Minnesota Original

S10 E7 | FULL EPISODE

Sarah Bellamy, Bee Yang, Marcie Rendon, Giving Voice Chorus

Sarah Bellamy puts her own stamp on Penumbra Theatre, founded by her father. Bee Yang is a respected traditional Hmong song poet of kwv txhiaj and a refugee of war. Author, poet and playwright Marcie Rendon is a citizen of White Earth Nation. Giving Voice Chorus commissions new work inspired by its members' experiences with Alzheimer's disease.

AIRED: June 30, 2019 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

(upbeat music)

- I was really fortunate in that I grew up here in Penumbra,

literally, I think I was on a stage with my father

when I was six months old and he was sword fighting

or jousting or something during this scene

and my mother slightly threatened my father and said,

if you drop her, we're done with this theater thing.

This is our dressing room.

You can imagine being a small child and encountering

this kind of a space, right?

There's fake blood. This is an amazing place for a kid to be

so I used to love playing back here

and watching the actors get ready.

They would come in really jovial and happy

and then they would sit down and they would

put their makeup on and you could see this transformation

happen as they got into character

and I was always fascinated with that.

(upbeat music)

Growing up inside of a theater community emboldens you

and helps you realize that the things that people dream of

can become a reality and that was a profound lesson for me

as an artist and also eventually would be a very profound

lesson for me as artistic director of Penumbra.

(upbeat music)

Penumbra Theatre is a African American theatre company

that was founded in 1976 by my father, Lou Bellamy.

(piano jazz music)

Penumbra was born out of the black arts movement

which was a time period when black artists

were really trying to create work that propelled people

to care and get involved in the political life

and the social conditions that black people

were experiencing.

Because we come out of that time period, we say that we make

work that is by, for, and about African Americans.

We confront difficult realities here at Penumbra,

but we do it in a way that feels, I hope,

challenging but deeply compassionate.

Regardless of who you are, if you're willing to come,

you're willing to invest yourself emotionally

in the stories that we're telling,

there's real transformation that's possible

because of the kind of work that we produce here.

(calm guitar music)

I began working at Penumbra Theatre almost 20 years ago.

(typing)

My dad had a conversation with me out in the lobby

and he said, do you think you want to do this?

Would you be interested in leading the organization?

And I said, I'm 26, I don't know what I'm doing.

Please don't ask me that now and he laughed

and shortly after that it sunk in that, you know what,

this is a place where I can really dig in,

I can put down roots, I can make a difference here.

Good to see you.

I feel tremendously fortunate to be able to be here,

to have the kind of team that we do and the kind of trust

that we have from the community.

There's a great legacy here.

I don't intend to change that legacy,

I intend to strengthen and evolve it.

- Repeat after me, you are my other me.

- You are my other me.

- Quieter.

- (whispering) You are my other me.

- [Leader] It gives me chills.

- I know it does.

- [Leader] A little bit.

- The young people who come here to Penumbra,

some of them think, oh, theatre camp

and then the social justice element hits them

and they're like, whoa.

- Be courageous.

- [Woman] I am not weak.

- I am not weak.

- In addition to the plays that we produce,

we train young artists to embrace their talent,

their passion for the art, as well as their potential

for civic engagement.

- I carry attitude and responsibility.

- I carry attitude and responsibility.

- The practice of making theater is tremendously informative

to the practice of being a good citizen.

You show up, you give your best, and you rely on the others

who have different skills to give their best

and then you invest in a shared vision.

If we practice that more as a society we would be healthier.

More theatre, period.

(applause)

- Yes, queen!

- You did it, we are so, so proud to have you

taking the stage this evening and there are big shoes

to fill, giants who have walked this stage,

who have written for this stage, who have directed

in this room and made a community for us

to benefit from today.

You are amongst them, they are here with you.

(applause)

- Thank you.

- As artistic director of Penumbra, part of what I get

to do is imagine curating a year's experience

for a community to engage in black culture,

but the thing that I didn't realize I would have

to do is become an organizer.

There is incredible disparity that's been documented

which shows that theatres of color across the country

are not faring well and the reason why is

because there's a tremendous amount of discrepancy

in who gets funded.

