Theater archives

Emily Johnson Previews Her All-Night Participatory Project on Randalls Island


It’s a transitional moment for venerable downtown institution P.S.122. This year, the organization looks toward its future with a new artistic director, Jenny Schlenzka, who recently replaced Vallejo Gantner following the latter’s formative decade-long tenure. (He stepped down last year.) Schlenzka is P.S.122’s first female leader and, as a former MoMA P.S.1 curator, will bring an interdisciplinary perspective to the role.

As old gives way to new, perhaps it’s fitting that this weekend’s P.S.122 performance — an all-night event on Randalls Island — contemplates the city’s past by delving into its indigenous heritage. Created by choreographer and performance artist Emily Johnson with her company, Catalyst Dance, Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars builds on the group’s previous participatory projects, like SHORE, a multi-day touring event that included dance, stories, and volunteer work in local communities. Then a Cunning Voice invites audiences to camp out on massive quilts — stargazing, listening to stories and songs, and discussing communal relationships to local land and indigenous heritage. Johnson spoke with the Voice by phone ahead of the premiere this Saturday.

What kinds of stories will be told during the night?

Myself and [performers] Tania Isaac and Georgia Lucas will perform choreographies and tell stories about [our] homes. I tell a story about my great-grandmother, about birds coming to visit her after she passed, coming to take her to the next place that she will be. Over the course of this story it’s describing how we as people have impacted the world, and now we’re like, “Why is the water coming up onto our shores? Why is it so hot?” It’s part of a story that relates to all of our grandmothers, who are in a long conversation with the water as to what to do. I hope that call to action is made metaphorically but is also quite clear. Muriel Miguel, founder of [indigenous company] Spiderwoman Theater, and someone from the parks service who knows the history of Randalls Island will also tell stories.

The audience will sit on quilts designed by Maggie Thompson, incorporating ideas sourced from multiple U.S. and international communities. How were the quilts created?

We’ve done sewing bees [workshops] across the country and in Australia and Taiwan over the course of many years. These have included informal drop-in workshops and formal ones, like Umyuangvigkaq, the seven-hour bee we did for P.S.122’s COIL Festival [in January 2017]. The quilts are inscribed with ideas based upon questions like: “What do you want for your well-being and the well-being of your friends and family and community?” And for your city, or your tribal nation? People bring hundreds of ideas — it’s like a wall of beautiful possibility.

One idea that comes up on the quilt a lot is ending racism. I’m not twinkle-eyed about this: It’s one thing to write things down and another to step into the process. That means grounding into a recognition of where we are — in this case, Lenape homeland. What is my relationship to indigenous peoples of this land? How might we be good guests? One of our partners is the Lenape Center. Food is being created by Jen Rae, who works with indigenous food knowledge.

Why Randalls Island?

P.S.122 and I were looking for an open space, an area that wasn’t filled with streetlight. Once we got to Randalls Island, the energy there felt right. I was there for sunrise a couple of weeks ago. I could hear the clubs still bumping in the Bronx; you can see Rikers Island. It felt like a place where this energy should be exchanged.

What will audience members do during the night?

This is not a show where you come and sit back — there are tasks we need help with! You can help us unfold the quilts. There’s this beautiful yogurt made over the night, so we need audience members to help Jen in the kitchen. There’s a conversation we have around three in the morning, based on artist and scholar Lois Weaver’s open-forum long-table format, about what it is to be a good guest.

Mique’l Dangeli is credited with “protocols” for the piece. What does this mean?

She is a doctor of protocol. This practice is quite common in Australia and Canada. It has not come into being in the U.S., and it needs to. For example, I would say, I acknowledge the Lenape homeland, and I acknowledge ancestors — past, present, or future. P.S.122 has been working with me and Mique’l and has written an acknowledgment of how [the institution] can verbally, and in written form, acknowledge the land that they work on, where we are and whose homeland this is. In this country we are so far behind; we don’t recognize indigeneity here. Bringing that into practice in this country is so essential.

Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars
Randalls Island
August 19-20