Article by E.G. Bailey
Many talented artist E.G. Bailey is a major force in Twin Cities performing arts; few disciplines are untouched by him. An activist through his art, E.G. has inspired many people through the years, myself included. I still remember meeting him for the first time - it must be nearly 15 years ago now - standing in the booth at Pillsbury House Theater. The fire in his eyes was palpable even then, and it’s an honour to have him write for us. -Wu Chen
For years I called myself a multidisciplinary artist, until I realized that it is not about the different disciplines but how you fuse them. How do you bring the knowledge and skills from other practices to what you’re doing in another field? Keith Antar Mason, of the Hittite Empire, who we worked with during our Sirius B rites of passage, often talked about the concept of transference. He explained it as taking the principles of one discipline and bringing it to another, and thereby push even further the boundaries of both. This in some ways describes what I’ve tried to do with the incorporation of media into my performance work. After years of experience and experimentation, I can bring in media into a performance work not simply for functional purposes but to serve as symbol, metaphor, analysis or commentary, sometimes all four.
The performance style Sha Cage and I have developed, which we call Freestyle Theatre, is a fusion of spoken word, movement, media, music, and theatrical performance, grounded in ritual, both in process and performance. Sha’s solo performance works, N.I.G.G.E.R. and U/G/L/Y, which I have developed and directed with her, are the strongest examples of this style of work. This process is also grounded in improvisational creation, found moments and materials, and artifacts collected along the process, woven into a into complicated non-linear narratives that may not always be easily digestible but necessary still the same. Our collaborative performance work, Patriot Acts, is the purest example of this. It was also a work that relied heavily on media, as it addressed our post 911 condition. The work, commissioned by Pangea World Theater, as part of their Bridges project, investigated international reactions and reflections of America following September 11. We traveled to the Belgrade, Paris, and Leeds, landing in London a week after the bus bombings. We spoke with artists, watched and recorded rehearsals, performances in the park, or impromptu sessions in cafes or hallways. We captured songs that played frequently in different cities, collected music from spoken word and hip hop artists. Once back, we took all this material, along with various fragments we wrote as we traveled, and started to weave together the performance. We gave way to improvisation and trusted in randomness, and let the synchronicity of the journey inform the work rather than a plan scripted structure. We created virtual collaborations. A poet we recorded in Leeds was paired with a musician via video. The Parisian pop song became the music for a contemporary dance piece. We recreated a spoken word cafe and a hip hop concert. But before some could experience the performance, they were ‘extracted’ from the line and taken for interrogation; unknown to the subject, the interrogation was being broadcast to the audience. It was challenging and required a great deal of technical resources but the process is something we’ve continued to pull from because of the freedom it gives us in creating the work.
Our first exploration of this methodology was a collaboration, birth strings and blessings, based on our respective returns to Africa. I returned to Africa for four months to see my family and reconnect with my home in Liberia, which was recovering from a recent bout with civil war. Sha had traveled to Mali to join a friend working in the Peace Corps. We explored the meaning of home, for a Liberian twenty years from home and an African American returning to spiritual and ancestral home. It was also when I began to more fully explore the use of media in my work, fusing documentary footage, interviews, spoken word recordings, along with letters, visual art, movement, and performance.
Soon after, I was asked to be the videographer for J. Otis Powell!’s performance work, Stigmatism, creating montages to be interwoven with spoken word and music performances. Following this, I joined the Langston Hughes Project as the videographer and technical director for their spoken word and jazz performance work, Ask Your Mama, based on Langston Hughes’ seminal poem cycle. A dense and heavily referential work, Ask Your Mama retells history through jazz poetics and the vernacular of the dozens. It required a great deal of research into Langston’s life and work, in order to best represent the images in the cycle and showcase the myriad of historical events highlighted in the work. It also allowed me to advance idea and techniques explored in Stigmatism, and move into a more directorial role. I hired a digital graphic editor and we created motion graphics to take the visuals of the show from a simple slideshow to an animated tour of Langston’s life and experiences using montage techniques Langston had use in his poetry. These visuals accompanied a spoken word and jazz performance of the cycle, which we toured to different colleges and performance halls. This was before motion software reached prosumers, so it was After Effects and Photoshop, then into Final Cut. The main hurdle was time but it also required an excessive amount of storage because visuals needed to be present the length of the show and layered archival footage, animation and photographs. I wish the resources and technology was there for us to push further than we did but audiences were happy with the results.
As the Hughes Project toured, and I with it as videographer and technical director, I continued to work on other theatre projects, including developing media for shows at the History Theatre and Mama Mosaic. The work with Mosaic included Brideprice, The Bi Show, Journals and others; it allowed me to experiment with media but also to refine the kind of animations we were making, eventually creating short films for inclusion in the shows. I expanded my skill set and began to work with a range of collaborators as I continued to direct spoken word and hip hop theatre projects and short films.
An extended sabbatical took me away from theatre and film for a number of years, as we ran two nonprofits and a record label. But have since returned after working with Amiri Baraka as part of the Givens Black Writers Retreat. Amiri has long been a looming creative influence, and to get an opportunity to work with him and begin a friendship was life-giving for me. It reinforced my need to get to return to theatre and film, to follow my passion. At the Retreat, I had an opportunity to share with him my vision of adapting his poem cycle, Wise Why’s Y’s, to the stage. I had first encountered Wise Why’s Y’s when Amiri performed at the Walker as part of the Beat exhibit in the mid 90s. I was working KFAI at the time, and working with J. Otis Powell! on the Write on RaDio! show. I was in attendance, recording the performances for the show. He was already in large influence, having studied his work with the Beats and the Black Arts Movement, but it was my first time meeting Amiri. It was also my first time meeting Professor John Wright, who would later ask me to become the videographer on the Langston Hughes Project, which was performing on the bill with Amiri. Later, as I worked on the Langston Hughes Project, a seed of an idea began to grow of doing a similar adaptation of Amiri’s Wise Why’s Y’s, since Wise was in many ways an evolution and an answer to what Langston was attempting with Ask Your Mama.
Where Ask Your Mama is expansive, Wise is dense and compact, and much of its power comes from that compression. It is only forty poems, mostly poems not longer than 40 lines, but courses through the history of Africans in America. After getting permission from Amiri to adapt the cycle, I begin to develop the work through different phases. It is currently in its third phase. The second phase was developed with Amiri through the Next Step grant from the Metropolitan Region Arts Council. I traveled to Newark to work with Amiri, who also participated in the presentation of the work. The second phase primarily focused on the development of the choreography and the music for the piece. The third phase will develop the media and staging of the work.
Once Wise Why’s Y’s was completed, I traveled to NY to train at the Edit Center, out of which grew an opportunity to work as an editor on the feature film, Petting Zoo. I love working collaborators, would often rather work with a collaborator than work in a silo. But I also believe that you need to continually study so that are no obstacles to facilitate the creation of your work. I often say that the work tells me what it will be, and if I don’t have that skill I learn it to create the work. Even if you work with a collaborator, the more you know about the discipline you are collaborating with, the more language you have to communicate about the work.
It was also around this time that I had the fortune to reconnect with Marion McClinton, who asked me to become his assistant director. We have been working together now for five years, as our collaboration as continue to change and evolve. It’s impossible not to gain clarity and confidence working with artists such as these. That clarity I have been able to take into my continued collaboration with Sha Cage, and new film productions currently in process.