Bridges: A follow-through
“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”
- T’Challa King of Wakanda, Black Panther
On Monday, February 25th, a “takeover” took place. It was a peaceful takeover and an allowance by a group of committed women who have been gathering for months under the leadership of the JCC activist in residence, Ruth Messinger. They meet monthly at the JCC Harlem to discuss race and social justice. What began as a book club, quickly became a gathering to connect around an issue near and dear to all of their hearts.
Patria Diaz (director of programming for the JCC Harlem) and Tanya Birl-Torres (SoHumanity) have been collaborating on events and offerings at the JCC Harlem for over a year now including ‘Embodying Change’ and ‘Reclaiming the Rights of the Body’.
One day over falafels and herbal tea, they sat down to discuss what was next. Little did they know that it would be a God-optional evening of art, embodiment, and conversation with this group of women from the JCC as well as artists, spiritual leaders and community members.
Tanya has had an idea for a piece of theater for some time now. It was a weaving of her personal and spiritual history, the history of her ancestors and the medical history of her daughter. When Tanya shared her story with Patria, the architecture for a beautiful bridging experience was already beginning to take shape.
How can we begin to bridge the parts of ourselves that we may think are separate or “othered” and start to see ourselves in each other's stories?
The salon began with a beautiful piece of music performed by solo and concert violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins. She chose a piece from her new work ‘The Fiddler Experience’ where she re-arranged and orchestrated the score from the Broadway show ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ (Kelly was the solo violinist from the most recent Tony and Grammy-nominated production). Music has the ability to transcend the mind and cut straight to the soul. Our hope was that this would help set the tone and ground the group in the space.
Tanya and Patria welcomed this very diverse group of individuals to the space and invited them into a collaborative experience where the lines would be blurred between performer and audience. Just by nature of showing up, we were all equals and creating something together. No one was here to solely be a spectator. This gave the unique opportunity to democratize the room and set a level playing field for everyone who chose to authentically show up.
Patria stepped into her self- professed role as mother, creating a welcome and open space of support and hospitality. Tanya boldly stepped into her role as facilitator and provocateur for the evening. Patria lovingly held the organization and production of the evening while Tanya carried on by framing 4 grounding truths/principals for the experience:
Art is the ultimate equalizer/ bridge builder
We are all creative by nature of being human
We heal the world by healing ourselves first
We do this by bolding bringing ours/others stories to life
Tanya vulnerably shared how she has spent her life reconciling with the parts of herself that she has treated unjustly. Growing up Christian and being ashamed of finding a depth of her spiritual foundation through the teachings of Yoga and the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita. Also, being raised in Canada by an Alabama born (child of the great migration) father and a British born, Jamaican raised mother.
Being black in so many contexts was something that Tanya had to learn to bring together as a strength and not a weakness or way of making her feel ‘othered’ or separate from her true self. This event was about choosing to explore what it looks like when we reconcile or re-member the parts of ourselves and speak our truth from that connected place.
“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” - James Baldwin
One of the biggest themes of the evening was history. What is it and who dictates how it is passed down/told from generation to generation? Tanya spoke of time/history not being linear and that we all have the ability to heal in the present moment 7 generations both past and future. What if the history that you have been handed, doesn’t align with the history in your bones? This very powerful quote was shared and used as food for thought.
“We are taking our history with us and moving forward into the promised land. America was never for all of us so we will forge forward and make America new.” - Zen Priestess, Rev. Angel Kyoto Williams
This was an opportunity for all of us to model authentic story-telling, choosing to define history as a collection of all of our authentic truths. Tanya described it this way:
“Tonight, I will be the mad scientist who will begin by modeling and sharing my story and how I am using art to process my complex history. There are parts of this story that we all know to be historically true. There are also parts that are very real and true for me whether any history books confirm them or not. What I ask of you is to dig deep within yourself and begin to see yourself in this narrative.”
A Play in 3 Movements
Tanya presented the inspiration for a play that she is in the process of birthing as well as the fact that she is physically almost 9 months pregnant (talk about art imitating life)!
The complexity and use of movement as both something that can be healthy and healing as well as a means to confuse and displace was another bridging theme.
The three movements of this play are as follows:
The Exodus Story of Moses and the scattering of the 12 Tribes of Israel in relation to Afro-Hebrewism.
. The trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the uniqueness of ‘cattle slavery’ of African Americans.
