The Path to "River See"

How improvisation and ancestry shape a playwright's work

Sharon Bridgforth

Sonja Parks (center) in a production of River See with Nia Witherspoon and Mankwe Ndosi in the foreground. Courtesy the author. Photo by Dan Plehal Photography.

I have always been fascinated by my elders. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, a child of the Great African-American Migration raised among Black Southerners who left home, determined to make better lives for themselves and their families. My mother is from Memphis; my father and stepmother are from New Orleans. Blues is my heartbeat, and jazz is my pulse. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in Memphis with my mother’s large family, including my great-grandparents. I started first grade at the age of five in Memphis and then returned every summer until I was about thirteen. My great-aunts were teachers, and they instilled in me an appreciation of reading and writing. In Los Angeles, where my mom raised me as a single parent, I spent a lot of time alone, lost in a multitude of worlds conjured by books. But it was my family that was my greatest source of discovery and dreaming.

Watching my elders, loving them, I could sense their disap­pointment, grief, sorrow, and displacement. I knew (because they spoke about it) that much of this was in connection with being Black and proud in a country that did not recognize our humanity. My growing-up life was defined by the Civil Rights Movement; the assassinations of King, the Kennedys, and Malcolm; the Black Power movement; and soul music. It was also defined by gath­erings, laughter, prayers—spoken in the middle of any given sen­tence—dancing, and lots of great food. As I got older and grew into my own experiences of disappointment, grief, sorrow, and displacement, I began to write. I was leaning into my longing, my longing to be with my storytelling elders who had passed—to feel, see, dance with them once again. Feeling my way into my mother’s laughter, my father’s transgressive joy, my stepmom’s salty humor. The sounds of finger popping, bid whist, porkchops frying, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. My great-aunt telling me over and over the same stories, which I now understand were our family history. Those multiple realities coexisting—Jesus, cigarettes, and liquor, the names of the dead called every day. Home remedies. Gossip. Call and response. Many stories swirling. Many speaking at the same time. The art of repetition. Altars. Always dancing. The use of humor as medicine. Making beauty out of nothing. Prayer. I aspired—and aspire—to use the page as a family space to hold, heal, and love me.

Long before I shared my work publicly, writing felt like breath­ing—that necessary. In the late ’70s—I think I was nineteen—I saw Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf in San Francisco. It was the first time I had been to the theater. A college dropout, I was living in the Bay Area, try­ing to find my way in life. I went to the see the show because of its title and because of a radio spot I had heard. It featured an excerpt that just blew my mind. Sitting in the theater that day, my entire life shifted and aligned. Seeing those women onstage and wit­nessing their stories, I saw my mom and her friends; I recognized their resilience, brilliance, and wisdom. That show reflected for me the reality of Black language as a self-determining inventive force for visioning and opening new roads. That show gave me many gifts—most especially, the undeniable proof that stories like ours matter, that there is a way to make words dance and sing and paint the page and stage. Proof that Black women are graceful, glorious warriors. And that we live life artfully. Suddenly, all the ways that I had been shaped, pushed, prayed for, and loved by my family erupted in a bone-deep need to focus with intention on writing. And I wanted to write for the theater.

I took it as a given that these collaborators were family, that art and life are not separate. That making art is a communal process and that the process is just as important as the outcome.

With no planning and not much good sense, I repeatedly ended up in the right place with the right people. In the ’90s, I started a touring company called the root wy’mn Theatre Company, devel­oped lasting relationships with artist collaborators and mentors like Laurie Carlos (who played the Woman in Blue in the original for colored girls cast) and Robbie McCauley (who was also in for colored girls). I took it as a given that these collaborators were family, that art and life are not separate. That making art is a communal process and that the process is just as important as the outcome. I would learn by walking with innovators, by experimenting and risking, by doing the work. What I now know is that these are also the core beliefs of a theatrical jazz aesthetic. In this aesthetic, the purpose of art is to serve the revolution of spirit. Though the form is Black, the jazz of it is about building, nurturing, and celebrating the humanity, liberation, and dignity of all people globally.

In 1991, in Austin, Texas, I met Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones. She taught at the University of Texas at Austin and served as a bridge between the university’s resources and community-based artists like myself. Since we met, Omi has worked with me as a facilitator, performer, dramaturge, and producer of my work…and since 2002, we have also been partners; we got married in 2014. Omi is the foremost scholar of the theatrical jazz aesthetic, the artistic lineage in which my work is rooted. She traces the aesthetic back to the

early ’70s, when it developed alongside the Black Arts Movement in the Harlem dance studio Sounds in Motion. Sounds in Motion, under the direction of Dianne McIntyre, became the artistic work­shop for performance-makers including Ntozake Shange, Robbie McCauley, and Laurie Carlos, as well as musicians: Cecil Taylor, Craig Harris, and others. The work fused music/sound, dance/movement, and the spoken word.

