Monday, January 16, 2017

We cannot remain silent

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

I spent a lot of time in the quiet space of Widener University last week - the week before school starts and the students and staff return. I silently drove through Chester, PA, the city in which Widener exists, observing the near-empty streets. Like much of what I experience these days, the area seems to exist in a world of contrasts.

Wednesday we'll perform Deshong's Chester: Left Behind, the latest research in the Left Behind series. The performance is sandwiched between today, MLK Jr. Day - a national day of service - and Friday's inauguration. The enormity of this week and this performance is not lost on me.

Katherine Kiefer Stark, Jennifer Yackel, and Laura Baehr have been on The Embodiment Project's journey with me for almost a year. We'll be joined by community members Marcy Morris, Victoria Archer-Owens, Mafalda Thomas-Bouzy, and Caroline O'Brien for this performance.

Throughout last week, we've been meeting and sharing stories of being and feeling left behind. What's special and different about this performance is that Chester really is a place that's been left behind... but it's reemerging.

I first walked into the Widener University Art Gallery housing Alfred O. Deshong's collection last year and was overwhelmed by the beauty and opulence of the artwork and the frames in which they lived. I felt as though I needed to step away from the art work - that it was too rich for my blood, in a sense. The quiet sense of awe, respect, and wealth overwhelmed me and I wondered about the connection between the Chester of the past and the Chester of the present.

Who was Alfred O. Deshong? How could an environment where this artwork was held in a residence be the same place that people were afraid to walk after dark? What happened?

In conversations with the community members both performing in this project and others that I encountered on my silent journeys, I learned that for about 100 years, Chester was a wealthy city; a giant ship-building and industrial community that boasted several cultural centers, including music and dance studios. The Deshong family was prominent in the community and active philanthropists.

I learned that, as happened in so many US communities, the manufacturing industries left quickly, leaving behind a workforce with nothing to create. I've also been told that there are political issues surrounding the low-income status of the community and racial tensions that can prevent conversation.

Enter Boundaries and Bridges, a collaboration between Widener University and The Artist Warehouse in Chester to rebuild one of the main streets through the arts. AWESOME! Boundaries and Bridges is sponsoring Deshong's Chester: Left Behind.

The project has allowed me to build a bridge between the University and the community in several ways:

Sharing stories
1) Each of the community dancers participating has a story to tell about their experience with the Deshong Museum, now closed and abandoned. The Museum held much of the artwork that is in the Art Gallery at Widener.
2) I'm hoping that the community will feel welcomed in the new gallery with the familiar artwork, on the University's campus.
3) I'm raising awareness of concert dance in the Widener community and the Chester community while simultaneously raising awareness of Chester's artistic rebuilding process to the Philly (dance) community.
4) By inviting stories of being "left behind" and "mattering" I create a connection between people who otherwise might not have been connected. What I'm learning is that many, if not all of us, hold a story of being "left behind" or feeling like we didn't matter. Through dance, and the Left Behind series, I'm hoping to reveal the humanity in sharing these stories, connecting through a common feeling, and bridging together to take action.

In my initial research of Left Behind, I discovered that the work was also exploring grief. According to psychological research, there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Through Deshong's Chester: Left Behind, I'm finding that there is a space after grief that involves action and rebuilding.

It is my dream that this week, we'll not only grieve what has been, and could be lost, but we'll also take action and rebuild to move forward - as individuals in our own personal journeys, as communities, and as a country.

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Come see Deshong's Chester: Left Behind Wednesday, at 7:30pm in the Widener Art Gallery in the University Center. 

Program info:

Deshong's Chester: Left Behind
Choreography: Jessica Warchal-King
Performance: Victoria Archer-Owens, Laura Baehr, Caroline O'Brien, Katherine Kiefer Stark, Marcy Morris, Mafalda Thomas-Bouzy, Jessica Warchal-King, Jennifer Yackel
Music: Paul Fejko

Dancers from EVERY community find themselves at home, warming up on the floor!

1 comment:

  1. As always you are at the heart of the matter. You talked about the opulence of the art and how that was a little off putting. I remember in my early teaching of the literature and art of the renaissance: art was the provenance of the wealthy ruling class, before the enlightenment and the era of a more general sense of the rights of men and then thank heaven the rights of women (another issue with the history of culture and art by itself). But in the end I reconciled myself to the notion that the arts generally require wealth and excess capital to thrive, and I stopped being jealous of those who could do the sponsorships, and just became grateful for the art and the lovely artists, the public availability of which floated all boats so to speak, even the hungry ones. Sometime read William Lamb's extraordinary essay "Old China." A step to my reconciliation. I love your sweetness and are working a healing for so many. Mike Lancaster