A multidisciplinary collaboration by some of today’s preeminent Black women creators, “Afrofemononomy / Work the Roots” features live theater, music, discussion, and installation, inspired by the career of activist, author, poet, playwright, editor, director, filmmaker, educator, and mother Kathleen Collins (Losing Ground, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?), who died of breast cancer in 1988 at the age of forty-six.
According to the collective, “‘Afrofemononomy / Work the Roots’ is an affirmation of how we, as Black women, expected to maintain the world’s health, can restore and not imperil our own. Black women absorb disproportionate stress and often develop a variety of risk factors, including higher early mortality rates with cancer and other diseases. Working inside the unsustainable economy and time structures of theater-making are often depleting for us. ‘Afrofemononomy / Work the Roots’ is a Black femme reclaiming of time and space, a model for restoration, a continuation of the lineage of our foremothers’ formative presence in the downtown avant-garde. We claim our health and sovereignty, prioritizing our human needs, and translate the ease, free expression, and non-compulsory ethos of our informal gatherings to our working conditions and aesthetic.”
The six-week celebration, produced by Performance Space New York with New Georges, kicks off this weekend with Collins’s 1984 Begin the Beguine: A Quartet of One-Acts, which is having its theatrical world premiere at Oakland Theater Project later this month. Part of the Downtown Live festival, Remembrance, a kind of personal séance starring Eisa Davis and Kaneza Schaal and with directorial consultation by Jackie Sibblies Drury, takes place at 85 Broad St. on May 16 at 6:30, May 22 at 1:30 and 4:00, and May 23 at 4:00, in an arcade next to the Stone Street Historic District. Those same days at 2:30 and 3:45, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Amelia Workman, Kara Young, Gabby Beans, and Jennifer Harrison Newman will present The Reading in the Courtyard at 122CC, Performance Space New York’s home, a tale set in a psychic’s waiting room with a white novelist and a Black fashion designer.
Begin the Beguine unfolds May 15 and 16 on a lawn in East Harlem, performed by April Matthis and Stacey Karen Robinson about an actress mother and her adult son and created with Charlotte Brathwaite, and The Healing is set in a Bed-Stuy park May 15-16 with Joie Lee, Schaal and Drury, as a white healer tries to help a Black woman with an unnamed illness.
In addition, Blain-Cruz’s installation “Last night, I dreamt I danced in the image of God” provides “a space for dance, rest and sustenance made for and in appreciation of Black women,” running May 15-16 and 22-23 from noon to 2:30 and 4:00 to 7:00 in the Courtyard at 122CC, and Davis’s audio-visual installation “The Essentialisn’t: Gold Taste” is open Thursdays to Sundays from May 29 to June 27 from noon to 6:00 at Performance Space New York’s Keith Haring Theatre and in the Courtyard, with occasional live sound interaction that asks the question “Can you be Black and not perform?” And finally, on May 15, “Afrofemononomy” will launch an online, international, interactive radio project. All events are free but require advance RSVP for timed tickets and because of limited space.
Who: Works by and/or featuring Moko Fukuyama, Joshua William Gelb, Gabrielle Hamilton, Jace, Elmore James, Jamal Josef, Katie Rose McLaughlin, Sara Mearns, Zaire Michel, Zalman Mlotek, Alicia Hall Moran, Patrick Page, Barbara Pollack, Seth David Radwell, Jamar Roberts, Tracy Sallows, Xavier F. Salomon, Janae Snyder-Stewart, Mfoniso Udofia, Anne Verhallen
What: This Week in New York twentieth anniversary celebration
Where: This Week in New York YouTube
When: Saturday, May 22, free with RSVP, 7:00 (available on demand through June 12)
Why: In April 2001, I found myself suddenly jobless when a relatively new Silicon Alley company that had made big promises took an unexpected hit. I took my meager two weeks’ severance pay and spent fourteen days wandering through New York City, going to museums, film festivals, parks, and tourist attractions. I compiled my experiences into an email I sent to about fifty friends, rating each of the things I had done. My sister’s husband enthusiastically demanded that I keep doing this, and This Week in New York was born.
Affectionately known as twi-ny (twhy-nee), it became a website in 2005 and soon was being read by tens of thousands of people around the globe. I covered a vast array of events – some fifteen thousand over the years – that required people to leave their homes and apartments and take advantage of everything the greatest city in the world had to offer. From the very start, I ventured into nooks and crannies to find the real New York, not just frequenting well-known venues but seeking out the weird and wild, the unusual and the strange.
For my tenth anniversary, we packed Fontana’s, a now-defunct club on the Lower East Side, and had live music, book readings, and a comics presentation. I had been considering something bigger for twenty when the pandemic lockdown hit and lasted longer than we all thought possible.
