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Book Review: Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

This lyrical debut speaks to the universality — and complexity — of love in its many forms.

By Nyah Hardmon

This book review was first published April 16, 2021 in Washington Independent Review of Books here

A refreshingly poetic ode to Black love, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel, Open Water, follows the relationship of two young British artists who meet by happenstance, or perhaps fate, and traces their intricate journey as they navigate what it means to find the right person at the wrong time.

Nelson’s bold writing style — which includes leaving his main characters unnamed and using intimate, second-person narration — allows the reader to step directly into the story, embracing the familiarity of love rather than hiding from it. Although the plot is composed of a series of specific events, from not catching someone’s name at a party to taking late-night strolls to Shake Shack, the tale is universal. A love story is a love story, and Nelson deliberately plays into this strange phenomenon we call human connection:

“Last time we met, you said you were a photographer,” she says.

“No, someone told you I was a photographer, and I squirmed at the idea,” you say.

“Why?”

“You did the same when your dancing was brought up?”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I dunno,” you say. “But yeah. I take photographs.” On the other side of the window, Piccadilly bustles. A man swells his bagpipes, the sound drifting up towards you. Friday evening and the city is bordering on frenzy, unsure of what to do with itself.

From its opening lines, the novel’s casual construction is apparent. It reads like a story being told by an old friend, so much so that by its closing paragraphs, you can’t help but feel emotionally drained, as if you’ve experienced love and loss alongside the characters.

Still, this book isn’t perfect. But neither is love. Neither is life. While its lyrical nature is one of its most appealing aspects, the narrative sometimes becomes too reliant on obscurity at the expense of clarity and brevity. In moments as tender as the physical joining of two bodies, the intimacy should speak for itself; flowery metaphors only cloud the beauty. Yet even with the author’s word choice booming like a yell when I, at least at times, would’ve appreciated a whisper, I understand. Love is exciting. It makes me want to yell, too.

And then there’s the music, which courses through the novel from page one. The author does this not simply by including song lyrics — that would be too obvious — but by connecting the beauty of love with the beauty of music, an artform as universal as love itself. The seamless but consistent integration of music is so foundational here that it’s necessary to mention the soundtrack.  

Nelson’s musical choices ring authentic. He doesn’t rely on the same overused love songs. In fact, he barely relies on songs explicitly about love at all. Instead, he lets the music speak for itself, such as by opening the novel with a quote from Earl Sweatshirt and, later, having his protagonists sing their hearts out to Isaiah Rashad. (Even those not hip to the underground hip-hop scene will be able to follow the author’s references — an impressive feat.)

Open Water isn’t merely the story of two young Londoners. It’s everyone’s story. Yes, physical attraction plays a part, but it’s about so much more than that. “You came here to speak of what it means to love your best friend. Ask: if flexing is being able to say the most in the fewest number of words, is there a greater flex than love? Nowhere to hide, nowhere to go. A direct gaze.”

This may not look like the love stories of my grandmother’s time, but it’s just as relatable. It’s about familial love. Friendly love. The kind of love that feels good and the kind that hurts. Caleb Azumah Nelson has taken many risks in this promising first project, and most of them pay off.

My search for Black women’s unsung voices, or, Why theater needs a ‘Reset’

How an opportunity at Woolly Mammoth to create a “new canon” became a celebration of inclusion.

By Jordan Ealey

This article was first published March 17, 2021 in DC Metro Theater Arts here.

Questions of “canon” have haunted me throughout my theatrical education and subsequent professional career. As a precocious young child obsessed with the performing arts, I searched and searched for Black girls’ and women’s presences in the theater I was being exposed to, always disappointed when I felt I could not find it. This constant search has followed me throughout my educational career in theater and performance, especially as I embarked on a search for Black woman–authored works in musical theater. Happening upon the work of Pauline Hopkins in scholar Daphne A. Brooks’s award-winning critical text, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910, was a crucial moment: I was exposed to Hopkins’s esteemed career not only as a writer, journalist, and archivist but as the first African American to have a musical produced in the United States. How, in all of my years of theater education, had I never heard of this brilliant and path-breaking woman? So when I had the opportunity to expose her historically significant work to the theatergoing public, I happily accepted the offer.

