“Imagine you have gone down to the shore and there, amidst the other debris—the seaweed and rotten wood, the crushed cans and dead fish— you find an unlikely looking bottle from the past. You bring it home and discover a message inside. This letter, so strange and disturbing, seems to have been making its way toward someone for a long time, and now that someone turns out to be you. “ Edward Hirsch ‘s How To Read A Poem
Emily Johnson’s SHORE gave me a keen sense that this artist, and the circle of artists with whom she collaborates, have been making their way toward me for a long time and vice versa. The stories of this new work emerge, strange and disturbing, and join the accumulating conversations with the works in this trilogy, The Thank-You Bar followed by Niicugni. Johnson’s works dwell in the liminal space between memoir and dream, intimate and mythical, dance and installation, continually working away at the boundaries between performers and audience. We journey with her into themes of displacement: examining the vanished spaces of ancestral home, the lost sense of belonging past and present, and the bone deep desire for connection. The performances invite us to envision how to find our way home.
Following the dream-like logic of this performance cycle, the shore seems a fitting location—the place between land and water, always changing, a gathering place. All of the works in the trilogy offer much more than the “viewer in a seat” opportunity. SHORE is a multi-day experience, including volunteer opportunities in various parks in Minneapolis, a storytelling event at The Loft Literary Center, performances at Northrop, and a feast at Foxtail Farm in Wisconsin.
As I add the SHORE events to my calendar, I try to connect my embodied idea of shore with my life in Minnesota. Though I’ve lived on this land of lakes and the mighty Mississippi River for almost 30 years, the barrier islands of Georgia, my home state, are the shorelines that come to mind. Before I engage with any of what Emily has in store, I take a moment to recalibrate my relationship to the shores in Minnesota. The beloved shores of home are all around me.
My experience of SHORE begins on a rainy June morning with the cleanup of Cedar Fields Park in Minneapolis. This first part of this series, Community Action (volunteerism), involved a month of weekly community work sessions at parks around Minneapolis, including activities such as soil amendment, mulching, planting in the rain garden, trash pick up, and care of the land and river. While picking up plastic bottles, cigarette butts, and candy wrappers, I begin to see and think about witnessing—seeing with intention—a recurring awareness through all the parts of SHORE:
I witness the people who show up for something called Community Action/volunteerism.
I witness this literal way of connecting to the land. I witness how I feel as a white queer gender-bending person picking up trash in a park I’ve never set foot in across from Little Earth as part of a performance project. I witness the shorelines of comfort and discomfort. I am in a public park, but public doesn’t mean community, doesn’t mean everyone is welcome. I think about the words of writer and rabble-rouser Roberto Bedoya, “Before you have places of belonging, you must feel you belong.” How is it that I belong here?
Another part of SHORE is the curated reading featuring Jayal Chung, Paula Cisewski, Heid Erdrich, Brett Elizabeth Jenkins, R. Vincent Moniz, Jr., Marcie Rendon, Dwayne Williams, and Ben Weaver. Jay Bad Heart Bull emceed this evening of vibrant words with great warmth, observing how “words can bond people to one another, even if you don’t know them.” I am a lover of poetry, embracing Audre Lorde’s assertion that “poetry is not a luxury.” Rendon starts the evening with her “gossip of the cottonwoods,” followed by many words about ancestors lost and found. In Chung’s A Poem for my imagined daughter, she writes, “It is in knowing what was lost, taken, given, sacrificed, that we can begin to remember what it means to be on this land.”
I witness that I am on this land as a result of what was lost, taken, given, and sacrificed. I witness the power and magic of poetry to tell the untold truths, to plant seeds of understanding, to challenge what has too long remained unchallenged. I witness a community of writers that I don’t see often enough on Minneapolis stages. I witness the inspiration of being in social space to listen to stories—gathered on the same shore to laugh and cry across the differences. I am here because of my relationship to these people and ideas—glimpses of belonging.
The performance of SHORE begins outside at East River Flats Park. The forty plus performers walked to Northrop, meeting the gathering audience on the green space outside. I started to see and hear the performers across the way, clustering under a large tree. They moved towards us, circling, humming. Johnson shared her story of being buried under a tree for so long that she remembers it in her bones. She shared a dream of a hawk and an eagle flying in tandem. “I’m really glad that you are here. And I think that our future, if we want it to be, can be full of joy.” With that, we are invited into the theater.
