Originally published in The Village Voice
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Just over a year ago, when Jinah Parker began working on She, a dance- and spoken word–centered exploration of violence against women, she had no idea it would take her to the Here Arts Center, where, since May 5, she has been presenting the original choreoplay to theatergoers, educators, and advocates. The show is centered around four women’s personal stories, and features Parker and an ensemble of dancers performing to an eclectic lineup of music that includes Amy Winehouse, Madonna, Aretha Franklin, and the Supremes.
The four actresses narrate the stories of their characters, which include a spirited teenage girl who is attacked at a party and undergoes victim blaming in the media (Montana Lampert Hoover), a grandmother who shares a horrifying secret from her childhood (Kimberley D. Chalk), a college student who is unable to identify her experience with her first serious boyfriend as abuse (Bridget Barkan), and a divorced mother (Tammi Cubilette) attacked by her ex-husband in plain sight of her child. Also presented is the story of Sandra Bland (played by Parker herself), a black woman who, in 2015, died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody.
The four stories originated from survivors of sexual abuse who performed in the premiere of She. Spoken word is deployed alongside original choreography and video projections that depict the violence and its aftermath, along with global issues including street harassment, police violence, Bland’s arrest and death, and the Women’s March on Washington.
Directed by Phaedra Michelle Scott, the show has a racially diverse all-female cast, who invite audience members to share their reactions and personal stories after each performance. The experience, Parker said, has been transformative for everyone involved.
How did the idea of She come about?
I was in a place where I was tired of being controlled and I was tired of feeling oppressed. I needed to do something that was uplifting. I wanted to do something where I felt empowered and would empower other people.
Do you have experience working with survivors of abuse?
My background is dance and education. I spent time talking to a lady who does a lot of work with trauma patients and yoga, and working through yoga to heal trauma. I also started working with Gibney Dance Center and ended up getting a scholarship to their arts program that works with social justice, specifically through trauma. They have clinical specialists there who had a lot of advice for me on how to work with trauma patients.
Did you draw on personal experiences while creating the show?
The character Ma is a representation of my grandmother. One day we were sitting in her kitchen and she told me this story. It was the first time she told anyone. My mother didn’t even know until she saw the show and then she said, “So much makes sense to me now.”
Toward the end of the first rehearsal process, I realized I also had a story, and that’s the last story in the play. While I made a conscious decision to release the abuser years before, I hadn’t accepted it as rape and abuse until working on this show. I had just blamed myself. When I decided to include my story in the show, [it] was the first time I actually accepted that truth. I thought if I didn’t know that I had suffered from various forms of abuse, how many other women out there were also in the dark?
The performance doesn’t depict violence literally taking place, but it’s a disturbing presentation nonetheless. How did you deal with that, day in and day out?
After we run a piece the dancers often tell each other, “I’m so sorry. You matter. I love you. Know that you are cared about.” When you’re in the moment and having to beat up the other dancer and do some movement that is making them uncomfortable in some way, you feel it’s necessary to go to them and apologize. We all know it’s acting, but it doesn’t make it less horrible.
She’s run at Here comes at a charged time in America, particularly regarding respect for women and women’s rights. What does She say about women owning their sexuality in a culture that often attempts to stifle it?
That is what I’m saying in the piece in the middle of the show — the Madonna and Missy Elliot piece with the protest signs and oversexualized images in the back — the fact that women can dress sexy and be sexy, but that doesn’t mean we have to be sex symbols to somebody. We can be strong even while being sexy and owning our femininity. We do need to own our sexuality, but to own it we need to continue to educate ourselves on what is happening in our world now and love ourselves fully, because we can’t own anything without loving ourselves.
Rape culture, and sexual assault among high school and college students, has been in sharp focus in recent years. How did you shape the story about teenage sexual assault in She?
The high school story is something I just added for this duration, after researching and finding out such a large number — one in five — of high school age students have experienced or will experience sexual assault or rape. We do talk about rape culture, but it is still seen as very taboo. We have sex ed, we talk about STDs and pregnancy, but we don’t talk about healthy relationships.
I guess I understand why we don’t talk about sex in the way that we should because a lot of parents are trying to shield their children from having sex at the wrong time because of all the consequences that can come from it. But I almost feel like we need to do the opposite and have more conversations about sex so you can really understand what it is and what healthy sex is, what a healthy relationship is.
She not only depicts the abuse, but the aftermath, and the all-too-common victim-blaming. It also depicts women taking ownership of the word “abuse.” How did you work that into the show?
There are a lot of women out there who will say, “I don’t deserve to use this term abuse.” A lot of these women are probably saying that because they’re blaming themselves. [During a talkback], someone asked a question that triggered the entire cast, and at the end of the line she started crying, [saying], “It wasn’t until this show that I realized that what I had experienced was actual abuse.”
I think that’s something that this show does. It brings to light different forms of abuse: It’s not just someone pulling you to the side of the street and raping you. [The show is] educating so that women can be OK with the saying, “I was abused. This was abuse.”
How has working on She affected you personally?
Writing is something that I’ve always loved, but I’ve always been a dancer, choreographer, educator, in that order. I surprised myself at the end of the day. It’s given me even more confidence personally because I never thought I would write a script.
The revelation for me has been seeing the change that happens, with the work and with the [people], from seeing this process. There has been an immense amount of change in the cast. One cast member said, “My boyfriend spoke to me yesterday and [said] ‘now I realize, after seeing this show, why you’ve changed.’ ” And she said, “What do you mean?” “Well, you don’t take any crap from me. You stand up to everything. You are stronger than you were before.”
She said, “Yeah. I am.”