Sharon Bridgforth talks about the development of her upcoming project, “River See”
Article and photo by Bruna indalecio
On her last visit to Miami, Sharon Bridgforth took a big step in the development of her new work, “River See”. The script is now finalized and the project is close to coming together for its premiere next year, in Chicago, and for the awaited Miami debut, which will take place either in late 2014 or beginning of 2015.
In an interview with Diaspora vibe – her Miami commissioner and supporter – she talks about her life in arts, influences and the growth of “River See”.
Diaspora Vibe: How did you start getting involved with art?
Sharon Bridgforth: I’ve been writing since I was 15, but I didn’t share my work publicly until I was 30. And when I was 30, I moved from Los Angeles to Austin, Texas, and I was working in social services, I was a community organizer and I was working around issues having to do with HIV, aids and early intervention and family planning. And I fell in with a group of activists who were artists that used art as a vehicle for social justice. I feel that that was my graduate school, they trained me and also gave me space and access and nurturing support. So, I kind of took my work out of the suitcase, so to speak, and started sharing work publicly. Initially I was using my work as a way to invite people to access services, so myself and the other artists that were involved in the social justice work that we were doing, that that’s how we would attract people that hopefully would then want to access the services that we were working to provide. Then, at some point, it just flipped and I realized that art could be service and it could be the thing that I did as social justice action.
DV: Who are your influences to compose your body of work?
SB: I am very inspired and influenced by Lori Carlos, she was one of the original cast members in the original production of “For Colored Girls Who Consider Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf”, also by Ntozake Shange, who was the writer of that piece. Robbie McCauley, who was also in “For Colored Girls” and is also known for a piece she did called “Sally’s Rape”, amongst other pieces; Sekun Sundiata, who transitioned I think it’s been a couple of years now. Many aspects of Sekun’s work, but particularly his last piece, the piece that he was completing when he died, called “51st (dream) State”, the way that he put the piece together and toured was really astonishing to me and really inspiring and I got to see it in development and talk to him. Also Hannibal Lokumbe, who lives in Texas, is based in Texas and I got to meet some years ago, and he kind of took me in and exposed me to a way of touring really big pieces that I found inspiring, affective and exciting. And Daniel Alexander Jones, Helga Davis, Johnny Jones, Sonja Perryman, and many others.
DV: Tell us little more about you new project, “River See”.
SB: “River See” is a series of blues stories that I’ve written that documents a young girl’s journey in her spiritual growth and development and also in her physical journey, from the delta south to the north. So See, the girl, is about to become part of the great migration here in the US. Her stories take place kind of the moment before that migration happens. In her stories, See tells us about her ancestors, her community, her family and her own struggle as she moves towards this really big change in her life, and culturally it was a big change for people at that time.
The pieces become activated as jazz, through the live performance, so in the live performance one actor plays See and tells the stories and then through an improvisation process that happens during performance, I compose the rest of the story live with singers and dancers, and musicians and the audience, we create together a moving soundscape that supports See in her journey and in the story that she’s telling.
DV: How do you expect to integrate the story with the Miami scene?
SB: The touring party for “River See” is myself and the actor Sonja Parks, so everywhere that “River See” goes Sonja and I go. And, with the support and help of the presenting organization, we cast locally, so there will be local singers, dancers and musicians that will be in the piece and because it is an improvisational process that brings the piece to life, I depend on each performer to create the architecture that holds the story. The dance, the specific ways of singing, the collective experience and knowledge of the region will be embodied in the performers and it will come through as they respond to the improvisational signals that I give them. Also, the audience is invited to participate as what I call “witness participants”, so I will ask the audience to translate texts, to speak some the text and I’ll ask the audience to offer gestural language. Then, at the top of each show, I ask who wants to participate in these various ways, and then we practice with them and we incorporate them to the piece as well. So, really, the structure, because this is jazz, is the story, though See is kind of holding the structure together and I, as composer, am holding the structure down, but how it unfolds will be specific to Miami, because we’re depending on the Miami artists and audience to help us.
DV: How is the experience of bringing the show here with the support of Diaspora Vibe?
SB: I adore Rosie Gordon-Wallace and I’ll go anywhere she says ‘go’ and I’d do anything she asked me to do. And she is an exquisite host, with Rosie’s support and Diaspora Vibe’s backing I’ve been introduced to the community here in Miami, I have not been in Miami before and it has just been an exquisite blessing. I mean, I feel that I’m being nurtured and supported with a lot of grace and generosity and there is an unending amount of talent here, so it’s inspiring and I feel filled and I love the international flavor that is here and I’m really excited to work with and be inspired by that in the work. It just doesn’t get any better, because the river is here and I’ve been to the spots where the river meets the ocean and that is the heart of the story. It’s perfect.
DV: What are the next steps to continue the project?
SB: I’m in a really great position now because with support from the National Performance Network (NPN) commissioning funds I have five commissioners. Diaspora Vibe is one of the commissioners, so I have had the support of five commissioning communities plus NPN and I’ve been really spending a lot of time developing not only the text, but also the technique to make this project successful and to bring these ideas to life in an affective way in performance. I feel that I’m coming towards the way of that development process. I feel that I, now, have the tools to actually do what it is and I have the experiences and I have had the support of many individuals and communities, to know how to do the work and I’m almost done with the script. So the next step is that I really have to package this work to tour. I need to now create the promotional packages. I need to make sure that I have a lighting and scene design that is tourable, a technical writer that is doable, an internet presence for the work that is meaningful and has a far reach, so that, as the work premieres, and the work will premiere in Chicago, at Links Hall, in 2014, we can be sure that it will live in many communities on the road. This moment is really interesting because it’s right before the premiere and it’s right as the development process is over, but in some ways it’s as important as the development itself, because now I have to make sure that all the parts are together for it to succeed after the premiere. That’s where I’m at now, looking towards that.
DV: Any other future projects?
SB: This trip I’ve focused on completing the script for “River See” and I’m very, very, close. And the next project that I will do, that I’m already kind of feeling in my heart, is a song cycle. I want to write a series of songs that are about love in the sense of infinite love. My goal is to have the songs installed in spaces like museums, maybe outdoor spaces too, so that the performers travel with the songs and the audience travels with the performers, but instead of singers I want there to be a chorus of people speaking different languages, so that the musicality of languages are the music that carries these words about love. I’m excited!