The stage is stripped bare. We see the structure of the theater—walls, floor, grid. There are almost fifty people onstage—Nona Marie Invie’s Anonymous Choir forms choral wings on either side of the stage. A physical choir bears witness to the happenings onstage. The piece begins with Emily and two dancers (Aretha Aoki and Krista Langberg) sitting on the edge of the stage. Are they sitting on the shore? As the intensity of the dancing builds, a spirited duet echoes the dream image of the eagle and the hawk from Emily’s story outside. I wonder at the grand and curious moment when a curtain is flown in and the music builds and the chorus sings filling the room with music. I am filled with momentary immensity. The movement is entwined with the deeply layered sound score by JG Everest, Invie, and Feltcher Barnhill. From the physical choir, a child rises and dances a solo across the stage. The final story is of a whale entering the room, uttering a sound the world has never heard.
I witness hundreds of people coming together in a shared experience, opening our hearts and minds to a labor of love by over fifty artists. I witness the actual relationships between performers onstage—mothers and daughters, lovers, couples, and artists who regularly work with one another. I witness the feeling of belonging, with the people onstage and in the audience—sitting beside my partner Josina and a number of longtime friends. For a moment, we are together, witnessing, listening, feeling. I think about a future filled with joy, a vision that is not always easy to hold—just as the bold and disparate pieces of this performance are hard to hold. I leave feeling lifted yet puzzled, as when coming out of a deep dream.
The day after the performance, I am in my kitchen pulling together food for the feast at Foxtail Farm. Everyone is asked to bring a dish that has a special meaning or story behind it. When it comes to food that has meaning, my south Georgia upbringing is always the source. Dinner preparations frequently began with my grandmother sending the kids to the garden to pick a mess a greens--collard, kale, chard, mustard, and turnip greens. We grew a variety of peas that I don’t find in the Midwest—black-eye peas, purple hull peas, field peas, crowder peas, lady finger peas, pink-eye peas, cow peas, and white acre peas. Black-eyed peas and greens it is! Josina brings a dish fundamental to her Jewish heritage, potato kugel.
The SHORE team has organized a bike ride or shuttle bus as alternatives to driving to the farm, one by one or two by two. Josina and I take the bus. The feast is rain or shine, and it is pouring rain. I smile at this full circle finish, since my experience with SHORE started in the rain. We arrive a little late due to the driver’s confusion over the directions, and pile off the bus into a large barn filled with long tables of food and people. Joyful energy abounds. I see many familiar faces. I am reminded of family reunions on my cousin Jack’s farm.
I am surprised and deeply pleased to see Nick Slie, an artist friend from New Orleans. He has journeyed to Minnesota because Emily traveled to Louisiana to see his performance collective Mondo Bizarro’s recent community-based work, Cry You One. This way of bringing people together through art making is not a new idea. Creative Placemaking is the current buzzword, but I think of the work of the Free Southern Theater founded in 1963 by freedom fighters John O’Neill and Doris Darby: “We propose to establish a theater in the deep South… A combination of art and social awareness… Through theater, we think to open a new area of protest.” When practiced authentically, this collective artmaking among people with a shared connection to a place, is a meaningful expression of community.
After the feast of a hundred dishes, we walk out into the fields to listen to songs by Ben Weaver. The redwing blackbirds skitter around the edges of the song circle. On the bus headed home, the child who danced across the Northrop stage makes a beeline to ask a familiar question: “Are you a boy or a girl?” I say “Yes.” An answer most children accept. We play charades all the way to Minneapolis.
As with all the other parts of SHORE, I witness people coming together to share and connect. I see and feel joy. I witness effort on the part of the organizers to bring people together with an environmental consciousness. For the feast, we are asked to bring our own dishes, cups, and silverware. Nothing to throw away. Zero waste. It is not so hard, but requires us to do and act in different ways. “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As I sit with all that SHORE has sparked, I witness having listened—to myself, to Emily and the amazing artists working with her, to the land, to stories past, present, and future. I gather these moments of joy, beauty, understanding, respect, humanity, and kinship as a balance to the continual barrage of damaged people, damaged earth, toxicity, and brutality. I recall the words of poet Marcie Rendon from Story event, “the ancient ways are never lost, maybe only temporarily forgotten.” I embrace SHORE’s humble directives—take action; listen to one another’s stories; open your heart to dreams, dance, and song; feed one another; come together and celebrate—practice being in community.