A Caribbean Carnival in space. A Black musician who wakes up on another planet, accompanied by his band. These aren't (entirely) made up scenarios. They're plot points for Afrofuturistic works like Nalo Hopkinson's novel "Midnight Robber" and Sun Ra's film "Space Is The Place." Afrofuturism dares to synthesize spaces where Black people are at its center. This is the foundation that playwrights Porsha Olayiwola and Marshall "Gripp" Gillson's newest theater experience, "Spirit," builds on.
"Spirit" was birthed at an intersection of Afrofuturism and tech. Gillson, a slam poet with a history at Google, is also a computer programmer and Olayiwola, the current Boston poet laureate, teaches and writes about Afrofuturism. "It was kind of a natural merger," Olayiwola said. "We're asking questions like, 'What does a futuristic style of theater look like?' and 'What does it mean to break the walls of theater?' "
As a term, Afrofuturism was coined in 1993 by Mark Dery in his essay "Black to the Future." But as a genre, Afrofuturism in the United States existed well before it was formally named, stretching back to the subversive, future forward aesthetic of artists like Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic and novelist Octavia E. Butler's 1970s "Patternist" series. For Afrodiasporic artists, the genre provides a fertile landscape to dream up a future outside of the limits of white supremacy; it is powerful because it dares to dream a future for Afrodiasporic people at all.
From the comic book hero "Black Panther" to TLC's cyborg inspired get ups in their video for "No Scrubs" to Janelle Monáe's "Dirty Computer," Afrofuturism inspired and continues to inspire a wide swathe of Black creatives producing works across artistic disciplines.
Olayiwola and Gillson are formidable slam poets and performers in their own right. For "Spirit," they're combining their literary prowess with an expanse of imagination to produce a multi sensory experience that explores where (and when) Blackness can thrive, uninhibited. "Spirit" stars poets and performers Ashley Davis, Dzidzor, Tamara St. Hubert and Cheyenne Harvey in the four lead roles.
The cast of "Spirit" worked collectively to discover a look and feel for the show, which debuts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. "What does Black hair look like in these cases?" Olayiwola says. "We're experimenting with that and working with local jewelers and other artists to curate a specific Black aesthetic for the show."
Gillson and Olayiwola haven't revealed much about the context of "Spirit." There are four performers in the production but no indication on which roles they play. The audience (if they've done their research) knows that the first act tells the story of a family in a dystopian future. The second, set in an alternate history, explores a community thrown out of wack by newcomers. This lack of context is intentional. It forces the audience to wield their imagination in order to color in the gaps.
In this way, "Spirit" is as much a production as it is a collaboration, a tenuous marriage of the theatrics of the performers and the minds of those watching. The playwrights ask that audience members come decked out in their most futuristic garments to add to that aesthetic. "We want [the audience] to be excited about themselves and their role in shaping the future," Olayiwola says."How do we craft the future that we want? How does it look?"
While Olayiwola didn't want to divulge the precise types of audience participation included in the show, she cited George C. Wolfe's "The Colored Museum" as an inspiration. This play, comprised of different stories or "exhibits," immerses the audience in its world by utilizing Afro-Indigenous practices of storytelling, like call and response and heavy drums. Wolfe uses surrealism to bend the confines of reality in order to tell stories about contemporary issues.
"Spirit" manipulates reality in similar ways. "The audience itself is a character in the show," Olayiwola explained. "This is a play where you are written into the script." Each audience member is invited to take the responsibility of shaping the experience. It's an apt metaphor for life: The goal is to remind the audience "that the strangest things about the worlds we create are the things they share with our own,” said Gillson.
The invitation extends past shaping the world of "Spirit" to imagining what healing its wounds would entail. Is it an individual process? Or a communal one? If the audience is able to shape this reality together, does it also mean they can heal together? Questions like these are ones the playwrights want viewers to walk away with after the discussion session accompanying each performance.
"What does healing collective trauma look like?" said Olayiwola. "If we can shape our realities, can we also use that power to move past our pain?"