“Theatrical jazz,” as Omi wrote in the program notes for my play River See, first produced in Chicago almost a decade ago, “bor­rows many elements from the musical world of jazz—a respect for truth in the present moment, improvisation, process over product, ensemble synthesis, solo virtuosity, simultaneity, collaboration, audience engagement—and it disrupts the traditional conventions of Western theatre, including a single narrative with a through­line… A jazz aesthetic is just the right dwelling place for raucous elders and ephemeral spirits to get down, because here, time and space are fluid.”

It was while developing River See that I learned of the artist Lawrence “Butch” Morris’s idea of Conduction, which he called a method of composing by conducting. His performers did not get sheet music. Instead, the musicians and singers and sometimes poets, too, responded to defined hand gestures in live conducted improvisation. Morris is quoted as saying, “The performance is really an instant of composition in many ways… I realized that there was a great divide between what is notated and what is improvised, and I wanted to discover or I wanted to understand what that divide was.”

I had long been inspired by Shange—aspiring to use the page to hold the music that is Black language—and had spent many years developing my writer’s voice. Morris’s work emboldened me, drove me toward my longtime heart’s desire to paint with words my long-gone relatives back to life. To hear them. Sit with them. To once again feel their love in real time. To dance with them. Morris’s Conduction opened a portal that challenged me to bring the sounds, movements, and intentions within and between the lines to the stage, live, during the performance. This meant that I needed, like Morris, to develop an improvisational process, to col­laborate with performers and audience/witnesses during perfor­mances. It also meant that the space itself had to lend support to the work: we needed circles, not proscenium boxes.

For River See, I created and performed the role of the Composer. The play is the story of SEE, and she narrates. What we don’t find out until the very end of the piece is that SEE hasn’t yet been born. At the end of her narration, her birth is an act she chooses:

i know it my turn now.

i bend go

into mama belly

wait to be born

in the north.

learn how to say

Yes.

Each character, spirit, and force of nature in the play—all the performers, the audience/witnesses, and me, the Composer—are purposed with helping SEE move toward choosing to come through her mother. To be born into the family and the histories she has recounted during her narration. To say yes to her ancestral calling to be a next-life healer.

For my own attempt at Conduction, I created gestural lan­guage to communicate requests to the cast and also the audience during performances—to compose, live, a moving soundscape that supported SEE in her journey. But it was a difficult task I had set myself. I conducted seventeen developmental experiments—some of them open to the public, some not. The first included just myself and SEE, performed by Sonja Parks. Sonja was one of the original members of the root wy’mn Theatre Company, and I’ve worked with her since the early ’90s. She is a deeply gifted, rigor­ously trained artist, one I trusted wholeheartedly to bring her own knowings and choices to the role. Later experiments brought in additional cast members (the cast size varied). Sometimes I com­posed with just the audience and no cast. Total rehearsal times var­ied, from no rehearsal at all to three hours to two weeks.

By the premiere, I had created the architecture/spiritual technol­ogy/structure and improvisation process for composing River See live. The architecture was the ensemble: their essence, artistic exper­tise, life experiences, impulses, and willingness to play and experi­ment. What I called the spiritual technology was something like the jazz aesthetic: Black traditions, simultaneity, polyrhythm, call and response, multiple dimensions, nonlinear storytelling. Witnessing. The structure was SEE and the performer who plays her; her jour­ney (the script, a blues); and the Composer, rooting the experience.

Though the text is set and the text is SEE’s, ultimately the story is the Composer’s and improvised. SEE’s experience of her journey unfolds through the Composer’s improvisational creation, which is influenced by the audience’s participation and the architecture of the cast. Bits of text from the script are given to the singers and dancers. Gestural language, set during rehearsal, communicates requests.

