The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue
, was created by Rankine and Melanie Joseph, the Artistic Director of the Foundry Theater
, and touches on many of the tensions that surround the history and experiences of those who live and work in this often maligned neighborhood. I took some time to speak with Rankine about how she, as a poet, approached her first performance piece, her relationship to the Bronx, and what ideas she and Joseph were interested in exploring in the work.
The L Magazine: To start off, tell me how you became involved in this project. I know the Foundry has worked with a poet once before.
Melanie Joseph called me up and asked me if I was willing to work on a project that had to do with cities. It was a very open invitation.
How did it evolve from that initial conversation to the travelogue on the bus?
In the initial stages I would come to New York for two weeks at a time and the Foundry set up interviews with different people in the Bronx. Those people took us on tours, they took us to places in the Bronx that meant something to them, or places they thought we should know.
Who were these people, and how did the Foundry get in touch with them?
They might have been people that they knew of through the arts. The Artistic Director of Pregones Theater Rosalba Rolón took us around; Arthur Aviles of the Typical Theatre dance company at BAAD [Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance] took us around; Nicer, who is a member of the TATS Cru graffiti collective, he took us around. Most people when I was in attendance were associated with arts organizations. But I think that when I wasn’t there Melanie met with other people. We also did an interview with a woman, Mrs. Ross, who has lived there for 60 years. So there were a couple of other people who were pointed out to us by the ones who took us on the initial tours. Mrs. Ross, I think we met through Arthur Aviles. It sort of began to evolve like that. Sometimes Mel and I just got in the car and went up there, walked around and talked to people. There are direct quotes [in Provenance] from some of the people we met.
Were you recording these interviews throughout or taking notes? It sounds like a tremendous amount of material.
Mostly I took notes. Because, outside the interviews with the arts people, everything else was very casual. And often sort of unclear whether or not we were even allowed to be where we were.
Do you have any examples of that?
At one point we were at the waste treatment plant and there was a man there who was just in the booth, you know, the kind of people who tell you that you can’t come in. But he was very chatty. Once it was clear to him that we weren’t going to go in and were happy to just hang out with him, then he became interested and willing to tell us everything about the plant and the park next to the plant and his many years as a resident of the Bronx.
So, with all that material, how long did it take you to digest it and start to be able to write, or were you writing immediately?
It took awhile. I also read a number of books because I grew up in the Bronx…
Right, I should have started off with that question—what is your relationship with the Bronx? Your bio says you were born in Jamaica, lived in New York, studied at Williams College and then Columbia.
I didn’t grow up in the South Bronx and I hadn’t gone into the South Bronx ever. I grew up in Eastchester, which is in the Bronx but more of a Jamaican community. Actually I went to Cardinal Spellman High School, where Sotomayor went, which is just funny. So, I was on the other side, basically directly opposite in the North Bronx. And I remember growing up I had a friend in high school who lived in the South Bronx and it was just like no, my parents would say, “You can’t go there.” And I knew about the fires and I knew that it was dangerous but that was it. So I really had to start at zero. I started out by reading a book by Jill Jonnes [South Bronx Rising: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of an American City]. And from there I would just go to the bookstore and buy every book on the shelf, literally, if it had Bronx in the title I purchased it. So, I read for a long time. The Jonnes book filled in a lot of the historical picture. The other book that filled in the world of cities in general, the architecture of cities, was Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I read other books, The Global City, Saskia Sassen’s book. And then there were books like Jeff Chang and D.J. Kool Herc’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, which also was very good. And then, The Location of Culture by Homi Bhabha or Alain Badiou’s An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, and James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket.
Just to give the readers a sense of the machinery of creating a piece like this, how long was it from the initial conversation until now, with the show headed into its first performance?
I believe it was two years exactly.
That seems like a relatively short time, considering how much you did—how many interviews, how much reading, and then the time to actually write the piece.
I was on sabbatical last year, which gave me more time and was a happy accident. It was a lot of work happening very fast, a lot of drafts and a lot of emotions. Because it was hard to represent a place that has been persecuted by representation. And the anxiety for me around that was huge—being able to negotiate and come up with a position that both represented the realities of the place and also honored the people who live there. That was something that took awhile to negotiate.
Especially with so many different voices in your head from the interviews and the books, so many different competing voices.
Exactly, and different investments. That was the tough part. It was hard to figure out how to position the voice in the play.
Who are the performers in this piece? From what I understand it’s not your voice in the audio, it was recorded by Raúl Castillo and Randy Danson, right? Do you consider this a performance piece?
Yeah. There’s a character.
And it’s the narrator?
Yeah. And the narrator is various in its position, but it is a narrator. With a specific history and a specific location.
At what point did you start to move towards the idea of this recorded travelogue as the way the project was going to be realized?
