"There are only a few stories in the world," says Carrie Mae Weems. "The difference is how you are experiencing them." She continues, "The oldest story is, 'I'm in love.' But when it's happening to you, it's all new."
It is this — the forging of old and new — that Weems explores in Grace Notes: Reflections for Now. We speak with Weems just days before Grace Notes' world premiere and she is confident when she says, "We'll probably have it down by opening night."
An African-American artist, best known for her photography and video series, it would be easy to classify Weems' work as a piece that looks solely at the black experience. But she doesn't want the audience to come into Grace Notes with that limited perspective. "The thrust of my work is not around race, but questions of tensions around ethnic and cultural groups. The moment we start talking about racism, people race to the hills," she says.
This is Weems' first multi-media performance, one that combines elements of narrative, spoken word, music, and what she describes as "performance gestures."
The performance will include steppers from CofC, as well as composers and musicians like James Newton, Geri Allen, and Craig Harris, poet Aja Monet, writer Carl Hancock Rux, and singers Alicia Hall Moran, Imani Uzuri, and Esai Davis.
"It's not theater," Weems explains. "It's very fluid." The premise of the performance is this question: what is the role of grace in the pursuit of democracy? Weems first started thinking about Grace Notes when she decided to create a gift for President Obama, thanking him for his service as president. She knew that this gift could become something three-dimensional, so she started working on a performance.
"It's about how people use grace between social groups and ethnic groups," explains Weems, adding that this performance explores issues that transcend race relations. The story, of course, starts with race. Charleston's current narrative includes too many tragedies to enumerate — every senseless act of violence is a tragedy. But the deaths of African Americans such as Walter Scott, by a police officer, and the Emanuel Nine, by a white supremacist, have also become part of our national narrative.
Weems speaks of the families of the Emanuel Nine victims, and of their humanity and humility in the face of death. "How they responded was through grace and human dignity," says Weems. It is these specific moments, a daughter of one of the Emanuel Nine forgiving Dylann Roof, that Weems wants to evoke in Grace Notes. "You compress it all down to those human gestures and dignity," she says.
The story Weems is trying to tell is an expansive one, a story as old as time, and as long, too. How do you choose what to leave out of a performance that runs at just one hour and 30 minutes? "It's about what you leave in," says Weems. "I'm gathering a lot of information and then distilling it down to its essence."
The essence, then, could be seen as the question of: where do human rights go from here? Weems compares Grace Notes to Antigone, an ancient Greek tragedy. In this play, one of three in Sophocles' Theban pieces, Antigone wants to bury her brother Polyneices' body, despite the fact that the new ruler of Thebes has decided to publicly shame Polyneices' corpse.
This question of who deserves a proper burial becomes relevant today, especially in the face of racially-charged violence. Weems references the death of young black men like Tamir Rice, shot by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014. At the time of his death Rice was carrying a fake pistol, which some people believe is the reason the officers shot at him. The questionable circumstance of Rice's death, Weems says, shouldn't deny him, or anyone, a proper burial. "We think about differences and power and desire, right? If we distill it all down, we're really talking about the essence of human rights," she says.
"Tensions arise when traditions are attacked," continues Weems. When we ask her about the current state of America (please see: the upcoming presidential election), she expands on this point. "The current election cycle speaks profoundly to part of who we are. It points poignantly to the fears that reside around change," she says. "Disaffected people struggle to hold onto something that no longer exists."
So, we ask: where do we go from here? Weems isn't attempting to offer answers, but she hopes that audiences begin to ask themselves the tough questions that may lead to greater unity. She says, "The only way change happens is when we're willing to accept change."