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Before We’re Artists We’re Citizens

>Before We’re Artists We’re Citizens

Yesterday I watched Roger Guenveur Smith win a Bessie award. Yes, a New York Dance and Performance award went to a theater maker who moved people. Just before, I watched my fiance tweet these words…

In a time when young Tamir Rice’s killers can be considered reasonable by any source, after we have watched too many videos of too many Black bodies, seen too many mug shots, heard too many mothers cries…just this year, The Guardian has tracked 923 deaths at the hands of police. What was recently #every28hours is now happening so fast that we are perhaps numb to the lashing.

Art reminds us how to feel. It gives us a language of hope. It gives us a mirror of truth. As I listened to Roger Guenveur Smith share these words weeks ago I remembered that all movement is movement. I remembered that dance is my medicine. And as my eyes began to water for the barrage of Black Lives that he called up as he made his acceptance speech, I heard his words loud and clear:

…Little did I know in the summer of ’12 when we lost Rodney King that we would still be preaching this gospel according to saint Rodney and that the gospel would be even more relevant in this moment then it was perhaps three years ago. We’ve travelled all over the country and all over the world with this piece…. Took it to the Bahamas where we did a double header with Frederick Douglass. So Frederick Douglass and Rodney King on the same day at the same venue. In the afternoon we did it outdoor for Douglass then took it indoors for King. It’s been a good journey.

And of course we had the one for which we were nominated at BRIC Arts in Brooklyn last winter and the opening night was the evening of the non-indictment of the Officer Pantaleo was announced. So that was our opening night and it sounded like L.A. Helicopters were flying all over the Brooklyn Bridge – sounded just like home. And then by the time we got to the closing, the momentum of the meditation just was blowing up to the point where we had to have a monitor in the lobby for the overflow crowd. We organized what we called an emergency town hall meeting which we had access to politicians with community folks in conversation. And we spontaneously marched out of the theater into the street blocked traffic nonviolently, peacefully, at the corner of Fulton and Flatbush for about an hour until the boys in blue rolled through. That was one of the more memorable evenings I’ve had of so-called theater – to take it from a play into a town hall discussion and then to activate the discussion into a public, civic disobedience. I’m again very honored that the committee would see fit to recognize and understand the work, and not just as a solo performance, but as part of a civic discourse.

…I had referenced Rodney King for many years in my work. I’ve never used him as the butt of a joke. I’d never, I don’t think, exploited him a negative way, but I always saw Rodney King as a force of resilience. He survived the beating. And he survived up until the year 2012 the notoriety of his beating. He was a common man placed in an uncommon circumstance. He was not a high school graduate, but I feel that he delivered one of the great American speeches on May 1, 1992 when he said, quite simply, “Can we, can we all get along?” And then answered his own question towards the end of the speech when he said, “Yes, we can. We can get along. We just have to work it out.” And when I opened up my laptop on Father’s Day 2012 and discovered that Rodney King had gone to the bottom of his backyard swimming pool, I was extraordinarily moved as if I had lost my blood-brother.

And I wanted to know why. Why did I feel that way? And why, by extension, would my potential audience feel that, that Rodney King mattered in that way. I think those of us who cared about him were very happy in the spring of ’12. It was the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots, 1992. He published an autobiography titled The Riot Within. He was going on tours. He was being very well received, doing interviews, very positive coverage on him. And we thought, “Yea, this is beautiful Rodney’s on his way back. He’s beating those demons.” To lose him the way that we lost him seemed an impossible thing to bear.

So within a number of weeks I was on stage in LA at my home theater which is called Bootleg and I was working this thing out on stage. As I continued to workshop the material, more information emerged about Rodney King about his demise. In fact his coroner’s report was published and streamed online. That revealed some things that were instructive to the story of Rodney King, and to his ongoing value as a moral provocateur, not unlike that other King. It was revealed that the only abnormality in Rodney King’s body was an abnormally enlarged heart. And I thought that that was significant.

So there you have it, and I kept improvising this thing. I knew that I wanted to use Rodney King’s full speech. I wanted to interpret that because we only hear it in clips if we hear it at all. Quite frequently he is misquoted. People say, “Can we just get along?” but he never said “just.” He left it diminutive, and he answered his own question. Again, “Yes we can. We can get along.” And I knew that I wanted to quote Willie D of the Geto Boys, at least a couple verses from his rap in ’92 titled “Fuck Rodney King” because there you have another Black man putting Rodney down because Rodney did not live up to his ideal of machismo and political hardness. So he’s got like a five or six verse rap really dogging Rodney King out and I thought that it was important to hear that.

…So I put Rodney King in that little [white rectangle on a black floor], and within that box I am challenged to tell this story.

…[A lot of] people really scour underneath the radar [making] work that’s really changing the course of the art and also of the civic discourse – which is part of it, or should be part of it. I think that before we’re artists we’re citizens. We have to be engaged as such and, you know, if we can make some good art along the way, that’s cool.

Thank you for giving us this prayer to the gospel of Rodney, with the accompaniment of all the children, women, and men we’ve lost over the centuries to an America that never expected we’d survive. Thank you for listening and being a citizen who lives art as movement – in all of its forms. Cool is most definitely an understatement.

 

To read more from my interview with Roger Guenveur Smith, check out the Q&A on The Dance Enthusiast. You can also check out Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s reflections on the December 2014 performance in Infinite Body. Great read!