Like a proverb, rain generously poured down on the evening I returned to my first theatrical show since pre-COVID. For me, the storm symbolized a celebration of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s new immersive theatrical project, The Watering Hole.
For the first in-person production since the Pershing Square Signature Center closed a little over a year ago, The Watering Hole, directed by Miranda Haymon, gave the Manhattan theater renewed life. In collaboration with several multidisciplinary artists of color—Christina Anderson, Matt Barbot, Montana Levi Blanco, Stefania Bulbarella, Amith Chandrashaker, nicHi douglas, Iyvon E., Justin Ellington, Emmie Finckel, Vanessa German, Ryan J. Haddad, Riccardo Hernández, Phillip Howze, Haruna Lee, Campbell Silverstein, Charly Evon Simpson, and Rhiana Yazzie—the installations were as diverse as their creators. “We wanted to create a space that felt welcoming and felt inclusive and that felt safe,” Nottage said in a recent New York Times interview. Signature organized a re-entry task force dedicated to returning audiences back safely.
As freed patrons gathered outside the theater, some scanned a QR code, the contactless method of attaining the program, while theater guides ushered others into the building, and free from the rain. Remaining safely socially distant, masked, and following a shimmering blue streamlike path, we each stood on a water drop marker on the floor before experiencing our first installation. Pre-Industrial, created by Montana Levi Blanco and Rhiana Yazzie, is a beautiful tribute to the creator’s ancestors. “My ancestors worked with their hands,” Miranda says. Right from the start, I could feel this immersive experience was going to be spiritually uplifting. Miranda’s voice echoes from speakers on the walls. There are no live actors; only recorded voices and video projections.
Some might believe this is not theater. One is not seated in a cushioned chair, passively viewing a traditionally staged play with live actors. However, conventional theater has roots in antiquity. The cultural history of theater originated in Egypt during the time of the Pharaohs and was more spiritual in nature. The Watering Hole, in its efforts to nourish attendees from the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown, returned to the theatrical roots of yesteryear. I ventured up the longest river in the world for the back story. The Nile runs deep, from Mother Africa’s womb in Burundi to her broad shoulders in Egypt where her fertile waters empty into the Mediterranean Sea. It was during an educational tour of Nubia, one of the earliest cultural stomping grounds along the Nile, I learned of the Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus. These writings document the existence of ancient ceremonial theatrical performances which included rites, rituals, and religious storytelling and even staging directions for masked actors. Nottage and Haymon’s work is an offering welcoming theater goers back using spirituality, rituals, and inspirational storytelling that mirrors the past.
The Watering Hole is definitely unconventional by today’s standards. The strategic utilization of Signature’s grand staircase, lobby, backstage area, and dressing rooms is a part of the reimagining of theater and how the entire building can serve creatives. Powerful daily rituals take place in the lobby which once provided solace and inspiration to the masses of people occupying couches, tables and chairs. Before COVID, I remember arriving early for showtime, grabbing a snack, exploring the gift shop, and waiting patiently for my show to begin seating. Today that space is practically bare. The lobby’s entitled, ThisRoom Is A Broken Heart created by Vanessa German and Haruna Lee houses three boats. At the first boat, my tour guide invited me to write on a small sail to respond to the question, “What helps you feel safe and whole?” With a quick reflection, I answered with, “My family and friends.” Throughout the pandemic it was them who made time to listen and encourage me. Going through this stressful time has taught me to focus on the positive and stay grateful; tomorrow is not promised. After hanging my response onto the boat, I read some of the other answers; they ranged from something as simple as attending theater, to deeper experiences like speaking with a therapist.
