In 2011, after creating and touring their hugely successful musical about capitalism Mission Drift, the theater company The TEAM went on a retreat to focus on healing after what artistic director Rachel Chavkin describes as a “very emotionally brutal process.” She says, “We went into that retreat not knowing if the company would end and we came out of it with five new shows.”
The TEAM is a devised company that was formed in 2004. In their work, they have explored American identity, politics, history, and place touring frequently to the UK with shows such as Architecting, Particularly in the Heartland, RoosevElvis, and Anything That Gives Off Light. Over the years the group, which formed out of New York University, has grown from the founding core members to an extended family of collaborators. The TEAM’s devising process is improvisational and collaborative, with ideas growing and forming from conversations and exercises that then get edited and shaped.
From that productive company retreat, comes the last of those five show ideas: Primer For A Failed Superpower. Primer may have started with a nugget of an idea around The TEAM members growing up in the 80’s, an exploration of the hard-core punk scene in Washington, DC, and DIY empowerment. After years of development, it is now a two-night only multi-generational concert (sans narrative and characters) on August 22nd and 23rd which bears an echo of punk rock and is centered around protest songs.
The songs span the 19th, 20th, and 21st century. The company had commissioned some composers early on to make new arrangements for some songs. Then Chavkin explains The TEAM “spent a year putting together what by no means was an exhaustive list of protest songs from different genres, different time periods, different cultural movements.” The list was shared with the composers they planned to work with. The result was half the songs came from the composers bringing a previously unidentified song to the company that they really wanted to arrange and half from composers responding to a song on the list. “What was most important to us was that the composers be fired up by whatever song they were working on. We wanted this to be something that people were moved to make,” says Chavkin.
The composers involved include artists such as Justin Ellington, Amy León, Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby, and Yva Las Vegass. Some of the songs that will be featured include famous labor ballad Bread and Roses arranged by Orion Stephanie Johnstone, Black Sabbath’s War Pigs arranged by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, and a mash-up of What’s Going On/What’s Up/War/A Day in the Life by Heather Christian.
The concert will feature 33 performers including members of The TEAM alongside a teen generation younger than them and baby boomers who are older than they are.
In between the songs there will be video interviews with activists. As Chavkin notes, “As the concept evolved and got sharper one of the things that was deeply embedded in it (because it is about protest songs) was seeking activists from across the three generations.” She says the interviews include “activists who range from a 21-year-old woman who was one of the first Standing Rock protesters against the pipeline” and “this amazing guy Ron Short who is a lifelong cultural worker and activist and organizer in Appalachia.”
Chavkin makes clear that “those voices were essential to include, in part, because The TEAM, the core members, largely do not self-identify as activists.” As they built their creative team for the concert they considered this issue and worked to bring people into the room based on whose voices they thought they were missing.
Chavkin points out “Orion Johnstone who is our music supervisor is both an extraordinary musician and composer themself but also a major activist who was deeply involved in Occupy Wall Street has been talking for years about the human mic how the human voice can serve to amplify the voice of others who may not have a voice at the table.” Also part of the creative team is Nehemiah Luckett who is the music director for Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir.
In addition, Chavkin says “racial diversity was of paramount importance to us. We’ve worked extremely hard to create what is I think one of the most diverse rehearsal rooms I’ve ever been in.”
As they gather in rehearsal the performers are experiencing a process that The TEAM often uses–creative prompts. “We’re doing a series of creative prompts around the themes of shifting geo-political power, aging, being young, protest, and anger. All of those things are relevant in the piece,” offers Chavkin.
I sat in on one rehearsal to observe this. The day’s rehearsal began with performer Vickie Washington giving what is called the “Speech4Breakfast.” She read the testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer before the Credentials Committee of the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Hamer described the beatings, injustice, and hatred she encountered trying to register to vote in Mississippi in the 1960’s. Hamer’s powerful indictment of voter suppression, mob mentality, white supremacy, terror, and violence ends this way:
“Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Following Hamer’s words the performers readied for the “Song4Dessert” which the group used to warm up to. Nehemiah Luckett chose the song specifically to link to Hamer’s speech: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize (Hold On). He explained he grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. His mother was the librarian at the local library named after Hamer and he lived only three blocks from where Medgar Evers was killed (which Hamer references in her speech). They sang what Luckett called the “ancestral” verses of the Hold On and the “new” verses written by Dragonfly of the Stop Shopping Choir.
After the tears had stopped, and the performers (and guests) were dabbed with some scented oil, the room was filled with the smell of cedar and citrus and the sound of breathing. Associate Director Zhailon Levingston then guided the group through their “Homeroom” exercise for the day. It’s a project Levingston has been doing since July 2016, called Words on White. Starting with a piece of text the idea is to create a community canvas as way to have difficult conversations through art.
Laid out on the ground was a large canvas timeline running from the 1900’s through 2050. For the performers, he assigned each age group a topic–The TEAM members were to write about environmental justice, the Boomers about US politics, and the teens about racial justice. People wrote about events that personally impacted them, about these thematic topics, and they imagined a future for the world.
Although the Primer concert is the culminating event of this project, it’s this process, these voices, and their participation that is an important element of the work. In addition, the hope is that the conversations that spring from the piece will grow for the audience after the show.
Chavkin says, “We’re going to have a pizza party afterwards. We’re going to have some really remarkable community groups be present for the shows. They’ll come up on stage and explain how people can get involved.” This is a critical aspect of the show for Chavkin: “It’s there in the title, this question of what are we priming for? I think the hope is we are priming, keeping our muscles warm, for continued action towards collective liberation.”
‘Primer for a Failed Superpower’ is on at Roulette Brooklyn on August 22nd and 23rd. More info here.