From ‘Reset’: Paige Hernandez and Natasha Ofili in Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping.’ Photo courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

The opportunity came from Maria Goyanes, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, who sought to create a project that challenged and rethought public knowledge of particular artists. She had been struck by a collaboration that Woolly presented seasons ago with The Lab for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, which featured Woolly Company Members Jon Hudson Odom and Rick Foucheux portraying James Baldwin and Studs Turkel respectively in a scene that to Goyanes was “revelatory.” What particularly moved her, she wrote later, was “hearing Baldwin’s words embodied by a 21st century actor.” Inspired, Goyanes invited a group of theater artists to collaborate on a project that would rethink and reshape the concept of the “canon.” The project would be a “power-sharing model” in which both established and emerging theater artists would have an artistic voice in a large arts institution, buoyed by last summer’s We See You, White American Theater, a collective of theater artists of color that challenges the racial and ethnic exclusion within the American theater industry.

The group of invited curators — Nicole Brewer, Faedra Chatard Carpenter, Kristen Jackson, Leticia Ridley, Nikkole Salter, and myself — embarked on generating an equally conscious and complex artistic intervention: a “new canon.” Goyanes’s charge for us was to curate a collection of pieces to challenge perceptions of people that we do not know, that we think we know, and that we have yet to know. The project, now known as Reset, was to begin an enriching conversation on how we celebrate and engage a diverse repertoire of cultural, social, political, and artistic works across time, space, location, and identity.

The five other curators and I brainstormed for a while on people and works that impacted our lives in meaningful and distinctive ways, relying not solely on a shared category of “Black womanhood,” but rather on elevating our relationships to the people and communities who have helped shape us on our personal, creative, and scholarly trajectories. Some of my favorite moments working on this project were from those early meetings with the other curators, where we would ruminate on the people whom we have thought alongside. As Nikkole Salter proclaimed, Reset is “a deeply personal project,” culled together from women, both ancestral and still living, who touched us all. “As we move forward as a human species, it’s important to acknowledge that we are all a part of the story, and allowing our focus to shift to the voices of those who have willfully been excluded is necessary for the restoration of truth and the understanding of life itself.”

From ‘Reset’: Saidah Arrika Ekulona as Hattie McDaniel. Photo courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Our selections spanned an extraordinary range of fields: playwrights and librettists Pauline Hopkins, Rita Dove, Zora Neale Hurston, and Vy Higginsen; director Dr. Barbara Ann Teer; poets Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde; actor Hattie McDaniel; activists Ida B. Wells and the Combahee River Collective; and lighting designer Kathy Perkins. Alongside videos of short selections from their work (either embodied by actors or in archival and documentary-style footage), the entire curatorial team also provided dramaturgical content about each of the women featured as well as recommendations for further exploration. We wanted the site to be not only a rigorous artistic project but also an educational tool.

From ‘Reset’: Shannon Dorsey in Rita Dove’s ‘The Darker Face of the Earth.’ Photo courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

For instance, my research interests and passions are in excavating the history of Black women in musical theater and popular music history, so I knew that I wanted to include someone from that ongoing research in our new canon. I landed on Pauline Hopkins, a 19th- and early 20th-century novelist, journalist, and playwright. Many folks, particularly within the scholarly world, are familiar with Hopkins’s work as a novelist (she wrote romance novels and is speculated to have been one of the first to incorporate understandings around race into the genre) as well as her journalistic contributions (she was the longtime editor of Colored American Magazine), but she is rarely situated within theatrical contexts and certainly not known by the larger theatergoing public. It felt only right, then, to follow the impulse to reset public knowledge and history by featuring Hopkins’s musical comedy, Peculiar Sam, or, The Underground Railroad.

The musical follows a group of enslaved people as they plot to escape via The Underground Railroad to Canada to achieve their freedom. Collaborating with director Tyler Thomas, whose artistry and vision enriched this play in ways I could not have imagined, I selected an excerpt from the script where Sam, the titular character, and his comrades on their plantation are plotting their escape and eventually travel to their first “stop” on the Underground Railroad. As written, the excerpt also includes the song “Steal Away,” which is to be sung as they transition to their first stop. Knowing the limitations of synchronous singing on Zoom, Tyler and I devised a plan to incorporate the words “steal away” both in dialogue and to close the excerpt. The result is a creative interpretation of the song’s narrative function: an invitation to choose freedom.