In 2014, I founded the

Twin Cities Theatres of Color Coalition

and we've been meeting monthly since, trying to think

about the sustainability of theatres of color regionally

and also across the country.

My want is that by the time I'm done here, whenever that is,

that we're done having this conversation,

that we're done arguing for the worth and the value

of theatres of color because my father did that for 40 years

and I'm doing it now and I don't want the next generation

of leadership to have to make that case.

I want that to be a given.

(guitar music)

- [Bee] (singing in Hmong)

(speaking in Hmong)

- Song poetry in the Hmong tradition is a method

of carrying story.

- (singing in Hmong)

(speaking in Hmong)

- Kwv txhiaj is a sequencing of language.

- (speaking in Hmong)

- Patterns of word that can carry the yearning

and the hopes of a people together.

- (speaking in Hmong)

- My name is Bee Yang.

- (speaking in Hmong)

- I'm a refugee from the country of Laos.

- (singing in Hmong)

- My name is Kao Kalia Yang, I'm Bee Yang's daughter.

In 2016, I wrote "The Song Poet" and the song poet

is sitting right beside me right here is my father.

A Hmong man, a factory worker from the Midwest

who would remind others of not loss, but of love.

(upbeat music)

- [Bee] (speaking in Hmong)

- [Kalia] I was born with a love of language,

a love of song poetry.

From my earliest memories, if there was a celebrated

song poet or even anyone just singing at all,

I would stand close to them, move closer,

so I could hear those words.

- [Bee] (speaking in Hmong)

- I was a child who knew loneliness early.

My father died when I was just two.

My song poetry was my way of expressing what was

in my heart, what was weighing me down

and that the wind and the world carry it with me.

February 17th, daddy.

- [Bee] (speaking in Hmong)

- [Kalia] (speaking in Hmong)

- [Bee] (speaking in Hmong)

- January 10, 1983, Daddy that's your birthday.

- [Bee] Yeah.

- [Kalia] Yeah it's your birthday, daddy, you were 23.

- (speaking in Hmong)

- When we were in the refugee camps of Thailand,

I would sing, and I would sing so that the people

who I knew had tears inside of their hearts

that those tears could come out and so in that way

for me my process has been very communal

because it was the responses of my audience

that prompted my songs to exit into the world

and to live on and on.

- [Bee] (speaking Hmong)

- [Kalia] In America, when we got here, I was unable to do

what I was actually good at.

- (speaking in Hmong)

- The gifts that I'd been born with couldn't translate.

- [Bee] (speaking in Hmong)

- The refugee is inherently broken-hearted

because how you can you not when you witnessed the death

of entire villages, your loved one's left behind.

- (speaking in Hmong)

- [Kalia] For the refugee to survive in a country like this,

finding food for the table, finding drink,

all of these are issues of heartache,

not just problems to be solved.

- (speaking in Hmong)

- Unless you've gone through war and unless you've left

so much behind, it is an experience that is incredibly hard

to translate into simple human understanding.

(calm guitar music)

- [Bee] (speaking in Hmong)

- [Kalia] When Kalia wanted to write the story of my life,

I said don't write it, it's a life soaked with tears.

It's too heavy for the pages, but more than anything,

I think I wrote my father's story because people kept

on asking, what are your biggest literary influences?

Where did you learn your love of language?

And I used to talk about Robert Frost,

and I used to talk of Louise Erdrich who I thought

was phenomenal, who is phenomenal, and then there was

that day when I realized, my father's poetry,

and the truth is I think my father is quite an incredible

man, an incredible song poet in this tiny little language

and I understood the vast loneliness of that.

To be a great song poet, to be trapped in a language

that people are perpetually saying is dying

and he's so keenly aware.

Isn't that the stuff of great literature?

(calm guitar music)

- [Bee] (speaking in Hmong)

- [Kalia] I do song poetry and I do it in understanding that

because I raised my children in a different country,

maybe they won't understand all the nuances within my songs

or even the language.

Part of what I've learned to do is to preserve the song

as a gift for future generations.

