March 19, 2013
Company Cypher News
What is it about the legacy of slavery and racism in America that sends people reeling? Recently I experienced the relation of race and art in two very different ways. I was fortunate to organize and participate in a workshop called Understanding & Undong Racism/Community Organizing for Artists and Arts Administrators. The workshop was facilitated by the People’s Institute for Survival And Beyond. I attended two other PISAB workshops in the past that were attended mostly by Social Workers and Teachers. Both were great workshops (which is why I wanted to organize one myself for the arts community) but the workshop this past weekend was definitely the best one of them all. From my perspective in this workshop people seemed the least resistant and most open to explore the subject matter. In the end real connections and collaborations were created between organizations and artists. I was proud to be in the room with people of not only such power and compassion, but also who apparently brought their game faces and got to work. That same weekend my theater company had arranged to give a performance in a private high school in NY. The last day of the workshop, my company was simultaneously giving a dress rehearsal for the faculty in the school’s theater. The result was a great dress rehearsal and a canceled engagement. The faculty appreciated the show from an artistic standpoint, they liked the work, but they expressed concern that their school wasn’t prepared to handle the material. Our show includes a slave auction near the end of the play. They felt showing that historical event in the show would have been too provocative and their school was not equipped with the necessary tools to address any questions or emotions that were stimulated by the performance. I believe them. I would say that most schools don’t have in place any kind of resources to address the history of US slavery or racism or colorism. And that goes from elementary schools to schools of higher education. Again and again opportunities are lost and teachable moments dissolve into a cloud of unexamined negative emotional responses. Yet, there are many organizations in existence that provide those tools in creative and comprehensive ways. Border Crossers for grades k-5 is one and Company Cypher’s Cypering Education branch for middle school students and older is another. The good news is the light has been shown, revealing an aspect of their curriculum that is absent and they are choosing to do something about it. Many schools recognize the lack of a racial analysis in their curriculum, but continue to avoid dealing with the discussion no matter how helpful it may be to their diverse student body or our country’s growing diversity. I look forward to working with this school at another time in the near future and in a broader context where we can face our challenges together.
If there was a word made flesh
I’d call upon it now
Some vibration in sound
Tripping over the softness of my tongue
Angling around the hardness of my teeth
Pads of fingers
Imprinting my presence
Upon your person
Trying to leave my mark
Dark ink on pale paper
Looking for something deeper
And so I grope
Fingers now claw
Tearing you to feel
Don’t worry the scars will heal
Turning skin inside out
Flesh feaverishly warm
With the heat of invasion
And in that possession
Holy intimate interaction
You suddenly see right through my eyes
Soft brown lenses inverting pictures of my experience
You see a child somehow devalued by apperance
Born into grown people problems
Lynched by an inherited hang up
Now turn toward the flicker of some made up life
Light up a card board house
In some mountain town
Tall blonde Novella stars
Tease an ideal out of thin air
And use my sight to take in this new
Skin you never imagined belonged to you
It does now
And I burrow deeper
To where I un-define demarcations of where I end and you begin
I want to get under your skin
Make your blood boil
Froth with the agitation
Of acknowledging another
Now co-habiting your borders
I settle and snuggle next to your heart
Beating my own rhythm into yours
You feel my stories and make them ours
This shared evolutionary journey
Of have and have nots
Winners and losers
Lost and found muses
Dreams and disillusions
Privledged and poor fuses
Of the same
2012 ANNUAL REPORT
HISTORY AND OVERVIEW OF COMPANY CYPHER
Company Cypher was formed at the beginning of 2012, inspired by our signature show In The Cypher , which was co-conceived in the winter of 2006 by Gamal Palmer and Sarita Covington. The show was then performed for the first time under the direction of Patricia McGregor in 2007 at the Yale Cabaret, the student run theater for Yale School of Drama MFA candidates. Two years later, In The Cypher would make its NYC premiere. Since then In The Cypher has performed in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
Company Cypher seeks to end racism by creating and sustaining a platform for dialogical exchange between multi-racial, multi-hue and multi-cultural people. Using Theater, Hip-Hop education and dialogue, we are dedicating to diminishing oppressions founded in racism and skin color prejudices. We challenge superficial and socially constructed differences to emphasize the unity the human race.
