On this World Aids Day, we look at the legacy of a Nashville advocate for those living with HIV
by LATONYA TURNER for WPLN’s This is Nashville
DECEMBER 1, 2022
Much has changed about AIDS since the days when most who were infected died. And the stigma was real. Now, HIV can be treated and prevented. But there’s still work to do, which is why local artist and health educator Cynthia Harris wrote the play, “The Calling is in the Body.”
The play is based on her experience as a teenager in Nashville, when she met a brave advocate who was working to stop the spread of HIV by going public with her own status.
“It’s a hero story,” Harris says. “It’s my thank you to a woman who did something very brave and that we look at as our patron saint of radical visibility.”
THE CALLING IS IN THE BODY, presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble, tells the story of a Nashville hero and early HIV advocate in the early 90s as the pandemic was growing internationally and changing culture and language around sex, safety, and intimacy. It is the story of her memory and legend as told by a young high school student who searched for closure after losing contact, a nurse practitioner and HIV/AIDS care trailblazer who befriended her, and a woman in recovery who commits to her cause and champions her work.
BY CYNTHIA C. HARRIS AUGUST 5-13, 2022 DARKHORSE THEATER
Destinee Monét is Deidre Teacora Sherrill is Cynthia Nicole Mason is Ms. Mary Rachel Agee is Bev Lisa Yolanda Treece is Grandma
Tickets:https://bit.ly/ABE-TCIITB THE CALLING IS IN THE BODY is a choreopoem telling the story of a Nashville hero and early HIV advocate in the early 90s as the pandemic was growing internationally and changing culture and language around sex, safety, and intimacy. It is the story of her memory and legend as told by a young high school student who searched for closure after losing contact, a nurse practitioner and HIV/AIDS care trailblazer who befriended her, and a woman in recovery who commits to her cause and champions her work.
Diversity in Arts Leadership (DIAL) internship program, administered by Americans for the Arts and national partners, matches undergraduate students from backgrounds underrepresented in arts leadership with dynamic communities, energetic host arts organizations, and mentors, to guide students’ personal and professional growth throughout the summer. In 2021, the nationwide, competitive selection process will grant paid, ten-week, remote internships with organizations based in New York City, New Jersey, and Nashville. Summer 2021 programming will be fully virtual.
To ensure an immersive and well-rounded experience, the summer includes:
Remote work placement at an arts nonprofit in one of three national locations
$4,500 pre-tax summer work stipend
30+ hours of professional development workshops, facilitated discussions, and site visits through DIALogue Fridays
Individual mentor pairing
A national intern cohort + robust alumni network
The DIAL MENTOR’s role is a critical component of the summer experience. The mentor would take an interest in the overall experiences of the mentees, both work and life, as well as provide space for the mentees to talk about their successes, challenges, and concerns.
On Tuesday, December 8th, I entered the temporarily closed, Nashville Public Library to discuss Race and Class for a series sponsored by Nashville’s Human Relations Commission. Our group’s Just Conversation was moderated by my good friend and colleague Jacquelyn Favours, MPH of Health Leads. The base of our conversation was Chapter 12 of Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. Our panel of three Black Nashvillians centered around Kendi’s hypothesis that class racism must be eliminated through both antiracist and anticapitalist policies. The Just Conversation series will be shared through various social media platforms beginning in January 2021. The goal of the series is described below:
We believe the final product of all the episodes will engage residents throughout the region in actively discussing and thinking about race, racism, racial equity, and reconciliation in their communities, neighborhoods, organizations, faith groups, and other areas of their lives. Obviously, with the pandemic, many people and groups are not able to take part in these discussions within their communities. This will provide them with that opportunity.
From left: Cynthia C. Harris, Lauren Elysse Fitzgerald, Nettie Kraft
In October, the small-but-mighty Verge Theater Company kicked off conVERGEnce, a series of conversations with theater makers and arts professionals that address contemporary issues in the industry from the sound booth to the board room. Ahead of that virtual discussion, Verge board member Tessa Bryant told the Scene that conVERGEnce will not exclusively be about racial bias in theater, but that anti-racist policies and practices will be a recurring theme.
The conversation continues at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 19, with a session called Radically Reimagining our Institutions and Structures. According to the press release, this discussion will address how to build “a more equitable, just and accessible theater community in Nashville by listening to local experts and taking action.”
The session will be led by Lauren Elysse Fitzgerald, lead executive strategist for Strategize619, who has years of experience shepherding artists of stripes through the process of idea to creation to execution. Breakout sessions will be led by activist, educator and artist Cynthia C. Harris (the creator of 2019’s excellent How to Catch a Flying Woman) and Verge artistic director Nettie Kraft.
The Mississippi Center for Cultural Production recently announced their first round of artists funded through the Rural Performance/Production Lab (RPPL). They selected six artists from Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Cynthia C Harris, MPH was selected to take part in the initial cohort. As a selected artist, she will receive funding and a three-week residency at the Sipp Culture Artist Residency House in Utica, Mississippi in August. (Read Full announcement here)
In 2018, Actors Bridge was awarded a Catalyst Grant from Metro Arts to create a Directors Inclusion Initiative to train emerging directors of color.
Actors Bridge is a female-led company with a deep commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. In the last 5 years, at least 50% of our plays were written by, directed by and starring women or people of color, far outpacing the national averages where the majority of theater companies are still led by white men producing work written and directed by other white men. We are strong in terms of gender equity across our programming, but we are lacking in racial and cultural equity in the stories we tell.
