Poet, performance artist and activist Duriel E. Harris has accomplished something rareshe has elevated poetry from a medium that is usually read or studied and, instead, given it a more vibrant, multidimensional life on stage.
The co-founder of Call & Response ( "a dynamic of Black women and performance" ) and the Black Took Collective ( described as an "avant-garde poetry/performance trio" ) and associate professor of English in Illinois State University's graduate creative writing program has published three poetry collections, including Drag and Amnesiac.
Her one-woman show Thingification is the embodiment of living poetry, Harris' own experiences and an extension of the "race, gender, class and sexuality" explored in her books. The show takes poetry and frees it from the boundaries of print by endowing it with a cast of vivid characters and music.
A press release describes Thingification as transforming "trauma into transcendence and challeng[ing] the way we define difference. Set in various public and private spaces, Harris' play transports audiences through time and space by enacting their collective ritual participation in the struggle against thing-ificationthe annihilating objectifying force at the core of all oppressions."
Thingification started out life in 2010 and has since played in New York and Chicago. It returns to Chicago for one night only on July 30 at the Greenhouse Theater Center in Lincoln Park.
Harris talked with Windy City Times about the show, its characters and the journey that audiences can take.
Windy City Times: Can you tell us about the genesis of Thingficiation?
Duriel E. Harris: A long time ago, people would read poetry to entertain the family. Now you have other art forms that, for some people, seem to be more dynamic and relevant.
As someone committed to poetry as a transformative art form, I was thinking about ways to get poetry to people and to have them experience the power of the word in utterance. I wanted a way to make poetry be central so that I could reach more peoplenot just those who go to poetry readings and some of the kinds of performances that I do that serve a more specific audience. I was in an adult acting workshop in Bloomington [Ill.] and talked to the teacher about the idea.
Then I got an invitation to Penn State to do a performance on sexuality. I started thinking "what can I do that I have never done before?" I pulled the Phaneric Displaysassertive, empowering dramatic monologuesfrom my books. I put them in order and came up with a narrative to link them. I meditated on a title that would connect all the Phaneric Displays and the narrative that I had already starting putting together.
WCT: How is that narrative linked to your own experiences?
DEH: I came into Black feminist consciousness when I was in college where I was examining multiple oppressions. Then, in graduate school, I embraced the idea of intersectionalitythat all these oppressions are linked. In order to make progress towards our own liberation, we must move toward liberation for everybody because oppressive forces work together. It really made so much sense to me to talk about it as thing-ification. This is not just about what happens to people who are victims or targets of oppression but also the diminished humanity of those who enact this madness on others. We all become less than we could become.
WCT: That is a running theme in Aime Cesaire's 1955 Discourse on Colonialism that you cited as part of the inspiration for the title. As you wrote, "Colonialization= Thing-ification."
DEH: One of the reasons I was so excited to study literary theory in college was that I was given language for things that I had started to understand but had no language for. The Cesaire did that. It was reinforced, complicated and enriched by my reading of Elaine Scarry's Body in Pain [The Making and Unmaking of the World ( 1985 )] and thinking about the role of people in a social construct and how we serve as instruments and creators in the world. Books by people like Eckhart Tolle helped me think spiritually about what it is to be living in and contributing to a particular moment. How do you have an impact on your own consciousness in order to transform your situation even though there are things that are out of your control?
WCT: I was particularly fascinated with the characters in Thingification such as Mammy and Sarah. In your essay Let Us Consider Sarah: Notes Toward Withness, Affect, Making, and the US Imagery, you wrote about coming across a highly racist image of a stereotypical Mammy in an 1862 edition of Harpers Weekly and, at first, not knowing what to think of it. You go on to say that "The figures are activated, re-envisioned, re-presented in performance." Will you expound upon that?
DEH: When I first discovered the image, I was thinking about the rhetorical gesture of a caricature being placed in Harper's and the role it was serving at the time. I had an aversion to exploring her as a character because it hurt my feelings. The very core of me is shaken when I consider the reality that enslaved people endured in this country and elsewhere and then what people continue to endure because we have these manifestations of domination still existing today. It is obscene. My ancestors had to say "I will continue and endure" or "I believe it will get better" or just have the will to survive or I would not be here. I don't have to carry it around with me all the time but I can face it and make something with it to help us with our own transformation.
WCT: But are people transforming or even progressing? Oppression, whether economic, or within the prison industrial complex or at the hands of police, is still very much a part of society.
DEH: We are now hearing about many things that we would not have before because of globalization and the way media works. Much of it is traumatizing. Using social media, people can speak hatred with anonymity and there's a violent momentum that feels like we are dialing back to a terrifying past.
This system isn't working. It's distressing, it's hard to simply be knowing that there are people who know nothing about me but want me dead just because of the color of my skin or what they perceive to be my sexuality. And that they can act with impunity. Racism, sexism, homophobia, classismthat shit hurts us and it doesn't satisfy the hunger or the need of the people who are putting it out there. It's never enough. I can't watch the news because I will be paralyzed.
WCT: In Thingification, you also bring life to a drag performer named Shawn and then his persona, A-Diva! So you are playing a character who is playing a character. Was that a challenge?
DEH: Yesin kind of the same way that Shawn is a manifestation of and an expansion of these different parts of myself, A-Diva! is an exploration of himself and all of the possibilities that lie there. When we think about more explicit performance, it can open up spaces for us that we don't access in our day-to-day lives. A-Diva! is a part of that for Shawn as he is moving toward his own most full articulation and realization of himself. A-Diva! gives him permission to do that. These creations help us live more fully and be more expressive of all these different parts of ourselves and who we could be. We are never static. There's always potential and possibility.
WCT: Would the same hold true for the other characters?
DEH: They come out of research and my experience with other people. I studied blues so Patricia, as a character, has come from a lot of work that I have done with blues as a living, breathing art form [as well as] its legacies and its use of improvisation, protest and indirection and how that worked when folks could not straightforwardly say what they wanted to say and not be lynched.
It feels so relevant right now because you can be Black, lying on the ground with your hands up and still get shot by the law. Like real people, all the characters have struggles: How do you make it when the deck is stacked against you? You don't have many choices. That's the nature of oppression. But one choice is to embrace yourself and turn and support each other.
WCT: Many performers describe the feeling of being on stage as euphoric. How has it been for you?
DEH: It is an experience that helps me reconstitute myself from childhood trauma, sexual abuse and date rape. I have dissociative amnesia so I struggle to stay present in my body. Doing this show is quite amazing. Since I am the writer, composer and the performer, all of the choices reflect and enrich my experiences. Creating and performing Sarah and the other characters and the painand joythat I experience exploring them impacts me both as a writer and as a performer.
The bounty of it is I am able to bring together my emotional self and my mind with my music, poetry and performanceall things that feed me. The folks who see the show are witnesses to my transformations as a person and as the characters on stage. It's hard work because I have to access parts of myself that I don't always want to look at but I need to do it. It is my responsibility.
For tickets to Thingification, visit www.thingification.org/.