this is not about manufacturing a product. Even ways that I think we talk about “commissioning,” and “development,” and “presentation,” and “sharing,” the language that comes with a kind of industrial, institutional marriage to art does not belong in what we did.

The shaping of the space that you described, Mame Diarra, is actually an act of insurgency inside of a structure that wants us to comport with the idea of being a finished, polished product. I think part of what the archive taught me about Morrison was that I can take Song of Solomon or I can take Jazz and I can look at this object and say this is a beautiful polished piece of art that everyone in the world has celebrated. But I was more excited to see the matchbook cover that she wrote a sentence of that book [Song of Solomon] on while she was driving to go into the Holland Tunnel sitting next to Angela Davis. The idea came to her, and she wrote it down. That book actually came out of her real life. It came out of her being with her kids, came out of her struggling with her friends, came out of her doing that work that you were talking about as an editor.

Part of what I want to underscore about what the performance actually looked and felt like is that we were distinct. We did not try to make a homogenized anything. There was beautiful, muscular, all-in movement; there was drawing; there was singing; there was storytelling; there was drinking coffee; there was bringing up someone from the audience to chat with us at the kitchen table. I’m sure that to some eyes that would read as a kind of random “blah, blah, blah.” But for me, it is a multivalent experience of life and real freedom of being—that you keep the multiple. Push away from this crush toward a singular meaning. We broke open that multiplicity in that room, and I think that is one of the greatest demands of us. That we do not think one answer is the answer.

Rail: I’m interested in what you’re saying about investment in process as the thing. About shedding priority on product, and how archives are a fruitful space for that. With famous figures we often only encounter them through their finished products, and then you see their archive and you are reminded that they were people all the time. That their products are not the only evidence of their lives.

Is there something you discovered in your research into Toni Morrison for this process? Anything surprising, wonderful, jarring, anything at all? How did it materialize in the performance, if at all?

Jones: The ample evidence of the community of Black artists of which she was a part. The ways they were witness to one another and the ways they very aggressively took care of one another. Understanding the lethal dangers of the United States and the arts and Blackness. To discover the interactions among her, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, we could go down the list—the correspondence, the notes, the parties, the gatherings, the showing up for each other in those dark hours—it just affirmed that notion for me. You asked where it shows up in the piece: I feel like it shows up in the piece in my relationship with Mame Diarra. That relationship as a symbol of something that is so replete in Black arts culture to me, writ large. It’s a generalization but it’s true. The vast majority of the time, we’ve had to look out for each other. It was very affirming to see the love that was in that. Not just the obligation but the genuine love, celebration, humor.

Speis: Gosh. That was a takeaway. This isn’t really a takeaway but is more of an affirmation. Whenever I entered the archives, I just allowed myself to receive whatever felt like it wanted to seep into my pores. I say all the time: I live in the past, I live in this present, and I live in the future. All of that is inside my body. When I’m in the archive, I’m not seeking to sit. I was inside her archives and I was inspired to be inside my own archives, my family’s archives. And not for the purpose of trying to hold onto something, but really trying to push and charge and be in that practice of asking: what is the unrealized future that I know is there? And that means you have to dream. You have to push your imagination outside of what you know. What do you know, Mame Diarra? And what happens when you push yourself outside of your knowing? What happens when you push yourself to the edge?

Rail: I think that’s a beautiful way to think of the archive: as a space for more questions rather than more answers.

Is there something you think that artists and makers today can learn, maybe should learn, from the Morrison legacy? Toni Morrison’s way of being, way of working, what she left us?

Jones: One of the most malignant aspects of settler colonial cultural norms is the breaking of the relationship between the individual and community. Within traditional structures, you have the individual as an exemplar of a particular perspective at any given time; what I see at any given time is going to be radically different than what you see at any given time. My journey is different, my predilections are different, my skills are different. But when I come to the collective, I am not erased by the collective. I offer what I have, but I also receive from the collective. I love that principle of the edge. I feel like working with you, Mame Diarra, pushed me to edges and I had to make choices. We had a lot of fun talking about those edges. But I can’t get there by myself. The rampant individualism divorced from community is… I’m seeing the communal corrode in ways that in my own lifetime I have never seen at this scale. I feel like the great offering that Morrison gives us is to remember that it’s “we.” “We” within our tradition is not an erasure or a diminution of who you are. Everything is amplified when we find ways to come together. Not to collapse into a single thing, but to voice together and create a larger sound.

Speis: I was also reminded of the importance of understanding history and lineage. Right now as a society we’re so connected to technology that we’re stripping ourselves from human connection and understanding our history and lineage. I’m thinking about just dance. How when I go in to teach at the university, I name several influential artists and my students don’t know who they are. We are in a generation where individualism is pressing forward very strongly. I’m like, baby… I know you think that you created that, that it came solely from you. But that did not. Know where you’re coming from. As Daniel has spoken about, Toni Morrison’s work crosses all mediums. Understanding that you can see structure, storytelling, rhythm, all of that inside of it. It’s saying know your lineage, know where you come from, know your community and that you are not singular.

Jones: There was something about the way when we came up—the elders, or anybody, they might tell the same story six times and you might have heard that story before. And in one telling they ran; the next telling they fought. But why they told us those stories six and seven times is because they wanted that story to be something we carried. They wanted us to tell the story. They wanted their names uttered again.

In light of what Mame Diarra is saying, that young person in school who is like “look what I made up!” What if instead of relating to anything with the desire to own it, we were witnessing that it showed up? Wow, that shape showed up, or that melody showed up. And if someone says, “well, you know who did that before?” Instead of us saying, “Oh, it belongs to them,” what if it’s not belonging to somebody? But it’s about the fact that that theme has shown up again because we need to pay attention to it. What if it’s that that style has shown up again because it’s trying to remind us of something about our own beauty or our own power? Things repeat through us for a reason. We’re so conditioned to think about who owns it, whose is it, we’re not focused on, what is it? What is it trying to tell us?


Hallie Chametzky

Hallie Chametzky is a dance artist, writer, and archivist based in East Harlem.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

All Issues