This conversation between Virginia Grise and Sharon Bridgforth is part of a series focusing on genre-crossing performance and poetics and centers around the theatrical jazz aesthetic and Bridgforth’s latest work, The River See Theatrical Jazz Performance Installation. The full recorded conversation is below; the transcription of the conversation is below.
Virginia Grise: My name is Virginia Grise and I’m here with Sharon Bridgforth. Sharon Bridgforth is an award winning artist, writer of the bull-jean stories, love conjure/blues, delta dandi and most recently is the creator of The River See Theatrical Jazz Performance Installation. I just wanted to start off—Sharon, if you could talk about your artistic lineage.
Sharon Bridgforth: For me, my artistic lineage begins with my family. I would say that I am deeply influenced by the way I experienced my family as storytellers, as joy-makers, as people passing on tradition through everyday acts of cooking and celebrating and lamenting. When I think of making work and actually when I really landed in my writing voice, it was that I was trying to feel and hear and be with them, trying to conjure them. Lots of things happening at the same time—dancing, singing, cooking, card playing, laughter, crying, praying, really deeply expressing the family history as they carried it with them from the South to the West, which is where I grew up in L.A., and in all of the complicated knowings and yearnings that that conjured, that that instigated, that that (African American) migration triggered.
For a long time, I just wrote and kept work to my self and I experienced the work more like moving pictures or like music. I was actually thirty before I ever really shared my work and discovered that it was actually for performance. I started The root wy’mn Theatre Company in Austin, TX around 1991, working with actors as collaborators, being inside of discovery and wonder and curiosity with the company members, particularly Sonja Parks, who I worked with for the longest time and still work with. She’s See in River See. Then later in the 90s, I met the people I would say are my teachers who I now know are of the artistic lineage I am now a part of. Omi Osun Joni Jones; Daniel Alexander Jones; Laurie Carlos; Robbie McCauley; you, Virginia Grise; Florinda Bryant. I would say there are a lot of family members that maybe work in a—they’re like cousins, they’re like related and working in the same artistic lineage but kind of like a different arm of the family. Most of us came through Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre in that 90s period, thanks to Vicky Boone who was the artistic director then.
VG: Your work River See just recently premiered in Chicago at Links Hall and is currently on tour. Can you tell us a little bit about that work. What is River See about?
SB: River See is See’s experiences as she is being prepared to be sent to the North, so it takes place in the Delta South. I’d say it takes place around 1910, maybe. I never want to be too specific about time, but she’s part of the first Great African American Migration. She’s about to be sent to the North, and her community of elders, of ancestors, of spirit guides are preparing her, so River See is See’s story as she is being prepared to be what I call the answered prayer.
VG: What was your process for writing River See?
SB: I wrote the first bit from River See when I was an Alpert Hedgebrook Fellow, so I received a residency through the Alpert Foundation to be at Hedgebrook Women’s Writers Colony and I was coming off delta dandi which was a very emotionally difficult piece, and I still find it very difficult, because it looks at collective grief and trauma. When I was at Hedgebrook, I decided that I just wanted to laugh, I wanted to crack myself up. I just kinda got in the room in my cabin at Hedgebrook and just the first story that came to me was the Mr. Goodies piece and so me and Mr Goodies and them just had a good time. At first, that feeling of just wanting to just be joyous with these raucous characters got me into the world, into See’s world. But they tricked me because actually the piece is not all that happy happy. Because when we talk about the Great Migrations we have to talk about the reasons why people had to leave, because of Jim Crow, because of the lack of regard for the humanity of black people that was not only in the South but in the whole justice system in this country. Once I realized what the piece was really about, what See’s journey was, why See was really being called, I knew that I needed not to be alone with See and them, so that she could fully articulate her story and it be complex and not one dimensional.
