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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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Where There Is Love: October in Review

As I entered October, I began to think about how I would observe Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  Much of my focus over the last few years, has been centered around my performance workshop “Why Won’t She Leave”, giving me the opportunity to speak intimately with women about our relationship violence.  I assumed that I might spend the month in dialogue, but rather than filling my schedule with workshops, I spent time with important women in my life teasing out the ways violence creeps into our hopes, defines us, and limits our imagination. 

It’s daunting to consider the realities of one’s own life.  Where were passion and curiosity curtailed by invasive action?  When did intentional invisibility cross from external survival strategy to unconscious internal reality?  Will I ever be able to distinguish the performance from authentic expression?  In the face of violence threatened and enacted,  How relevant is my quest for wholeness? 

To avoid being paralyzed by the threat of violence, it  gets compartmentalized into an experience of the other.  Attempting to avoid the dangers of being in a female body, we rationalize the potential violence against us by making it an experience unique to “those women” who deal with “those men” live in “those places” or do “those things”.  While we find more nuanced ways to go unnoticed, to exist without need, to be worthy of safety, violence siphons away our individuality and robs us of our divine gifts.   

During October, while I continued the process of re-membering myself, I continued to wonder how and where intact vocal women exist.  I wonder what they talk about, how they dress, what they eat.  I find myself deeply and primarily concerned about who loves them.  Do whole, vibrant, alive women ever get to be truly happy or is it a constant struggle to justify your humanity to the world around you, to mark even the smallest amount of space? 

I find that the best way to expand the boundaries of my human experience is to make myself the center of all important questions.  Standing in the power of the present moment, I decide that I am a whole, intact, fully expressed woman.  As such, I revel in my fiercely inventive style of dress.  I am delighted about the loving quality of my relationships, nourishing interactions that leave me feeling fully replenished.  I celebrate my sensuous approach toward cooking, noticing that being present allows me to experience food with my full palette.  Humanity is a state of being, a reality that requires no justification, and by one’s existence can’t be denied. 

If the normative experience for women is one of safety and wholeness, then there is no need for boundaries, no need for survival strategies, invisibility and silence.  When we are free to fully embody our goodness, to approach every experience with a resounding YES, we can all define for ourselves what wholeness looks like on us.

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DV Shelter’s Need Grooming Items for Black Women

Upon my return to Nashville, TN to support my family during a time of crisis, I worked for several months at the YWCA of Nashville’s Domestic Violence Shelter.  Since I needed to be available during the day to take my mom to her chemotherapy treatments or provide any other type of support, I chose to work at the shelter as an Overnight Counselor. 

One of my weekly duties was to fill supply request orders for the shelter guests.  I must admit that I fully enjoyed stocking bags full of supplies.  It gave me a sense of power, that I could do something in the present moment to help.  Even though women were navigating their survival and safety, at least I could fill an immediate need in a matter of moments. 

Our facility was organized brilliantly.  It was obvious that many women had put their love into making this process as easy and organized as possible.  There were staff members before me, some that I would meet, others long gone, who had been thinking well about the guests that would need the shelter’s resources well into the future.  Residents were escorted to a space to pick out their own clothing items, chance decided if a person could find their size, let alone their taste in clothing.  Plus size clothing and shoes over a size 8, maybe 9 were always in high demand, but low supply. 

We used a request list, that named the toiletries and grooming items on hand.  Single women, as well as women with children communicated to me on this small sheet of paper, the necessities that might make this temporary dwelling a bit more like home.  It was my job to fill this particular supply request overnight, so that the items would be available by morning.  Shampoo, diapers, wet wipes, lotion, lipstick, acne cream, face wash, curling irons, blow dryers, hair color were just some of the things that could be requested, and supplied…when we had the items.  Items specifically for Black women were always low in supply.  I took some time while I was there, to make a list of the types of items Black women needed in particular, and shared that with the interim donations coordinator.  My suggestions were heard, but I was made to understand that those supplies were donations, and we could only give what we were given.  I can’t tell you how many times a woman wanted a relaxer or some hair gel, and I had to let her know we didn’t have those items.   It was hard to explain to my staff mates, that shampoo and conditioner, didn’t fully satisfy Black women’s  needs for hair care.   The small combs designed to fit discreetly in a purse, were not meant for our hair. 

I am writing this so that we may all shift our perspective about the needs of women in shelter.  We often think of our donations, as a way to do something that makes us feel good, but mostly as a way to clean out items we no longer have use for.  Certainly, in the age of reuse and recycle, it is good to pass along the gently used items that might be a tremendous blessing to someone else.  But if you had to run off from everything you know and love, all your stuff, what would you want waiting for you when you finally reach your oasis?  What things, would make you feel relief, and ease the terror that has been at your neck from the moment you decided to make a run for your life? 