In The Cypher is a powerhouse show, part poetry slam, part theater that pushes the boundaries between audience and performer, creating a space like none other for interaction and transformation. Four poets, an MC and a waitress keep the audience jamming to poetic riffs about living in one’s own skin, using slam poetry, improvisation and Documentary Theater. In The Cypher puts skin color front and center while empowering everyone to look within. The show features audience judges, laugh out loud comedy, and spirited dissension to enlighten and enliven the discussion of race and skin color
SUMMARY OF 2012 PERFORMANCES & ACCOMPLISHMENTS
- Cypher Reading Series – Reading of Things Went Horribly Wrong, a new play that spans time and place, exploring what happens in revolutions, particularly when they go astray. The play brings to light issues of youth incarceration, youth violence and feminine leadership.
- Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Manhattan Community Arts Fund -Recipients grant to support our work with In The Cypher for the second year in a row.
- Company Cypher Website – New website highlighting our activities and events.
- Cyphering Education Workshop in Philadelphia - 2-day workshop for Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Academy in West Philadelphia, which included a performance of ‘In The Cypher’ for student body and faculty.
- In The Cypher/NY (Spring)- Our signature show returns to WOW Café Theater.
- In The Cypher/LA – A Concert Reading of ‘In The Cypher’ with original music! Members of the cast included; YSD grad Bridget Jones ’07, Lesley David Baker of The Office, popular recording artist Cassidy aka Bohem and directed by Shana Cooper YSD ‘08.
- Cyphering Education Workshop at Yale – (The birthplace of our conceptual beginnings) Led a workshop in conjunction with Yale’s Drama and Divinity’s Master Students inter-disciplinary course The Quest for Social Justice Through Music, Theater & Religion.
- Palmer Foundation Fiscal Sponsorship – Company Cypher enjoys non-profit benefits and tax-deductible donation status with support from the Palmer Foundation.
- Undoing Racism for Artist & Arts Administrators Planning Workshop – Co-sponsored by Company Cypher and Urban Bush Women and facilitated by PISAB.
- In The Cypher/NY (Fall) & launch of From The Stage To The Streets Initiative– Incorporating a whole new cast and programmed post show talk backs with collaborating local activists to move the conversation of transformation from the stage to the streets.
- Network Broadening Initiative- where we successfully grew our network of ethnically diverse performers and technicians, as well as our mailing list and outreach, enlarging our audience by 200%.
LOOKING FORWARD TO 2013
- Company Cypher Documentary – we are embarking on a new journey. Stay tuned for ‘In The Cypher; The Documentary’. Audiences will finally witness the profound rehearsal process that produces our intimate and truth telling play.
Up Coming Events:
- Undoing Racism Workshop For Artist & Arts Administrators –This workshop sold out within the first month of advertising will offer artists tools for understanding and undoing racism in our profession and the media.
- Cyphering Education at the Trevor Day School – Company Cypher will perform and lead a talk-back for high school students at the Upper West Side school.
We encourage all to check out our website companycypher.com for more information.
“Something I learned from the workshop was the different points of view on racism. I also realized how easily I judge people when it comes to race, I never realized that before.”
- Mari, student of Walter D. Palmer high school
In our efforts to expand the notion of transforming the conversation about race and skin color, Company Cypher has taken to the streets, literally and personally. Our community engagement project consists of spending time in a public space in NYC with a sign stating a question to provoke a unique exchange of personal stories.
This account occurred at the corner of 152nd street and Amsterdam Avenue.
It was a good day to gather stories. Under the shade of a playground tree leaning over the fence I enjoyed what had become an extremely hot sunny day. I grew up here in Harlem, but I certainly don’t remember the sun being as intense when I was a kid. It had always been humid and hot this time of year, but the intensity of the sun seemed different. I sat under a handcrafted sign, made out of construction paper and decorated with markers. The prompt read “Have You Ever Been Treated Differently For The Color Of Your Skin? Tell Me Your Story.” I wrote it up the night before with a sharpie while sitting on my stoop. I was hanging out with my husband and a friend who lived nearby. He had rode by on his bike, parked it on the sidewalk and sat with us as we drank from a bottle of wine with a few glasses. It was fun and I was giddy about it then, the night before. Now taped to the gate behind me, my giddiness had turned to nerves. Watching people walk by, scan the sign as they read it and then glance back at me as they walked on with a “look”, I began to doubt not only my chances of getting someone to sit down and talk to me but also my motivation. My intention, ultimately, was peace on the planet. Yet my sign seemed to have the potential to engender negative feedback. At least that was the feeling I had sitting there. The “look” people were giving me seemed to say “oh no, I’m not going there” or “mm mm, not me” or flat out “you’re crazy”. Then finally a man walked by and read the words behind me. The look I got seemed to say at first, “are you really asking that?”, but then I distinctly saw, “game on”, and I went for it.