I had a nice draft of the script when, around 2009, Roell Schmidt, the executive director at Links Hall asked me what I wanted to do. At the time, I had been working with Links Hall for awhile. I was coming to Chicago a lot and had just received a visiting faculty position at The Theatre School at DePaul University, so I was going to be there for a couple of years. And Roell said, I see that you help facilitate creative process for a lot of people, you’ve been really helpful to our artists at this organization and I see you doing that at other organizations. What is it that you want to do? It was a really profound question and I don’t think we often get asked that much anymore, as artists. I told her this wild idea that I wanted to develop River See and I wanted to develop a process that allowed me to improvisationally bring the audience into the performance as it was unfolding. At the time, I thought that the cast would be a choir of musicians. I had this big idea—it was going to be out of site sonically. She said ok, we’ll figure out how to do that. Roell led the cause and garnered support from other organizations. We ended up getting a National Performance Network Creation Fund Award co-commissioned by Links Hall, with support from and also commissioning from the Theater Offensive in Boston, Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator in Miami, Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis, and Living Arts Tulsa in Tulsa.
Essentially, I used that process and funding and support from those commissioners to just wildly experiment. Over the course of two years, I had a draft of the script at the time but I was also having to develop the methodology to make the work happen. The script began as a draft that I was able to finish through experimentation with performers and audiences like doing them. In the past, audiences haven’t necessarily been as active in other pieces as they are with River See but there’s something about learning what happens when you have the piece performed in front of an audience that’s really instructive for the writing to me. With River See, I’ve had the draft developed over time and we did 18 experiments around the country, not just in the commissioning cities, but in other places I have relationships with or just that happen to step in and invite these experiments. We did 18 of them; they were all very different.
One experiment, for instance, was me and Daniel Alexander Jones at New Dramatists. It was a closed experiment, just me and him. He read the very first draft to me out loud and then we talked. One experiment, on the other side, in terms of something that was really different, was at the University of Chicago Rockefeller Chapel, which is like a gothic church. There were like a lot of performers and it was just this gigantic space, so you know things varied. We did some things in classrooms, we had an actual workshop production at Pillsbury House Theater where we had production values, we had lighting, and we had costumes.
Ultimately, at the end of the experiment, I had what I call a performance novel. Ultimately, I wrote much more than I could actually use in the performance I discovered, but I needed to write it all out so that I would know what to excerpt. We tried different things and Sonja was very active with me in helping to figure this out. We tried different variations of excerpts. Finally, by the time, we got to the premier in June at Links Hall, that became the actual performance script It’s still excerpted from a larger body of work that I call the River See Performance Novel.
VG: How is this work both similar and different from your past work?
SB: For me, this work is similar in that I think that I continue to explore the same thing with different nuances and through different windows. I feel that ultimately I am most moved and called to use black traditions and black history to look at transformation and to invite performers and audiences into that. My work tends to be very blues-based on the page, but then in performance it becomes jazz. On the page, what that means is that blues is the base of jazz. On the page, the sensibilities, the particular kinds of language that I’m using—the phrasing, the historical settings. It’s blues, but the nuance of time is in its construction on the page and in the transitions from moment to moment and those become the places that allow space for it to be jazz in performance when my collaborators then get in their body breath and intellect and craft. River See is the same, I feel. I think that’s just what I’ve done for a long time. What’s really really different is when my body is central in River See and I’m composing the jazz live as Sonja is telling the story. The performers and the audience learn a series of gestures from me, which are basically requests. I’m asking them to do things, so they learn these gestures and then together we create a moving soundscape that supports See as she tells her story. We’re really all there to serve See. This is really different for me to be inside of the world of the work in that way and especially so improvisationally and with the audience enacted as they are.
VG: How did this work transform you as an artist?
SB: The biggest transformation for me happened when I realized that I had to be in the piece in the way that I am cuz I did not want to. I preferred to just hide out in the corner. I would really just rather sit in the back of the theater and watch what the performers do and just be blown away. Then, when i realized that this piece called me to be in it in the way that I am and, in the end, that was central to my own growth, not only as an artist, but as a person and as somebody entering a new phase of life and of work. I was really scared. It was terrifying and I tried to not do it and the experiments did not work and I just had to say yes. To say yes to it, I had to surrender. What I learned was to surrender, to walk into those improvisational experiments and know nothing. Knowing nothing—it’s like you take everything that you are and all of your experiences and training and all the rigor and you just release it. With your essence, you be inside of each moment. For me, it means that I have to completely, not only let go, but trust that people are going to come along with me and that I’m gonna serve to the best of my ability what wants to happen. That was huge and it continues to be huge and it opens some things inside of me that I can feel but I don’t yet see. I think in about a year I might be able to talk better about it.
