PBS Online Film Festival

S2021 E4 | FULL EPISODE

Migratruse

Powerful dance performance at Alabama plantation repurposed for reconciliation and art.

AIRED: July 12, 2021 | 0:09:57
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

(gentle guitar music)

- My ancestors came to the Wallace Plantation

right after slavery proper the next five years.

And some of my family lived here.

Well, I had an uncle that lived on the property

until 1970s.

And then I have another cousin that lived here

until around 1990, 91.

It's more common than most people would think.

They were not slaves here.

However, I have friends in the community

and people that have come back for events

whose ancestors were enslaved on this property,

and a lot of them live closely.

- My great, great grandfather is the person who founded

the house, and it was built in 1841.

It's been in continuous possession of our family.

The house had been vacant for probably 50 or 60 years.

I rather unexpectedly inherited it,

and so that's when Theo and I began conversation

in earnest about what to do.

(gentle guitar music)

- What could the house mean?

Will there be a new purpose for the house?

How can the house help the community?

(gentle guitar music)

- Migratuse seller acts as an opportunity to explore

the enslaved existence of Africans,

and antebellum plantations.

(gentle guitar music)

When we go to these antebellum spaces plantations,

the house is already performing whiteness,

docents are talking about the material culture,

the silverware, the China, the drapes,

the furniture all from Europe.

And there's no acknowledgement of labor,

other than they were servants.

And so that really sparked our curiosity,

then we start to pull in a scholar from Bates College,

visual performance artist, material collaborators

work with us.

- And something beautiful happened here too,

because we spent so much time talking to the community.

- A number of the items in the installation are things

from this community, photographs from this community,

books from this field, from this family,

cotton fields behind this house,

items that resonate with the history of this place.

- And that felt like it was really something that kind

of anchored the project differently.

I mean, we have a set show but just depending

on how the audience's vibe is we work off

of that completely.

And so I think they have to be really ready

to just kind of let their guard down,

and it's not gonna be like being in a theater

where you sit back and just visualize the performance.

- It's not just about you watching the performance,

but the performers watching you,

the other audience members watching you

watch the performance.

You watching everyone.

So everyone is a witness,

and everybody is a part of the performance.

And that can be intimidating for an audience.

So you have to really find how do you engage

them and not push them away,

but engage them and welcome them to be more participatory

in the experience.

And not typically we want you to jump out and dance with us,

but the idea that the emotions that maybe we have are okay.

This is not an essence built to make anyone feel

any particular kind of way.

But it's built to enliven those in salve African existence

in a concrete way, and in an imaginary way.

Because some aspects of it we don't know,

so you have to imagine what was possibly a part of it.

- [Lady] We also had to talk about not just that terrors

of slavery but the humanity of it.

And how those people were able to survive.

They loved each other.

(gentle upbeat music)

- I think a lot of stories about enslaved Africans

have to do with their bodies,

what happens to the physical body, but very little

about how they live, how they love,

what happens to their spirit in their spaces.

- And we never get that narrative, that humanized narrative

of enslaved individuals that they could not have survived

unless they had love.

(gentle upbeat music)

We can all come together and really see how the elements

of slavery set the foundation of connectivity

and humanity for the survival purposes they leave

in these worlds that we live in are very much

about integration.

- Where do black bodies matter?

Do they matter?

And in what spaces do they find sort of confident

in their existence.

And so this idea that we needed to make a performance

or make something flex the spaces where we are not seen.

(gentle trumpet music)

- What does it look like to witness someone else's grief

And how open are you to feel their grief?

And does that sort of conversation that allows people

to bring industries together and share narrative,

as opposed to having to bury opposition of their griefs?

(gentle trumpet music)

- For me, I'm originally from Alabama.

This is a homecoming of sorts for my company, our company.

Even sort of exploring the southern life,

and sort of black existence in the south

for the last 15 years, and making work about it.

(gentle music)

Southern life and southern existence is legitimately

a part of the American landscape.

The civil war that happened it fractured our nation,

but then it's called the United States.

(gentle music)

We're still one nation.

(gentle music)

- This piece has elements of reaching back to reach forward,

because we still deal with elements of contact

in our contemporary existence.

(gentle trumpet music)

- One night they pull audience members to sit down.

Of course the dancers didn't know

that who the audience members were.

They pulled Nell, Nell set.

Then they pulled one of my relatives

who had never been here, they had her thing,

and then they pulled a descendant of one enslaved

people to sit.

So Nell was on one side of the table.

The descendant of one of the sharecroppers

was on the other side and the descendant of the slave.

They didn't know how powerful that was to me.

But they had brought all of them to the table.

And that brought tears to my eyes.

- Well, it was a truly emotional moment for me.

From the first moment when they were beginning

with the music and the rehearsals to have us come

into the house again, because it had been vacant

for so long.

And it had no life for so long that this was a beginning.

And then bringing the embodiment of black presence

to the house, which it had never had.

I mean it actually of course had had,

the house was built by enslaved people.

And people worked in it for many years.

But that had never been acknowledged in the narrative.

And so what we're trying to do in Klein arts and culture

is to change that narrative and to make it a truly

shared narrative and shifted through what we do,

and there couldn't have been anything better

than Migratuse to have done that.

- I think it is incorporating the total story.

It means a lot for healing, for conversations.

- And preservation with a purpose means for us

that it's not enough just to restore the house,

it's not enough just for it to be

on the Alabama Historic Registry,

which it's been on since the 1950s I think.

We aren't restoring the house, we're stabilizing it

and leaving it as it was in the early 20th century.

So it's never gonna have the creature comforts.

And we want it to be raw, and we want it to show

sort of how things were.

This is about the patina.

And as you can see walls behind here,

it's about the patina of the walls.

And the last layer is wallpaper that was put in in the 50s.

And then it goes all the way back to the original plaster.

So we want it always to be seen as you can see

there were layers of history,

and there are layers of meaning in this house.

And we're adding, I guess a new layer of meaning

by the work that we're doing here.

- The Wallace House Klein is one of the landmarks

in Harpersville, and so everybody talks about the house.

- And there's something really important to me

about doing it in a rural setting,

that you can have this interdisciplinary art experience

that's fully engage, and it doesn't have to be in the city.

It can be right here in the community.

- And we are gonna change the narrative.

We can change what we have is our small sphere,

and that's what we're working on.

(gentle guitar music).

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