On Thursday and Friday, Brooklyn-based artist Aisha Cousins will present her work-in-progress, Brer Rabbit The Opera: A Funky Meditation On Gentrification, at BRIC House Ballroom as part of their Fireworks residency program. Directed by Letitia Guillory, and in collaboration with Greg Tate and Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, the production follows “…a black middle aged cool marketer, at the tipping point in his battle to claim the American dream, mov[ing] into a notoriously dangerous black neighborhood that just happens to be at the tipping point in its battle with gentrification.” Confronting the modern issue of gentrification through the lens of legendary black folk hero, Brer Rabbit, and his home in the Briar Patch, Cousins’ production explores “tricksterism, techno-anismism, and urban survival techniques” through “music, performance art and community engagement.” Below is my interview with her about her upcoming opera:
1) Can you tell the readers about her background and how it contributed to the development of Brer Rabbit: The Opera?
I write performance art scores (do-it-yourself instructions for live art projects) that engage black folks from different cultures and backgrounds in exploring their overlapping experiences. So one of my favorite projects for the past few years has been this fictitious holiday I developed called “Brer Rabbit Day” where individual black folks make up their own holiday based on their family history with or personal connection to Brer Rabbit stories. When my collaborator Greg Tate and I were trying to figure out what to propose for BRIC’s Fireworks Residency, he really resonated with that project and said we should do an opera about it.
2) What or who influenced you to start developing the idea for this opera?
Greg was, as I answered in the prior question.
3) What was the process of creating this production like, including collaborating with Greg Tate and Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber?
It’s been amazing to watch Greg go through the various stages of composing the music then to see it finally realized by such a talented group of musicians. There are moments during rehearsal where I forget whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing and just sit mesmerized you know? There’s one song from Mazz Swift, who is a violinist that was brought in recently, that always does that to me. It’s been amazing to see it all grow from a set of beats, to four musicians, to seven. It’s really rare that you get to hear seven musicians you know. Think about that sound you get with big bands like Earth Wind and Fire or Parliament. We don’t have a lot of that in black
music these days. So, it’s been like a small slice of heaven being engulfed in it.
4) John Oliver Killens wrote about our need for myths and legends to regain out lost self-esteem and regard for one another. Why did you choose to use Brer Rabbit for this production and what do you feel is the importance of using legends and mythological figures, like Brer Rabbit, from African-American culture and Afro-diasporic cultures in our works? How do these figures and stories help us with our survival, which is one of the themes for your production?
For me, Brer Rabbit Day was something I was really committed to expanding on because these stories are artifacts that encapsulate the philosophies of the black folks who made them. All of that trickster strategy from the folktales about black folks who tricked their way out of slavery, to the fellow who mailed himself to freedom in a box, to how Harriet Tubman would play into stereotypes about old women to distract slave catchers from noticing her… All of that is embodied in black trickster folks tales. They’re like the original super heroes to me and I think it says a lot about us culturally that we value brains over brawn. There are a lot of stereotypes even within black communities about book smarts being a white thing. I like the way these trickster tales reassert that black tradition of cultivating and placing a high value on intelligence. I like Brer Rabbit and Anansi stories in particular because the very phenomenon of how black folks were able to retain them through slavery is a real life example of that trickster wit the stories describe.
5) Do any other legends or mythological figures or tales appear in your Opera?
I think it’s mostly Brer Rabbit now. At one point there had been talk about other figures, but we literally had 3 or 4 hours worth of material, so we had to cut it down.
6) Recently The Arsenal Gallery opened their “The Migration” exhibition, which has several interpretations of the intersections of race and migration. How does your work relate to those ideas?
There’s actually a part in our storyline about migration and the idea of responding to a forced migration by taking ownership of the situation and creating self determined one.
7) Why do you feel this story is relevant at a time like this and what message do you want audiences to take from seeing it?
I feel like “gentrification” is just a fancy name for pushing people out of their homes and/or
forcing them to assimilate you know? Those issues are a world wide phenomenon – past and present – that a lot of people can relate to. When I was doing research for the opera, I learned that American companies have been buying up land in Germany with the intention of building gentrification-style housing developments. There was Tenant Union representative from Europe who came to speak at this local community group meeting and he told us companies around the world are aggressively attempting to raise the price of housing in ways that are creating this bigger question of whether housing is something you can or should put a price tag… whether or not such a basic human need should be subject to the whims of capitalism, etc..
8) How do you plan to move forward with Brer Rabbit The Opera?
As Greg says, we have to see if it “has legs.” We won’t know that until we start performing it in front of an audience. But with or without the stage performance portion of the project, I do plan to promote the 3 performance art scores I composed and encourage people who are dealing with gentrification to do them. I think they are pretty fun, ways to catch your neighbors by surprise, and push them to look more deeply about the subconscious assumptions they may be operating on that help fuel the gentrification.
9) Are there any other projects you are currently working on?
Yes, I’m composing a series of performance art scores that document and explore how the experience of having a “first black president” has affected the way I and other black women whose families have been in the US since slavery see ourselves, and how we see the world around us. I was awarded a Franklin Furnace grant to do one called the Soulville Census this summer, so I’ll be working with a team of volunteers to administer the census to people at black cultural festivals in New York City. Right now, I’m looking for business sponsors, designing census taker uniforms, etc.
10) Since my blog is Futuristically Ancient, in what ways are you and your work futuristic and ancient?
When I first started making art, I was motivated by the desire to become a children’s book illustrator. Things have obviously changed over the years, but I definitely still have that appreciation for the role oral tales and cultural traditions play in how youth see themselves, the way these things become vehicles that help us retain our elders’ life experiences and advice when we become adults, and how that passing of information and belief systems from one generation to the next allows us to help shape the future even when the physical parts of us have faded away.
Make sure to go see Aisha Cousins’ Brer Rabbit The Opera project and participate in the project by trying out her three art scores here as well as her other blog, Dear MLK.