The Poetic License Theater Festival is currently underway in New York City. The ten-day festival will feature performances and readings from such luminaries as Ntozake Shange and Staceyann Chin. It will also feature a three-day run of the multidisciplinary production Redbone: A Biomythography , written and performed by poet Mahogany L. Browne, beginning this Monday at the Wild Theater Project in New York City.
Redbone takes its name from Browne’s mother’s nickname, which originates from colorism in black communities, where lighter-skinned black women were simultaneously celebrated and hated for their skin color. Browne’s Redbone seeks to subvert its meaning and excavate her personal origin story. It is an intersectional conversation about class, gender, race and community through the lens of family. Through live composition, dance and poetry, this working-class narrative of black life and hard love are rendered visible. Redbone tries to imagine the circumstances of her parents’ coming together and undoing, the physical violence that ultimately separated them and the alcohol and drug addiction that sustained them because of that loss. “My whole writing life has been me dissecting what it’s like to be a black addicted person’s child,” Browne told me last week in between her rehearsal for the show’s debut this Monday. “This [work] is the moment that I get to look at my mother as a full body human being. As a woman in love and a single mother, it made me so much more compassionate to her being.”
For over two years–beginning with her time as a Cave Canem fellow–Browne has been writing poems about her unknown past that were born from a moment in which she felt isolated from artists in the performance poetry community. Browne notes that these poems were trying to unpack a disconnection she felt with the feminism within this small artistic community that failed to recognize her fully. “I was angry at who I was in that world that I had to step back, and start looking at the world I come from and why that mattered. Why would take all this pain? I come from a house of pain. I felt my voice, the black woman’s voice was being erased.”
We are the creators of the kind of stories we wish to see. Sometimes it is through art that we are enabled to have a conversation rooted in empathy to unpack the harm we experience. While the poems were born from a frustration in the absence of a feminism that recognized its intersections and the narratives of women of color, it evolved to something much more. Writing Redbone has helped Browne understand the importance of bystander intervention in her own life story–and her mother’s–and connect it to our communities. In diving into an examination about domestic violence through Redbone, Browne recalls her “unyielding distaste for of Chris Brown and the machine that supported him because what it was saying [was] ‘yeah he bit her in the ear, nose and lip, yeah he bruised her eye, choked her…but what did she do to support this?’ This world is saying it’s ok. He’s still selling records…So it became that thing because no wonder I’m so angry; I see how disposable the woman’s body is. It’s a horrible realization.”
It’s important to note that we are all in our various concentric circles seeking to reconcile, unpack, and understand how these patterns of violence and abuse in our culture affect us. The great power of art is that we get to push back against respectability politics that seek to hide parts of our stories that are ugly. Yet Browne doesn’t let anyone off the hook: “The black community isn’t the only community that informed that decision, so when I look at the black community I see them trying to lessen the blows, trying to massage love back into a house, a family, a community…the thing is this, you grown, you got to be accountable for your actions. We have to own our actions.”
Browne is a poet and entrepreneur; she owns the small imprint press Penmanship Books and publishes a diverse range of emerging authors nationwide. Drawing from her marketing and branding background, Browne considered how her offline project could garner an online presence. To promote the show, Browne enlisted her network of artists and writers to submit portraits of themselves holding sign labeled with the hashtag #redbone, which she could post to her Instagram account. The portraits are a work of activism themselves, subverting the colorism associated with the word and infiltrating the feed with a diverse representation of race and gender. It is compelling to see how Browne’s community of #redbone portraits in social media is becoming its own installation. Browne is acutely aware of its effects. “I was more interested in usurping [#redbone]; it became art becomes life for me. This project became one of those ways to have a conversation about black girl worth.”
Humanity is beautiful and brutal and still worthy of our attention. There is something powerful when we write and tell our stories. All sides of our stories are worthy of seeing. We may not always love what we see, but that is the work of art, sometimes, and if it working, it challenges us to do better and be unafraid to look away.
Redbone: A Biomythography. Written by Mahogany L. Browne. Directed by Eboni Hogan.
Poetic License Theater Festival – The Wild Theater Project. 195 East 3rd Street, NYC.
February 10-12, 2014, 8:30PM, $20.