If they don't like it, that's okay, but if one

of them should come searching, then it is there to be found.

(calm guitar music)

(upbeat guitar music)

- What's an Indian woman to do when the white girls

act more Indian than the Indians do?

My tongue trips over (speaking Ojibwe),

mumbles around the word (speaking Ojibwe),

my Ojibwe's been corrected by a blonde UVM undergraduate.

What's an Indian woman to do?

My name is Marcie Rendon, my English name.

My Ojibwe name is (speaking Ojibwe).

I'm originally from the White Earth Reservation,

but I have lived here in the city since 1978.

(descending footsteps)

This stack of books and this stack of books

are all books that I have something published in.

I write novels, short stories.

I write creative non-fiction, poetry.

I write the lyrics for songs for classical composers.

What I say is I'll write anything that pays

because part of what I've done is I have made my living

since 1990 as a writer and it really does mean that

if a writing opportunity comes to me, I'll take it.

"Murder on the Red River,"

where's "Murder on the Red River?"

This one is my novel that come out in 2017.

I have had this whole career working as counselor

and a therapist, but I decided that I would be a writer

and so I spent a year just really writing

and it took off from there.

(guitar music)

I'm a parent and a grandparent and for the majority

of my life, I have always had other people around me

who are dependent on me, who I need to somehow interact

with and take care of, and so my writing process

happens a lot inside my brain where you can be talking to me

and I can be, yeah, yeah, yeah, but really I'm writing

a story in my head and so then by the time I get

to the computer, I can actually just sit down

and write it out because I've been working it and working it

and working it.

(guitar music)

My book, "Murder on the Red River," won the Pinckley Award

for 2018 for debut women's crime novel of the year.

With a crime, my topic seemed to cover women, children,

resiliency, the power of who we are as native people

and the other thing that I always am trying to do

in my writing is to present present-day images, thoughts

of who we are as native people.

I think that there's so much oppression

in the native community that reading the crime novels,

there's always some kind of resolution.

There's a crime that happens, there's a character

who's incredibly resilient and she helps solve the crime.

(calm guitar music)

Olivia's my nine-year-old granddaughter.

She's enrolled at Leech Lake.

She's an amazing mathematician.

I have 12 grandchildren, the oldest two are 22

and the youngest is two years old

and a lot of them are artists.

Encouraging them to do the talents that they have

in whatever form and shape that that takes

and trying to show them they can do anything

and be their own people.

You can do this, you can get on stage, you can direct,

you can dance, it's like there's no limit

to what is possible for us as native people.

Whatever it is you want to do, do it.

(calm guitar music)

(upbeat music)

- [Woman] When you start with this disease,

you can still do a lot of things,

but then as it progresses, there's more

and more things you cannot do.

Singing is one of the things that stays

with you until almost the end.

- ♪ They say that this life is a colorful journey. ♪

♪ A trip you take to discover yourself. ♪

♪ Once you embark, you pray for good weather. ♪

- With dealing with something like memory loss,

it's so easy to withdraw and then just feel that sense

of loss that really overwhelms your ability to do things.

Giving Voice is affirmative and upbeat

and encouraging and social.

- ♪ A new beginning, a marvelous song. ♪

♪ This journey is stormy, it made it so strong. ♪

- When you're there singing, I don't feel

like I'm the caregiver or care partner

and Marv's a person with dementia.

It gets you out into the community

with a community that understands and cares.

- ♪ Thank you, thank you, we thank you. ♪

- When you have a disease like this,

I really believe you have to keep the mind going

and I want to be as functional as long as I can

because then we have more fun.

(laughing)

Yeah.

- Yeah.

- ♪ We thank you.

(applause)

- [Elaine] I found some old photo albums.

- [Marv] Oh, yes.

- [Elaine] Aren't we cute?

- [Marv] Ah, yes.

- [Elaine] We do look like we're 21.

- [Marv] Yeah.

- [Elaine] Maybe 18.

(laughing)

I can't help grinning

- Uh huh, yep.

- Yeah, yeah.

- Elaine and I met in high school and I just thought

she was the best-looking girl in the class.