“Do you have a story sir?”
“About a million.”
“Well, can you tell me just one? I’d love to hear it.”
The “story” was pretty simple and definitely not as detailed as I was hoping for. He said he went to Presbyterian Hospital, and a nurse told him “why don’t you just go where you belong”. Apparently a doctor overheard the nurse say that and apologized to him.
“What did she mean by that?”
“That I should go to Harlem Hospital”.
Hmmm. Well, that was kind of interesting. It seemed like a crazy assumption, but somehow I felt strongly that I had to trust his experience. As it turned out, Bother Melvin had indeed a million stories and an incredible amount of experience. It seemed he had lived multiple lifetimes within his one. He sat with me for the next 2 hours after that first story and spoke about everything under the sun that was his life, moving from topic to topic, era to era of his 68 years. He left home when he was 13, which was also when he started using Heroine. He was part of something he called “the Syndicate”, which seemed to be a rather organized drug gang. He turned 21 in prison, and became a Muslim, joining the Nation of Islam during the reign of the Honorable Elijah Mohammed. Somewhere in there he became a grass roots activist, leading a “street academy” and through his fire and charisma got IBM to donate land upstate for him to have a summer camp location and take the kids out of Harlem for the summer. Then of course was the time he was met by two strange men while swimming in the out door pool at 145th street who gave him a book that changed his life. These men were members of some ancient secret society. They told him his destiny and informed him that all he needed to be was a force in the world with a “burning desire”. He was a photographer, a restaurant owner and one of the real life characters from Super Fly. My intention for parking myself on the corner of 152nd street and Amsterdam was to hear from the people in my neighborhood, to get to know my neighborhood. What I got was a deep history of a man, a life, and the vision of a Harlem I never knew. I was given a glimpse into the 60’s era of grassroots movements at it’s height, the 80’s crack epidemic what it is today to be a 68 year old man living in 2012 and wondering where is the next generation of “voices”, wondering who are the next leaders? We’re both looking for answers to that.
Announcing the next In The Cypher with our new From The Stage To The Streets initiative….
WOW Cafe Theater, 59-61 East 4th Street(btwn Bowery & 2nd)
November 8th, 9th & 10th @ 8:00 pm
$10 Suggested Donation
RSVP for tickets by emailing email@example.com
In The Cypher: Part poetry slam, part theater, In The Cypher brings us back to the roots of hip-hop where words and music, sound and fury, worked towards social change. The show dips back and forth, like a hip-hop montage, cutting from a variety of multi-media and multicultural expressions used to enlighten and enliven the discussion of race and skin color.
And stay after the show, ’cause we’re taking it From The Stage To The Streets with powerful post show discussions and events every night! Go to companycypher.com for more info.
