May 21st, 2021
Closing the Gap Between Dreams and Reality: On the Work of Ta-Nia
By CAITLYN TELLA
Caitlyn and theater-making duo Ta-Nia discuss embodiment, multimodality, and afrofuturism.
Dreams in Black Major at NYU Tisch / National Black Theatre. Photo Jeff Lawless.
Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, the late, visionary founder of Harlem’s National Black Theatre, was committed to art that “emanates from an African world-view and is grounded in spiritual tradition,” a standard, she wrote, that inherently “removes the separation between audience and stage.” Ta-Nia, a theater-making duo in Brooklyn, whose formative collaboration, Dreams in Black Major, premiered at the National Black Theatre in 2019, excavate that separation in their practice-based research. If the proverbial stage entertains limitless fantasy and the audience sits in concrete reality, what lies between? Ta-Nia intricately perceive the possibilities of that synthesis to build a new space. In their words, “a blk space in an anti-blk society.”
To understand what I mean when I say that Ta-Nia intricately perceive the liminal, participate in The Map Project. It’s a digital tour through the capacity of your own imagination to envision utopia, guided by meditations, video art, and dozens of prompts written by Ta-Nia. It works by initiating participants into the wisdom tradition of their own sensory faculties and applying that wisdom to realize the Afro-future. Ta-Nia crafted the experience to collect written material for A Map to Nowhere (things are), a performance/ritual in development through Soho Rep’s Writer/Director Lab. Since August 2020, over 150 people have participated, with over 500 responses recorded. “We find it crucial for our projects to contain the DNA of our community,” they say.
Screenshots from The Map Project. Website designed by Talía Paulette Oliveras.
In Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing, a poetry book that inspired A Map to Nowhere (things are), “The Device” tells the story of a new technology invented by “a hive mind of Black nerds” to communicate with and receive guidance from ancestors. Imagine the device through the aesthetic lens of Afrofuturism and you might picture a metallic, sleek, cosmic gadget. As it turns out, the device is “an inelegant hodgepodge, a reflection of the hands that made it.” One scientist's reflection: “It looked like in a hundred years it might be something you’d find at a yardsale. But of course...wouldn’t that be a success? Shouldn’t the device come to be so average and commonplace that it ceases to be magic and comes to be part of everyday life for regular black people all over the country?” This question expresses Mundane Afrofuturism, a tenet of Ta-Nia’s project.
Elucidated in Martine Syms’ manifesto, Mundane Afrofuturism is a framework for cultural production that combines the vision of Afrofuturism—–Black liberation–—with a critique of its spiritual bypasses. It applies the laws of physics (gravity) to Afrofuturism, and in doing so, roots the radical Black imagination on earth. “Outer space will not save us from injustice,” writes Syms, and “the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.” Sprawling mycelium networks, with their ancient abilities to nourish entire ecosystems and detoxify the environment, are, after all, mundane by definition. The Map Project and its spawn, A Map to Nowhere (things are), embody this type of technology to world-build.
Nia Farrell and Talía Paulette Oliveras, photo Bianca Rogoff
In early spring I corresponded with Ta-Nia on a shared doc about these influences over the course of several weeks. While they mainly wrote as a singular entity, they are, by the way, Talía Paulette Oliveras and Nia Farrell. “Nia,” writes Talía, “is a master of puns and poetics, a supernova gracing us with its brightness, an infectious joy embodied.” While “Talía,” writes Nia, “is the manifestation of dreams and a catalyst for the possibilities of this world, with a rose in one hand and a machete in the other.” Together, they alchemize a way of working and being otherwise inaccessible.
Video stills from The Map Project designed by Ava Elizabeth Novak, concept by Ta-Nia.
Can you talk a bit about how you’re translating The Map Project responses from the virtual realm to the performance of A Map to Nowhere (things are)?
We worked with two incredible archivists, Jordan Powell and Nina Attinello, who helped us sort through all the website submissions and track recurring themes, repeated dreams, and striking imagery.
With those 50-something Google doc pages of responses, we’ll identify the quotes and visual language that we want to incorporate directly in the script. Sometimes we’ll put responses in conversation with one another by creating a poem of different dreams for a character to perform. And other times, the submissions, individually and collectively, influence the physical environment. Colors, sounds, and textures that people included in their dreams may find their way into our collective theatrical space. One of our hopes as creators is that a person who participated in The Map Project walks into the space and sees or experiences their dreams actualized.
“I wanted a map / not to know / where things are / but to know / where I am” appears in all caps in Eve L. Ewing’s book, Electric Arches. This also reflects the title of your show. Ewing’s poetry takes many forms, including sestina, narrative prose, epistolary, five-act structure, and the “re-tellings” where she uses her own handwriting to redirect and transmute a traumatic narrative. Her writing also continually insists on joy and meaning, not as divine privileges or future states to inhabit, but as the basis of her own perceptions, all in the context of the status quo of anti-Black violence. There’s a lot more to say about it. How does this particular book influence your piece?
