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If you were walking down Telegraph Avenue in Uptown Oakland and you saw a procession of Black women swathed head to fingertip to toe in white lace and mirrors, their steps lit by street lamps and handheld lanterns, what would you do?
Would you carry on to the Fox Theater or a trendy restaurant, or stop to see what would happen next? Maybe, as they moved with native familiarity through the city’s landscape, you would follow them. You might find yourself enraptured by a ritual in an alley, or a burst of laughter at a gas station. Music could start playing, dance could break out. Artistic catharsis is inevitable. And at the center is the creative experience by and for Black women and girls.
This is the work and experience of the collective, House/Full of BlackWomen. The multidisciplinary project has transcended genre and space since its inception in 2015. Its performances are sporadic, they cannot be found at places like Berkeley Rep, and most people have no idea when and where they occur.
“My work is rooted in ritual, and something doesn’t become ritual without time, and without practice and dedication. …We do ritual processions, and the procession work is rooted in sort of shifting the vibration of the topics that we are dealing with: displacement and the sex trafficking of Black women and girls in Oakland. I’m less interested in educating people through the work, and more in shifting the vibration of the issues,” said Amara Tabor-Smith, the founder of House/Full and the Deep Waters Dance Theater, in a statement.
House/Full’s director, Ellen Sebastian Chang, has lived and worked in the theater and performing art world for over four decades. The project, the brain and heart child of Tabor-Smith, with Sebastian Chang as director, embodies so many things.
The performances — called “episodes” in an allusion to stereotypes imposed on Black women about their attitudes — are site-specific. The collective members dance. They play music. They speak. They hold healing circles. And sometimes, they simply rest.
All of these are political statements for a community that is continuously underserved, erased, and now suffering disproportionately from the coronavirus pandemic. Many elements of traditional theater are absent: There is no fixed venue, no demarcation between stage and audience. There is no admission price or board of directors to complicate accessibility.
“We’re not going to wait to be invited to your table. Why don’t we recognize that we’ve already got tables. There are plenty of tables that we’ve already made,” Sebastian Chang said. “Our aesthetics are rooted in the imaginations of the women at the table — it can appear, homemade, Afrofuturist, West African, modernist, punk, sacred and profane. It is who we are, kaleidoscopic, beautiful and with the skills to manifest what we imagine.”
While most theater companies, having lost their primary setting, are experimenting with the proverbial Zoom stage, House/Full is “moving slowly, cautiously, patiently.” They have not lost any stage. Their art and collective imagination lives on, even through a computer.
“How do we create a bridge of intimacy?” asks House/Full member Amber McZeal. “How do we cultivate that into a tech platform? The natural world is alive. It’s exhausting to communicate through metal. The computer is the table.”
McZeal, a multidisciplinary artist, activist and sacred scholar, has worked with House/Full for about three years. “Performance in public spaces has always been done, dating back to the Greeks,” McZeal said. “Aside from all the political debauchery happening here with the pandemic, not much has been shifted with regard to the artistic process, other than we can’t be in a theater. But who knows, it keeps changing.”
Artists throughout the Bay Area have found silver linings among the escalating conflicts with police, unemployment and COVID-related deaths. While actors can no longer perform onstage, they no longer need to perform or project their composure in their non-theatrical lives.
“An imaginative heart has been [a source for] well-being, especially for those on the margin,” McZeal said. “We don’t have to perform control, we don’t have to perform experience. The strategy now is to share your knowledge.”
The plan before shelter-in-place orders and a global pandemic was a piece called “The New Chitlin Circuitry: Reparations Vaudeville, Episode 14.”
Previous themes have framed Black women as the “canaries in the coal mine” of the world — the first line of sacrifice. The white procession previously mentioned was designed to highlight the sex trafficking of Black women and girls within Oakland. The structure of vaudeville shows, Sebastian Chang explains, lends itself to the collective’s mission.
“Vaudeville was a form of democratic creativity,” Sebastian Chang said. “An art form that was for the people, where immigrant communities came. It was a place where African Americans could be creative outside agrarian or industrial labor. Every human being has many parts to them.”
The members of House/Full are still holding space in the form of leaderless porch chats, emphasis on chat, in a socially distanced manner next to the EastSide Arts Alliance space.
The group’s GoFundMe campaign is an extension of the work that needs to be done to invigorate Black communities with the resources they have so long been deprived of — all the funds go directly to all the women involved in the project.
“This is an opportunity where we can put additional funds directly into the pockets of all the women at the table: cash into people, not into things,” Sebastian Chang said. “This energetic currency labeled ‘money’ goes to every woman in House/Full and how they will redistribute that, it could be for PG&E, for food. Our work has changed, but it has not stopped.”
McZeal is currently sowing what will become a “seedpod-cast,” an audio experience to further the context and content of House/Full’s work. Which at its core, is the betterment and advocacy of Oakland’s Black women and girls.
“We are moving slowly, cautiously, deeply,” McZeal said. “A seedpod is born. We are already activating. The vaudeville is already happening. Our brilliance is to show that it’s already happening. The laughter is happening.”
There’s no rush; there shouldn’t be; the process itself is the intent, to McZeal.
“What we’re calling out and praying for is change. Maybe what’s required to get there is a full stop.”