As a training program, we offer year-round acting classes and writing workshops. It is a natural extension of our mission to add director training to our programming and giving emerging directors an opportunity to participate in our Meisner Technique training to develop a vocabulary and tools for eliciting truthful performances from actors.
Our process began in the fall with conversations with leaders of several African American theater companies to determine the most effective way to structure the program to deliver meaningful content.
In January, 2019 we began meeting with our initial cohort of 7 emerging directors. Each cohort member selected a local mentor. In addition, the cohort has monthly check-in meetings with project consultant Jon Royal and ABE producing artistic director Vali Forrister. Every-other-month, we convene a panel of local theater professionals to discuss their aspect of the playmaking process (designers, producers, actors, stage managers, etc.). There are also guest faculty from the Southeast who will lead weekend intensives.
In 2019, we received funding from the Tennessee Arts Commission and Metro Arts to produce a Festival of Plays directed by members of our cohort and to give them access to some of Nashville’s most established designers to bring life to their visions. The Festival will take place in May 2020. Date and location TBA.
VISITING FACULTY AND WORKSHOP TITLES:
Kristi Papailler, MFA, University of Louisville: “Directing African American Theatre: Tools for Engaging Afrocentricity, Blood Memory and Archetype in Concept, Blocking and Direction”
Millicent Jonnie, Florida State University, “Conventional and Unconventional Approaches to Directing”
ADVISORS TO THE PROGRAM:
Leah Lowe, PhD – Chair, Department of Theatre, Vanderbilt University
Paul Gatrell, MFA – Chair, Department of Theatre and Dance, Belmont University
Shawn Whitsell, Artistic Director, Destiny Theater Experience
Jon Royal, freelance career director
Pierre Johnson, board member, Actors Bridge Ensemble
Cynthia Harris, board member, Actors Bridge Ensemble
My name is Cynthia Christina Harris and I am a healing artist, playwright, conjure woman, and proud Nashvillian. How to Catch a Flying Woman is my third original production. My work celebrates southern women’s voices. It is the artistic half of my research into black women’s lives and intimate relationships. I consider the work to be a choreo-poem, inspired greatly by Ntozake Shange’s work, For Colored Girls. I received my first copy of For Colored Girls in the 5th grade from my Aunt Joyce. I was given the opportunity to perform Shange’s words that year, in Ms. Kaul Williams’ Drama class at Meigs Magnet School. The experience of seeing the words on the page and later performing a monologue for Forensics, changed my life.
I come from a family of creative folk that include gospel singers, scholar artists, hair stylists, novelists, and storytellers. I grew up being entertained by the tall tales of my uncles and their adventures as boys growing into men during and after segregation in Nashville. The overlapping melodies that were the voices of my mom and aunts in excited conversation, soothed me to sleep as a baby girl and later inspired my approach to monologues and dialogue.
One important part of my story as an artist, begins with the story of an aunt and a niece. My mother’s younger sister, Aunt Joyce, was a second mother to me. In fact, growing up, I called Aunt Joyce – Mom. I called my mother, Mommy. I was careful to hold the distinction between the two. To say that Aunt Joyce is an involved relative is a vast understatement. She attends all functions and school programs – even now, with a new generation of grandchildren, grand nieces and grand nephews. She often volunteered me for Christmas and Easter speeches at our home church, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in North Nashville, where my mother and her siblings grew up. She sent clowns and flowers to school for all my birthdays. Most importantly, Aunt Joyce helped develop my love for poetry and literature. Our trips to the downtown branch of the Nashville Public Library, began with puppet shows and extended time in the children’s section. Eventually, those trips evolved into lessons on using library resources to complete homework assignments, as my classwork became more intense with entry to Meigs Magnet Middle School and later Hume Fogg Academic High School. Aunt Joyce sat with me, in the days before the internet, teaching me to use the microfiche reader and how the dewey decimal system translated into locations for journals and books in the aisles. I knew that I liked my special time with Aunt Joyce, but didn’t realize until later, the great value of what she was teaching me. I learned that creativity and accessing new information went hand in hand. I learned to use ever resource available to me. I learned to think for myself and ask big questions. I also learned to expect answers and guidance.
A little over 10 years ago, I was introduced to another story of an aunt and niece, this time it was Vali Forrister, co-founder and Artistic Director of Actors Bridge Ensemble, and the writing program she created for her niece, Haviland. Fifteen years ago in June, Vali started the Act Like a Grrrl, an autobiographical writing and performance program for young women in Nashville, ages 12 – 18. She created the program out of the desire to create a space for her niece and, ultimately, all girls in Nashville to be bold, think critically, and break barriers. I thought this was one of the most bad-ass things a woman could do, hold space for the voices of younger women. I was reminded of Aunt Joyce and the opportunity her unwavering support created for me. Last summer Vali produced the She Said/She Said Festival of Women’s Stories. Vali invited me to participate and How to Catch a Flying Woman took flight for the first time.
I’m honored to have How to Catch a Flying Woman produced a second time by Actors Bridge Ensemble and presented in partnership with the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room. Nashville Public Library is part of my Nashville. It is home and history. It helped shape me as an artist and I am overjoyed to perform in April 2019.