You identified many of the reasons we fell in love with Eve L. Ewing’s writing and this collection of poems in particular. As our project evolved from an adaptation of the book to a conversation with the book to a piece that is inspired by the book, there are two elements of Ewing’s that we’ve clung to.
First, the re-tellings. The act of re-telling and transforming an inherited or lived narrative is a powerful one. These re-telling poems remind the reader of their agency and imagination—two essential components for future-building. In the way Ewing activated us as creators to re-tell our stories, we want to activate our characters and audience to do the same.
The other element of Ewing’s work that serves as an emotional undercurrent for our characters and the structure of the piece is her core question in “The Device,”––how can we as Black people be free in a world that does not love us? At its core, A Map To Nowhere (things are) is a ritual for the audience to ask and answer that question for themselves.
Martine Syms writes that Mundane Afrofuturism recognizes “the sense that the rituals and inconsistencies of daily life are compelling, dynamic, and utterly strange.” How does this inform the work you do as theater-makers to “make blk spaces in an anti-blk society”?
I’m excited for what Talía thinks about this question! The way I understand this quote and its relationship to our work is that, in isolation, concepts of actualization and manifestation might appear to be nonsense. But I think rituals are only “utterly strange” if they don’t lead us to action. Dreams of liberation that only remain in the head, now that’s strange to me! But dreams that become a blueprint for the future we will coexist in, now that’s just practical. My Afro-future isn’t going to drop out of the sky, it must be rooted in deliberate and intentional acts of community building.
A big part of making blk spaces for me has to do with recognizing the ways blkness is inherently complex, multiple, dynamic, ephemeral, transformative and so on. The rituals and inconsistencies of daily life that Syms refers to feel intrinsic and synonymous to blkness—it almost makes me think that, in our work, the first step to making our spaces blk is by leaning into the mundane.
Video stills from The Map Project designed by Ava Elizabeth Novak, concept by Ta-Nia.
Syms also writes “to burn this manifesto as soon as it gets boring.” What is your relationship to building upon the legacy of your mentors and predecessors while remaining true to your aims?
We thank and honor the ancestors and community leaders and mentors who have guided us to this point. It is because of their work we stand on a solid foundation that we aim to only add to—whether that be continuing the work or finding new ways that lead us to the ultimate goal: the liberation of Blk people.
We love that last line of the manifesto; it keeps us accountable to our people who we wish to service. We like to think of burning not as destroying, but an act of creating something new. The volcano erupts to make an island. The fire rages to release seeds and forge a new path. We hope that when the flames come for our work, it follows in that tradition of burning in order to see what other form exists on the other side.
And if our rituals no longer respond to the needs of the community, or worse, work in antithesis to the needs of the community, for sure burn it down! We hope that the future ancestors rise from the ashes anew.
How did working at the National Black Theatre influence your approach to producing theater?
A shout out to the folks at National Black Theatre (NBT) who supported Dreams in Black Major: Sade Lythcott, Jonathan McCrory, Nabii Faison, Abisola Faison, Denzel Faison, Belynda Hardin, and Kiele Logan and the entire facilities team—we are in deep gratitude for the space you made for us to actualize our dreams. We hope we made Dr. Barbara Ann Teer proud.
The energy of NBT fundamentally changed our piece. We didn’t have to carry the baggage of our work in a traditionally white theatre institution. No, we walked into a Blk space and immediately felt closer to our dreams. There’s a reason why NBT is called “your home away from home.” It’s where Blk artists undergo a soul journey to tap into the soul of what we do and how we can share that with others. In every rehearsal room and theatrical space that we’ve worked in since NBT, we bring that soul with us.
NBT was the first revenue-generating Black arts complex in the country, capable of subsidizing their own performances. What is your vision for producing models (economically speaking) that would best support your theatrical visions?
We've been dreaming up ideas around this a lot recently! At the moment, we're very interested in reimagining currency in regard to theatrical experiences. For example, we're interested in ways we can share our work with flexible ticket models—those who have funds can purchase tickets and those who don't can offer something else in exchange whether that's offering a cooked meal, leading a workshop another day, etc. In this same vein, we're interested in creating a community space where we can share our work, engage with our respective community through events and workshops, offer a safe space to just have a cup of coffee, house a community garden.
Dreams in Black Major will be live streamed at Theatretreffen's Stückemarkt in Berlin on May 22. In fall 2021, A Map to Nowhere (things are) will be presented as part of Soho Rep’s Writer/Director Lab. Follow The Map Project @amaptonowhere.