- When I first met Marv, I thought he was

a little arrogant, thought he was a know-it-all.

- [Marv] You were a pretty good-looking date there.

(laughing)

- Yeah.

I got to know him as a person and we became good friends

and went on from there.

- [Marv] We had high school chorus.

- [Elaine] We were in high school choir

and then we continued with church choirs

after we were married.

We got to know people that way and the Giving Voice Choir

has expanded that.

- ♪ There is a song we sing together. ♪

♪ It catches life and love and hope. ♪

- Giving Voice Chorus is a chorus of people with dementia

and Alzheimer's and their care partners.

That can be husbands and wives, it can be grandmothers

and grandsons to friends, mothers daughters.

- ♪ Sing together.

- [Marge] Love Never Forgets started out as a collaboration

with MacPhail, Giving Voice,

and the American Composers Forum to create this new work

with composer Victor Zupanc and poet Louisa Castner.

- ♪ We have told our story, come and be. ♪

- [Marge] The collaboration originally was supposed

to be eight minutes of music that the singers would sing,

but Victor and Louisa had so much material

and so many amazing ideas that it turns out

that they wrote nine songs as opposed to two

because of the time they spent with the singers

and the singers really felt involved in this.

This is their music.

- ♪ Love.

(applause)

- Coming into this, I thought I knew a lot

about this disease because I saw my mom live with it

for 12 years and I thought I knew the stages, the decline,

what the characteristics were and I realized

I knew one person's experience.

(upbeat piano music)

- My father, for the last three or four years of his life,

was living with dementia, so when I did see

this listing for this project, working with an Alzeimer's

choir, I knew I had to do it.

- We gained so much material from the singers

giving us an inside glimpse of living with dementia,

but also the experience of being in this chorus

and what their friendship and the music meant to them.

(upbeat piano music)

- The emotions were pouring out from them and in turn us.

It became this project that was really, truly created

by all 100 of us.

- Yeah.

(piano music)

- As this built, we realized that we had something very,

very amazing on our hands and we started talking

to the Ordway about performing there.

We didn't know if this would work because to have

nine songs that are brand new was daunting.

It was daunting for us, it was daunting for the singers,

frankly, they weren't sure if they could learn all of them

and one of the things that we have found out

through the time that we have spent with them is that people

with Alzheimer's can learn.

- ♪ I am here, living in the moment. ♪

♪ We are here, living in the moment. ♪

♪ You are here, living in the moment. ♪

♪ Be here now, be here now.

♪ Be here now.

- Most likely, this is the first time

that a dementia chorus has commissioned a piece

of choral work that they have successfully learned it

and performed it.

- ♪ We are here for us, we are here for you, ♪

♪ We are here for all of the view. ♪

- Hearing them sing and seeing them triumph

over this challenge of learning new songs

and them singing their stories, it was very emotional

and I remember crying like a baby.

I just couldn't hold it back.

I think love is a really big part of this project.

- ♪ Love never forgets

♪ No, love never forgets.

- Having the theme of the concert is being

Love Never Forgets and embodying that with all the people.

That energy surrounded us, that love was there.

- ♪ You may not have a language. ♪

- What kept going through my mind in a way was,

we sold out the Ordway.

How many people can say you were part of an ensemble

that sold out the Ordway and was a hot ticket?

- ♪ Love.

- Those kind of things, they're the successes you need

that really make it easier to go on and on.

- [Soloist] ♪ Love cuts straight from the heart. ♪

- Sometimes you need that extra push a little bit,

that this is what I need to do to be able to help myself

and then help the others around me

and especially for me to help this person.

- ♪ Yeah.

- It's been a wonderful journey together.

We will do it 'til the end.

- Yes, 'til the end.

- Because it's love.

- [Marv] Yes.

- Love never forgets.

- ♪ Love never forgets, love never forgets ♪

♪ love never forgets, love never forgets, ♪

♪ no, never, never, never, no, no, love, ♪

♪ love never, never forgets, never, never, never. ♪

(upbeat guitar music)

- [Announcer] This program was made possible

by the state's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

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