Arielle Julia Brown: What is your name and what work do you do?
Amara Tabor Smith: My name is Amara Tabor Smith and I do what is generally called dance theater. I now call what I do Afro-Futurist Conjure Art. My work is rooted in ritual that is grounded in Yoruba traditions. I work mostly in non-traditional theater spaces and at the times when I use the theatre I tend to use it in non-traditional ways.
AJB: Where would you situate your artistic and aesthetic lineage? What were some of the moments in your career that brought you forward to making afro-futurist conjure art?
ATS: I became a dancer when I met Ed Mock. He was a choreographer, performer, Black, gay artist making work in the 70s and 80s in San Francisco. He died in 1986 from complications with AIDS. He was a conjurer. Spirit just worked through him. He didn’t even name it as such, it just was. I was a teenager when I started studying with him. I remember being in his presence and feeling like I was in the presence of God. He was largely an improviser. He was my first teacher.
I have had the opportunity to both study and work with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. I danced with Urban Bush Women on and off for ten years and I was the Associate Artistic Director of that company the last year that I worked with them. With Jawole, there is always the presence of spirit in her work. We would go to these elevated spaces and we would draw on the energies that worked through the individual dancers. She created this seminal work that I didn’t dance in. It was called “Praise House.” Julie Dash made a film about that piece. It was a really powerful work about our houses of worship so there was always – we we’re always invoking spirit in the work that we did.
Joanna Haigood had a significant influence on my more site specific work. With her work, evoking the spirit of a place or of a people in a place, that was always welcomed and encouraged. I learned so much from her about doing site specific work because she is a master in that. The other person I have to shout out is Ronald K Brown. Spirit is just always very present and he is very transparent about his spirituality and his connection to God and to the Orishas. He’s always connecting these in his work. I studied with him when I was in NYC as well.
AJB: I hear a political undercurrent in your assertion of home in public space. Could you tell me more about that?
ATS: For me, Afro-futurist conjure art is political in nature because being your full Black spirited self is political. Celebrating it, fighting for the right to express it, or being determined to express it is political. I am drawn to public spaces because there is an intimacy between the public and the the space itself. There is a way that the audience is engaged in the performance. I found that a person who is being a witness or a participant in the performance is also bringing themselves into the experience. It gives them another kind of awareness of the content and work.
I have the ability to influence beyond the invisible fourth wall that often separates the performers from the audience in a theater. The audience sits passively and watches which means they can also actively disengage. Not that that can’t happen with site work, but it’s not demarcated where the performance space ends or begins so there is more potential for organic interaction. And then also being in public spaces, the space I am performing in is not incidental, it’s deliberate. I am really interested in locating the stories that are in that space in which I am performing and the stories that are underneath the concrete of that space. What has happened before that maybe can’t be seen and what is happening now that can be seen? This current work, HouseFull, that I am working on, takes place in Oakland and is addressing the displacement and sex trafficking that is affecting Black women and girls currently in Oakland. The performance takes place all over Oakland. I am thinking about these sites. What has happened and what is happening? How do you activate the site to tell a story?
AJB: Could you tell me a bit more about HouseFull?
ATS: I think HouseFull really looks at the meaning behind the displacement of Black women. It means losing connection to our mother’s homes. Black women are notoriously the keepers of the home in the community so, Black women to be losing their places in community is a form of genocide. I think about how in New Orleans, post-Katrina, a lot of folks died following the hurricane. A lot of people died from the stress of displacement, heart attacks and other stress related diseases – folks that have been rooted in New Orleans for centuries. A lot of these folks who never left New Orleans were suddenly uprooted. And a lot people, who when the hurricane came were like ‘I’m not leaving my house’, drowned. So there is this way that displacement can actually be really deadly. That is what HouseFull is about. It’s also about how we find our wellbeing as Black folks. Part of the resistance of this piece is a ritual about not leaving Oakland – a ritual that is about staying put, staying right where we are. We are making ritual with the purpose of empowering, using our ashe through performance to stay where we are and to invoke that for other Black women.
AJB: How do you make work that is for different types of publics?
ATS: HouseFull is about Black women. It’s for Black women. Everyone can come see it but I am not going to tailor it to be more palatable for those who might be implicated. I had an experience recently where I did a piece about Sandra Bland in a theatre but I used the theatre in multiple ways. I had the audience travel and get engaged in multiple ways. It was intense.
I got asked to perform that piece at a town hall about the state of women and girls of color. There were these testimonies given by these young, primarily Black, women who had experienced all kinds of violence. They had experienced sex trafficking, gentrification, rape, poverty, the criminal justice system. I went the night before to hear some of the testimonies and thought, ‘oh no I’ve got to change how I do this piece.’ The piece was intense; it was emotionally charged. Doing it for an audience that was coming to a theatre, I needed that audience to feel the impact of the loss of Sandra Bland. But at this town hall the women already knew what it is like to suffer loss, so I had to end this piece with more of a strong uplifting feeling as opposed to the death of this woman because they didn’t need that. That was an instance of when I wanted to be sensitive to who was in the room. But I do that very sparingly. Knowing who the audience is is important. I am really mindful that there is a certain population that needs to be cared for, and there are those who really need to see it because it is too easy to shut down and not see it.
