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INTERVIEW WITH AYOKA CHENZIRA
Series curator Kathy High conducted this telephone interview with Ayoka Chenzira in May, 1997.
Would you tell me how the idea for IN THE RIVERS OF MERCY ANGST came about? Because it's such a beautiful piece.
Well, thank you. I must say that I like this piece a lot. You
tend to say that about your work after a while. You know, you kind of fall
in love with it. But I have to say this piece is very special to me
because I got an opportunity to do a lot of things that I'd been
experimenting with in my head for a long time. And, you know, it's a short
film. It's simple in some ways, complex in others, but it really is the
coming together of an experimentation that I thought might work -- I wasn't
really sure -- and I just played with it in my head for a long time.
Yes. And for the rehearsal. Because you're not put in a position
where you necessarily have to put head and tail credits on your composition
or your masterpiece, or your painting, until you're really,
really ready. And there's not that financial clock ticking.
Well, also I think that the team of people that I was working with was much more like theater and dance, in terms of certain kinds of collaborations. I enjoyed the process as much as the final product. And I can't say that about all the pieces that I've done.
That's what someone said. I think it was the guy who runs the Toronto Festival. There's an African component, I think. He said that it's like watching a painting unfold. I think the other thing that was very helpful to me is that I got a chance to do a lot of things that I like to do. I like to shoot. I like to process my work. I like painting.
Yeah. I really like that territory that is, I guess, commonly
known as magical realism. I like magical realism particularly if there
is also some kind of political bent to it. The territory
that I was interested in exploring with MERCY ANGST is a kind of madness on
the one hand, but it's about post-war syndrome. It's almost like "post-Movement syndrome," which is a term that I heard. Sekou Sundiata is a
poet, a very fine New York poet, and I heard him use that term, and I just
love it because there are so many black people suffering from "post-Movement syndrome," in terms of the expectations of the '60s and '70s, and
how we would proceed, or what would happen. The result was not satisfying.
It's that town.
Oh, my gosh.
It's the airport of that town. And the place was crammed. I think there were maybe four black people in the audience. There were close to 350 students and faculty. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and she said, "Is this piece about drug addiction?" And I said, "I hadn't really thought about it that way." She said, "Well, I'll tell you. I was a drug addict and I felt like I was possessed by somebody just like Kom, and I struggled so hard to free myself." And so that's the eyes that she used in looking at the piece, and it kind of worked. There's a potential for it to work in any situation where one feels possessed.
Some of them, yes. Some of them, no. But the crew was really tiny. It's myself, my partner, Barbara [Chirinos]. It's two of my former students who I've done a lot of work with, and Thomas Osha Pinnock, who's a writer and who's also my husband, but we kind of don't put that out there necessarily that way. He's a writer. And my daughter, Haj. And so that was the crew.
Yes, it is.
The only person I had not worked with before was the woman who
played Mercy. She is someone that my husband found in the subway. I think
they were in the subway at West Fourth Street, and she was just kind of
attracted to his energy and went up and started talking with him. And he
knew the script. I had been looking for someone, but it had to be someone who was kind of
willing to put themselves out there in particular kinds of ways, and she
just talked and talked and talked. And so we were talking about finding a Mercy. He mentioned her to
me and he mentioned her whole vibration. And I met with her and the woman
really does speak in tongues. What was interesting is there was really
very little explaining that I had to do, because it's somebody who kind of
crosses in and out of reality -- or different kinds of realities -- and so she understood the character so easily. That's how we
Yes. Originally, the piece was designed so that Mercy Angst was telling you her story. In other words, Mercy was the narrator of her own story. We had built this lovely hut house for her on my studio roof. It was really quite lovely. She was sitting down, and she was in her present incarnation, which is an apprentice to the Keeper of Dreams, and she was telling you how she arrived at this position. I had been, for a long time, working with people that didn't have a history of acting professionally, and wanted to continue to do so because I found that they were much more generous. I also had more options. So when I found her and I interviewed her and we talked a lot, it appeared that everything would be okay. But what I discovered was that she was not as comfortable with telling that part of the story as she was when she went into Mercy in her madness. The way she told the story took a lot of the magic out of it. So I restructured it.
Well, what I was thinking of was that it would be easy for someone who was more involved in non-verbal communication, someone who was used to seeing things and responding to what they've seen, but non-verbally, to be possessed. And also in giving her the camera, she also is being set up as a potential Keeper because that's what the camera helps to facilitate in terms of the Keeping of the Image.
SNOWFIRE. Do you know the background of it?
No. I don't think so.
Well, SNOWFIRE is a piece that was done for ITVS by AIDS Films. I did some work with David Rousseze, head of a dance company that I like to work with a lot. One of the producers had seen my work with the company, and wanted to know if I'd be interested in collaborating with David again to do a series of short dances in between all these other pieces that they were going to do around the AIDS issue. I said yes and then I said, "But you know something? I've got a piece that I've been dying to do as well and it's called SNOWFIRE, but it's a half an hour piece." And they said, "No, no, no. These pieces have to be between four and seven minutes." So I took a half-hour piece and I got it down.
Is this why you chose to make it with the stills?
