Article by Rebecca Mwase (New Orleans, LA); Photos by Melisa Cardona (New Orleans, LA)
This article was originally published in September 2014. Since the time of its writing, Cry You One has been presented by Sandglass Theatre and Vermont Performance Laboratory in Guilford, VT and the Counter Current Festival in Houston, TX. This June 13-21, Cry You One goes on the road to perform at the International Festival of Art and Ideas in New Haven, CT. For more information, visit the Cry You One website.
“I believe so strongly that collaboration and cooperation is where the future is…liberal individualism is not where the future is, the future of the world, the future of community.”
I moved to New Orleans in 2009, four years after Katrina. I had been visiting the city since the Spring of 2006, a young, eager eyed outsider working to gut and rebuild homes with a local non-profit. And I had fallen in love, with the land, with the people, with the energy of the place. The process of gutting a home was tough; we’d go in equipped with crowbars, wheelbarrows, water, a radio, and a pack of masks. As a crew chief the first thing was to check-in with the homeowners: what do you want to salvage, what do you want us to look for, what do you need? Peter, a priest from New York, who was a spiritual and emotional support for our band of young college aged volunteers told us that we were holding a funeral for the home and for its former inhabitants; this work was sacred.
Building, performing, and touring Cry You One entailed a similar process for me. I’ve cultivated an immense respect for the land, the water, the creatures and the people that belong to each place we’re invited to and blessed to be with. In our initial run we built a container, a home that holds a funeral for the land, honors what it once held and offers dreams for what we hope it can be again. In order to continue to do this work, we had to go in and gut our own house, see what was useful, what no longer served us, and what we needed to craft anew.
Since Cry You One began in 2012, our ensemble has struggled with how to accurately tell the story of Southeast Louisiana. We are a predominantly white group, roughly half native Louisianians and all city dwellers. Our relationship to land deepened significantly through spending time out in the central wetlands, running, rehearsing, and creating this piece. After our first run in the Fall of 2013 I brought a challenge to the group: how are we to tell an accurate, holistic story of Southeast Louisiana’s culture and history with no specific focus on environmental racism and with only one performer of color?
The question was simple but the answer to it had huge ramifications. We are living in a global moment when climate change and climate justice are at the forefront of international dialogue. US corporations are buying up water rights in India, Africa, and South America, Monsanto is poisoning water systems around the country, and natural gas fracking is on the rise, depleting potable water sources and causing lasting effects we have yet to fully understand. These increasingly detrimental challenges are happening primarily in poor communities and communities of color in Appalachia, in the Deep South, and in “third world” countries. What is our responsibility to highlight the reality of who is most affected by coastal land loss and the disappearing wetlands and how can we capture that in our story?
The challenge was clear: find a way to centralize a narrative of environmental racism and the legacies of its devastation within Cry You One. In this way, we hoped that we could actualize the stories of black and brown people affected by coastal land loss, highlight the intersection of race and class to ownership and the illusion of choice related to work in the oil and gas industry, and actively acknowledge our privileged role in telling the story of Southeast Louisiana. We needed to be honest about the history and legacy of settler colonialism, native removal, racism, white supremacy, racial terrorism, and the creation of private property that created the crisis we have today. And so we went in and began gutting our house.
In May, we decided to centralize environmental racism within the piece. In theory this was an easy decision, in practice it has meant a thorough re-writing of most of the major scenes in the piece and adding in an additional character who brings a wealth of African-centered history and wisdom that both recognizes and educates about our history and pushes us towards building connections and bridging our differences. It has meant having difficult internal conversations about race, class, and white supremacy and how they influence and manifest in our ways of working together — in the ideas we decide to pursue, in the expectations we have for who should be in charge of pushing a certain “agenda,” and in how we actualize our values within our work. And it has meant asking our elders, colleagues, and friends for feedback and criticism that will help us to continue to grow and develop our new home.
