The raw and nuanced messages of “BLACK JOY” premiered Oct. 16 on Facebook, tackling a vast array of themes involving the suppression, pride and uncertainty of the Black community.
“BLACK JOY” is a symposium of theatrical art by Clock Productions Chicago, helmed by director Kayla V. White, a Chicago-based theater, dance and yoga teacher. According to the event’s website, White collected the works of artists from across the nation and formed “BLACK JOY” in order to give a multi-faceted portrayal of the Black experience in America.
“BLACK JOY” begins with “Barefoot Black (Pt 1)” by Breauna L. Roach, a Detroit-based poet. It sets the mood for the rest of the production by touching on themes of family, home and heritage. Painting images of roots and groundedness, it appreciates the Black form as beautiful and rejects the words of those who say otherwise.
The visual aspect of the production is nothing spectacular, but its simplicity is welcoming. In particular, “Barefoot Black (Pt 1)” switched between various cast members reciting the lines written by Roach, all from the confines of their own living spaces.
Roach juxtaposes the imagery of groundedness and rootedness with lines like “What happens to the sounds of the wave inside the seashell once you uncup your ear?” This dynamic between groundedness and uncertainty is continued throughout the entire production, and Roach does a remarkable job laying its foundation.
The production continues with an open discussion between the cast members on the topic of “Being Black Is….” Being Thespians, and some poets, there are many profound words shared, as when Ben F. Locke, an actor, director and writer, said, “The secret of being Black is you just are. You exist. You’re done.”
His words highlight an idea that reveals the oxymoronic purpose of the proposed topic: that being Black is something ill-defined, and that it should remain as such since any definition of a people-group is fundamentally arbitrary. With this, Locke also offers an early resolution to the aforementioned dynamic in that, in an appropriately contradictory way, Black people should be grounded in the ambiguity of their nature and should feel free to simply “be.”
In the same discussion, Aria Caldwell, a performer in this production, compares “the hiss of the straightener to the hiss of the whip,” emphasizing the beaten-down beauty of the Black physical form. The theme is echoed especially in “This Queen” by Octavia White, a spoken-word piece rebuffing societal complaints concerning Black women’s frizzy hair, instead calling it their “crown,” and their supposedly oversized thighs and hips, instead calling them their “chariot.”
Another recurring theme is the comparison of the Black mind, soul and body to grand images of nature. This is most poetically realized in “Bloomed,” written by Ariel Etana Triunfo, a dancer, singer and poet, and performed by Tracie Marie, a Columbia College Chicago student pursuing her master’s in poetry. Triunfo draws connections between Black individuals and trees, and adamantly so, like when she writes, “Wildflower? No, I am the forest.”
Triunfo demonstrates significant strength, confidence and pride, and she encourages others to do the same “with grounded reach and skyward gaze.” There is definiteness to her words, which are expertly conveyed by Marie, exhibiting one side of the interwoven dynamic between groundedness and uncertainty.
The complete opposite is shown in “It’s (Not) Black and White,” a spoken-word piece by Octavia White and performed by Jordan Arrasmith, a Columbia College Chicago alumnus. White focuses on the biracial life, the confusion that can arise from being stuck between clashing worlds and how, in denying both sides, a biracial individual may come to make Latine friends just to feel included in “brownness.” White’s portrayal and Arrasmith’s delivery make clear that some are painfully uncertain of what it means to be Black.
Not every piece is so explicitly tied to being Black, though those familiar undercurrents are still present throughout. One such piece is “Roof Play” by Alfonso Kahlil, a specialist of spoken word, who explores underlying philosophies regarding poverty, family and love.
This continues with “Soliloquy” by Ian Coulter-Buford, a playwright and award-winning recording artist, which demonstrates the challenges couples might face during the COVID-19 pandemic. As Locke later emphasizes, it also shows that being Black is not mutually exclusive to being queer, as the featured couple is both homosexual and Black.
Another is “But Today,” a work of spoken word written by Octavia White and performed by Caldwell, which lauds the gentle traits of Jesus. The piece focuses on faith, love and grace, and implores the viewer to emulate him in this regard so that the world might be bettered.
“BLACK JOY” covers a wide array of topics through a diverse collection of pieces, many of which were not discussed here. To enjoy the full range of their selection, prospective viewers can make a pay-what-you-can donation here to receive access to the stream, which will be available until Oct. 31.
“BLACK JOY” producers didn’t immediately respond for requests for comments about the production.