At first, I didn’t know what twi-ny’s future would be, with nowhere for anyone to go. But the arts community reacted quickly, as incredible dance, music, art, theater, opera, film, and hybrid offerings began appearing on numerous platforms; the innovation and ingenuity blew me away. The winners of twi-ny’s Pandemic Awards give you a good idea of the wide range of things I covered; you can check out part one here and part two here.
I devoured everything I could, from experimental dance-theater in a closet and interactive shows over the phone and through the mail to all-star Zoom reunion readings and an immersive, multisensory play that arrived at my door in a box. Many of them dealt with the fear, isolation, and loneliness that have been so pervasive during the Covid-19 crisis while also celebrating hope, beauty, and resilience. I’ve watched, reviewed, and previewed more than a thousand events created since March 2020, viewing them from the same computer where I work at my full-time job in children’s publishing.
Just as companies are deciding the future hybrid nature of employment, the arts community is wrestling with in-person and online presentations. As the lockdown ends and performance venues open their doors, some online productions will go away, but others are likely to continue, benefiting from a reach that now goes beyond their local area and stretches across the continents.
On May 22 at 7:00, “twi-ny at twenty,” produced and edited by Michael D. Drucker of Delusions International and coproduced by Ellen Scordato, twi-ny’s business manager and muse, honors some of the best events of the past fourteen months, including dance, theater, opera, art, music, and literature, all of which can be enjoyed for free from the friendly confines of your couch. There is no registration fee, and the party will be available online for several weeks. You can find more information here.
Please let me know what you think in the live chat, which I will be hosting throughout the premiere, and be sure to say hello to other twi-ny fans and share your own favorite virtual shows.
Thanks for coming along on this unpredictable twenty-year adventure; I can’t wait to see you all online and, soon, in real life. Here’s to the next twenty!
Who: Jon Ronson, Valérie Rousseau, Mark Hogancamp
What: Livestreamed discussion
Where: American Folk Art Museum Zoom
When: Tuesday, May 11, free with RSVP, 1:00
Why: In 2010, Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol introduced us to Mark Hogancamp, a man who, after suffering a nearly fatal beating from five bigots that resulted in a coma and brain damage, re-created his personal journey in his backyard using toys and dolls, captured in photographs. In 2015, Welsh-American journalist and screenwriter Jon Ronson did a feature on Hogancamp for the Guardian in which Hogancamp told him, “Marwencol was solely made up so I could kill those five guys. I had no way to do it in real life. I played it over in my head. I’d get caught. I’d go to prison. I’d get the chair. The first time I killed all five of them, I felt a little bit better. That violent hatred and anger subsided a little.” In conjunction with the American Folk Art Museum exhibition “PHOTO | BRUT: Collection Bruno Decharme & Compagnie,” consisting of works by such self-taught artists as Henry Darger, Albert Moser, Norma Oliver, Elke Tangeten, and Hogancamp, the institution is hosting the live Zoom discussion “The Imagined Worlds of Marwencol with Jon Ronson and Mark Hogancamp” with Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Okja), curator Valérie Rousseau, and Hogancamp, taking place May 11 at 1:00. Admission is free with RSVP; the exhibit continues through June 6.
Who: Awol Erizku, Daniel S. Palmer
What: Public Art Fund talk
Where: The Cooper Union on Zoom
When: Monday, May 10, free with RSVP, 5:00
Why: For his first public solo exhibition, Bronx-raised Cooper Union alum Awol Erizku has created New Visions for Iris, consisting of thirteen photographs taken during the pandemic and installed at 350 JCDecaux bus shelters around New York City and Chicago. “Certain images just need to be made, for them to be out in the world,” Erizku says in a video about the Public Art Fund project. “It’s an offering, sort of a dismantling and reconstruction of certain visual language I have seen and want to see. I think of these as like intellectual snapshots, ideas that I’m processing at that particular moment, and these things manifest in the image.” The snapshots are meant to begin dialogues, initially between the artist and his daughter but now among everyone. The exhibit continues through June 10; on May 10 at 5:00, Erizku will take part in a live conversation with Public Art Fund curator Daniel S. Palmer, presented in partnership with the Cooper Union.
Who: Dr. Alejandro Chaoul, Marc Glimcher, David Leslie
What: Virtual guided meditation
Where: Pace Gallery Zoom webinar
When: Monday, May 10, free with RSVP, 2:00
Why: I’ve spent much time standing in front of paintings by Mark Rothko, drawn into their sheer beauty and psychological and emotional depth. Next week we can all do so virtually in a special presentation from Pace Gallery. In 1964, Dominique and John de Menil commissioned Rothko to create murals for what would become known as the Rothko Chapel in Houston; the Russian-born artist completed a suite of fourteen paintings in 1967 but died before the chapel opened to the public in 1971. “The Rothko Chapel is oriented towards the sacred, and yet it imposes no traditional environment. It offers a place where a common orientation could be found – an orientation towards God, named or unnamed, an orientation towards the highest aspirations of Man and the most intimate calls of the conscience,” Dominique de Menil said of the ecumenical space. Rothko previously wrote to his benefactors, “The magnitude, on every level of experience and meaning, of the task in which you have involved me, exceeds all of my preconceptions. And it is teaching me to extend myself beyond what I thought was possible for me.” In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the space, Pace Gallery is hosting a Monday meditation led by Tibetan meditation teacher Dr. Alejandro Chaoul, recorded in the chapel. The meditation will be followed by a conversation between Pace president and CEO Marc Glimcher, Rothko Chapel executive director David Leslie, and Dr. Chaoul. Admission is free with advance RSVP.
