VESSELS is a seven-woman harmonic meditation on the Middle Passage asking, “What does freedom sound like in a space of confinement?
VESSELS is a seven-woman harmonic meditation on the Middle Passage asking, “What does freedom sound like in a space of confinement? Read more
VESSELS is a seven woman harmonic meditation on the Middle Passage that asks the questions "what does freedom sound like in a space of confinement?" This ritual performance opens in New Orleans on On October 11, 2018 and will then tour along the eastern seaboard beginning in Philadelphia, PA March 7-10th, 2019 at the Annenberg Center.
We are creating concentric circles of engagement and support for VESSELS. Black women are at the center of our process, as performers and artistic collaborators. They’re also our core audience in New Orleans and in any community to which this work tours. Part of our commitment in centering Black women’s work is paying Black women well. The $50,000 we are raising will go towards artist fees for our ensemble, guest Ghanaian performers, and musicians, a total of $44,600 to honor the care, time, energetic, physical and spiritual investment of our collaborators. All remaining funds will go towards our fiscal agent fees. Any additional funds will support fees for our designers, installation artist, and production support.
Since the early work on this piece in 2015, we have employed 27 artists, the majority of whom are Black women as ensemble members, designers and co-producers.
The Vessels Origin Story: Reflections from Rebecca Mwase, Instigator and Co-Shaper
The idea for Vessels came about in 2011, when I attended a talk by Nikki Giovanni at Loyola University. She spoke about the importance of Black women in the Civil Rights Movement, and specifically about Coretta Scott King and Mahalia Jackson. She talked at length of Mahalia’s work to open the way for Martin’s speeches. Her voice, specifically her singing, created a transcendent space in which people were opened to listen, change, and respond. At some point during that speech, Nikki began to address the topic of slavery, and said, "I'd really like one of you artists out there to answer this question: "How did millions of African people survive the Middle Passage and end up on these shores sane?"
My first thought was, "Well…I don't know if they were sane." But if they were, it must have been the singing, and if it was the singing, it must have been the women. I wrote this down in my journal, and other pieces fell into place. It would be a seven-woman piece, and it would be called Vessels. This question, “What does freedom sound like in a space of confinement?” would drive the piece. I set the idea aside for a number of years, but it called to me again strongly in 2014. With support from the MAP Fund in 2015, I began research for the piece in Ghana, Benin and Zimbabwe. Soon thereafter, I asked Ron if he would join me as a co-shaper. We've been building toward this project ever since.
Exploring multiple worlds
VESSELS is experienced within an interactive and acoustically rich sculptural environment that invokes those infamous ships. Our interdisciplinary ritual performance explores the transcendental possibilities of song as a survival tool through three movements: Descent, Gathering & Integration.
VESSELS conjures two worlds: the carceral world of the slave ship, a physical and psychic floating prison; and the world of the spirit, a place of freedom. We imagine that many, if not most, of the people who were sold into the Transatlantic Slave Trade came from peoples whose cultural practices included ritual – incorporating song, dance, drumming, and other elements that could ignite altered states of consciousness. Enslaved African people, stripped of many of these tools for enlivening their spirits, still had their voices. How might the practice of singing have provided pathways and portals to the spirit world? How might song have helped our ancestors get and stay free?
VESSELS is a work of speculative history. Documented histories of the Middle Passage were largely written by white men and are incomplete. Our work conjures the lived experiences between the lines of these texts. We do not seek to re-stage the Middle Passage. Rather, we attempt to invoke and transmute its cultural, psychic, and spiritual wounds as an act of remembrance and imagination, and to contribute towards inter-generational healing.
Rebecca Mwase (they/she) is a Zimbabwean-American theater and performance artist, creative consultant, producer, and cultural organizer working at the intersection of art and social justice. They have trained with ArtSpot Productions, Dah Theater, the Highlander Center for Research & Education, Urban Bush Women and Junebug Productions in cultural organizing, devising and storytelling. Her work has toured nationally and internationally, and her projects have been funded by Alternate ROOTS, the Network of Ensemble Theaters, the We Shall Overcome Fund, and the National Performance Network. They are a recipient of the Rockefeller MAP Fund grant, the TCG Global Connections grant and a co-recipient of the NEFA NTP Touring Award for Vessels with collaborator Ron Ragin. They are also a 2016 A Blade of Grass-David Rockefeller Fund Joint Fellow in Criminal Justice. Rebecca's most recent original works are Vessels, a seven woman harmonic meditation on the Middle Passage, her solo piece Looking at A Broad, and Last Call’s Alleged Lesbian Activities. They are a co-founder of LOUD (New Orleans Queer Youth Theater) and serve on the board of the Network of Ensemble Theaters.
Ron Ragin is a researcher, strategist, organizer, and interdisciplinary artist. He has worked in the field of arts and cultural philanthropy for more than a decade, most recently as inaugural program officer for the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, where he helped develop new grantmaking programs at the intersection of arts and social change. Prior, he was program officer in the Performing Arts Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and a Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. Alongside his research and strategy work, Ron sustains a vibrant performance and creative writing practice, rooted in music of the African Diaspora, improvisation, liberation aesthetics, and the development and maintenance of spiritual technologies. He has received support from Alternate ROOTS, MAP Fund, New England Foundation for the Arts, and Theatre Communications Group. Ron lives in New Orleans, makes a mean red velvet cake, and can throw down on some biscuits.
Jeff Becker Visual & Environmental Design
Ja’nese Brooks-Galathe Costume Design
Saphira ContrerasHair & Adornment Design
MaPó Kinnord Installation Artist
Evan Spigelman Lighting Designer
VESSELS OG's & HEALERS
This work would not have been possible without the support, creative energy and collaboration of our healers and past ensemble members. Shoutou to Vessels OG's Mysti Adams, Jaime Dzandu, Audrey Hailes, Denae Hannah, Marguerite Hemmings, and Martine Whitehead.
Healers: Michaela Harrison, Aesha Rasheed, Nana Anoa Nantambu, Sakara Kemilla, and Menhati Singleton.
Risks and challenges
At this point in our process, our biggest barrier is funding. To date we’ve had six intensives including one at the University of Ghana, Legon to craft the three movements of our piece.
We have created, designed and are in the process of building a beautiful set and costumes. Once we cross our fundraising goal, we’ll be able to debut this powerful work in October. Please help us reach our goal!Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)