In Cry You Tucky, our first stop on the national tour, we were blessed to sit with the illustrious, brilliant, and loving bell hooks at the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College. bell, who has written extensively about home, belonging and place, a woman who holds deeply to the importance, uplift and significance of black feminist creation, a born and bred Southerner and artist spoke to us about her continuous struggle with land, home, and belonging.
The conversation ranged from bell’s experience being raised in the hill country of Kentucky to her current understanding of herself as a black Kentuckian devoted to repairing the harm capitalist white supremacist heteropatriarchy has done to the land. At one point in answer to the question of how to maintain a connection to the land that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of settler colonialism bell offered “Well I think what’s interesting, one of the things that often happens in the South and in Kentucky is that people use the story of, my family’s been here since such and such [in] their hierarchy about the land and the thing is because so much of our history has been lost stolen and strayed it’s very hard. Even though we know, I know my grandmother Bell Hooks came off a reservation, I know very little else about it because these were things that people didn’t talk about and the colonizing meant that black people didn’t talk about that either…The south African statement, ‘our struggle is also a struggle of memory against forgetting’ is very important because I just find myself constantly up against notions of who’s been here first, who’s been here longest.”
This is what we who are artists, immigrants, activists, organizers and indigenous folk continue to find ourselves up against, struggling so hard to prove we belong that we can’t find a way to see how our ways of belonging can complement and sustain us together. In our story circles in Kentucky, many of the stories shared were connected to familial land and reconnecting to the importance and significance of growing one’s own food and drinking clean water. Within the small community of Berea, people were invited and delighted to connect with others around their deep love and commitment to loving the land. During our talk, bell spoke to the importance of coming together across difference. “Domination survives around keeping us in check, not allowing us to talk to somebody different from yourself, not allowing you to bond with someone that people might think, why would you bond? In a culture of domination…where do we have the space to challenge in ways that make people feel cared about and bring people together?” For me, Cry You One has been an embodied, theatrical practice of continually trying to widen that space, across lines of race, class, age, and rural/urban divides. We are invited to sit, eat, talk, sing, and share with people based on our love and commitment to finding sustenance in the land and divest from our feelings of ownership towards the land.
At the end of our weekend of performance in Kentucky, Bob Martin and Carrie Brunk, our amazing hosts and stewards of the land at Clear Creek, hosted a community meal. Attended by folks who’d fed and housed us, seen one or both of the performances, or were in any way connected to the work, we sat under the cool moonlight and sang and ate together. We drank water from the Clear Creek spring and practiced the work of transformative change and building cultures and places where we all can belong. This work is challenging but we continue in our commitment to it. Last week, the team, sans myself, performed in Vermont. Due to an injury that kept me from performing, we had to go in again and gut, figure out a way to share a thread of the story without my character Sabine’s presence in the performance. This work helps us to continue to grow and to investigate how to create cultures of belonging that encompass all of our stories and lives.
“This is where our hope for the land, for the people for the world lies, not in whether we can defeat those in power but really whether all of us can engage in transformative change.”
-– bell hooks
Rebecca Mwase is a queer, Zimbabwean-American theatre artist based in New Orleans, LA. Her work lies at the intersections of race, gender, religion, sexuality and class and seeks to illuminate and question the power structures that control our society. As an artist, Rebecca commits to involved processes that mine personal stories providing singular entry points into complex contemporary issues. Her work invites engagement through movement, song, or active participation. To that end, she is committed to arts education working with New Orleans Queer Youth Theater as well as Rethink to educate local artists, students and communities in effective ways to harness the creative arts for social change and empowerment. Rebecca is committed to crafting spaces and frameworks for women of color to gain a sense of place and identity through the creation of art. She aims to use her creative work as an organizing and educational tool to incite conversation and questioning of our modes of being and doing in the world. Rebecca also is dedicated to creating original work and was seen most recently in ArtSpot Productions “Cry You One” and Junebug Productions “Lockdown.”