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Alice Walker’s Sofia: Sisters Make all the Difference

I’ve had the opportunity to watch the movie “The Color Purple” many times over the last two decades, since its original release in 1985.  The visual interpretation of Alice Walker’s text, gave many of us an opportunity to see and publicly discuss the hidden realities of Black women’s lives.

I was thinking recently about the intimate partner violence experienced by the two characters Celie and Sofia.  In particular, I thought about the similarity of experience, in that both characters had histories of family violence.  The film shows us Celie’s sexual trauma, and Sofia tells Celie in a powerful scene that she has had to “fight” her father, uncles, cousins, and brothers her whole life.  Fighting here not only suggests physical violence, but might also include sexual violence as well.

It would be easy to assume that Sofia was able to leave or control the violence with her husband Harpo, while  Celie’s violence at the hands of Mister continues, because of a difference in the physical size of the two women or in their husbands difference in machismo.  The film shows Sofia as a woman larger in stature, who fights back, is very vocal and is not easily controlled, while Celie is smaller, timid and less vocal.  This surface comparison is tolerated due to our common mythical beliefs that there are certain “kinds of women” who are more likely to experience abuse.  These beliefs might make us think that if a woman is big enough or loud enough, she won’t experience abuse, but this is simply not true.

I think that one of the most vital differences, though individual experiences can’t ever be compared, is that Sofia had SISTERS.  Yes, Celie had her sister Nettie, but due to Mister’s isolation tactics, she was not able to access her sister’s social support.  Sofia never wondered about the power and breadth of her social support; she was very aware of it.  In her first meeting with Mister, she assures him that her pregnancy, nor economic reality are the reasons she is marrying Harpo.  She asserts that her sister made it very clear that she and her child are always welcome.  In the scene following Harpo’s physical abuse, Sofia’s sisters pack her belongings and her children into a wagon and take her away to safety.  Alice Walker eventually creates a source of intimate support for Celie in Shug Avery, which offers Celie the safe space and support to remember the truth about herself, and make the courageous exit from Mister.   Imagine how different things might have been for Celie if she had never been separated from Nettie.  Imagine Celie with consistent high quality social support.

I am reminded now that it is less useful to us to spend time trying to identify the characteristics of potential abusers and potential victims of abuse.  This checklist approach suggests that women who experience violence weren’t wise or vigilant enough to see the batterer coming  and protect themselves.  The truth is that all of us are capable of enacting and experiencing violence in our intimate spaces.  There are no identities that protect us.  It is far more beneficial to place our attention on reminding our sisters and sister-friends of the unconditional love and support we offer.  It is critical that the women and children in our lives hear from us, that we trust their brilliance and ability to make wise decisions about their safety.

Imagine the vibrant communities we can create if  we continuously fill each other with the truth about who we are and of the goodness we deserve.

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Is Your Family Safe for Women and Girls? PT. III

I realize that growing up in a family comprised majorly of women, does not equate to a safe environment for women and girls.  Families and circles of women can easily act out internalized oppressive beliefs on each other, even in the absence of a batterer.  We can “crack the whip” in our quiet spaces, acting out these deep mistruths about how Black women are lazy, and don’t deserve rest or unearned leisure.

In creating safe spaces for women and girls we might search for examples of women who created woman-centered spaces for themselves and other family members.  There might be, as Audre Lorde* mentions  “the unmarried aunt, childless or otherwise, whose home and resources were often a welcome haven for different members of the family…”  In whose home was/is it safe to speak freely, to rest, to dream, to express yourself creatively?  In whose home were you free to be present in your body, free from the feeling that you were being sized up up for having too much or too little, free to eat what you wanted without commentary, free of invasive notions of modesty?

If you can’t think of a person, try to remember who seemed the happiest, the juiciest, or was described as wild.  Since we aren’t always able to remember the truth about each other, these free women might have been looked at with suspicion or contempt.  You might have been warned against being that kind of woman, or the source of her joy may have always been connected to some sinful behavior.

We get to make the rules in our space.   We get to expect that those rules will be respected.  We  also get to make choices about how to proceed, when our wishes are not respected.

