It starts slow. We’re enveloped in nature sounds, of which I initially didn’t realize came from my car’s radio rather than my ajar window. The outside hum is familiar, and buzz builds as a pregnant Ma’Dear kneels in silhouette, wrapping her hair in a scarf. As an enslaved Black woman, it is a moment for meditation and an act of protection.
Taji Senior’s solo work “Amendment: The Making of an American Myth, or the Slow Sipping of a Peacock Tea,” directed by Si Mon’ Emmett, premiered for a limited weekend run with Salvage Vanguard Theatre. The live experience was billed as “drive-in performances,” which took place on the grounds of the Rogge Ranch House, a three-acre events venue. By reservation only, 20 cars (and an unknown number of pedestrians/bikers) pulled up to witness what was arguably Austin’s first piece of live theatre performance since March.
This solo endeavor renders the audience witness, judge, and jury to trials that trace the history of slavery, the tragic impact of incarceration, and the legacy of the Black Panthers. Taji Senior, both playwright and performer, moves with fierce intention as she embodies history. Ma’Dear becomes Venida Browder becomes Deborah Johnson and Ma’Dear once more. Each is a Black matriarch reckoning with inconceivable loss at the hands of the vestiges of slavery — police and incarceration.
In the here and now, we are in the midst of two pandemics: both are disproportionately impacting and taking Black lives. Whatever kind of theatre is made right now is reckoning with Covid-19 and deserved uprising — directly or otherwise. (No engagement/acknowledgement is still a choice, right?)
In what can be considered a major “hold please” moment for our industry, theatre companies and artists across the country are faced with decisions that are life or death. The choice to produce live theatre, in about any form, will inevitably put people’s lives on the line.
To invite a live audience, too, increases risk. It cannot be understated: lives are at stake when producing live theatre.
And yet, a complicit audience (myself included) witnessed an attempt to resurrect what so many are missing — a shared experience of live performance where anything can happen.
But what’s now included in this “anything” is a potential outbreak. By my count, there were 15 to 20 staff people between front of house and the technical team. Directing parking was chief among the tasks, and it was pleasantly streamlined. It’s clear much thoughtful planning went into navigating the audience once we were on the grounds.
Determination and camaraderie were hearteningly present among the artists on the ground. The site was bustling. Ladders were out, sound crew were troubleshooting. From my vantage point, audience remained in their cars and by default were essentially socially distanced. Working artists were not afforded this precaution.
I struggle to describe how it feels to witness such jovial and earnest endeavors underscored by workers pulling down masks to communicate, sitting side-by-side at a tech table, and sweating in the Texas heat. This was gut-wrenching. As a working artist, it’s difficult to fathom what would justify this labor when I’m sure compensation wouldn’t even cover the cost of (hopefully) surviving coronavirus.
The production itself was stunning. Poignant silhouettes, strategic archival audio, gorgeous gesture work. Senior’s movement throughout the piece incorporated beautiful leveling, from chair to mattress to floor, at the deft hand of director Emmett. (Though I wondered how good the view could be beyond the front row.) Composer and Sound Designer Alwyn Robinson leaned into the real and surreal, leaving us to wonder from where the soundscape emerged. Uncontrolled variables like planes overhead or police cars in the distance fit into the performance in ways that can only be chalked up to the magic of liveness.
Even so, this was also a livestreamed production. Friday night Ground Floor Theatre provided home to a broadcast via HowlRound Theatre Commons (archived here). Anyone could tune in for free with the added accessibility of closed captioning. For Salvage Vanguard to produce both forms of performance speaks volumes on their stance regarding the purpose of theatre and their priorities in artist safety.
A performance piece like “Amendment” heartily deserves to be showcased to its full potential, especially at a time when our nation is awakened to a legacy many of us don’t have the luxury of forgetting/ignoring. When the field of theatre, too, sits in precarity, it provides opportunities to reflect and reimagine the art and the artmaking.
On both fronts, reform is not the answer. We must abolish the systems that perpetuate harm and death. This means defunding, divesting, and dismantling.
Here, “hold please” can be a call to action that doesn’t endanger more lives.