by Jeannie Marlin Woods
RITES OF PASSAGE: 20/20 VISION, being presented at the Whitney Center for the Arts in Pittsfield August 13-17, is a unique performative art installation. So, in lieu of a traditional theatre review, I offer the following observations of my experience at the Sunday afternoon presentation of the work. Gail Burns has already provided an article here on Berkshire on Stage which explains the content and intent of this artistic project. She has also posted a link to the excellent interview with Artistic Director Pooja Prema by Nicole M. Young in which she discusses the development and intent of the project. And Prema has penned an article on her work on the HowlRound Theatre Commons. I would suggest anyone wanting more specifics on the project access those sources.
The Artistic Director and visionary behind the project is Pooja Prema and she tells us that this piece is created primarily for BIWOC (Black, Indigenous, and Immigrant Women of Color). Therefore, in full disclosure, I note that these observations are being made by a White woman who is an actor/director with over 60 years of experience almost entirely in what would be considered traditional theatre. Nevertheless, my theatrical experience has been informed by world travel and expertise in theatre history. Therefore, I hope these notes will help our readers feel more comfortable in encountering the world of RITES OF PASSAGE
So, what is RITES OF PASSAGE? It is a multidisciplinary exhibition (modeled on an earlier project done in 2013) that includes music, song, and narrative, but it is primarily a visual art installation/performance art. In the video interview with Nicole M. Young, Prema explains that her work is not meant to be anything like the “typical Berkshire theatre [which] tends to be white people expecting others to perform for them.” The performative installation asks the visitor to come, observe, and find what meaning they can in their experience interacting with the art. That experience begins outdoors as the audience waits to enter. The process of getting tickets checked and assigning visitors to pods of 8 or 9 people was a bit unwieldy, but the weather was pleasant and there were folding chairs for those preferred to sit under the big trees on the lawn.
After being checked in, as we waited on the lawn, we were given a handsome theatre program. This guide to the event was one of its most excellent features. Each exhibit is described, the artists identified, and the intent and content are clarified. However, this information was presented too late to read before entering and it was not possible to read it during the production. The exhibition consists of 20+ rooms in the Whitney Center, each of which is an art installation and, in a few cases, a site of a performance or dialogue. Docents or guides greeted the first group and performed a quick blessing/ritual. Then they moved each pod into a room and asked them to be silent and wait until they opened the door to move on to the next room. With little or no narrative or explanation, it was like going to an art museum where there are no descriptions of the work to inform the experience.
For example, the first room, “Adolescence,” was a lovely window into the room of two adolescent Black women. Posters and furniture reflected their story and we got to peer into that world. Four “performers” were listed, but only two were present. (Rather than “performers” perhaps we should say “presenters” because they did not perform, but just inhabited the space.) One young woman sat on the floor, one reclined in the bed, both were on their cell phones. As with most of the rooms, music was heard from the room and ambient sounds floated in from other rooms as well. After a few moments the docents opened the door and ushered us on to the next room.
The entire journey – yes, that is the right word for this event – takes one through myriad aspects of the BIPOC/female experience. The journey last about two hours. Each group is ushered into rooms (some tiny, some spacious). There is no option to move quickly through the rooms, as you might in an art gallery. Visitors are all masked, but the presenters are not masked. Although efforts were made to provide ventilation, the Center does not have central air. The inadequate ventilation and no possibility of social distancing, raised Covid concerns, but the audience kept their masks on and did the best they could to give one another space. It also made me respect the performers, some who were sitting on the floor for lengthy periods, one lying in dirt, one huddled in a closet. It was very demanding and showed their commitment to their work.
Nevertheless, there were surprises and joys. How delightful to enter the SOUL KITCHEN and hear the story of how the African American kitchen was the heart of a home. Here we see children and the matriarch who tells us about her connection to Southern cooking (okra and black-eyed peas are on display like art work) and how she makes jewelry of foodstuffs. Or to enter a small bath where the room is bedecked in marigold, including a tub full of them. In other rooms the presenters engage the visitors—asking or answering a question. Many rooms are intentionally disturbing, as are many aspects of the feminine experience: sexual trauma, grief, loss, the effort to forgive. These are not easy issues to explore, but the women are eager to tell their stories through their art.
The theme overall seems to be healing. This is most evident in “WOMBMAN, HEAL THYSELF” where presenters explore “the creative and healing force of the element of water.” In the final rooms, where one gets to engage with female Elders are the most joyful and positive, harkening back to the legacy of one’s ancestors and looking forward to “peace and justice for all living beings.”
When we attend a performative event, we each take away our own message. Going through the rooms of the BIPOC female world, I was reminded of when I travelled to Brazil and visited museums with displays of the Yoruban Culture and when I went to a seaside festival for the Orisha Yemaya. Those experiences abroad were fascinating glimpses into an exotic world where one had to take extra effort to learn the visual codes to try to understand. Such experiences enrich our sense of self and understanding of the world. This production provided the same kind of satisfaction in opening oneself up to new vistas we may not have seen before.
RITES OF PASSAGE has taken tremendous effort to provide visual and aural stimuli to take one into the rich, multilayered reality of lives lived. It is a significant accomplishment to assemble the 70+ creatives and garner the financial support and community support to create this work over three years’ time. Each visitor will experience it differently. Some may be intrigued, some offended, others bored, educated or fascinated. Some may feel the joy and healing the artists say they want to instill.
As a theatre critic, I respect this work and was glad I was there to see it. It is a tremendous accomplishment to create devised work and to do it with such an array of individuals and organizations is something to be honored. In truth, I had hoped for more stories, more narrative to prepare me to visit each room. Again, that information was in the program, but I could not access that at the time. When there was narrative, the speaker could not always be heard, as music and sounds from nearby rooms often intruded. But the visual art spoke loudly and was as varied as the participants.
The project is so evocative, I would also have enjoyed more opportunity to interact with the presenters and audience, which was the most diverse I have seen in any theatre in the Berkshires this summer. In the final room, V IS FOR VICTORY, there was a moment when an Elder from Burkina Faso asked the audience to write a phrase in reflection and hang it on a tree. It would have been wonderful to share one’s reflections on the experience in a talkback or post-show discussion. Nevertheless, those who venture into this performative exhibition are sure to take away much food for thought and perhaps a greater understanding of the lives of Women of Color.
RITES OF PASSAGE: 20/20 VISION founded and directed by Pooja Prema. An ensemble of 70 creatives and several community organizations collaborated on the project. Description: 1 House. 21 Rooms. 5 Days.10 Live Performances. A House of Healing, Resilience & Belonging. Celebrating the Lives of Women of Color
RITES OF PASSAGE: 20/20 VISION runs August 13-17, 2021. Two performance blocks daily (afternoon and evening). Tickets by donation sliding scale $1-$50. See website for details. Check with the theatre regarding Covid restrictions.