Black Theatre Documentary/Methodology/Play
Writer, Director: Stevie Walker-Webb
Developed & Commissioned by JAG Productions
Producer: Marie Cisco
The Black Joy Project is the ultimate experiment on joy as a liberatory practice, particularly: Black Folks in The American Theatre. It is the audacious indulgence of pleasure, leisure and healing in the art-making process. It is the sweet-spot between rest and rigor. It decenters the Western gaze and sources from black and indigenous practices and sensibilities in the storytelling process.
The inaugural iteration in Waitsfield, Vermont invited eleven actors, one director, two producers, two filmmakers and one chef to the mountains to merge their creative rivers and develop a black theatre methodology, contain it in a play and document its development in a film. It is our core value to pursue, engage and indulge Joy. We’ve discovered it to be a key ingredient to black liberation.
We acknowledge the lengths at which we have gone to escape the violent grip of whiteness as an institution of oppression. Still, whiteness crept into our spaces: as we unpacked our traumas, they either had white supremacy at the source or were exacerbated by white supremacy. This was a significant challenge that called for a specific kind of collective labor to traverse.
This brilliant convergence of artists lived in the lap of comfort while working through the deep corners of self and craft. Knoll Farm was a wonderful dwelling that offered us substantial space in the vastness of nature while still feeling like a tight-knit community. The rich colors of the landscape, clarity of the air and seemingly endless resources provided the ideal atmosphere for resting and working. Our chef, Toya Henry, provided pristine culinary care for our bodies to be nourished as we did the labor-intensive work of healing the wounds of the world and liberating our artform. Her meals were nutrient-dense, dynamic and visually stunning. She made the rainbow taste so sweet so that the holy experience of dining was pure joy. A member of our company of actors and kemetic yoga instructor, Nadia Pillay, provided intentional movement healing for the group in the mornings. Her ancient African yoga practice provided the ancestral grounding we needed to start our days.
Our workshops and exercises were the foundation of the work we created. Our exercises included a funeral where actors wrote a eulogy laying to rest the ideological barriers that imprisoned them, a durational exercise of purging oppressive experiences in the sauna, a durational exercise on exhaustion and movement, a series of solo performances embodying our ancestor’s art practice inspired by an Alice Walker essay, an exercise on diction, language and lyricism in the container of black music, a retelling of folklore based on stories from a book of African American Folktales and a developing of a Black Joy Institute where actors each developed a School of Thought that they would lead. These exercises were the expression of our developing methodology and the infrastructure of our film. What we shot was a film in a genre of its own, a hybrid of documentary and narrative film. Director Stevie Walker-Webb created a working environment where actors wrote all that they spoke and gradually fell into their characters as opposed to being assigned them, offering creative autonomy and rejecting the hierarchical nature of the directorial role.
We’ve already begun garnering an audience. One of our actors, a popular Youtuber, Tarek Ali, has released a mini-series of vlogs on our time in Vermont reaching tens of thousands of hits. His Youtube channel is one of truth and triumph and his 300k+ audience of young black creatives is on board with The Black Joy Project. Additionally, because she was an actor in the process who also worked closely with director Stevie and assisted the producers, Raven Cassell serves masterfully as our social media storyteller. Her intersectional roles give her an informed point of view of both the project and the process, perspective from both the inside and the outside. Our digital community is solid and fast growing with an engaged and market-targeted audience.
What’s Next For Us
First up is our initial leg of post-production of the film: one month in Tulum, Mexico. Here, the production team will come together to isolate comfortably between the jungle and the beach fostering a microcosm of what was created for the artists in Vermont. If pleasure and joy constitute the ethos of The Black Joy Project, then we must maintain these values throughout all of the process to truly test our theory that attention to wellness induces more potent, creative and transcendent work. This initial period is a crucial time as it will lay the foundation for the post-production process, shaping the story we are telling. This is the period that most involves collective thinking. It is also in our plan to continue to film in Tulum, pulling back the veil on our digestion of the experience of Vermont, the footage we’ve captured and how we work to challenge ourselves in the process.
Beyond post-production of the film, we will be taking time to work on the development of the methodology and play. We are in conversation with the folks at the Thread Senegal artist residency program to go work there in Sinthian, Senegal. As the film is titled HOMECOMING: A Return To Black Joy, we find it important to truly return to source, to the continent and have our work be informed by the land and culture of West Africa.
We hope to premiere the play late spring, 2021 while the film and methodology are still in development. By summer 2021 we hope to have a cut of the film to submit to the festival circuit.