by Gail M. Burns
1 House. 25 Rooms. 5 Days. 10 Live Performances.
Pooja Prema and 70 artists of color, ages 3-75 from the Berkshires and beyond, invite you to
A House of Healing, Resilience & Belonging
Celebrating the Lives of Women of Color in America
For the past three years Pooja Prema and her artists, most of whom identify as female, have been working on “Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision” an immersive experience which will premiere August 13-17 at the Whitney Center for the Arts located at 42 Wendell Avenue in Pittsfield.
Prema asks audiences to come ready to expect the unexpected.
“We are centering Women of Color from all over the world, bringing our stories, histories, and visionary futures to the fore,” Prema explained. “You will enter this world of many textures and sounds and colors. In each room there are women of color performing rituals: washing clothes, singing a song, performing spoken word pieces. We use soil, seeds, water, photographs, all are parts of our legacy that echo throughout space. Each room is different and unique.”
The artists have curated 25 spaces – including bathrooms, closets, and the kitchen – at The Whit. Audiences will be brought through the space at 20 minute intervals in small groups to prevent overcrowding. The entire experience lasts about 90 minutes and is semi-guided.
Prema stresses that this is a one time only event – see it now and then it is gone forever. “This has never been done before and we have been inventing it as we work. Whether you’re ready or not this work is timely and necessary. Are the Berkshires ready to experience what we have to offer?”
“I wanted to create a safe container for healing for BIPOC people, but ultimately our work is for everybody who feels unrepresented and unwelcome. All women will be able to to see themselves in the common experiences of birth, aging, and death.”
Prema sees women’s lives as revolutionary. “Old structures beginning to collapse after this painful year of the pandemic and now we can ask what are the new structures we want to see in the future.”
“We are the once and future vision of our ancestors – until we can face our past and be honest about the history of colonization and patriarchy we can’t move on to something different. This was a process of visioning the future with people of color, seeing things from their eyes, and through the lens of women,” Prema explained. “This is not about taking resources and the conquest of lands and people and culture, but about caring for ourselves and our own bodies. This is a look at the very different world that is possible when BIPOC people take the lead. We invite everyone to join us in community and celebrate in a safe way.”
While Prema’s original Rites of Passage project in 2013 was created entirely by local artists, this new iteration has involved people from throughout the Americas.
“People are sending in work via video from around the western hemisphere. We have a queer people from all over Latin America curating a room of ‘Queer Originals’ via video, which is the work from the furthest afield. This is the first time so many artists are coming from afar and integrating their work with artists of color in this region,” Prema said.
There will be rooms featuring the migration diaspora, a room for women’s unmourned grief, one for healing sexual trauma called “No Longer Silent,” a sustenance pantry of seeds and heirloom foods, a rebirth canal, and rooms devoted to death, history and legacy, and trans people, among many other topics.
The Whitney Center was badly vandalized before the COVID pandemic hit, but the lock down has given Executive Director Ghazi Kazmi and his staff and volunteers a chance to resuscitate the building which occupies the 1866 Colt House, owned by the Women’s Club of Pittsfield from 1937 until The Whit acquired it in 2011.
“Everyone has done a tremendous amount to of work to clean and bring The Whit back to life. To have the 20/20 Vision happening here with women from all these different lineages feels like a reinvention of the Women’s Club,” Prema said.
“The art that is performed here in the Berkshires isn’t accessible to or about BIPOC audiences,” Prema said. “This is a critical time for everyone to experience BIPOC people in all our beauty and healing and grandeur. White people need to get off their screens and actually start living some of the concepts they espouse. That is the difference between living your beliefs and just talking about them.”
In order to make Rites of Passage: 20/20 accessible, hundreds of free tickets will be made available to BIPOC people and groups, who can contact ROP for a promo code. The 2 pm performance on the 13th is a BIPOC-only event.
Tickets are on sale for $1-$50 at https://www.ritesofpassageproject.org/tickets
“All are welcome, but for our own healing and sovereignty we are inviting people to pay according to financial and minority status,” Prema explained. “We will be giving at least 25% of the box office receipts to other organizations that work with BIPOC folx.” In addition the performances will support future iterations of Rites of Passage, including a book, workbook, film, online museum, and a template to help other communities organize a similar event.
“We are mandating audience members to wear a mask to all of our performances, regardless of vaccination status. We will provide masks to audience members in need of one, as well as hand sanitizer upon entering the space.
Our performances will have ongoing airflow throughout The Whit, and a sanitation protocol in place throughout the performance to curb the spread of the coronavirus in common, high traffic surface areas of wiping down these surfaces with disinfectant and cleaners approved by EPA standards.
As cases slowly emerge, we ask everyone to take all precautions necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus and maintain the health of our community.”