A reflection on “In My Shadow”— Poetry, Performance, and Prose
Chris Walker, with poetry by Danez Smith
A reflection on “In My Shadow”— Poetry, Performance, and Prose
Chris Walker, with poetry by Danez Smith
and now this
(from conversations with Chris Walker)
I woke up one day for the first time
with no doubt in my mind and that scared me the most.
I knew what my grandfather said about that man
with the plum sweet walk, about that girl
with the shoulders and no hair. I knew why
that boy Michael from round the corner didn’t
get along with his daddy, what sins blackened his eyes
those summer days, I knew all the holy water, black
like mine fist and flesh thirsty fire that wanted to wipe me
clean or clean off the face of this earth. I knew where
I belonged but wasn’t wanted. I knew about my home’s
not so secret teeth. So I ran from my black sun
for lily-white snow-skinned people who let me
know every day the color of my one and only skin,
who cared less of the rainbow dancing in my sweat
but the way my body looks caught in its own shadow.
What I would have given to sing amongst the brown eyes
and henna lips of home, what I wouldn’t have given to know
I would have been welcomed, could I have been
out of order. Need to be fixed. Parts faulty.
Tonight not right. Acid spit looking for the curves
on a man’s body, an excuse, an explanation, a sweet sin
dusted in salt, ripe mango with rotten core, worst seed
in the bunch, fruit wishing to roll into the sea.
How many times did I stare at these waters
demanding the Ibos in my blood to wake? The waves,
sometimes fierce, sometimes frozen, sometimes calm
as Mama Kariamu, easy as Sunday, sharing stories
about black bodies choosing to wade home.
But I knew I wasn’t for gills and my frame not
built for wings, I knew what home would welcome me
under the water’s slick skin. And even if the magic was real
would I use it? For what? Home is a mouth waiting to swallow me
and forget. But it’s where I learned to kiss. Home is a blade
waiting to slice me holy. But it’s where I run, face smeared
with cane syrup, into my mother’s arms, her skin warm as a psalm.
But home don’t want me. Me sweet. Me Batty. Me no exist
come morning. How sad, to finally make it home, the sun
resting on your back, running with a song into the arms
of your bredrin, and they spit it right back.
-- Danez Smith
“In My Shadow” is a solo excerpt from A Yard Abroad, a contemporary performance work of live music, spoken-word and dance, addressing violent attitudes toward homosexuals in their home countries that force many to run away or to construct new identities as a means of survival. It is designed to engage communities in conversations around homophobia in particular and its impact on shaping how individuals engage space and each other. The solo is about home. A metaphysical home, a spiritual home, a physical and tangible home, a home away from home, a home in culture, a home in body, a home in sexuality, a home in belonging. In the poetic lens the work attempts to reconcile facing home, a longing for acceptance, a question of faith, an acceptance of no-change. Through movement the work is realized in isolation studies, breaking the body apart in different ways and devising vocabulary out of reconstructing in different patterns—an attempt to fix something broken. It is about death and rebirth, displacement and memory. It addresses loss, and the journey toward reconciliation, toward putting parts of a fragmented self back together.
We began the writing for this work through a sharing of stories and dialogue about some of the philosophical and systematic experiences that we thought within our own lives to be main catalysts for migration. We then expanded the conversation to include a wider population of gay West Indian immigrants living in North America. Danez Smith wrote the three poems associated with the process. “and now this” was edited specifically for the solo “In My Shadow.” This short reflection on the process, poetry, and philosophy that shaped the creative research is meant to take the reader through memories and experiences that informed the choreography and connect to the questions of displacement and home for the Caribbean gay man.
I was exploring how isolation becomes a survival reality through forced migration. Choreographically I wanted to explore how a person may experience isolation—from home, from family, from society—because of common view. I further wanted to look at the mask as a part of Caribbean living for the gay man specifically, this projection of self, where the real self lives in a shadow of that projection, which is meant to satisfy the patterns of acceptable behavior and living in that society. What happens, then, if the true self becomes a shadow of the projected self? How can one self-actualize?
I remember spending a very short story-filled time with my grandfather before he died and transitioned home. He asked me one day, “Pretty bwoy, you ever hear a battyman fart?” I was confused, and he continued, “And you won’t—goes to show you can’t trust a silent but deadly.” This and many other “antiman precautionary tales” were intertwined with the forbidden Big Boy stories, family narratives, and cultural history. I had to learn that antiman behaves unlike man. I feared the antiman like no other, but was particularly taken with the story of third night, when the ancestors supposedly came to take the spirit back to Africa. “Antiman don’t dwell there,” my grandfather said. “That is home.”
