Project Note: Reggie
Project Note: Reggie
A Conversation with Reggie Wilson
by Lauren Bakst
Reggie Wilson is a Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia Artist/Thinker. Project Notes document and articulate Reggie's process and engagement with Philadelphia as he develops new work that will be presented here in April 2016.
Interlocutor Lauren Bakst spoke with Re-PLACE-ing Artist/Thinker Reggie Wilson on March 5, 2015 via phone in Brooklyn, NY about his work and connections to Philly.
Lauren Bakst: I’d love to hear about what you’re working on, both inside and outside the context of the Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia Project.
Reggie Wilson: I feel like I’m always working on more than one thing at a time. Moses(es), my last evening-length work took about—I think the idea started in 2010 and the premiere of the piece was in 2013—so that’s kind of typical. The arc of an evening length work is anywhere from three to five years for me. I am working on a project for the fall of 2016—the New York performance will be in the Next Wave Festival at BAM. On the encouragement of the Bride, I’ve been trying to think about what the cross sections are between the investigations for this new piece of mine and what may or may not happen with the investigation in Philly.
LB: What are you investigating in the project for 2016?
RW: The title of the piece right now is Citizen. It’s hard for me to put my finger on what it’s about, except that it is related to wanting to belong and not wanting to belong. I’m thinking about how belonging connects to the idea of citizenship. It’s not unrelated to Ferguson, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and Staten Island, and the history of black folks in America, and I think also black folks transatlantically. It changes day-to-day depending on who I’m talking to. At some points, I say it’s about 18th and 19th century black folks. That’s one thing I tell people. Another thing I tell people is it’s about African Americans in Paris. You know, like James Baldwin and Josephine Baker. Why did they they need to leave America in order to be fulfilled artistically? It brings me back to Zora Neale Hurston who I love always and forever. She didn’t feel like she had to run away and disappear from here in order to be who she was. That’s fascinating to me.
I think research-wise, it’s not as intensely research-focused as Moses(es) was, especially working with Susan (Manning), but I feel like the research is also still—which is kind of what happens in all of my pieces—invested in thinking about history and culture, thinking about how those things shift over time, and how we keep them or how they change. I think that might be why Donna Faye (Burchfield) and the folks at The Bride wanted me to participate in this. There are two figures who I’m really focusing on for Citizen. The first is John Baptiste Belley—there’s a painting of him that I’m fascinated with. The other is Rebecca Cox Jackson, who founded the first black Shaker community in Philadelphia. RePLACEing Philadelphia has given me an opportunity to find out more information about her.
On one level, what I’m excited about with the RePLACEing Philly project is talking to Kim (Bears-Bailey), Jumatatu (Poe), David (Brick), and Makoto (Hirano). There is something about where I’m coming from and those voices. To get a conversation going with the five of us talking about the Divine Lorraine Hotel is something concrete, that might have overlaps with my research for Citizen, but that also stands as its own thing. Coming into Philly as the outsider, it’s easy to end up sticking your foot in your mouth in a highly visible kind of way. I think that my own way of problem solving that is by sitting down with these folks who I think are interesting performers, coming from really different aesthetics, but based and have been for a long time in Philly—so Kim with Philadanco, David with Headlong, Juma as a young African-American choreographer and all of the things he’s questioning, and Makoto, who I just ran into. I was like, Ok, you’re from Chicago, you’re Japanese, you’re doing theater with movement. (laughs) Let’s sit and talk about some of these things. And then from there, let’s see who are the folks they partner with who aren’t the dance folks. I was clear with them I’m not asking for this to be a relationship between their organizations. I’m asking for this to be a conversation between the five of us, first off. And then, who are the scholars, painters, social workers, or whoever else that you might work with or have an idea that you’d like to work with?
LB: It sounds like a grounding place to start from, to be accessing these different points within the city through each person, and to also kind of land yourself in Philly by being with people who live and work and perform there.
RW: And then I’m also thinking, oh my god—Philadanco and Headlong are really on opposite ends of the spectrum.
LB: I don’t know how often David and Kim are in the same room. I don’t know if that happens in Philly. It doesn’t really happen in New York.
RW: It’s just that there’s more of us in New York so I think some version of that gets to happen. There’s always enough of somebody else coming in. There is this other weird thing that I’ve started thinking about connecting this project to. Whenever I’ve been to Philly, even before this project, I’ve always marveled at the murals. I like going around another corner and wondering what’s going to be there, whose painting is going to pop up. So there’s this aspect of public art in the city, and I’m wondering what kind of tradition there is for public art in performance, other than the field’s recent obsession with site specific work.
LB: I’m curious if when you’ve been to Philadelphia in the past or during your recent visits, are there things, like the murals, that feel particularly resonant to you and your process?
RW: (laughs) Well, not exactly—because then I start asking and finding out the history of how those projects were funded. Like how did they bring in these artists from outside to paint on this building? They brought in two Dutch artists (Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn) who painted a whole business district in this kind of candy stripe aesthetic. They used the place as their tapestry. It wasn’t just like a wall that for one image, but several blocks of the city. I think that’s a huge and complicated statement about powers that be and urban planners and imminent domain. I live across the street from the Barclays Center. I’ve been here since 1991, so it’s been really weird to witness that whole process, from the protests to the buildings across the street being taken down. My neighbors, who weren’t my friends per say, but people who I’d seen for years—all of a sudden, their living room is being exposed and brick by brick taken down to dismantle the thing. Then they build the Barclays and there’s a red carpet in front of my bedroom window. So maybe that’s the mechanisms of power. I feel like that’s the question I keep coming back to—what are the mechanisms of power for an outside artist being funded and asked and given on some level free reign, and depending on my morality, what are the choices I need to pay attention to or not? Of what concern is it the impact that I have? How do I find those constraints? How do I find that direction? What issue is being addressed by this structure? I feel like me navigating these first four people—four Philly based artists who cross disciplines and connections to Philly—is a way for me to step into these questions.
Reggie Wilson is the founder and artistic director of the New York City based, Fist and Heel Performance Group. He is a Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia Artist/Thinker.
Lauren Bakst is the Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia Interlocutor.