In the past, whenever I tolerated non-woman-centered conversations or allowed the creepy guest to explain why their action was misinterpreted, I have regretted it.  The tolerance came from the knowledge that when women respond appropriately to violating acts in public spaces, we are often treated as the source of disturbance, the offensive presence.  We are the ones told to calm down and are escorted to less populated spaces, as though our interruption of violence has caused the scene, rather than the provoking  incident.  Over time I became comfortable escorting offenders out of my home or gathering without feeling like I needed to justify my choice to the offender or the other guests.  And addressing the violence is absolutely necessary for everyone’s comfort.  Women don’t have to become hyper-vigilant as potential victims and men don’t have to be hyper-vigilant as potential defenders.

One of the statements I use to recover my voice when I feel threatened by the presence of violence is “I wish a (word for oppressive person) would say/would come up in my house and/would try to etc…”  Whether I say it out loud or to myself, I am reminded that I have choice and power in my space.  I can do something to make my family, my home, my life safer for women and girls.

*Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving.  First Published in The Black Scholar, vol. 9, no. 7 (1978).

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Is Your Family Safe for Women and Girls? PT. I

As we co-create a world where the feminine is respected, female bodied persons are safe, and our humanity shines as our point of connection – where might we first place our attention?

To think of changing the world always seems like an awesome task.  We may at some point feel the deep need for the world to tip its balance towards a way of collective action that is more cooperative and fair.  With so many of us walking the globe, how can we, how can I, change things?  If I am but one person, what can I do?  Especially, If I am marked by race and gender and class as “other”and “marginal”, what can I do to shift the power balance?

Campaigns and catchy slogans are meant to inspire us, and they do often succeed in that task.  In addition to pledging our support to a larger entity or organized effort, is it possible to see the results of our efforts a bit closer to home?  Even those of us who focus our careers on social justice wonder how to bring our efforts into our familial networks.  It is easier at times to work publicly against all forms of gender based violence than it is to work intimately with those same issues.  We can become “fans” of socially oriented pages here, “tweet” the good news there and stay up on the latest releases from our favorite cultural critics, but how does that translate to the growth or lack of the girl children’s breasts and hips no longer being the subject of conversation at family dinner?  At what point do we feel strong enough to confront the issue of that uncle or cousin, rather than just warning the children to keep their distance.  When do we get to dismiss the silence around how our aunts arm was really broken?

The gender violence that happens in family networks can be deeply enmeshed in the ways we interact with and negotiate intimacy with each other.  It is no wonder that we might be re-traumatized in the simplest effort to be with family.  And since the same cycles are often repeated over and over, we have often experienced the violence as children, that we witness or condone through our silence as adults.  Violence becomes normative in families, but its harm is never diminished.

We can reclaim our power in our own families.  The issues that make us limit our visits and specialize in quick phone calls, are never unknown.  There is often at least one other family member that knows what isn’t working.  We can collectively confront the violence in our families.  Family members, regardless of age, can challenge negative family patterns as a unit, by modeling loving interactions.  The next family reunion or spontaneous talent show can feature a poem, song or announcement about how certain remarks and interactions make you feel. We can tell the people in our families how we want to be loved.  We can engage each other in conversation, and while asking for the quality of love we need, we remind the other of the quality of love they deserve.  We can also invite our family members into our professional and public spheres, where our activism is more apparent.  We can decide when and how we gather.   The next time we are volunteered to speak or say the prayer before a meal, we can speak our vision of hope and love to our families.  We can choose which conversations to participate in, which to interrupt.

Every word and intention counts.  We always have power in the present moment create and transform.  Each moment is ripe with possibility.

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Interview: What is it Like to Perform with Healing Waters Productions?

 

SistArtists and frequent collborators, Myra Oyin Foxworth and Oshunyemi Amoloku Akalatunde, were asked to reflect on their participation in the  Healing Waters Experience.  They were encouraged to think specifically about their recent performance of the original work, “Why Won’t She Leave?”  (WWSL)

I have been in relationship with these women so long that they have witnessed the birth and evolution of all my creative projects.  I am honored that they always seem to trust where my vision is leading them, and they are always ready to go again.  How sweet and revolutionary it is to be able to work with women you love! 

REHEARSAL PROCESS & OVERALL EXPERIENCE

Do you have any general thoughts about the rehearsal process of “Why Won’t She Leave”? Was it similar or different to other theatrical rehearsals you’ve done? If yes, how?
 
Myra:i always find acting to be a very powerfully emotional experience.  but wwsl took me to some DIFFERENT places.  the subject matter was especially intense and heavy…it process caused me to go over my interpersonal relationships with a fine toothed comb AND a magnifying glass.