Ten years later, I was a young researcher in college in Kingston and had by this time attended countless wake ceremonies throughout Jamaica. I go for the dancing, the singing, and of course the food, though deep down I believe I have been trying to keep a channel open to this metaphysical home. Somehow, I began to believe I wasn’t invited. I decided to ask two white exchange students to join me on an overnight trip to a wake in Hanover. We arrived at the deadyard on the western end of the island and learned the man’s cause of death was related to AIDS; there was no celebration to honor his life. We ran from irate family members that night, for fear of association. Walking down the dark Lucea road, I remember thinking, If no wake, if no ceremony, what happens to his spirit? Who will take him home? I thought of lost souls. Is this how they come about? That was in 1997. In 2013 Dwayne Jones, previously banished from home for being gay and having to reside temporarily in the homes of friends, was shot and stabbed to death at a street party; he was dressed as woman and was dancing with a man. Over three hundred in attendance; nobody saw anything. His body sat unclaimed in the morgue for weeks. Dwayne was probably home in his body that night. I wondered, Is his spirit home?
One side effect of homophobia is a fear that cripples the ability to see justice in situations where one would otherwise be vigilant and supportive. It encourages a sort of apathy demonstrated in the countless narratives of folks who stand by and do nothing. It is the story of the neighbor who fails to help during a four-hour kidnapping: “I never even turn my head when I hear the screaming, because is battyman up deh. Him shoulda holla out GUNMAN.” What happens when you can’t wash the blood off the church steps or the choir robes? What happens when the presence of a gun is more important than the screams of a man?
My creative research project, A Yard Abroad, was designed to engage communities in conversations around homophobia and around issues related to rising above the stigmas of homosexuality and homophobia. But is that even possible for the gay Caribbean body? There is the Caribbean history of loss and displacement complicated by the everyday masking, which is a survival mechanism. Living in a space so heavily charged with violent homophobic responses has, over time, shaped defensive behaviors in which gay men’s personal patterns of movement change to adapt to the public space. The Caribbean body is an embodiment of its history—shaped to behave in a certain way. I think of the story of a young man being attacked, and through bloody eyes he recognizes the face of a lover in the mob. For the lover, was it just a question of beat or be beaten? Where does one belong? There is the potential to be trapped in masked physicality. This is more than hiding the “plum sweet walk,” more than the expected physical responses in social spaces where gay men gamble moral responsibility and personal safety.
I started the movement investigation for the solo with strong masculine dancehall vocabulary and began manipulating it toward contemporary language, with a focus on keeping the masculine elements in the movement. I wanted to view it as a part of the everyday masking performance in Jamaican dancehall, in which much of the instructional movement can be used to galvanize and drum support. It is a powerful feeling to be a part of a community in the know. If you have ever been to a sporting event and collectively cheered for your team, then you understand the feeling of collective movement engagement. The dancehall offers personal expression of a shared common movement language. That is, until antigay rhetoric in the lyrics and from the DJ booth forces the body into making decisions, to be accepted or othered. Many gay men find themselves voiceless in these moments, unable to “sing amongst the brown eyes and henna lips of home.” Though they speak the same language, they are not welcomed as-is in the dancehall, the adoption of which affords a bit of safety in the space but comes with consequences. If the instructions are to “put your hands up if you hate battyman,” then, if you are a gay man in the dancehall, you have to raise hands high in projected self hate and communal support or be othered, not welcomed. The impact of homophobia on physicality affects behavioral patterns such as mannerisms, public expressions, and a general approach to movement that is more of modeling than, arguably, a natural physical expression of self.
The body as home—being home in one’s body, in self, in expression. I started to question whether that was possible for the Jamaican gay man. The learned physicality is hypermasculine and heteronormative; no place for a cross-dressing Dwayne Jones here. Any deviation is cause for concern, and in true Jamaican sense, “if a no so it go den a nearly so”; cause for concern on the subject of masculinity is already homosexual judgment. The idea of being home in ones’ body as a gay Jamaican male has to be a private expression, and in most cases and in most parts of the society, these parts of the self are not allowed to inform everyday activities and everyday decisions. My good friend in Kingston speaks of the caution that surrounds his body every day as he drives past a group of men generally carousing on a corner, men who in flash-mob-style choreography point their hands at his car—with gun gestures. This is a repressed lifestyle, and the sort of contortions my friend and others have to go through to be safe is challenging. He notices, too, that he is not seeing familiar faces and admired bright minds at important development events; he searches social media and discovers many have migrated. So he asks me, “What am I doing here? In what space is it ok for them to sit on the corner, every day, do nothing, and somehow believe themselves to be of more value and more legitimate members of this society than me, when I go to work daily and put forward policies to benefit us all? Should I be made uncomfortable on my way to and from home because I am gay?” I wonder what levels of hiding are harmful and what types of creative or innovative potentials are stifled in this harassment. What is the real impact of homophobia on physical freedom for Jamaican men?
