Black Womanhood, Chopped and Screwed in RIP

By Jordan Ealey – RIP Dramaturg

RIP: A Conversation between Playwright Danielle Deadwyler and Dramaturg Jordan Ealey.

In her autobiographical work, Dust Tracks On a Road, novelist, essayist, and playwright Zora Neale Hurston writes, “No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” This oft-cited quote accentuates Hurston’s perspective on the world: one where she is less concerned with the way she is viewed as a black woman, but more so on her own self-definition. This is the way we enter into rip: a woman, on stage, sharpening a knife. Through poetic meditations and striking visual imagery, Danielle Deadwyler takes us on a wayward journey, exploring, in her own words, “what emerges after a rip.”

What is presented is “equal parts performance art and domestic drama” that re-members a black woman that has been dismembered by the world. Adapted from her MFA thesis, entitled “the dissolution of things,” rip pushes the bounds of what is even considered theatre. Throughout the development and rehearsal process, Deadwyler was insistent on the nebulous and wayward aesthetic of rip; nothing about the final product rests on tradition in any way, whether it’s her emphasis on the show not being pretty or on the fact that she doesn’t even consider it to be a play. Dance and movement is, similar to sound, just as important to the young woman’s development through the piece; from start to finish, her movement animates the anxieties of the words. This multiplies rip’s transformational multidisciplinarity, demonstrating the tradition of black women’s performance culture that disrupts traditional modes of theatre making.

Deadwyler’s words are accompanied by a gorgeous soundscape; even in simply reading the words, one can almost hear the sharpening of the knife, the bouquet of voices in the chorus, the weight of the words of a black woman beaten down by the world. “Chopped and screwed,” a hip hop remixing technique that originated in Houston, Texas by DJ Screw, underlies rip’s corporeal and sonic form. In the piece, the woman begins and ends with a knife; she is both screwed by and screws society, chopping up expectation into pieces and using the fragments to fashion a new self.

Of equal importance is the important work of the chorus. Drawing inspiration from cultural historian, Saidiya V. Hartman’s text, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, rip beautifully incorporates her notion of the chorus, an aural representation of ancestral and communal connection among black women. Hartman understands the chorus as the choral interludes illustrate black feminist collectivity, as we are often the ones who nurture and challenge each other, fully accepting the nuance and dimension of black womanhood. The chorus is the conceptual glue of rip, a reminder to all that none of us can go this alone, that we can and do lean on one another and that we open the way for us to find ourselves. The refrain of the chorus, in Hartman’s words, “opens the way” and “propels transformation”; toward the conclusion of rip, she is on the new, open path, having been ripped open.

Thus, rip is a rehearsal of the possible within the seemingly impossible. In its liminal space of not-quite-theatre, of not-quite-performance art, of not-quite-dance, yet and still, it embodies the multitudinous worlds of them all. It pushes the bounds of art-making practices, demonstrating the ways that black women have a vision of the world not as it is, but as it could be. This intimate journey is anything but delicate and pretty; in fact, Deadwyler openly leans into its difficulty, its illegibility, its ugliness. What emerges after a rip, then, is not a definitive answer, but a clarified question. Deadwyler’s rip narrates a process of becoming: ripping away from expectation and swimming into endless possibility.

Switching It Up!: Behind the 4×4 Set Design

By Gabrielle Stephenson, Set Designer for 4×4

Set Designer Gabrielle Stephenson and ATD Ethan Weathersbee strike the Backstage and Other Stories (show 1) set to then become the set setup for Stiff (show 2).

If you got to see Wayfinding, you actually got to partially see the sets for 4×4 in person – we decided to recycle and reimagine it.  The main inspiration for this series was stages without any dressing: no set onstage, no temporary risers for performances, no lit drops, simply the original architecture/bones of a theater.  4×4, at its core, is truly a celebration of theater and art continuing to push forward through the uncharted waters of what 2020 has brought us.  

Part of the challenge on designing a unit set for four completely different shows was figuring out ways to differentiate each from the other with minimal yet creative changes.  The Wayfinding set was repurposed in this case so that more budget could be allocated towards said unique changes you will see throughout the run.  We kept the back wall & moving wall structures but refaced them with faux brick, added 2 side walls to maximize projection surface options, and removed all the fabric from the metal structures to suggest truss structures that you would typically see in wings of theaters behind the curtains.  We also repainted and laid down a faux wood floor, one of many elements that will change before the next show, Chorus of Bears, comes to the stage.

For Backstage and Other Stories, we utilized every small trick in the book, with rolling furniture, flashing proscenium lights around the center moving wall, fishing wire that hung frames containing pictures from Terry Burrell’s respected career and moving the red house curtains in and out at times.  I wanted Stiff to feel more intimate, so we pushed the two smaller platforms together, shifted the moving walls more downstage, brought the house curtains in, and added some different dressing to give it a more relaxed ambiance. 

Stay tuned to see the exciting further changes in the remainder of the productions!