In the same area, beautifully designed postcards by Naomi Chambers, JP Kim, and Jameelah P, stacked where books for the theater store used to sit, were available for writing positive messages to uplift inmates. I enthusiastically participated in this, and wrote words of wisdom adapted from sayings by the Buddha. “Every morning, I am born again. What I do today is what matters most.” I felt it was important to stress getting a fresh start everyday. The past does not define us and each day is an opportunity for change. Once my message was complete, I dropped the card into the body of another boat set for a voyage. At the end of the show’s run, these cards will be forwarded to the California State Prison in Vacaville, California, that houses an incarcerated theater troupe. Inmates at this prison are encouraged to make positive changes then tell their stories creatively through the arts.
The last boat, Evening Boat Tankas, is quite elaborate and reminded me of a Japanese Shinto deity. In Shintoism everything is natural and holy; religion is connected to nature, especially to the water. A flock of birds, jorams of water, and a white baby piano are all tools enhancing its divinity. Near the deity’s solar plexus chakra hangs a mirror. I looked deeply into the reflector. Tears began to well up in my eyes, as I recalled all who lost family members during this pandemic. People of all ages, races, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds were affected. Millions died of COVID-19 complications worldwide. I anxiously wondered when this horrific crisis would cease. After my cry, I thanked the Universe for the precious gift of life.
As a Black woman, I have often felt unwelcome. However, as a theater enthusiast, being locked in my home for almost a year was a new experience. Stuck in the house with the knowledge of a virus ravishing bodies left me exhausted. Alone with my thoughts, I became extremely nervous realizing how many surfaces I touch, and how many crowded spaces are shared with complete strangers. Once New York City finally reopened, I hesitated to venture outside. Nottage, Haymon, and collaborators created this space for me, and those like me who still feel vulnerable.
One of my favorite installations focuses on the power of vulnerability. Ryan J. Haddad, a Lebanese American disabled playwright and actor with cerebral palsy, strips down to only a pair of red swimming trunks, to bear his truth. In the video installation entitled Wings And Rings, created by Emmie Finckel, Riccardo Hernández, and Haddad, Haddad stands confidently next to his walker then carefully enters a pool of water with an unsteady gait. “I enjoy being in the water, even if I wasn’t improving, proving I could swim,” he reminisces. Author Dr. Brené Brown notes in her book, The Power of Vulnerability, “we associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty.” Four of us sat in a dark room converted into a small theater listening to Haddad. He spoke of needing one-on-one attention while in the water and really enjoying having his grandparents watch as he swam. Though he has challenges, I loved Haddad’s positive mindset. Dr. Brown says if we are able to embrace our own vulnerability, we can achieve success. Reflected blueish green waters underneath our feet gave me the feeling of being immersed into his world. I too, am able to overcome the obstacles in my life. Unlike Ryan, people feeling a sense of hopelessness and desperation quite often believe the world is an unsafe place.
freeQuency created by Christina Anderson and Justin Ellington, is an empowering installation and quite healing. During this installation, I saw a yellow silhouette of a person seated in the lotus position projected on the chairs of an empty theater. I sat center stage. Quency, the voice of my prerecorded sensei, began to speak. Sounds at different frequencies were to align my chakras. We naturally emit sound and when there is tension in the body, there is disharmony. Sound therapy is not new. Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans used singing and chanting to heal the sick. Today, it’s a very popular holistic practice to immerse oneself in sound. At different frequencies, the body begins to relax. I felt tranquil and envisioned a world COVID free.
I believe we all went through this global pandemic together because the Universe is forcefully encouraging us to become more spiritually conscious. With nothing to do during quarantine, many folks became more spiritual, or began searching for the deeper meaning of life. I personally felt the need to become more introspective. As participants reconnected with our inner selves, Quency reinforced that we are centers of power and able to wipe out all negativity inside of us. While sitting there, I closed my eyes and focused on my breath and being present. I felt comfortable and protected, promising myself to meditate often to remain grounded.
The Watering Hole is purifying. Some parts of the production ran deep, while others whirl around, and some drift sideways, or remain buried underground. During my time at Signature though, I felt safe and included. This immersive installation successfully reimages an off-Broadway space. It is an authentic experience that gave me a refreshing outlook on the concept of theater.