REFLECTIONS ON SUGA: Intuition, creation, change and a Ritual Mass of re-membering my ancestors.
A reflection & sharing by Travis Coe, a 25 year-old Afro-Latinx man born in Elizabeth, NJ and currently an Associate Ensemble Member at Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, MA.
All photographs are taken by Kim Chin-Gibbons.
When I was a little chitlin’ my motha told me, my brotha and my sista that “we could be any color de la flor we wanted to be. And that one day we were gonna grow big, strong and beautiful.” And my sista said, “Aye mommy, I want to be a yellow flower, or maybe a blue flower or maybe a red flower. Like the ones growing in our garden.” I knew that this conversation was in my dream — en mi sueño — because we didn’t have a garden of flowers at my childhood home — only dirt with scatterings of cinderblocks, wood and steel on top of it. And my brotha cried out, “Gurl! Make up your damn mind already. Listen, I’m content being a rotten brown flower.” And when it came to me I said “I want to be todos los colores. I want to be everything.”
SUGA began with research into my ancestry and setting the parameters for the scope of my research which was the creation of a solo performance. So I want to reflect & share about that current process — though it will have many lives beyond this moment and I am looking to try it in new forms other than a solo performance but that conversation is for another piece of writing.
Through this research, I began a deep investigation into questions about my family. A path that would lead me to rediscover my ancestors through many different forms — such as stories, history, movement, dance, rituals and song. I had so many pieces and had no idea what the threads were. Thats where my intuition came in and then Stacy Klein, director of SUGA as well as the Founder & Artistic Director of Double Edge Theatre. I think in any creative process our intuition is our best fucking friend. I had to believe that deep inside of me all the pieces would come together and I just had to commit to keep going on the path of re-membering. A process of first bringing and finding in the moment ancestral and self-made rituals in the form of dances, songs, poems, etc. to the studio and letting them out into the universe. Eventually, I would start to sow together objects, memories, intentions, with meaning and importance as a way to honor my ancestors by re-membering them. It’s amazing what my intuition brought me to and has so many times before. My advice to everyone is to not doubt your intuition — most of the time, unless it leads to evil harm onto one another, the environment, the world or all of the above. Even at times when we believe that there is just so much and it all simply can’t fit — TRUST. Another word of advice for a creation process is don’t get so caught up in how things fit…that’s why you have a director/editor/amazing friend. If you have a brilliant one like Stacy Klein, well then you really have nothing to worry about.
I created SUGA from a place of desire and the meaning that came out of that is amazing for me to see now. Weekly, I watch a beautiful and professional quality recording of the performance that my friends shot so I can see the work and continue to develop it. Some days the meaning seems so clear, other days it’s hazier and most days it is changing which is great. At first, I hated the idea of my meaning-making changing. I really wanted to be able to pinpoint what this was and why it was so important for me to share. As a performer-creator, I really needed to drop that and just let that shit pour out of me. Like I was possessed. No inhibitions. Only a wild vomiting and then once again a brilliant director/editor/friend will clean you up and not make you look like shit.
From March 6–10, we invited our community to open rehearsals and previews of SUGA. Now that I’ve had some time to see the performance in it’s current state, I can see more clearly the threads of this ritual of re-membering from an audience perspective. What I witnessed was love. I loved myself and I don’t want to apologize for that. Going on this journey of loving myself and finding true love for myself was and still is essential to the performance of this ritual. It is the suga’ in the tons of shit that pollute and penetrate the world, our souls and what did ultimately hide the lessons and stories of my ancestors. As well as loving myself, I re-membered their love! I re-discovered and re-claimed the energies of their souls throughout this universe — which is not only manifested in a physical form. It also manifests itself in the space between that which is solid. In the space not always perceivable by the human eye.
Stepping into my love and seeing how that manifested itself on the stage was a gift for me to witness. My radiance, pain, finding of courage, power and the re-membering of my people’s flight is transformative and healing.
I think I can now articulate a little more what SUGA “is”, what it has become through a daily process of change and what it is becoming for me. I say “is” with quotes because SUGA is malleable and I don’t want to be a victim of my current feeling of what this piece “is” right now as I know it’s meaning will change. But for the purposes of this endeavor and my inspiration to talk about this piece, I will share with you what it currently means to me. Before I do that, it might be a good idea for you to watch a short trailer I edited together below. Of course, it won’t do the piece total justice but I think it gives an idea of the energy and spirit of the work.
SUGA is a Requiem (a Mass for the repose of the souls of the dead, an act or token of remembrance) — an ascension from ancestral trauma/hell and my journey through ancestral and self-made rituals of re-membering my people/myself back to the heights of glory/heaven — back to the old kingdom before captivity. Back to the innocence of children. To a place where pain didn’t exist yet. Only amazement, beauty, wonder, bewilderment. A state of pure curiosity. To really get back to this state I created a ritual mass — a performance of a mass for my ancestors who have died from the hands of other humans with the intention of putting centuries of trauma to rest.