Oshunyemi:  The rehearsal process for WWSL was vastly different from what I have experienced in other productions. I greatly appreciated the time to reflect with my fellow actresses and discuss my week, my day and basically clear out all mental nastiness before getting on with the process of becoming Woman In White
 

How did the mini-session( timed discussion between two individuals) and group processing factor into the overall experience? Were they useful tools?
 
Myra:  the mini-sessions were EXTREMELY useful.  they helped to “empty out my head” so that i was able to be more present during the rehearsals…and they helped me to process out my stuff so that i didn’t go home carrying heavy loads from the piece.  AND i think the they helped to create a real synergy and sense of connectedness within the group of people involved in the production of the play that translated VERY well on stage.
 
i have also utilized mini-sessions in my own work with recovery based psycho therapy groups to good effect. 

Oshunyemi:  To call these ‘useful tools’ is a gross understatement. The mini sessions and group processing allowed me to fully immerse myself in the reality of what we were presenting within the play. My awareness became heightened by these processes and with this heightened awareness I was able to fully feel the part not just read it or act it. I was also assured that the audience would feel me as the character.

How did the experience increase your knowledge about Domestic Violence? How did the experience affect your thinking about Domestic Violence?
 
Myra:prior to the experience…whenever i thought about domestic violence…i always focused on the physical forms of abuse. white collar’s character AND parts of some truth’s character pulled the subtler forms of psychological abuse into MUCH sharper focus for me.  there were times that i was TRULY nauseous during some of the monologues and i’d find myself “checking out” a lil bit during the rehearsal.

Oshunyemi:  Having been a victim of Domestic Violence, I entered into the experience thinking I was informed. However, WWSL pushed my thinking to new levels and even allowed me to see and acknowledge out loud my own physically abusive behaviors. It forced me to delve deeper into my own psyche, which was difficult but cleansing and healing as well.

 How did the experience change you? How did the experience change/affect your interactions and/or conversations with others?  How did the experience affect your thinking? Did the experience move you to action in any way?
 
Myra:  the experience moved me to be VIGILANT about my relationships…and to have friends to act as sounding boards so that i can “session” and be really clear about what is going on in my relationships…from my relationship with my man, to my relationships with my clients, to my relationships with my parents…
 

Oshunyemi:  It made me more determined to be myself fully in any and every situation I find myself in. It helped me to see that listening to my inner voice will never steer me wrong. It helped me to realize that there is no perfect relationship waiting for me out in the ether somewhere, that life and love is EXACTLY what I make it and therefore I have to take responsibility for making it good, positive and satisfying for me. 

It moved me to talk to my daughters again about abuse in relationships and remind them that they will always have a home to come to.

CHARACTERS

What was your role in the performance/which character? How did playing this character affect you?
 
Myra:  i had the role of butwhygirl? in the performance…butwhygirl challenged me to come fully outside of myself…i acknowledge that i’m generally a pretty dramatic person in my day to day life….but butwhygirl’s character is dramatic in a TOTALLY different way…so i had to…i don’t know access some parts of myself that i didn’t know were there to begin with…or at least parts of me that i don’t generally pay too much attention to…and i had to figure out how to convey the physicality of a woman who is larger than me…that was a challenge…one that i’m still actually kinda trying to wrap my head around and it’s been nearly a YEAR since i performed WWSL.

Oshunyemi: I was Woman In White. And I was terrified of this role, because it required me to go back to place that I never wanted to return to and it placed the responsibility for the mood of the piece squarely in my lap. Facing the fear I had of the role made me a stronger woman. I was required to enter into my own personal underworld.

I ran the gamut of emotions while performing in this piece and in this role and I felt cleansed afterwards. But every time I had to rehearse it was scary and I felt insufficient and poorly equipped and generally not good enough…I realized that these were emotions I had learned to feel about myself during the time I was being abused…so I fought against them but they were still very much present for me and painful, terrifying and almost crippling to deal with. Never before have I felt like I was such an inept actress, never before have I wondered about my worthiness while on stage to such an extent…it was my most difficult role ever

What do you think was communicated through your character/your performance?
 