VG: What do you think are the next steps, the next phases of River See?
SB: I really really really want a publisher for the performance novel. So, I want those stories to live as literature out in the world. I really really really am excited to tour River See Theatrical Jazz Performance Installation. I’m really excited to tour that work. what I learned by the time the premier ended, I realized that that was my cast. There are seven of us plus our beloved stage manager/production manager, so there’s a total of eight of us that travel with the show. I’m excited to do that and to have new experiences in new cities with our cast and with the communities and the audiences there. Every time, I’ve been blown away, no matter how big or how small the experiment or the performance has been. No matter how big or small the space has been, people always are so generous and stepping into this work of serving See. It just makes me feel very humble and very inspired.
VG: Do you have any advice for other artists?
SB: One thing that I’d like in closing is just to encourage all of us to follow our joy, curiosity and passion and let that be the road that we follow. For artists in particular, joy, curiosity and passion is how we been up into the divine conversation that is creativity. I think that to be in a state of joy, curiosity and passion requires that we do a lot of personal work. I encourage us also to take really good care of ourselves. Self care is not an option; it is necessary and even if you can only do one bit at a time, it’s important to do those bits. I encourage us all to remember that we’re not alone and to reach out and again, even if it’s just one person, find the people that we trust and are good to us, who can help us hold space as we do this very difficult work of dreaming. I also encourage us all to really notice what our creative process is and to use that mindfully to accelerate the work, to know that your creative process may change and to not have a judgement of what it is. My creative process includes cleaning so I have to just let myself clean and eventually my ass will get tired of cleaning and I will sit down and write. But what is your creative process? How can you honor that? How can you accelerate the work through your understanding and nurturing of your creative process? That’s really important
VG: Can you describe your own creative process? What does that look like?
SB: I have a morning process that starts with a vat of coffee and a lot of quiet time and prayer and listening and reading things that are of a spiritual or positive nature that grounds me in my day. Then, I surround myself with books—my personal love is jazz and blues musicians and singers talking about their lives. Hearing and reading what they say about their lives and certain kinds of history books, like The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is my all-time favorite book and really inspires me. Books, documentaries and conversations really give me an opportunity to consider the lives of other people, the sacrifices other people have made, their courage, and how their lives have unfolded. Sitting at the ocean is inspiring to me and I’m fortunate I live in California close enough to walk to the ocean so I do that often. Long walks inspire me and conversations. I’m very mindful to nurture and just be in touch with my artistic family and my blood family. I think I’m inspired to know that I’m loved. I think that’s something I have to reach for, just to remember and hold onto as I do this dreaming . I do a lot of inner work around trying to get out of my own way and release the ways that I block joy and inspiration because of old habits and old stories. For me, that’s as deep and as intricate as how I eat. I’m not yet giving up my vat of coffee but I have given up a lot of other things that seems to get in the way of joyful living and vitality. It’s a way of life and it’s all integral. It all matters.
Sharon Bridgforth is a writer working in the theatrical jazz aesthetic. She collaborates with actors, dancers, singers and audiences live during performance as she composes moving soundscapes of her non-linear texts. A resident playwright at New Dramatists, she is currently touring The River See Theatrical Jazz Performance Installation, with support from the MAP Fund, the National Performance Network Commission Fund and presenting partners in five states. Bridgforth has been Artist In-Residence at universities around the country including: the University of Iowa’s MFA Playwrights Program; The Theatre School at DePaul University; The Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. She and Dr. Jones co-wrote an essay entitled, Black Desire, Theatrical Jazz, and River See, which is published in TDR/The Drama Review, Winter 2014, Vol. 58, No. 4. Edited by Jill Dolan and Stacy Wolf. For more info: riversee.com & sharonbridgforth.com
From panzas to prisons, from street theatre to large-scale multimedia performances, from princess to chafa – Virginia Grise writes plays that are set in bars without windows, barrio rooftops, and lesbian bedrooms. Her play blu was the winner of the 2010 Yale Drama Series Award and was recently published by Yale University Press. Her other published work includes The Panza Monologues co-written with Irma Mayorga (University of Texas Press) and an edited volume of Zapatista communiqués titled Conversations with Don Durito (Autonomedia Press). For more info: virginiagrise.com