I’m terrified at the moral apathy — the death of the heart which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long, that they really don’t think I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say, and this means that they have become, in themselves, moral monsters.
-James Arthur Baldwin
The performance begins and ends with the sharing of a dream (see text at the top of this page). I dream that I could be any color flower I want be. I dream of being everything. A dream that I am bringing from my bed into the world. A dream that I manifest in the performance space. As a colored man born and raised in America that dream at times feels distant. I have been conditioned to believe that I am really only the sum total of my class and race, the inferior to my white peers. This dream that begins and ends this ritual Mass is my way to start from a place of bringing my full self to the room. Like Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, I too want to see the promises made by America of equality, liberty and justice for all but have not fully seen them with my whole being. So I/we (my ancestors) like Martin said, “refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
In the climax of SUGA, Martin’s voice fills the space as I run and fly towards freedom:
In a sense, we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.
This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
-Excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.
A weeping Mary in the form of a mannequin takes the stage with me as I go through this journey. She — like myself — begins by weeping for those who have died but in my journey of gaining courage and power I transform her/our pain. I re-member her before the tears — in a place of mothering, of beauty and tranquility. In an act of remixing, sound designer John Peitso creates a requiem track with Mozart’s Lacrimosa (Latin for “weeping”, also a name that derives from Our Lady of Sorrows, a title given to Mary, mother of Jesus) which transforms into the uplifting gospel of Tech N9ne’s Lacrimosa (click on the names of each song to listen to both tracks). Mary’s participation in the processes of salvation and redemption has always been emphasized in the Catholic tradition of which I partly grew up in. In SUGA, I begin working with her as an artifact/alter of pain and suffering and re-member her through the process to the women of courage in my life. A mother who saves my ancestors from death and separation from the god of change.
A man — also in the form of a mannequin — which reminds me at times of my father, brothers and lovers also takes the stage with me. As much as this performance was an exploration into my ancestry, it was also an exploration into my process of queering history. As a queer man in America and the person creating this ritual, I really had no choice but to bring all of me to the forefront. The lines of gender, masculinity and femininity are really blurry to me at times but in this piece I challenge heteronormativity in my being/meaning-making while exposing the malleability of my identity.
SUGA looks like many things but definitely works with my queerness. My conditioning as a young man of a religious family allows me to see this with some clarity and unfortunately judgement. The truth is, I am quite scared to invite some members of my family to this performance. I know they love me unconditionally, but it is very vulnerable to share a sex scene with a male mannequin even if it happens behind a curtain. I am laughing as I write this. I know it ridiculous that in 2019, I am still scared of sharing the intimacy of my queerness with my family but I am working on it. SUGA has definitely begun to help me find that courage.
On March 28, 2018, I listened to Stacy Klein in Anger / Appetite / Ambition / ART — a Symposium on Women Innovators in the Arts at Montclair State University say, “Upon reflection, I am in awe that I never knew that courage was a daily process.” I was seriously shocked when I heard that! It was also a huge revelation for me. Before that moment, I lived with this false feeling that courage was somehow granted to me. I was surely wrong! I took that quote in, reclaimed and live by that. I go through my life not taking for granted that I wake up already having courage but that I need to work daily to garner my courage and SUGA has helped me to do that. To journey through this history with a deep care. To not be afraid to revive, reanimate and ultimately remix these feelings and memories and turn them into the alchemical materials to unlock much necessary healing and courage. To find ways to extend the daily periods of time in which I feel whole in my courage and freedom. Instead of only having that true feeling of freedom for 10 minutes at a time can I extend those periods to 30 minutes, an hour, half the day, etc. And with this newly found and extended feelings of courage and freedom can I ultimately share these resources/ingredients with my future family to continue to re-memeber and live our lives in an ever-changing and growing garden of freedom.
In SUGA, I constantly looked to my spiritual father James Arthur Baldwin to ask my deepest questions to. I looked to him for wisdom and inspiration. Multiple speeches and texts from his novel Giovanni’s Room were used in the preview performances:
“But this time when I touched him something happened in him and in me which made this touch different from any touch either of us had ever known. And he did not resist, as he usually did, but lay where I had pulled him, against my chest. And I realized that my heart was beating in an awful way…Then, for the first time in my life, I was really aware of another person’s body, of another person’s smell. We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. I was very frightened; I am sure he was frightened too, and we shut our eyes. To remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never for an instant truly forgotten it. I feel in myself now a faint, a dreadful stirring of what so overwhelmingly stirred in me then, great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my heart would burst. But out of this astounding, intolerable pain came joy; we gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love.