From ‘Reset’: The Cast of Pauline Hopkins’s ’Peculiar Sam, or, The Underground Railroad.’ Photo courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Other curated pieces were inspired by our vastly different life experiences. Leticia Ridley, my creative collaborator on our podcast Daughters of Lorraine, selected Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping,” a poem dedicated to celebrating the strength and beauty of Black women. Leticia was inspired to include this piece by her love of “Black women talkin’ their shit.” Originally, she wanted to film actors Paige Hernandez and Natasha Ofili in a cypher-style video, like the ones originating in rap battles, but could not do so due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the work by Hernandez and Ofili is equal parts fun and poignant, featuring Giovanni’s unforgettable words and their fluid movement. One of Faedra Chatard Carpenter’s pieces is a diary entry from journalist-activist Ida B. Wells, who inspired Carpenter not simply because of Wells’s important work in bringing the anti-Black violence against African Americans to national attention, but also because of her position as a mother. Carpenter, a mother herself, looked up to Wells’s ability to juggle motherhood while also fighting for the Black community.

Anti-racist facilitator, professor, and performer Nicole Brewer’s curation of a monologue by Hattie McDaniel encourages audiences to rethink how we perceive the Oscar-winning actress, who portrayed “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. Kristen Jackson, Woolly’s director of connectivity, infused Black feminism into the collection through her curated piece, the Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement,” delivered by actors Sisi Reid, Amiah McGinty, and Patience Sings. Reading and rereading that classic manifesto inspired me to claim Black feminism as my political, intellectual, and artistic ethos. Hearing its words aloud in Reset nearly brought me to tears and will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of Black feminists.

Nikkole Salter’s pieces — which include performances of both Phebe’s monologue (portrayed by DC-area actress Shannon Dorsey) from Rita Dove’s The Darker Face of the Earth and an excerpt from Vy Higginsen’s long-running off-Broadway musical, Mama, I Want to Sing (portrayed by Ahmaya Knoelle Higginson) — are also significant interlocutors in Black theater history. Her pieces on Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, founder of the National Black Theatre, and Kathy Perkins, professional lighting designer and editor of the first anthology of Black women playwrights, are more like short documentaries on the two women’s significant contributions, which call for even more study, engagement, and celebration. Of the authors whose work Nikkole curated, she mused, “They are people who found a way to use what existed to make room for those people and perspectives that were being ignored and excluded.”

The Reset digital collection reminds us that there is always more work to be done to sing the voices that remain, to some, unsung. Working on this project has clarified my interest in history and maintaining an intimate yet critical distance to it. I wholeheartedly believe that Black women and their work are worthy of intense scholarly and artistic engagement. When rehearsing Peculiar Sam we discussed the fact this musical comedy needs to be fully staged. Why run from this history when playwrights such as Shakespeare and Molière are consistently programmed even to this day? I want Reset to spark those conversations and potentials for future theatrical programming.

Despite financial hardship, Joy of Motion Dance Center marches forward with new board of directors

By Kelly McDonnell 

This article was first published March 2, 2021 in The DC Line here.

Summer 2020 ignited change for the Joy of Motion Dance Center, a DC-based nonprofit. Financial hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic prompted the closure of two of the center’s studios. The organization’s reckoning with racist experiences faced by staff and dancers of color led to an overhaul of Joy of Motion’s board of directors last fall.

A change.org petition with almost 5,000 signatures called for leadership changes at Joy of Motion. Started in June, the petition cited multiple instances in which leaders had allegedly body-shamed dancers and unfairly discriminated against Black instructors. The previous board of directors stepped down on Oct. 16.

Carol Foster is now chair of Joy of Motion’s board of directors and the first Black woman to hold the position. Foster has also worked on projects with the National Endowment for the Arts and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. She currently serves on the Kennedy Center’s Culture Caucus, which organizes events that mostly take place at the center’s REACH campus.

“People have to trust that there is change afoot at Joy of Motion,” Foster said in an interview with The DC Line. “It’s really critical right now for Joy of Motion, because of the pandemic, because of all of the racial issues that came out, that … you have to be accountable through action.”

Foster said she wasn’t surprised to see the petition or the incidents cited in it, and she doesn’t believe anyone in the Black community at Joy of Motion was surprised by it either. Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests of the killing of Black people by police officers following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade were a catalyst for the petition, Foster said.

“What Black Lives Matter did was give [Black] people a way to be comfortable to say what’s on our mind. People need to be called out,” Foster said.

Krystal Odom, who has worked at Joy of Motion for 15 years, is the organization’s new interim executive director. She is the first Black woman in the position.

