A behind-the-scenes look at “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now” by Carrie Mae Weems | Video by Art21

 

AMID THE TRAGEDY AND VIOLENCE of black lives snuffed out at a Charleston, S.C., church during Bible study and gunned down on the streets of countless cities across the United States at the hands of police, artist Carrie Mae Weems is staging a graceful rebuttal.

Primarily known for her photography, Weems has written and directed a multimedia stage performance, a blend of elegiac and contemplative poetry, song, dance and video that reflects on the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others. “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now” was performed at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston in June and will be presented at Yale Repertory Theatre in September.

In anticipation of the Yale staging, Art21 released an exclusive short video featuring excerpts from the performance and Weems meeting with the cast, talking through the motivation and concept of the work.

“You write something not because you have the answer. You write something because you know you have to work through it,” Weems says in the video.

“Well, what is this piece? And then I thought, ‘Oh, well really this piece is very much like “Antigone” isn’t it?’ There are only like 10 stories in the world that we keep coming back to and I thought this is really the story of a woman and a community that is trying to figure out how to bury her brothers, and they are denying her the right to do that because they’re denying that it has even happened, or that it warrants our attention. And she is saying, ‘I’m gonna bury him. I’m going to bury him right.'”

“I thought this is really the story of a woman and a community that is trying to figure out how to bury her brothers, and they are denying her the right to do that because they’re denying that it has even happened, or that it warrants our attention.” — Carrie Mae Weems, Art21

Carrie Mae Weems - Staging of Grace Notes - Reflections for Now
“Grace Notes” is being presented at the Yale Repertory Theatre on Sept. 9 and 10. | Screen Shot, Art21 Video

 

“Grace Notes” is curated by Sarah Lewis and features a cast of creatives including vocalists Eisa Davis, Alicia Hall Moran, and Imani Uzuri, and poets Aja Monet and Carl Hancock Rux. The staging—minimalist and abstracted—has Weems situated downstage, seated with her back to the audience at a table with a typewriter. There is a bare-branched tree, a round clock on the wall, and the sound of somber jazz is ever-present. At various moments a black man is running in place on a treadmill, members of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity are stepping, and the cast recites prose and verse and sings from atop white platforms.

In the real world, racial and police tensions are heightened. The work reflects on these trying times and community tragedies and asks questions about how to change the narrative.

“I am deeply aware of the stress. The stress that’s put on our community the stress that’s put on black women. The stress that’s put on black men. I mean, it’s not a play. It’s really, you know, this battle,” Weems says.

Writing in Artforum, Charleston-based Chase Quinn reported on the Spoleto performance and related programming and wondered where the artistic reflection on what he describes as “the recent carnage across America” leaves us in the end. Quinn wrote in part:

    “At a talk at the Charleston Library Society the afternoon before the second performance, Weems described grace as “holding on to your humanity and integrity, your core, in the face of all question and all forces.” If, as she suggests, grace is inherent to survivors of oppression and violence, the African American experience becomes a perfect metaphor for grace. Each new day a mercy for unprotected black and brown bodies.

    “Yet as I left the theater, though moved by the stunning visuals and the music—Moran delivered a barn-burning rendition of “Amazing Grace”—I felt a tug of dissatisfaction with the conclusion. More specifically, I felt like I knew this story, which seemed all too familiar in the telling. I, like many, had been weaned on images of imperiled black people (mostly men, of course) who, in the face of tragedy, joined together in song and struggle. Songs like “We Shall Overcome”—anthems of the civil rights movement—were a requisite of my education as a young black man. Conveniently, for white supremacist systems of power peddling violence, that popular education builds on a simplified narrative, one whose moral is that peaceful resistance is the most enlightened form, looming large as an emblem of grace. Weems’s show beautifully honors the dead and nods at this legacy of resilience, but, exhausted with mourning and amid a new struggle over the lives of black and brown people, I wondered: What now?”

Indeed. What now? CT

 

BOOKSHELF
A couple of recent books explore the practice of Carrie Mae Weems. Last month, “Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series,” which explores one of her early and most acclaimed bodies of work, was published. The exhibition catalog “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video,” coincided with her mid-career survey at the Guggenheim Museum and includes full-color images of works from throughout her career and contributions by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Franklin Sirmans, Robert Storr, and Deborah Willis.