I think from the get go Melanie knew she wanted a tour. She knew she wanted a kind of bus tour. I think what was open was where the tour was going to take place. We didn’t go in knowing the piece was going to be about the South Bronx. She, I think, knew she wanted to concentrate on the Bronx. I was from the Bronx. When I said yes, I thought, well, I grew up here, I have a history here, I perhaps could write about where I was from. But the logistics of the tour made clear very quickly that the area of the South Bronx was what was possible, and as we began to look at that it became fascinating and interesting. So it was a happy accident.
And when you say logistics, do you mean literally taking a passenger bus through the streets?
How closely did you have to work with the bus company? How many times have you been around this path on a bus or in a car?
It can’t be hundreds, but close. There were times when we were just driving a certain part of it over and over and over again on the same day.
Because you wanted to establish some kind of timing?
Right. And the bus driver, Mary [Wallace], it’s her bus, it’s her bus company.
Oh, it’s always the same bus driver?
It’s always the same bus driver and she’s fantastic. She had to be worked with in terms of the timing of the driving. There are lights that she has to hit and so a lot of the training went into training her in the pacing of the material. So it became clear very fast that the speed of the bus and pacing of the bus was one of the most important things in the play.
So she’s very much an actor in the piece, in a sense, or at least a stage manager?
I would have assumed that you would have had to have multiple drivers because of unions and that sort of thing.
Well, it’s her company, her bus, her rules. And there is a back-up. But clearly she is the one.
One thing that intrigues me about the piece, and touches on your point about the notion of persecution by representation, is the idea of provenance. That word, as I know it, is entirely associated with ownership and the history of ownership. It’s really interesting to think about combining that with the idea that to represent can also be to persecute, because you also lay claim to something by representing it in a certain way. How do you see that idea of ownership in relation to a neighborhood?
I think that is one of the key things—the question of who owns a neighborhood. Is it the people who live there? Or is it the people who own the property that’s there? Who controls that?
And then there’s the way that the audience experiences this work. I’ve experienced a couple of different travelogues, it seems like they’ve been bubbling up over the past few years, where the viewers experience it individually through a set of headphones, so it’s a very private, very internal experience. And yet it’s also a collective experience at the same time. In the same way that tension exists in neighborhoods—a very strong individual experience that’s part of a collective experience. I just think it’s so wonderful that you found a way to use the delivery of the content to mirror something happening in the piece itself. Have you been very deliberate about the choice of using headphones? How did you land on that?
I think we initially started out, about three workshops back, thinking that there could be an actress who carried the entire thing. But the problem with that was the location of expectation in a single body. And if that were to happen, what does that body look like and who could it be and all the politization of skin color, all of those things became very charged.
And it would also keep people from looking out the windows, in a sense.
Yeah, it also rerouted the gaze. So the headphones came out of that. But there also is a live actor, Sarah Hayon.
One other thing that intrigues me about this piece is the notion of forcing people to look. With this kind of work, the audience is pushed beyond a suspension of disbelief—you’ve been thrust into a new reality in a sense, and you’re being forced to look in a way that you don’t ordinarily look at the world. And especially in a city that people assume they have familiarity with, there’s something exciting about training people’s gaze on a certain thing, even if you don’t succeed in getting them to look exactly where you want, you’re just getting them to think about it. It seems like there is this desire on the part of some artists to force people to look. Do you have any thoughts about what that desire speaks to in you or why you want people to look again at the South Bronx?
I don’t think I would use the word ‘force,’ but I do think that in my own work I’m very interested in the body. And the recognition of the body as the most important thing and also the most vulnerable thing. So, even though the tour is very landmark-based and interested in the history of the landscape, I’m interested in it only in as much as it points to the lives, to the people, and the idea that communities are built out of lives. And so I think to allow people, not force them, but allow them to look and to listen is something that allows people to be then re-inhabited in their own body. Maybe it’s a little naïve, but I feel like if you locate yourself in your own body then you will recognize the other bodies around you. The more alienated we become from our own senses, the more alienated we become from other people. And so, I find it an exciting project for that reason, that it really grounds people back into the basic things of listening and looking, and in a kind of relational dynamic, with a you and a me and an us.
I’m assuming then, that you feel that in the world today we are deeply alienated from our own selves and senses.
Well, I don’t know if I want to say that. But I feel the possibility exists for one to become so. Just because of technology. I mean technology seems dedicated to keeping us alienated from the next person. It’s kind of funny because you have all this technology that exists, that in fact seems to be allowing us to communicate with other people, but it means that the people who are in front of us don’t have to be seen, don’t have to be heard, don’t have to be spoken to. That’s kind of interesting, that we can really close down our circle with technology and don’t really look and listen and see what’s in front of us.