The dances and inherited physicality of the region are shaped by its history of violence, slavery, forced migration, and colonial rule. With that knowledge, it is not farfetched to suggest homophobia and its forced physical responses also contribute to the male physicality. Why is this important? There is a physical code-switch and masking that is inherently a part of survival for the gay man. In A Yard Abroad I wanted to explore what it would look like if the body was in a constant state of switching. That, combined with isolations, formed the movement structure for the work. It allowed me to explore how, through forced migration, isolation becomes a survival reality. I wanted to explore this isolation choreographically. I further wanted to probe the masks we create, the projection of self, where the real self lives in a shadow of that projection, which is meant to satisfy the patterns of acceptable behavior and living in society. What happens when, for gay men in Jamaica, the true self becomes a shadow of the projected self one has to live in? How is identity constructed under these factors, or despite these factors? In migration, push or pull, the gay West Indians in North America, in attempting to put shadow selves back together, will undoubtedly experience confusion, which furthers isolation in this space.
Choreographically I worked with emotional and physical isolation—in the body, the broken body. The poem combined with the movement creates feelings of isolation, moments of imbalance, moments of loss and confusion; represents attempted suicide, waters, baptism and rebirth. I use stark frontlighting to create a focal point on the dancer—the sense of people watching; of being watched from the outside, without interaction; aloneness. The shadow selves larger and more powerful create a feeling of inferiority in the space—one is diminished by one’s own shadow.
Not being welcomed in a space you call home contributes to the overarching feeling of homelessness and isolation in the work. In the poem it is expressed as not belonging and then further not being able to integrate successfully into a new space because of lack of information, lack of preparation, being trapped in one’s own shadow. This I believe to be a side effect of years of masking, where the projected mask becomes the norm and the self is shadowed under a character. In A Yard Abroad, I address how one gets caught in one’s shadow and stuck in patterns of behavior that do not translate in another space. I wonder how the work will be received when shared among peoples from different backgrounds in Jamaica. Will it resonate with them, and will we end up with this same conversation? For the West Indian audience in New York, the response relied on different words and experiences, but it was the same conversation: You want to be home, but home don’t want you.
Chris Walker is a dancer and choreographer with the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica. He studied dance theatre production at Edna Manley College in Kingston and graduate creative research in dance at SUNY-Brockport. Walker is the recipient of numerous scholarships and awards, including the New York–Thayer Fellowship, the GOJ PM Award, the International Young Choreographer Award, and the Madison signature grant. He continues to tour, present work, and conduct artistic residencies throughout the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and North and South America. At University of Wisconsin–Madison, Walker is an assistant professor in the Dance Department and artistic director of the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives/First Wave. He is also the cofounder and artistic director of NuMoRune Collaborative—an ensemble of dancers, choreographers, storytellers and musicians who come together under a united artistic vision to create collaborative works.
Danez Smith is a first cohort First Wave Alumni and a published poet, performer, and playwright. A Cave Canem Fellow, a two-time Pushcart Nominee, and named by Best New Poets, Smith has performed across the United States, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and Switzerland, and in Panama, where he cofounded a bilingual education program with the US Embassy. Currently a cultural specialist for St. Paul Public Schools and assistant editor for Muzzle Magazine, Smith is looking forward to joining the Brave New Voices team in San Francisco this winter.
A Yard Abroad (2013) – World Premiere
Choreography: Chris Walker
Music: Improvisation based on choreography; structure by Major Scurlock, with Jesse Hunter and Karl Olsen of Proceed
Poetry: “Watchmen,” by Christian Robinson;
“Same Sun Son,” written and performed by Danez Smith;
“Uncle,” written and performed by Elton Ferdinand;
“The Date,” written by Danez Smith, based on conversations with Chris Walker;
“You Are Supposed to Love Me,” written by Danez Smith and Jonathan Williams, performed by Elton Ferdinand III and Danez Smith;
“and now this,” written by Danez Smith, based on conversations with Chris Walker, performed by Chris Walker and Danez Smith
Lighting Design: Stephen Arnold
Costumes: Chris Walker and Lucilda Pottinger
Performance: Dwayne Brown, Nijawwon Matthews, Jermaine Rowe, and Jerome Stigler