Odom said the petition was “necessary” for the organization to improve. Odom has taught ballet and hip-hop with Joy of Motion Dance Center, and she wants to include more instruction in dance history in the group’s classes and programming. After having eliminated two locations, Joy of Motion continues to operate a partner studio at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, as it has since 2005. Joy of Motion’s virtual programming for youth and adults includes drop-in classes, multi-week courses and on-demand recordings. The organization will be scheduling events such as webinars, film screenings and guest artist classes, and it recently held a busy slate of President’s Day Weekend workshops

“It’s important for students who come into our virtual space, our physical space to relearn where dance styles originate from. … It helps them to be able to look at [other dancers] in ways they didn’t before,” Odom said.

Since taking over, the new leadership at Joy of Motion has done anti-racism professional development training and created procedures for faculty, staff and students to report “concerns regarding equity, discrimination, and safety,” according to a press release from the organization. Concerns will be addressed using a “restorative justice” model, the press release said.

Odom said conversations about anti-racism, discrimination and privilege hadn’t taken place in the past at Joy of Motion. She’s hopeful that these continuing, sometimes uncomfortable, discussions will improve leadership and studio practices.

Coinciding with the leadership shakeup, Joy of Motion also announced the closure of two of its three centers. 

The Friendship Heights studio and theater, which had been open for more than 30 years at 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW, closed in September after the landlord decided not to renew the organization’s lease, Foster said. Odom added that Joy of Motion had experienced a difficult relationship with its landlord in recent years.

The Bethesda studio space at 7315 Wisconsin Ave. closed at the end of November due to financial constraints.

Odom said that the demise of these studios will unfortunately distance the organization from many of its participants. The Friendship Heights studio served Joy of Motion’s largest adult population, while the Bethesda studio hosted three conservatory-style programs for youth dancers.

With only one open studio and pandemic restrictions on in-person classes still in place, Joy of Motion now serves — virtually for now — about 113 students weekly, compared to over 1,200 students before the pandemic began, according to the nonprofit’s website.

The pandemic has hit small businesses and nonprofits particularly hard, Foster said. Joy of Motion has received financial support from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities as well as a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. But the racial issues at Joy of Motion and the financial strain of the pandemic have negatively impacted donations, she added.

“No matter what, you try to keep your doors open,” Foster said. 

In a Dec. 1 post on the Joy of Motion website, the organization reported that “tuition from enrollment, grants, and individual donations have significantly decreased leaving a monthly shortfall of approximately $100,000.” Joy of Motion received only about $500 in individual contributions in September, October and November. The organization didn’t respond to requests for an update about how fundraising has gone since then, but a mid-December appeal on Joy of Motion’s Facebook page said that despite reduced expenditures “our organization is still in desperate need of an infusion of financial support in order to maintain operations.”

It hasn’t been easy making so many changes under such financially stressed, racially charged and socially distanced circumstances, both Odom and Foster said. But the organization is eager to keep rebuilding while incorporating conscious changes that better the community and ensure that “dance is for everyone,” Foster said.

“We don’t want to dwell on what has happened,” Odom said, “but we don’t want to forget.”

LGBTQ Black History: Black Transgender Activist Elle Hearns

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 25, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

Elle Hearns has been an activist ever since she was growing up in Columbus, OH. She credits her inspiration from Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Marsha P. Johnson, though she is inspiring all on her own.

Hearns is currently the executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, which she founded in 2015 and has quickly become a leading organization fighting for an end to violence against Black transgender people through civil disobedience, direct action, and community organizing.

She was also a co-founding member of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. She also led a GetEQUAL campaign for Tamir Rice, a Black child who was shot and killed by Cleveland police. She advocated for a revised case for Rice and called for the immediate firing of the officers involved.

During the 2020 summer protests for Black Lives Matter, Hearns was vocal about protecting those who intersect with Black and transgender identities, especially after Tony McDade, who was Black and transgender, was killed by police in Tallahassee, FL. In interviews, she called for abolishing the police as the way to abolish anti-Blackness and transphobia.

Under Hearns’ leadership in 2020, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute was able to give over 400 Black transgender people in America stipends, totaling over $250,000, for COVID-19 relief.

Hearns has a love for cosmetics and beauty, but she said she struggled to conform to Midwestern beauty standards and protested how her jobs would force her to appeal to customers in a style that wasn’t her own. Hearns still talks about how Black women have power in their beauty alone: “Our beauty is unmatched. Periodt. I remember being a young girl and recognizing the curve in my lip and the curl in my hair and being so fascinated that no one looked like me. It is completely fair to say that we are unapologetic.”

Hearns’ fierce will and political power is active and unshakeable, making her an assured Black History Month figure in the present and future.