While Sharon Bridgforth was born in Los Angeles, her family originally came from Louisiana and Tennessee, moving up North as part of one of the "great migrations" of African American people. Music was integral to the culture that she was brought up in, and in her current project, River See, Bridgforth employs jazz as one of the methodologies used to mine the African American experience.
The two-week run of River See at Pillsbury House is one of the many experiments Bridgforth has conducted in developing the piece, which has a planned 2014 premiere at Links Hall in Chicago. So far, there have been 16 takes, funded through the support of five commissioning institutions. However, the run at Pillsbury will be the first time the show has had a higher level of production value in terms of costumes, lighting, and so forth.
In each of the experiments, Bridgforth is developing the text as well as her unique method of telling the story, which involves what she refers to as ritual jazz, simultaneity, choral storytelling, movement, and activating the audience to become storytellers themselves. During each performance, Bridgforth composes a moving soundscape to support the action of the narrative, with Sonja Parks playing the role of See, an African American woman on a spiritual journey. For the run at Pillsbury House, Aimee Bryant, Mankwe Ndosi, Leah Nelson, Kenna Cottman, and Truth Maze are part of the show as well.
At the beginning of the piece, Bridgforth invites the audience to participate, asking them who wants to translate the text (the hope is that some audience members speak other languages), who wants to gossip, and who wants to chant/pray. Audience members who choose to participate then receive signals from Bridgforth throughout the show.
In past experiments, the audience members have often been gifted people who bring their talents to the performance. "I'm always surprised and delighted by the depth of humanity," Bridgforth says. For audience members who don't volunteer, they hold the space in other ways, giving their presence and attention that "informs the experience," she says.
Photo by Vanessa Vargas
The blues stories See tells are about family and community, says Bridgforth, filled with characters such as raucous drinkers, queers, holy people, and crazy grandmas who help See activate the story.
For research on the project, Bridgforth read a lot of biographies of jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and singers such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the "architect of rock 'n' roll." She also delved into the history of the Black American experience, reading such books as The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson.
Eventually, Bridgforth plans to publish her performance text and a separate performance novel that she's been working on simultaneously, as well as writings about the work from scholars and other artists.
IF YOU GO:
River See Saturday, April 13 through 21 Pillsbury House + Theatre In previews April 11-12 All tickets are pay-what-you-can Free child care available on select dates, TBA For more information and tickets call 612.825.0459 or visit pillsburyhousetheatre.org