AJB: I’m wondering now about your work EarthBodyHome and He Moved Swiftly but Gently Down the Not Too Crowded Street. How did you work with the site on those projects?
ATS: He Moved Swiftly was sort of my coming out as an artist working transparently with ritual in my work with collaborators. It was the first time I engaged people who didn’t even know about my spiritual practice – didn’t know anything about it or necessarily even believe in it. They didn’t need to believe but they needed to be willing to go on the journey. That piece was for my teacher – Ed Mock. How I came to that work was pretty divine. One of the things that came up was that he was largely forgotten in the Bay Area but I felt that he was calling me to do the piece.
I approached that piece as a ritual from day one and I told the artists that were involved that we we’re doing a moving séance. We’re not only going to conjure Ed Mock but we’re going to conjure the spirit of San Francisco in the 1980s and that point of reference for his life. In the 1980s, there was a larger Black population in San Francisco. In the 1980s, there was AIDS and the impact of what AIDS did to the arts community. When AIDS emerged, before there were really drugs to combat it, people would get diagnosed and be dead within weeks. AIDS devastated the arts community. The piece is honors the spirit of those that we lost. During every rehearsal we had a ritual. That was a huge part of our process. With Ed, I felt like I just listened; he told me what he wanted and I just did it. I was just the dutiful daughter and decided to make happen what he wanted to see happen. I chose sites that had actually been a part of his life and the lives others that he would have resonated with. There were spaces that I chose that I knew his spirit would love. I asked for permission to use certain spaces and there were others that I didn’t get permission to that I used anyway.
AJB: What were some of those spaces?
ATS: There is a restaurant that he was a fixture in. It was a corroder with a lot of windows. He used to eat every night in this restaurant and he almost never paid for a meal or a bottle of wine. Everyone loved him there and I knew we had to use this restaurant. The original owners were gone so I contacted the new owners and when nobody responded I said to hell with it, we’re going to use it. Every day of the show, I’d have one of our stage managers order wine and order food. They’d stay there until the performance got there and the audience would stay outside the window and the performer who was embodying Ed would sit at where he would sit in the window and perform. There was another place where his studio was and they wouldn’t let us inside of the space so we performed being shut out and performed outside so it was a testament to how we are not allowed into these spaces that we used to inhabit so we made that part of the piece. But most of the spaces I used, I got permission to use.
With EarthBodyHome, my choice to use the gallery space at Hollins University had everything to do with Ana Mendieta who didn’t really find a home for her work in a gallery until the last years of her life.. The work that she did, which was really rooted in nature, did not work for museums. In most museums, you can’t bring in the natural environment into the space because nature is erosive. Galleries and museums are situated on top of nature and yet ban nature. This became metaphoric for how we ban nature, spirit, feminine from patriarchal, privilege based spaces. I brought Egungun to that piece in a very prominent way and invoking the spirit of Ana Mendieta.
AJB: Do you have general points of guidance for other black artists working with site specific performance?
ATS: I see myself as someone who continues to learn a lot. I don’t consider myself as an authority on how to do site based performance work but I will say that artists that are thinking about spaces should really be listening to the space. Site work that works well thinks of the site as actually a performer or a character in the work. You can’t make that site incidental or ignore it because that is abusing it. That is white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist, patriarchy. For us Black people, listening to the spirit of a site is imperative.
AJB: Can you tell me about artists, curators and cultural institutions who you believe are making good site specific performance work?
ATS: Artists: Joanna Haigood (Zaccho Dance Theater), Pearl Ubungen, Naka Dance Theater – Jose Navarette, Debby Kajiyama, Ellen Sebastian Chang.
Cultural Institutions: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, The Luggage Store Gallery, Dancer’s Group’s Festival: ONSITE, Dancing in the Streets (Bronx) .
Amara Tabor-Smith is a San Francisco native and Oakland resident. She describes her dance theater work as Afro Futurist Conjure Art. She is the Artistic Director of Deep Waters Dance Theater (DWDT) and was the co artistic director of Headmistress, an ongoing performing collaboration with movement artist Sherwood Chen. Her work with DWDT and Headmistress has been performed in Brazil, The Republic of the Congo, Judson Church/Movement Research, NYC and many venues throughout the San Francisco/Bay Area and United States. Amara has performed in the works of dance and theater artists such as Ed Mock, Joanna Haigood, Pearl Ubungen, Ronald K. Brown, Faustin Linyekula, Ana Deveare Smith, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and she is the former Associate Artistic Director and dancer with Urban Bush Women. Residencies and awards include, The Headlands Center for the Arts artist in residence, CHIME Mentorship Exchange grant, CounterPULSE artist in residence, Espaço Xisto in Salvador, Bahia, Green Choreographers exchange at Dance Exchange, DC and most recently finished a three year artist in residency at ODC Theater in SF,CA. She has received grants from The Zellerbach Family Foundation, The Creative Work Fund, The Kenneth Rainin Foundation, The Wallace AlexanderGerbode Foundation, Theatre Bay Area/CA$H, The East Bay Community Foundation and is a 2016 recipient of the Creative Capital Grant. Amara received her MFA in dance through Hollins University and The Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts in Germany, and is a continuing appointed lecturer of dance in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. Learn more about Amara Tabor Smith’s work here.