Women in shelter need everything, the exact same things women need outside of shelter.  We group all vulnerable people together, and have a general sense that they should be grateful for what they get, and make the best of it.  But, your brand and style of tampons are not about preference, it is your need.  Your particular type of body lotion, the shea and cocoa butter infused variety, isn’t an extra – that is what you need to take care of your skin. 

Women in shelter, women dealing with intimate violence are expected to have their lives interrupted, and to just adapt to that interruption.  Part of our hope of services for survivors of domestic violence, is to allow them to put a life back together -a life that includes building new relationships, locating housing, and finding new jobs or maintaining the ones they have.  Isn’t it best if these tasks can be negotiated with confidence, in a manner that maintains dignity?  So then what can we do as friends, family members, coworkers, employers of women who may need shelter services, to make sure that the experience of violence has the least impact?  What can we do to make a Black woman’s shelter stay as easy as possible?  What can we do to communicate that her safety is important, and that she deserves the best help, services, care and love?

Click here to view the Nashville YWCA’s wish list and contact information.  Please contact your local shelter, for a list of their individual needs. 

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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.

Creative Writing, Uncategorized

Requiem for a Lullaby

This performance text was written a few years ago.   It is one of my favorite pieces.  The first section is read as a lullaby to a young girl.  The second portion is read as a reporter.   The piece remarks on how views of women’s virtue, worth or goodness are fed to us as propognada to control us, but can betaken away or questioned at any timein order to protect masculinity. 

Little girls hate yourselves and all other women for being born female. 
Your emotion makes you inferior. 
Trusting your intuition makes you weak.
Sleep peacefully tonight knowing that you will never ever quite be …enough. 

You’ll have a mate that will never love you as much as he loves his boys. 
His homoerotic utopia is far more rewarding than anything he could feel with you. 
He has been taught to have no respect for women. 
The culture that feeds him reinforces that ideal in his religion,
in his educational system,
and in all the media information he consumes. 

 Don’t try to run away. 
Where will you go? 

 Its inevitable you’ll fall for a man who has never been held accountable for his actions and feelings. 
One that thinks the world owes him something. 
And that he is free to take out his frustrations on you. 
Banging, stabbing, hitting, beating up your womb until he figures out what that something is.

If you’re lucky you’ll get a pet name like “wifey” or “main bitch”. 
He might have sex with those other girls but he only loves you. 
He’ll look to you to fulfill the roles of wife and mother whether or not children are present. 
Forget about all that self-love crap and get yourself a ring girl.  
Many of your friends won’t be so lucky.  They will grow old alone.

 BUT you can say to world with pride that you got a man that takes care of his responsibilities.  He keeps a job and comes home at night, well eventually. 

And that should be just enough to keep you smiling for years and years to come. 

 In 5…4…3…2…1… you’re on

 Good afternoon.  I am reporting to you live from the Kobe Bryant…Mike Tyson…Robert Kelly community support rally?  I apologize, I’m not sure who the “Black Community” has been asked to come together and support this afternoon.  All we know is that a man with a very large amount of money and therefore very large amount of power wants us to overlook a major felony or other minor male indiscretion committed against a woman such as: sexual assault, abuse, stalking, intimidation, restraint, or harassment. 

 Today’s rally is being led by a large jewel encrusted man in a candy hued suit.  From this distance he appears to be, a pimp, a rapper, a preacher, or possibly even a candidate for the 2008 Democratic Party.

 Until today while Mr. So and So, as the unidentified celebrity will now be referred, continues to avoid the press and live a somewhat regular life; the alleged victim has been fired from her job.  Supervisors claim that her negative publicity has affected their business.  She’s also had to vacate her apartment, as the swarms of reporters have made it impossible to secure her privacy or safety. 

Pardon me one second ladies and gentlemen…

 I’ve just been informed that angry mobs are on stand by to send hate mail and plaster the Internet with the alleged victim’s personal information.  One website, www.shewantedit.com, has received several thousand hits after being up and running for only two days. The website uses the alleged victim’s photograph with the caption, “you know she wanted it” in large flashing letters.   The website also includes pornographic images of women in submissive positions and links to a variety of other adult websites.

 The general public, with the exception of a few lesbians a hand full of feminists and some dead Latina’s grandmother, have sided with Mr. So and So.  Popular opinion is that Mr. So and So, quote “seems innocent” and “looks sorry.”  In response to recent events, one particularly concerned citizen states “why Mr. So and So need to take some pussy from somebody? He got so much money, bitches is trippin over theyselves to get in his face.  Hell push come to shove he can buy the pussy before he gotta rape somebody.” 

 Rest easy tonight America, our paternalistic oppressive systems are indeed intact. 

Maleness still equals power.

Sexism continues to be internalized.

Goodnight and God Bless.

 

 Cynthia C Harris

ART|HEALTH|LIBERATION