The Composer asks the dancers (Egun/Ancestors) to: do war­rior dances, jook, do dances that honor Osun (the River), walk with SEE to safety, process, decide what SEE needs done and do that, tend the altar. Dancers are free to make decisions about how they do the above, based on what is happening in the moment and how what they do will serve SEE.

in honor of all present in flesh and in spirit

to the north

hallelujah circle/step side/left foot right/rear back. skip right. to the south

hallelujah circle/step side/left foot right/rear back. skip right.…

The Composer asks the singers (Spirit Guides) to: sing text, vocalize (non-verbally), chant, walk with SEE, process, decide what SEE needs done and do that, tend the altar. Singers are free to make decisions about how they do the above, based on what is happening in the moment and how what they do will serve SEE.

spit palm spit palm

black honey pull up spin hacka right spit

palm spit palm spin

sweet rodger catch he spin he left

The Composer asks the procession leader (Big Chief) to: speak text, walk with SEE, process (with audience members), decide what SEE needs done and do that, tend the altar. The procession leader is free to make decisions about how they do the above, based on what is happening in the moment and how what they do will serve SEE.

we love you lil ole gal say

Yes.

remember say

Yes remember

say Yes

At the top of the show, the Composer also invites the audience to be witness/participants. The Composer asks them to: offer their attention and intentions in support of SEE’s journey and gesture any time they feel moved to. Additionally, the Composer asks the audience: Who feels like translating text? Who feels like gossip­ing? Who feels like Offering Light? Audience members/volunteers are then accordingly given cards with bits of the script.

I felt many-gendered, confused by my attraction to other women, wrong in my body.

for all our relations for those on the way

You are our story

You are what we say.

I said before that while the script, the text, belonged to the char­acter of SEE, the way the story developed was up to the Composer, was up to me. And it was only through the rehearsal process that I realized just how much the story of SEE was actually my own journey. SEE’s decision, her choice of her mother and her birth, was me coming to terms with my own mother—the mother I feel I chose before birth—aspiring to understand her and move toward her with open arms. I’ve always loved my mom, but by the time I was a teenager, I’d become angry with her. It was at that age that it became clear that my “tomboy” stage was never going to end. I felt many-gendered, confused by my attraction to other women, wrong in my body. My mom reflected something I was not, and she didn’t recognize the person I was. She couldn’t support me in discovering, understanding, or accepting that person, and I was left wondering why I was born into this time, this place, this family.

River See felt like a reclamation and remaking of the environ­ment my mother and I had shared, a rebuilding of the bridge between us. In the theatrical space of collaboration, our ensem­ble—made up of people from many different backgrounds, people of different nations, bodies, and experiences—created conditions, for SEE and for all of us, for healing, divine shifts, and new possi­bilities. In this way, River See pointed me toward freedom. In the theater, I was following the path my family, my ancestors had laid for me—and the path I had chosen.


excerpt from river see: a theatrical jazz performance installation

one night/in my sleep i see mama standing next to the bed.

smiling at me.

i wake quick

i mad cause well i just ain’t speaking to mama right na.

in wake mama ain’t there. no matter how hard i fight it

sleep come back on me. and there be mama.

sleep smile wake mad sleep smile wake mad till the

fit of it all travel down the way bring

grandma-aunt porkchops and bigsuzi come slamming into the house so hard it

enough to scare the debil out of hell.

they leans in looking all up in my mind till finally they breathe back. chuckle.

bigsuzi say/pumpkins ya mad wid yo mama but ya mus talk ta her.

what you mean i mad at my mama how you know i mad at my mama it my mama

grandma-aunt porkchops say/hush lil ole gal

hummmph/i say

bigsuzi continue/pumpkins ya madd at yo mama n yo bones n blod.

if ya ain’t talk ta her ya gonn carry all dat madd wid ya n it gonn eat ya from nside outt.

and i jus cain’t bare ta see dat. but it up ta ya.

ya mus pic yo road gal.

we prayn ya pic da sweet one.

well.

hearing bigsuzi talking bout sweet make me pause.

however.

in the pause grandma-aunt porkchops snatch me straight out the bed get to spitting

on my forehead and mashing potion round my heart

i get to falling out then/why ya’ll always got to mash and yank and spit on people. i tussle

and fuss till BOOM i find myself on the floor.

i jump up ready to run.

but soon realize

ain’t no body in the room to run from.

was grandma-aunt porkchops and bigsuzi ever there. did

mama really come by.

is my mad too much for my bones and blood.

what had really happened in the night.

i climb back in bed.

hold my covers tight.

lay low.

quiet.

listen.

Sharon Bridgforth is a writer-performing artist who works in the theatrical jazz aesthetic. She writes performance/novels that live as rituals, most recently bull-jean & dem/dey back. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is also the executive producer and host of the podcast series Who Yo People Is.
Originally published:
December 6, 2022

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