The Knockturnal experienced Chronicle X – a two-night ritual-play cycle memorializing the stories of Black women warriors at The Shed in New York City.
Creator, writer, and co-director, and actress Nia O. Witherspoon spoke to The Knockturnal about Chronicle X – which is the first work in The Dark Girl Chronicles, a ritual-play cycle designed to “crystallize in the collective memory the stories of Black women warriors against state violence.”
The ritual-play is described as Black feminist church, with audience members wearing headphones and using their phones to experience the performance that includes dancing, a live band, and the telling of Yoruba sacred story. This show is a unique, immersive installation performance.
The Knockturnal: How long has this show been in the making?
Nia O. Witherspoon: The series began in my heart in 2013 when I watched the Trayvon Martin trials and witnessed Rachel Jeantel, a teenager who had just lost her best friend, being attacked on the stand. With complete disregard to the fact that she was in mourning, Rachel was denigrated for her clothes, her size, her speech, her style of communicating, and anything else the prosecutor or media found worthy of comment. Her exponential levels of grief in contrast to the minuscule amount of social space offered to her was unfathomable to me. There was no space for her vulnerability, even in this most tender moment. Even when mourning, Black women’s bodies, pain, and truth are desecrated. We see the same pattern in the case of Diamond Reynolds. While Philando lay dying in the hospital, Diamond was detained in the police station for eight hours in a pointless and unconstitutional investigation, with no regard for her pain. The inability to perceive and appropriately respond to Black women’s pain is a function of white supremacy rooted in the animalization and commodification of Black bodies during chattel slavery. The Dark Girl Chronicles—focusing on the stories of Rachel Jeantel, Diamond Reynolds, and Islan Nettles—draws attention to these issues by centering Black women’s vulnerability, offering space first and
foremost for us to be witnessed by ourselves and each other, and, secondarily, by the larger public.
The Knockturnal: Why choose to highlight Phillando Castile – as opposed to the other Black people who
have been unjustly killed?
Nia O. Witherspoon: First, I’ll just offer a reframe. I don’t highlight Philando “as opposed” to other Black people who have been unjustly killed, I offer his story up to add to the tapestry of our work around folks who have been killed. We so often see a collection of names in a mural or in a recitation, and for me it was important to provide a sacred container for one individual life. That said, there are particular things about Philando’s story that are unique and especially worth highlighting; Diamond’s Reynold’s Facebook Live post that marked a history of Black women’s evolutionary warriorship through the form of testimony; Philando’s being cut off by bullets when he explained to Jeremy Yanez that he had a firearm, and needed to get around it for his wallet and ID. Black people, as second-class citizens, are not permitted the same rights as their white peers in carrying legal and licensed guns; what for a white citizen was a right way for a black citizen a death sentence. It is critical that this case be highlighted to expose this irony.
The Knockturnal: How important was it for you to separate Black and non-Black members of the audience
and can you describe that portion of the show?
Nia O. Witherspoon: Asserting private space for Black folks in public is a radical act. We have been denied the right to privacy since slavery when non-Black people, especially white slave owners had full access to our bodies at all times. In fact, American spectatorship is in many ways defined by the objectification of Black bodies, made clear on the minstrel stage (or the lynching stage), both popular forms of entertainment. In this portion of the work, I offer up a segment of the piece for Black folks to process our matrix of emotions and ask non-Black folks to put on headphones, where we have prepared another portion for them. As I say in Chronicle X. We all have our own work to do.
The Knockturnal: What do you hope is the audience’s main takeaway from the show?
Nia Witherspoon: Black life is sacred.
The Knockturnal: Can you describe the significance of the doors and the audience’s use of the App?
Nia O. Witherspoon: The audience is seated in an installation (designed by Tuce Yasak and You-Shin Chen) made of a circle of doors that forms the shape of a Bantu Kongo ritual ground-drawing to eradicate death; we actualize our evolved vision for the world through ancestral technologies we have been disinherited from. It is in this way that we layer, double, and triple our efficacy. By believing them and their ways mattered. Black cosmologies matter.
The Knockturnal: What’s next for this ritual play cycle?
Nia O. Witherspoon: We plan to tour the work and extend this ritual healing and spell of liberation across the
nation and the diaspora! We need supportive producers and presenting organizations to
partner with us in the manifestation of this vision!