After a recent performance of In The Cypher I was speaking to a friend about how to create solutions to structural racism in our great country. She mentioned the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment test, a questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions. How, you may ask yourself does a test whose main intention is to make inferences regarding job placement relate to structural racism? Well, this conversation with my friend occurred after a particularly interesting yet intense post show talk-back, where once again 75% of our audience remained to continue a discussion inspired by the performance. Although everyone was wonderfully respectful of other people’s opinions, there was a lot of passionate disagreement on several matters. Looking back, I believe one of the reasons for that was because of a general lack of agreement about the existence of structural racism in this country and what it is exactly. An interesting thing that my friend related to me about the Myers-Briggs test is that the US population’s average score is about 50/50 on three out of four continuums (extravert-introvert, judging-perceiving, thinking-feeling), but they are 75/25 on the sensing-intuitive continuum. Sensing pertains to seeing the trees while Intuitive concerns seeing the forest. Therefore most Americans (75%) sense the trees rather than Intuit the forest. My friend had a theory about this imbalance, which I found particularly compelling. She surmised, because most people lean more towards S (seeing) than N (intuitive) in the Myers-Briggs, this indicates that they are more comfortable or more easily able to see the components of a system than to see the whole system – meaning it’s difficult for as many as 3 in 4 Americans to conceptualize institutionalized racism. Moreover, it’s their natural tendency, in terms of how they process information, to focus on individual acts of racism instead of seeing how those fit into a bigger system. The implications could be to look at methods in academia or in the workplace for helping S’s (those more inclined to seeing the trees) see the bigger picture. The Myers-Briggs does give us some leeway by asserting, “Because we have an order of preference for the mental muscles, we tend to use the preferred muscles much more frequently than the lesser preferred ones. As with physical muscles, the mental muscles can grow in strength with use. As we become more practiced with certain mental muscles, we tend to use them even more and eventually they may become dominant in our personality.” Therefore, psychological preferences may be changed through learning new practices. Once learned, people can then apply that understanding to conceptualizing systematic/institutionalized racism in order to help all the S’s see the system at work. The other option is to perhaps leverage people’s natural strengths. By finding ways for those people who have a natural inclination to see the trees focus on efforts that address inter-personal relationships and individual acts of racism, while the N’s (those more inclined to seeing the forest) focus all of their efforts to addressing institutionalized racism, everyone is working where his/her natural strength lies. The point to all of this is, here we clearly have an existing model for how people process data and make decisions (the Myers-Briggs ‘S-N continuum), and we can apply that to how we have conversations about race and how we try to address the concept of systematic racism. If in fact the majority of our audience is likely to have a naturally harder time seeing the systems than the individual acts, they may need to be led through all the data first by going through all the little individual acts of racism in order to see how those start adding up to a system. It’s not that they’re not able to see big picture ever, they just don’t go there automatically because that’s just simply how their brain works, They can’t just jump into seeing that without being led on a journey to that place.
Be outrageous for a moment and ask yourself, “What would it look like if I helped America transcend racism and skin tone prejudice?” Take a second to imagine living in a world where theater, television and movies were stories about being human and color lines were a topic of the past. There were no longer shows which perpetuated race, skin or prejudiced stereotypes. Smile in your mind as you conjure the possibility that being human has nothing to do with the shade of ones skin. COMPANY CYPHER & GLOBAL EYE ENTERTAINMENT PRESENT In The Cypher-The Musical! A mind blowing and chilling theatrical experience which inspires audiences to transform thoughts and dialogue about skin and race. JOIN THE CONVERSATION.
The show started well before the lights went down. I walked in (late to staff) and the black box theatre was set up like a poetry bar where the watermelon vodka was 3 dollars and the pretzels were free. It was hard to tell who the actors were and who was there to watch; who was staffing and who was part of the show. A slam contest that loses prize money as the artistic stakes get higher, this is a show that feels like a night in a bar; that hints at spiritual transcendence; and that, rather than simply telling a story, creates a conversation that includes everybody there. If I saw this in a bar I doubt I would have known that the play is scripted. Watching five poets uncover within themselves a mix of uncertainty, rage, and pride – and do so with an unflinching grace – was inspiring, and made this play inherently personal.
Along with some other folks from the Wow Café Theater, I attended a workshop the week before the show called “Undoing Racism.” The workshop was designed for two things: reflection and to provide the tools with which to organize collectively against racism. I had a dream that night, somebody told me I had something on my arm – and I looked down to discover that my elbow was rotting, the skin pulling away from the muscle, crawling, festering. When I was asked to report back to Wow about the workshop, I froze up completely. The thing In the Cypher and the Undoing Racism Workshop had in common is a cypher – a group of people who are each giving voice to their own ideas, and supporting each other. In the audience at In the Cypher I was very self-conscious. I started to more deeply understand how much damage silence has caused me and everybody I know; I have started to think that you can’t break a silence until you can hear it, and you can’t hear it unless there’s somebody else listening too.
By Emma DeGrand
***A huge shout out to WOW Cafe Theater and all of their members who volunteered to staff our show during our March three day run. Thank you for supporting In The Cypher.
Our last performance of In the Cypher in March received a great blog review. Please enjoy, http://www.eastvillagearts.org/reflections-on-in-the-cypher/