Myra:  i think BWG [ButWhyGirl] is really the “straight man” of the performance…she doesn’t go through too many changes…she’s the anchor in a way…she’s not as huge a character as the other ones…i think she actually has the fewest lines…BUT she’s the character that helps bring you back to center…she keeps the ugliness from making you run out of the theatre…she’s the comedic punchline thrown out into the darkness…she’s also saying what many of the folks in the audience WANT to say to woman in white…

Oshunyemi: Life and love are what you make them TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for yourself your life and the kind of love you receive in this life

What do you think about the performance of male characters by women (whether or not that was your role)?
 
Myra: two things actually…
 
1. i think it’s REALLY really powerful to have women perform those roles because initially it takes you out of your general “man hits woman” rut of thinking about abusive relationships and causes you to look at the relationship dynamics with fresh eyes…
 
like OH WOW it’s two WOMEN having this conversation…this is different…lemme pay closer attention…and just maybe if two women are having this interaction…then maybe it could be two males or the female could be the aggressor in a male/female relationship…
 
2. the other reason i think it’s really cool to have an all female cast is…in the theatre in ancient rome…men played all the parts…male AND female…they just used masks and wigs to make the changes…but we did it WITHOUT MASKS…it’s really pretty gangsta if you think about it…

Oshunyemi:I was reminded of early European theatre in which all characters were played by men. I feel that all characters being played by women says very clearly to women and men women are enough by themselves, they do not REQUIRE the presence of other genders to strenghten or build them up, they CHOOSE to relate to other genders, not out of weakness but out of love. I also think the fact that we were able to be the male characters so completely displays how deeply we understand our men.

How did it feel to perform a male character? What issues/questions about space(spatial relationships), movement, power and/or gender were raised by this? *Please comment even if you did not play a male character.

Oshunyemi:  POWERFUL. Full, domineering, authoritative, controlling…these are adjectives yes, but they are also the emotions that exhibiting maleness invoke within me.

PERFORMANCE

Describe your feelings about performing the subject matter.(Domestic Violence)

 Myra:  it’s one of the SCARIEST things i’ve ever done.  it’s really dark and heavy and powerful stuff, it’s the kind of stuff that if left unspoken creates ulcers in the community.  If you don’t shine a light on it you can’t heal it.
 
i mean truthfully i’m feeling a lil heavy and gritty just having to dig around in my feelings about the performance. and after i finish writing this i’m going to take a walk in the sunshine and eat something really good.

How did it feel to perform WWSL? in front of your family/community?  How did it feel to performs WWSL? in front of strangers?
 
Myra:  for me i felt about the same way performing it in front of my community and in front of strangers…i was a lil bit nervous about how it would be received.  i wondered what things would be restimulated in people…but mostly i felt that i was being a part of a HUGE vehicle for healing in the community.

Oshunyemi: TERRIFYING…I had to constantly wonder, whose toes am I treading upon, whose business is in the street, who will not speak to me afterward because they think it is about them? And LIBERATING…I felt as if I were screaming from the rooftops…tell your story too! Do not be afraid, see I am doing it and the sky did not fall, the earth did not stop spinning and no one is hitting me or yelling at me for telling my story…utter your truth and it will be heard and Well Received!

Strangers were much easier to perform for…however, I still worried about wives, girlfriends and mothers in the audience who would suffer the backlash of us telling our truth in front them and their significant others

How do you think the performance affects the audience member’s knowledge of and feelings about domestic violence)?
 
Myra:  i think that the performance will pull up just about any and EVERY feeling that an audience member has about domestic violence. from identifying with the abused to possibly realizing how they’ve been an abuser.  the whole performance pulls you out of the “usual” ways of looking at domestic violence over and over again, ie women performing men’s roles and non-physical domestic violence, etc.  truthfully the counselor in me would be deeply interested in what would come up in some group sessions with audience members.
 
and another note on the performance…
 
i think performing it as a staged reading…is absolutely brilliant because the audience isn’t able to become distracted by “action” during the performance.  THEIR stuff comes up MUCH more clearly because they have to imagine the scenes/settings/actions for most of the words they’re seeing…
 
and THAT is also a powerful tool for healing and reflection…and those group sessions that i mentioned

Oshunyemi:  I think WWSL frees your mind and clears your thinking in a way nothing else can. You cannot see it performed and leave with the same beliefs or feelings on abuse that you had before you saw it. It makes abuse REAL to you, it makes it PERSONAL, it becomes your story.