*This paired with the mental indoctrination of William Lynch (an 18th-century slave master) and his theory of planting “spheres of Illusion” in the slave in order to “keep the body and take the mind”. His main target, the Black female in order for them to pass down this confusion of mental slavery and self-destruction for generations to come.
The rise of present-day rare and unknown auto-immune viruses/diseases in women (specifically WOC) and its link to the suppression of truth/speaking truth.
**Tanya shared how her 5-year-old daughter was recently affected by a very rare and undiagnosable auto-immune virus which presented itself as polio.
These three significant movements in Tanya’s personal and familial history continue to weave together as art as she tries to find healing beyond the medical realm. A dear teacher said to Tanya while she was in the hospital with her daughter;
“What if instead of thinking of her having a central nervous “system breakdown”, perhaps she is strong enough to decide within her own cells that she will fight the system within herself? What if she is receiving a “systems upgrade?”
From that moment of allowance, the storytelling began to bridge and take shape…
According to most history books, 2019 marks the 400th year since the first slave ships left the "‘door of no return’ off of the west coast of Africa for the New World. Seeing that Tanya is a self-professed numerology nerd, she started to think of how many generations would that be… give or take 12-13. That would make Tanya’s generations 12 generations removed from that day and her daughter the 13th.
400 years… The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert
12 Tribes… 12 generations (12 representing the end or completion of something and the beginning of something new)
the 13th tribe (the 13th amendment)… Tanya’s daughter’s generation is the first generation to be TRULY “born free” (she was also born in 2013)
Grounding and Contemplation
Tanya concluded her story-telling and boldly asked the group, “Can you see yourself in my narrative?”
She led the group in a grounding meditation which focused on the first chakra (Muladhara). In the lineage of yoga, the chakras or energy centers of the body live along the spine. The spine is the source of spiritual energy and vitality (it also happens to be where the central nervous system resides in the body and the breeding ground of most auto-immune viruses).
The group was lead to feel their feet planted firmly on the ground and to feel their pelvis or sits bones grounded in their seat. Drawing our awareness downwards evokes a sense of safety in the body, space and time.
Each chakra also has a ‘right’ attached to it. “I have a right to be here” is the mantra of the first chakra. To be safe, to be in this body, to be in this room, to be in this country, to be in this moment in history. Tanya also named and acknowledged that many of her ancestors did not have ownership of their physical bodies and that this was a moment of reclaiming for her as well as many others.
The group was then lead to bring their awareness to their throat chakra (vishuddah). This energy center is the house of communication, creative expression, and truth. The mantra for the 5th chakra is “I have a right to speak and be heard.” The symbol representing this chakra is the infinity sign.
Together everyone began to move their necks and heads to release tension in this part of the body and then were encouraged to stand and begin to make an infinity like movement with the entire body. With eyes remaining closed or downcast, it allowed the group to stay with their individual experience. The group was then invited to weave throughout the space, moving as they were inspired to by listening to the body’s instincts. One of Tanya’s favorite sayings is “The truth is in the body.”
Some were moving their arms or walking in different patterns and directions. It really was a beautiful visual of how movement can be used to connect and bring a deeper sense of awareness of the body both individually and collectively.
When the exercise came to a close, the group was invited to turn to the person closest to them, introduce themselves and find a seat anywhere in the space together.
The group was led through a facilitated deep listening exercise (the compliment to speaking truth). In this exercise, one person would be person A and the other person B. Person A would have eight minutes to reply to this prompt “Why Are You Here?”
No instructions beyond that. The rest was up to their own interpretation. Person B was the space holder. No reactions, advice, approving nods, simply their presence. If person A finished speaking before the eight minutes were up, person B would give them a moment to take a breathe and then ask again “Why are you here?” The group gave out a collective gasp! Many expressed how they can’t speak for eight minutes straight, let alone with a complete stranger!
Tanya started the timer and off they went. Patria and Tanya circled the room gaining small nuggets of wisdom from different conversations. Arms where moving, bodies were engaged and leaning in, eyes were locked. The aim was not to be comfortable in this exercise, but an energy of safety and respect within the body and space were created and that was what mattered most.
After the bells chimed, everyone broke out into a mixture of laughter and signs of relief. “ That was hard!” one of the participants shouted out. It was time to acknowledge each other and switch roles. The energy of the space was buzzing as personal his/her stories were filling the room. It was beautiful to witness.
