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.

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