Though I cannot hear the violin’s soaring notes, I feel their vibrations shiver outward from the union of string and bow, through my long fingers, and down my flying arms. From my place on the small stage I can see other musicians arranged to my right and left, actors before us haloed under the spotlights, and beyond them the darkness where a rapt audience watches us all. The actors are dressed in clothing from a dozen different time periods across American history: rough colonial homespun, stiff Victorian lace, spiked leather jackets; frock coats and beaded flapper dresses and sequined disco jumpsuits. However, what they all have in common is their heritage. This play requires an entirely African American cast, and specifically one with a diverse range of genders.
The music swells as the actors waltz together in pairs, one masculine presenting and one feminine presenting to each. They turn in ever faster circles while we pick up speed, costumes swirling, movements erratic, until our instruments come to a cacophonous crescendo and then a jarring halt. The theater goes totally dark for several long seconds. When milky spotlights come back on the actors are standing in their pairs beneath them. The femme of each pair now has streaks of gray powder in their hair and white makeup on one half of their face; they look like ghosts, or dead bodies. The transformation is meant to highlight the intimate partner violence committed mainly against women/femmes in the African American (especially queer) community due to the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and racism.
The music picks up again, a mournful dirge, and a much slower, sorrowful dance begins. I do not take part in playing this time, just watch the dancers from my vantage point at the back of the stage. The actors begin singing the final song of the show, a haunting coda about restless spirits and breaking generational cycles of pain and grief. The chorus is a swell of voices chanting, “Now I know what I have to do” and “Give my spirit voice”. I recognize the message meant for me and begin to sing along, only I sing, “Give YOUR spirit voice” like a prayer and promise both. As I do, some of the ghostly actors turn into true spirits, their bodies and clothes taking on a shimmering bluish hue. They rush toward me and one reaches out, gripping my hands in her strong, cold grip. I see her so clearly in this moment that I would know her anywhere. She could be Octavia Spencer’s twin; dark skin, a round face framed by loose black curls, full lips open as if in a wail of grief. Our gazes lock, her wide eyes full of urgency, and I instinctively flinch away from the pain in them.
As I do, I jerk awake with a cry in a dim, unfamiliar location. I seem to be laying on cold cement in the entrance hall of a huge building, perhaps an abandoned school or hospital. Ice crystals dust my clothes and the hard floor around me. My wife is nearby and she comes running at my cry to help me sit up. She’s talking to someone outside my field of vision; I get the sense we’re here as a paranormal team. I think I had been attempting to communicate with the spirits here and what I just broke out of was some sort of medium’s trance.
And then I wake up for real, heart hammering in the 3 AM darkness, and think, I hear you, spirits. I will give you a voice. I will tell your stories.