Participants at Suzanne Lacy's "Between the Door and the Street" performance in Brooklyn on October 19, 2013. Photo courtesy of Creative Time.
Last Saturday evening, almost 400 women and handful of men sat themselves on front stoops on one block in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, to discuss the meaning and future of feminism at the “Between the Door and the Street” performance.
Invited by the Brooklyn Museum, Creative Time, and Suzanne Lacy, an artist best known for staging political performances that spark civic dialogues and debate, the participants were dressed in black while donning bright yellow pashminas – two shades when used together are one of the easiest color combinations to see from long distances. And the effect worked: the participants stood out brightly from the audience, remarkable as much for their racial and ethnic diversity as they did for the wide range of topics they addressed.
As I walked up and down the street, I overheard a variety of conversations marked by ease and improvisational exchanges. Facilitated by “stoop leaders” who were often community organizers from one of the participating 80 political groups, the conversations themselves spanned the gamut: from racial discrimination against Latinas in the workplace to queer friendly midwifery practices, from the Dreamers advocating a humane pathway to US citizenship to groups demanding the end of police harassment of black communities.
By encouraging us to eavesdrop on these discussions, Lacy sought to break the fourth wall — the imaginary wall at the front of a traditional theater stage that separates the actors from the audience — as well as challenge the historical record of feminism as racially exclusive and single-issue focused.
In this sense, the performance achieved its goal. “Our vision is simple,” said Ms. Lacy. “You can see the piece as an exercise in empathy on one hand, and coalition building on the other.”
The coalition building was apparent. You could see this from the more highly visited groups, like Jagakbo, a peace making dialogue group between North and South Korean Women, Girls for Gender Equity, and the Sex Workers Project. Based on the street plan, it was hard to tell whether or not there were any community groups mixed together. And at first, I felt that each stoop seemed to self-contained by organization affiliation and oftentimes a racial and linguistic homogeneity that seemed to work against the goal of rendering feminism as the umbrella for a variety of social justice concerns. But, over time, I saw the collection of conversations occurring next to or across the street from each other as a chorus, polyphony of voices that articulated contemporary feminism as multiracial, intergenerational, and politically expansive.
Achieving empathy, however, was an even more complicated feat. Creative Time’s chief curator Nato Thompson hoped the performance cultivates “the art of listening.” As he put it, “Gatherings across race, class, and gender that are open, protected, and you can listen and hear discussions are extremely rare.” At first, the demographics of the audience only slightly mirrored the racial and gender diversity of the stoop dwellers. And hour later, the crowd was different. Standing out now was the fluidity of the group and the presence of those people not typically associated with feminist gatherings: men of color and young children.
And because the participants spoke in their natural voices, the audience often had to strain to hear them, pushing up against one another, and sometimes only to pick up fragments and phrases. This also meant we also had to literally lean into the speakers and each other, generating a feeling of intimacy and trust amongst strangers.
The event, however, was not without dissenting voices. Last week, three participants and 31 supporters signed an open letter that said, “As women who come from different socio-economic and racial backgrounds, we understand that not all activism can or should be paid. However, we do think that the arts community has an imperative to try harder to set a better standard of compensating women for their labor, and for practicing solidarity economies that support women’s participation instead of exploiting them.”
But for the participants with whom I spoke, the ability to simply to talk to each other about such important topics in the public was enough. One Dreamer, Mateo, a self-identified undocumented queer woman, said, “I think the interesting part is that we were just having a conversation with each other and even getting to know each other the more we talked. And say things without having to be hypocritical, or sin pelos en la lengua, without hairs in your tongue.”
Another woman, a performance artist named Lyfe, spent her afternoon with a group of African American women talking about gender, spirituality, and religion. She said, “It was good because it was liking having a conversation with your homegirls out loud. And some of the things we talk about amongst ourselves in our sister circles need to be talked about in the public, in broader spaces.”
One audience member, Elizabeth Shipley, confessed, “That within in ten minutes of arriving, I was personally moved. It is just so unusual to hear a lot of the voices that are never made public, right here front and center.” She went on, “It felt like when I went to the very first Women’s World Cup [in 1991] and watch 90,000 people cheering on two teams of women. You just don’t always see that many people come out and hear women’s voices that often.”
The most radical moment for me was when the participants broke character, left their stoops, and joined the audience in the streets. Though still distinguished by their black and yellow costumes, the speakers and audience engaged each as equals, comrades in the struggle for gender justice, and continued the animated conversations en masse.
And it is then that I realized that I was always part of the performance. That my eavesdropping, the most mundane of activities, had become the deeply political, collaborative act of witnessing. And considering that we don’t listen to their voices every day, it was transformative to watch so many women, who are visible in their communities but overlooked in the dominant culture, amplify themselves as our most valuable political experts and thought leaders. And tell us that if we simply listened and leaned into them in lot more, we might actually change the world.