“The tears of the world are a constant quantity.” – Samuel Beckett
Any work begins with a vague notion, an angry itch, a throbbing at the edge of consciousness – something troubling that keeps you grasping, yearning, anxious. Day after day these feelings drive artists back into their studios, determined to hammer out nonsense on their keyboards until clarity of thought slowly takes shape. Past Tense began in just that way – with a deep desire to get at what was troubling me.
So, I began to write. I put to paper the simple words and phrases, images and elements, that moved around in my mind and yearned for a physical form to emerge and be shown to the world.
I am by no means a playwright. As a visual artist, working the last thirty-five years predominantly in photography and video, I approached this as I would any other project, starting with images and then building music, songs, and text around them. The outcome – Past Tense – is a performance that brings together some of the country’s most celebrated artists, poets, musicians and composers to explore the dynamic role of grace and its meaning in the pursuit of democracy.
There are only a handful of stories in the world; the difference often lies in the telling. After working on Past Tense for months it occurred to me that I was telling the story of Antigone, wherein an innocent man dies by unjustified means and his sister fights for the right to bury him honorably. But the wider community refuses her; her right to justice, and to peace, is denied.
Likewise, Past Tense examines the wider social implications of tensions at work in communities across America. These tensions are marked and defined by recent escalations in violence, the killings of young black men, the rise of nationalism and white supremacy, and the tragic events of the Emanuel Nine. These events and nationwide responses have been contextualized as a song cycle, and the piece incorporates music, song and spoken word interwoven with text, dance, photography and video projection to explore the dimensions of its theme.
In our context, grace functions as a sustaining metaphor and an overarching conceptual frame for a dynamic performance calling for new approaches to old questions. I prefer to work with artists who share a common language and have a visceral understanding of the collaborative process. So, from the beginning we started from a central place—a common but varied knowledge of the dark maze of life.
Past Tense includes works by poet Carl Hancock Rux and composer Craig Harris. They are joined by dancer David Parker and singers Alicia Hall Moran, Imani Uzuri and Eisa Davis, who bring a wealth of talent and nuance to the performance. What began as a gift to our first Black President quickly morphed into a series of profound reflections that critically engaged the tumultuous and remarkable time in which we now find ourselves—both tragic and liberating.