It's hard to peg the talents of Mankwe Ndosi to a certain category. A Harvard graduate who got her degree in social science and economics, she eschewed a career in business and became an actress, performing locally at such theaters as Penumbra and the Guthrie. "After I got out of college I just started working with as many places as I could," she says. It was during that time she met e.g. bailey, and became involved in the mid-'90s wave of spoken word re-emergence. She also began creating performance art, working with Laurie Carlos at places like Patrick's Cabaret and Intermedia Arts. Eventually she started collaborating with Douglas R. Ewart, an instrument builder, musician, composer, and visual artist who works improvisationally with African based music traditions. With Ewart, Ndosi works with music not written on the page, rather "playing what we feel happening -- it can be textural or atmospheric or can be based in rhythm and groove."
Ndosi now considers herself primarily a vocalist; her work constantly expanding the range and use of the voice in American singing. Her theater training taught her how to express emotion and story through vocals, but she doesn't limit herself to what others call "pretty singing." Over the last 10 years, she has collaborated with many musicians and artists, creating work that "is sort of in the in-between," she says.
"I consider myself a culture worker," Ndosi states. "I'm trying to craft a way to talk about what I do that doesn't make it seem like I don't do anything." That's because our society doesn't value artists, according to Ndosi. "We love creative things but we don't love the people who make them. Artists are undervalued similar to how mothers are undervalued and child care people are undervalued. We have a lot of growing to do -- we're in need of healing."
For Ndosi, creative work is spirit work. At the mid-career stage that she's at, she's trying to formulate what her artistic path is going to be. "I'm a culture worker. I want to be of use," she says.
Her latest project, As the Rhythm Changes, aims to develop a storytelling tool. She's currently in her second year of the three-year project. In 2009 she interviewed 19 Minnesotans, and created a piece based on their stories. Using dance, music, and storytelling, the show explored how daily rhythms are affected by greater societal factors.
This year she's developing seeds of those themes, and eventually wants to take the tools she develops out into communities, working with people to tell stories. "The more we can connect with the people around us, the better we are able to be a community," she says, "and we need to be in a community when the shit goes down."
To get a glimpse of the process that Ndosi has been working on, be sure to check out this Saturday's performance of Non English Speaking Spoken Here: The Late Night Series. Originally at the Penumbra, performances are now held at the Pillsbury House (3501 Chicago Ave. S.), and are curated by Laurie Carlos and e.g. bailey. Ndosi states that the series is "amazingly unique. It's not a secret, but it's a diamond in south Minneapolis." The series typically features a resident from Minnesota and an artist from out of town. Ndosi says she likes the program because it allows audiences to make connections with work that pushes the boundaries of performance. Also performing Saturday will be folk/soul singer gina Breedlove, local dancer/choreographer Julie Warder, and authors from the Givens Black Writers Collaborative. The show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10, or $5 for students.