As the pandemic lockdown in New York City begins to ease up and arts institutions slowly open, Precious Okoyomon has brought the outside inside in the beautifully meditative and welcoming Fragmented Body Perceptions as Higher Vibration Frequencies to God. The installation, in the Keith Haring Theatre on the fourth floor of Performance Space New York, offers a naturalistic ecosystem where one can grieve and reflect on the events of the past year, during which the country has been immersed in overlapping crises, from the coronavirus to police injustice to growing income inequality, all of which disproportionately affects Black men, women, and children. Continuing through May 9, Fragmented Body consists of gravel, small Delaware River rocks, boulders, soil, insects, anoles, and wildflowers, with an algae-laden stream running down the middle and kudzu ash, sourced from Okoyomon’s recent Earthseed exhibit in Germany, falling from the ceiling in a kind of wake, a ritual burning of the invasive Japanese vine that was used to prevent soil erosion in the cotton-growing south and became a metaphor for the suppression of Blacks after slavery ended.
“The creation of Earthseed started this ever-flourishing garden of kudzu, which was allowed to evolve and escape and be truly wild,” Okoyomon explains in a statement. “At the end, it had to be killed: It couldn’t be transplanted to a new environment because it’s a monster. And the way I had to burn it all and the way that ash gets to have a new life here, it seemed the only reconcilable wake we could do for it, and one that would reflect the timeline of death we’ve been in. 2020 was the reckoning of death, and we’re still living in it. We have to face it and live in it and allow it to change us and be changed by it.”
Timed, limited fifteen-minute admission is free with advance RSVP; we were fortunate to go on a rainy afternoon and spend more than a half hour by ourselves in the space, sitting by the trickling stream, following the paths laid out on the gravel, and gently touching the hollow boulders, piled like cairns, in order to feel the vibration of the soundtrack, which features such found noises as construction. The haunting sound design is by Dion McKenzie, with lighting by Jørgen Skjaervold.
The work also features a poem, “Weather report,” by the Brooklyn-based Okoyomon (Ajebota, But Did U Die?) that begins, “Today i wake up still the assemblage associated distortions bewilder me / IN THIS WORLD I AM A SHAPESHIFTER / FRAGMENTED BODY PERCEPTIONS AS HIGHER VIBRATION FREQUENCIES TO GOD / In the supernatural sky / I was restful as I had reached my place of salvation / The surface as a material structure neither heaven nor solace / Only the wind / Only quenched light / Lulled into covering until everything was the same / soul object well formed / the irreducible always already truth / Hidden in the trees / It is nothing i am here i am still here.” Visitors are encouraged to leave a little token behind as part of a community garden of objects, a reminder of solace and salvation.
Who: New Camerata Opera
What: Virtual world premiere
Where: New Camerata Opera Zoom
When: Thursday, May 6, and Saturday, May 8, $40-$160, 8:00
Why: On March 18, 1990, thieves broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and got away with thirteen masterpieces worth half a billion dollars; you can learn more about the still-unsolved crime in the new Netflix documentary This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist. Immersive specialists New Camerata Opera will be pulling off its own interactive, virtual museum heist this week with the premiere of The Brooklyn Job. Written and directed by Sarah Morgan Ashey, the piece, debuting May 6 and 8 at 8:00 over Zoom as part of the sixth annual New York Opera Fest, mixes prerecorded elements filmed and edited by Erik Bagger with live performance, featuring sopranos Samina Aslam and Barbara Porto, mezzo-sopranos Eva Parr, Julia Tang, and Anna Tonna, tenors Victor Khodadad and Bagger, baritones Stan Lacy and Scott Lindroth, and bass Kofi Hayford. Dan Franklin Smith is the music director. New Camerata Opera has presented such online works as Julie, the nine-episode Ives Project, and The Prince von Pappenschmear, a Prequel during the pandemic lockdown; The Brooklyn Job is a participatory opera that invites viewers to take polls and, for an additional fee, order a cocktail box (by May 3) that comes with a Woman in Gray, Sunlight Effect, or Rhubarb Spritz, spiced caramel popcorn, and an art-focused interactive program guide.