― James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
Like Octavia Butlers’ character Lauren Oya Olamina from The Parable of the Sower “who suffers from hyperempathy, which causes her to share pain or perceived pain with any living creature she sees,” I too take in the pain of my ancestors. “When her community is attacked, burned, and looted, seventeen-year-old Olamina barely escapes with her life. She travels, at great danger, into northern California in search of a haven where she and others can build the first Earthseed community.” In SUGA, I too must build my Earthseed community. Or how I like to see it — my/our Garden of Re-membering and Freedom.
“The word “Earthseed” comes from the idea that the seeds of all life on Earth can be transplanted, and through adaptation will grow, in many different types of situations or places. Octavia Butlers’ “The Books of the Living” is chosen in direct contrast to many other religions’ use of the phrase “The Books of the Dead”. Earthseed is a religion of the present and the future, of the living, not of the dead or the past.
Although Olamina is raised as a Baptist, she does not feel comfortable with “her father’s God.” Instead, she develops ideas that seem to better fit the reality she knows.
Because “God is Change”, humans are able to direct God’s malleability. Believers are enjoined to “shape God”. By shaping themselves, they can save themselves. Believers are to accept the central tenet that “God is Change” primarily so that they will recognize their own power to affect and direct Change/God. Only by conscious effort can they avoid being God’s victims.
Earthseed also promotes the belief that “The Destiny of Earthseed / Is to take root among the stars” (The Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler). The Destiny is necessary because, eventually, we will outgrow Earth (i.e., use up its natural resources).”
Thank you Earthseed Wikipedia for that text above and Octavia Butler for your brilliance. I truly believe this is what I do in SUGA and my daily life has changed from it.
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
— Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower
My ancestors and the creation/performing of SUGA has changed the course of my life. It has changed life for my family, other colored folks and weather you like it or not — for you as you have now decided to join me on this journey. I am so fucking happy that I embarked on this research and brought the first stage of SUGA into fruition. I know my ancestors are smiling at me right now and sending me love.
“Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden,” Jacques said. And then: “I wonder why.”
Everyone, after all, goes the same dark road — and the road has a trick of being most dark, most treacherous, when it seems most bright — and it’s true that nobody stays in the garden of Eden.
Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another type of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both.
― James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
Our work is important. Our creative work and imagination are even more important! The space to create that work with freedom we need to continue to find no matter the current conditions of the world — perceivable or not. That’s my journey and I thank SUGA, my ancestors, Stacy Klein and all who have embarked on this voyage with me for these current discoveries. And most importantly, I thank and love myself for having the courage to keep finding flight and letting my imagination penetrate the universe.
I hope you will join us from November 14–16, 21–24, 2019 for the world premiere of SUGA at Double Edge’s Farm Center.
With love & courage,
To anyone who is reading this: Physical & vocal performance training played a huge part in this process of creating SUGA. It has played an integral role in my creations process with Double Edge Theatre, as well as with Round Room Image, at the time we were creating live performance from 2012–2015. I am acknowledging that I don’t talk about it once in this piece as it is probably the hardest and most ephemeral thing to talk about. I hope to write about that process someday, but for now I just want to let you know that I am omitting training from this current piece of writing. To find out more about specifically Double Edge Theatre’s training process, visit our website and join us for a training in the near future: https://doubleedgetheatre.org/training
SUGA is slated for its premiere this November 14–16, 21–24, 2019 at Double Edge Theatre. The performance is conceived, created, and performed by Travis Coe and directed by Stacy Klein. Travis, a DE Associate Ensemble Artist, began working on SUGA in 2016 as he explored the Afro-Caribbean/Latinx history of his family, and their native lands spanning Belize, Nicaragua, and Puerto Rico. Klein, DE’s Founder and Artistic Director, watched some of Travis’ early creative process and began working in dialogue together with Travis to develop the material and create this performance. It is an investigation of freedom, and the bounds — personal, artistic, societal, and political — one must break through to achieve that end. As a caretaker of a museum of memory, Coe touches/reveals/remixes all the aspects of himself — as Queer, Black, Latino, and American, to find the path to sing, fly, run — toward Freedom.
Joining the team of SUGA are DE’s longtime design collaborator Michal Kuriata and company artists Tadea Klein (costume designer) and John Peitso (music director).
The performance is inspired by the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, the paintings and sculptures of Zdzisław Beksiński, and the life and work of James Baldwin.
March 8–10, 2019
at Double Edge’s Farm Center
To learn more about SUGA, visit the Double Edge Theatre website: https://doubleedgetheatre.org/suga