Well, I'm doing a lot of that, the still and the live image, in MERCY ANGST, also. I was a photographer for a long time and I miss it. I'm getting back to it and learning how to incorporate it more and more with live footage. But I said to them that I wanted to do it, but I only wanted to do it if I could do something that I hadn't done before, which was this incorporation of stills and live footage. And they said fine. So it was another opportunity to experiment with something that I had wanted to experiment with, but hadn't really gotten the opportunity.
Well, the stills function in a really interesting way to kind of collapse time. I mean, one still seems to speak about a greater moment than we would see in real time performed in front of us. They're really quite dense. Did you shoot the entire piece as stills?
Yes, I did. What I said to the actors was, We're shooting it the same way that you would shoot a dramatic narrative with live footage. It required that they move slower, so that it was almost -- again, I think it's coming out of my dance and still photography background -- so that the movements are choreographed. And the timing of the movements are very clearly worked out. And they could do everything that they would do if it were live action. They just had to do it as I told them to do it. So, I talked them through each frame.
Yes, I did write it. The half-hour piece is based on the death of
a friend -- one of my best friends. And, although this isn't
quite his story -- his story is a little different in that, when he died,
the family said that he had a heart attack. You know, there was something
about [the idea that] it's better to have a heart attack -- it's just the choices that
people come up with . . . Well, it's better to have cancer. Well, it's better
to have a heart attack. I was so angry. Losing someone you love dearly and then, somehow, the closure wasn't there because the lie had been told. I understood it was not acceptable and didn't provide, I think, the real closure, because everybody basically knew what he died of.
Did they get to see it?
No. They haven't seen it, and it's a kind of situation where, even if they did, they wouldn't get it. It would be like, "Oh, that's interesting."
They wouldn't connect it to their lives.
There's something about the pacing of it, too, that is incredibly compact. You were talking about the different emotions that come up, seeing what the mother is doing, and how she's involved with the father, and why she stays, but there's a lot that happens in an incredibly short amount of time. It feels very evenly paced, and I wonder if part of that is attributed to the use of stills? What do you think?
I think some of it is how the stills are used, and I think some of it is related to the color choices, and the kinds of lighting that are used, for example, in the bedroom scene. In the bedroom scene, I think, we just did three angles, and most of the shots are from two angles. There's a lot of color in the room but there's not a lot of light in the room. I think what you're feeling is that even though the mother's talking, it's also cut so that you feel the father too. Maybe the kind of density you're feeling is that you can feel the other person's presence, in addition to having to listen to what the mother is saying.
Again, did anything come up as you were shooting?
Well, there was some funny stuff when we were looking for actors. The actor who played the love interest of the son is someone who I had worked with in the film "Alma's Rainbow" very successfully, and I wanted to work with him again. And when we were interviewing, we did not have the adult Isaiah, the father's son, and so we asked this actor, Lee, what man are you in love with? And what man would you be willing to, like, kiss? Instantly, without batting an eye, he named this actor and we got him down there in 10 minutes. And to my knowledge, both of them are heterosexual.
Oh. That's a riot. I didn't know that.
And, the first time we did the kitchen scene where the father has to look and see them kiss, it was so funny, because they were hesitant on the kiss, so they just kept playing around with each other's faces and bodies, and what not. And I said, "Well, guys, I don't know if you realize it, but this is even more provocative than the kiss. The only problem is, we don't have enough time to have you all just play around, so you're going to have to get to it." And I said, "Lee, remember, this is the guy that you told me you would kiss." And so, it happened and it was just wonderful and, as I said, they're both heterosexual men.
Well, this is good. You have introduced a whole new element into their lives.
Maybe, but they were quite comfortable and quite willing.
They seemed to like it?
I think they liked the story very much. And then, you know, the other thing that was really difficult . . . the first time we shot the boat scene we had a bigger boat that was decorated in the most incredible way. It was slightly different -- I think richer in many ways, and the sun was on our side. Something snapped in the camera, but you couldn't hear it. You couldn't hear it and you couldn't see it. So we didn't know. And when we processed all of the slides, the top half was blank, and the bottom half had all this gorgeous color. And I said, "Oh no, we have to shoot this again." The sun wasn't with us on the second time. It was a harder shoot, but that first time, what I think also made it special and difficult was that one of the actors that I had hired to be part of the mourning and the procession on the beach, suddenly started crying, and, someone came to me and said, "You know, he's upset because he just lost his brother and he wants to talk with you." So, I went over to talk with him and he said, "I know that you're getting ready to do this scene, where the father's going to put his son's ashes in the water. My brother died of AIDS recently and I'm not handling it very well. I have his ashes in the car. Can we use his ashes?" And I said, "No. You're going to have to work this one out on your own in a different way." I didn't want to do that. But that was it. I decided not to because I didn't know the brother. I didn't know what I was walking into. But it was a hell of an experience.
Right. Well, I can see why these scenes seem so loaded now. It's always interesting to hear what happens behind . . .
Behind the set. But it was a wonderful shoot, because there's an area of Jones Beach that is not open to the public. And if you go to the Mayor's Office, that's where they assign you, and that's where they do photo shoots. The first boat we had was about three times bigger. The men had to walk the boat from the road because you can't take cars down there. It's totally off limits. It was truly quite a day. Black men carrying the boat. And it's kind of funny. It's like, "Oh, did you have to carry the slave ship, too?" It was an interesting time.
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