Sep 02, 2022 —
The upcoming show at the SUNY Potsdam Theater and Dance Department is “a film, a play, an experience, a dance concert, a work of art, a self-reflection, a protest.”
That’s according to Hettie Barnhill, the director, screenwriter and choreographer of ‘A Love Letter to Brian, Lesley and Michelle’: Black Lives Matter. It explores the intersectionality of art and activism and will screen at the university at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 3.
“Black Lives Matter. What Now?”
Critics described it as “commentary dealing with prejudice, racial fear” and other important themes of the black experience. The production, showing the tensions of everyday black and brown life, “forces viewers to step out of their own bodies and into bodies that continue to be brutalized, objectified and belittled in a nation that promises equality for everyone”.
“Okay, you say Black Lives Matter. What now? What now? You know?” Barnhill said. “You bring together a whole bunch of black individuals and the first thing you’re going to realize is how diverse we are in our blackness. We don’t all think one way, but we all think we love our lives.”
She says she brings her experience as a queer black woman to all of her pieces. His company is called “Create a Space NOW” and that is the purpose of the piece: to create a space to speak with dialogue and questions:
“We speak through different ways of communicating. We communicate through movement. We communicate through poetry,” Barnhill said.
This piece is multimodal: it is music; it’s sketches; it’s hip-hop; it’s contemporary dance and rhythm.
“Dance has always been my first language. What kind of movements and music serve [the piece]”, Barnhill said. She incorporated hard-hitting moves you’d see in a hip hop dance style that she says serves the subject matter.
“Movement is always the guideline. It’s a dance piece, but we don’t just serve a dance audience. We don’t just serve a visual art audience. I also wanted a piece that had a community base , you know, has a voice.”
Reserve space for the evil of white feminism
One of the performers of “Love Letter to BLM” is Zoe Walders. She graduated from the dance department at SUNY Potsdam which helped bring Hettie and the production to the North Country. Zoe says this piece was a challenge for her because it required her to not only introduce herself as a performer, but to continually look within and examine herself.
“There’s so much density and richness in this work. There’s police brutality, white feminism and all these really heavy subjects. There’s a lot to unpack and there’s a lot to understand in my role,” said Walders said.
At one point in the piece, she performs a duet on white feminism with fellow artist Amya Brice.
“It’s the one that made me show up and do so much thinking because it’s multi-faceted. On the one hand you have feminism, which I’m hugely passionate about, but then you have to be able to get out of that and realize that your position in feminism as a white person is different having this internal monologue where I keep space for the idea of white feminism, and don’t take advantage of that space, because I understand now the harm that it causes but being able to stand as a representation for it as a learning experience and opening up dialogue to represent it, but not to speak for it,” Walders said.
She says part of the intent of the piece is, as the organization’s title suggests, to create a space for these conversations and learning to happen, without any sense of expectation.
The “power” of talkback
“I always feel like ‘transformation’ is on the same level of life. When they shut down learning, do they really live? Do they really allow us to be bettered? Molded? You know, how do people transform “And is it possible to do that when you’re constantly expecting yourself to be done? And to me, the answers mean you’re done,” Barnhill said.
An essential part of the play is the discussion between viewers, performers and Barnhill after the screening. Barnhill says she “believes in the power of talkback,” as a space for processing and expression after such an emotionally intense experience.
“I don’t know what it means for someone to leave a play and say, ‘I have the answers’. I don’t think I would have done my job because I don’t have the answers. But I know that if they have more questions, if they have something they want to talk about, even if it’s three years from now, if they’re at the table with strong-minded people, and ‘they have a different way of seeing things and they discuss it, that’s the real change. Getting into the fabric, the blood lines of the sometimes polarizing subjects,” Barnhill said.
Barnhill and Walders encourage “A Love Letter to Brian, Lesley and Michelle” contestants to focus on performance. Let it be immersive and be prepared to ask questions afterwards during the Q&A session.