It seems like that also represents some shift in the way that people are taking in art, if nothing else because of the desire for it to happen more quickly, or in a mediated way. People run into the gallery and take a picture of the painting they came to see. Or, the classic thing, which has been happening for a long time, they come in and read the text next to the artwork rather than looking at the painting itself. It seems like the audio experience of Provenance doesn’t allow for that in a sense. Do you see that at all, in terms of the way people are consuming, to be crass about it, artwork?
What I like about the tour is that it takes the time that it takes. It’s a very open dynamic, in that you can look at whatever you want to look at out the windows of the bus. You’re not being forced into a box and controlled in that way. But we’re moving very fast and you’re not holding onto anything. To me it’s kind of like an old-fashioned way of being in the world and maybe as a writer, too, it’s something that I have never given up. I am constantly fascinated with the process of looking and listening and reading, literally reading the landscape.
In a sense, you’re putting the audience in the position that you feel you’re in, to some extent?
There’s so much to look at and there’s so much we can’t control. We can’t control the traffic, we can’t control what happens. There are times when the bus is stalled. One day, some guy, for some reason, I don’t know how it happened, his car was in the middle of the street and he didn’t have the keys. And we’re all sitting there thinking, how are you sitting in the driver’s seat without the keys in the middle of the road? How did that happen? But until he could figure it out, that’s where we were—no going anywhere. And we kind of sorted it out. And those things you can’t control. You can’t control what’s going to go down. That part of it—you don’t expect that every word is going to be heard, other things are going one—that’s seems like a nice dynamic, being in the world. This is how we are in the world.
Is this the first time that you’ve worked in a form like this?
I’ve made small films that were collaborations with my husband, who is a film maker and a photographer, but I’ve never worked like this in the landscape and have certainly never done theater before.
It seems like this was a very organic process so it doesn’t seem like it would have jarred too much, but did you feel like at any moment you were confronting a strange form that you didn’t quite feel comfortable in?
I think that the form came to meet me. Initially the expectation from Melanie was a very performative text and I have always lived in a very contemplative text. And so the idea of going from a field of contemplation into an active space was frightening to me. And not something that I naturally know how to do. So, what had to happen was we had to both kind of move towards each other. My notion of character became the character of the play but I don’t think it would have ever initially been Melanie’s idea of character. But I think in the end it is the right choice. I think that the reason she asked me to do this is because there was, I have to believe, I guess, that this is the way that perhaps she actually wanted to go. I think that we both initially were working from where we knew. And so a lot of the process has been coming closer to each other. She has to stand in the meditative moment and I had to move forward in the performative moment.
And did you ever have a conversation at all about why she has chosen to work with poets twice now?
I know that with me, Melanie said that she wanted the language to become a kind of character and I was interested in working with language as character. We did have the conversation about why not get somebody who is Puerto Rican, or why not get a writer who has lived here. I did ask her that in the height of my frustration. Why me? And I think she, again and again, has gone back to [Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine’s latest book] and said that it was really the sensibility of Lonely that made her want to have me do this.
It does seem like the work in that book has such a strong voice in terms of character, they are very much character-driven pieces, monologues in a sense, in the form of essay and poem. It seems like that’s very much a part of your writing—this sense of the unique perspective of the individual in the world.
Yeah, I think that must have motivated her. But you would have to ask her. It’s been amazing working with somebody that has the kind of vision and experience that she has.
The Foundry does do really thoughtful work.
It got to the point where I would cross something out and she would say to me, “You know we really need to cut that line.” And I would hand her the paper where I had just crossed it out. We definitely share something. There’s a real sense of sensitivity to the landscape that I think we share. And it’s been a real experience learning to trust. As a writer who has not worked in a collaborative way before, I think the main thing is that you have to learn to trust the person you’re working with. And you get to that position by realizing that they too want what you want, you know. It took us some time but we got there. And it’s been a very satisfying experience for me.
Has this experience made you interested in looking at other ways to incorporate live experience into your work?
Yes. It seems like my work has become more and more interested in a kind of documentary mode and also in negotiating the lyric moment into the actual moment. And I’m also really interested in the kind of assumptions we bring to bear on any given moment. Especially ones that are captured visually. I just finished a series of films with my husband where I wrote in text. You remember when Zidane [French soccer-player Zinedine Zidane] head-butted that guy in the World Cup—not this past year but a couple of years ago. It was one of those moments where everyone had an opinion about what was happening but we couldn’t hear anything, we could only see it. And so we made a short video where I wrote text to fill in the silence of that image. It’s funny because this play seems like the next evolution of that. Like you have this landscape and it is very fraught historically and it’s like, make it talk, make it come back at you.
(photo credit: Sunder Ganglani, The Foundry Theatre)
For two months, starting Labor Day weekend, a bus will depart from Spanish Harlem and make its way into and around the South Bronx. Those on board will be listening through headphones to a narrative written by poet Claudia Rankine, who has published multiple books of poetry, had poems featured in numerous literary journals, and was awarded an American Academy of Poets Fellowship. The piece, titled