Story of us
It was very difficult to gather the group back together after the exercise was complete. People continued to talk and laugh and hug. A bond or bridging was emerging as our individual stories started to create a collection of stories. Tanya expressed how we have moved from her solo story to the group vulnerably telling their stories and now, a communal body of stories were beginning to form.
The energy in the room was very high, so Tanya decided to re-ground the group in a guided meditation of So Hum. In Sanskrit, So Hum can be translated to “I am that I am". This was the inspiration of Tanya creating her company SoHumanity by bridging her Christian faith and her understanding of Yoga.
“Then Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the People of Israel and I tell them, ‘The God of your fathers sent me to you’; and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What do I tell them?”God said to Moses, “I-AM-WHO-I-AM. Tell the People of Israel, ‘I-AM sent me to you.’”
-Exodus 3:14 (MSG)
In the Jewish faith, this scripture can be translated as “Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh” or “I will be who I will be (future tense).” God as an ever evolving, growing, forming, changing and humble example for us all. This gives us and our history permission to change and transform as well. It also gives us compassion and the ability to see others as ever changing and evolving beings. This is the root of forgiveness and justice.
Kelly and her accompanist Craig rounded out the evening with a final piece of moving music. The group used that time to reflect on their experience and write lasting thoughts on small post-it notes that were placed under their chairs. Tanya and Patria then invited the group to post their thoughts on the Sukkah (which is an art installation in the space) to build our collective story. The music was so beautiful that no-one wanted to move. Slowly but surely the foundation for connection, conversation, and truth-telling began to express itself as a piece of artwork.
Here are some thoughts from our communal body of work:
Exodus/ It’s harder to speak my truth then to listen to someone else’s/ Discomfort/ My truth is so damn relative!/ I give myself permission to discover my truth/ I am here to NOT know, but to ask, and do…/ I desire to bring God into every space that I occupy/ A stranger is not a stranger anymore/ Coming together through history/ This is where our separateness has union/ My ancestors are happy that I am healing.
“ I don’t believe a play should give you answers. It should leave you with questions and energize you to find your own answers.” - Anna Deveare Smith
Tanya and Patria closed the evening by checking in with each other and the group once more and reminding everyone of the original intention of the evening. Not to leave with answers, but with more questions about yourself, each other and what is the ultimate role of the artist as prophet.
The group was invited to share any lasting thoughts. One of the responses that stood out was from theater artist Tracee Beazer:
“I shared dreams with someone I had never met before. Dreams that I haven’t even told my husband. I feel more creative in these past two hours than I have in the past two years.”
Mission accomplished! The group was invited to break bread together as the evening drew to a close.
The Story of Now (from Tanya’s perspective)
Days after the event, I am left with so many question and insights. I have received words of encouragement, confusion, excitement and everything in between. I welcome them all! This is the value of art. This is the risk (and reward) in telling your truth. It may rub up against someone elses or cause them to question their own identity and that’s ok!
Patria and I met a few days after the event to debrief at our usual Harlem, Jamaican stomping ground, The Edge. We discussed the feeling afterward and how it wasn’t a high at all. It felt like water. It felt like it was a sharing of who we truly are and it just felt right. We discussed “the art of the exit” or like I have coined “The Exit(us")”, and how we leave something being just as important as how we enter into it. We don’t know what will happen next, but there is an artful approach to that unknowing as well.
“How we behave/listen to each other's stories individually and in society can make a huge difference in the environmental events of our molecular biology.” - Rachel Yehuda (Epigenetics)
What I gained from this moment in history was that taking a second (or 8 minutes) to inquire in a real way about how someone is doing will have beneficial and cellular effects on one’s identity and history. This in and of itself is social justice!
A few days after the event my daughter went in for a follow-up MRI of her entire spine and brain. This event helped to mentally and spiritually prepare me for that as well as watch her innate spirituality rise to the occasion. This is all a part of this living piece of theater. There is a resilience to the remembering of trauma, to the holding of it, the lamenting of it. There is JOY unspeakable in these spaces. That is how I want this story to continue, through freedom and joy! I believe that my daughter is deciding in her DNA to be the first generation born free. This is the lens in which I choose to tell my story, heal and create from into the emergent future.
**Whether you were present for the salon or there in spirit, we invite you to leave any comments or words of wisdom for us moving forward with this project. The exit is just as important as how we prepare to enter in and we are looking for opportunities to create and develop this specific piece of theater (A Play in 3 Movements) as well as continue to have these experiences/ opportunities to learn and grow together in community.