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At Fringe: Hettie Barnhill presents local premiere of BLM film; making room for death at Spirit Room

Sep 22, 2021

Still singing the same songs

Every time they’re needed, artists are there to reflect on and grapple with urgent concerns, create room for crucial conversations, and provide guiding lights for others lost in the fog.

This is the spirit in which Broadway actress, director, and choreographer Hettie Barnhill created her film “A Love Letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle,” which was an official selection for several national and international film festivals and was screened on Tuesday, Sept. 21 at Rochester Contemporary Art Center, as part of the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival. 

A clip from Hettie Barnhill's film A Love Letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle, which had its Rochester premiere on Sept. 21, 2021.
Credit Create a Space NOW

Produced by Barnhill under her Create A Space NOW production company, the film focuses on the Black Lives Matter movement and the reasons for its existence — incorporating dance, recitations of poetry and spoken word performances, self-reflection, and protest. 

“The film came from the feeling that I was silenced, that my life didn’t matter,” Barnhill said at the Rochester premiere on Tuesday night. “It’s meant to be the beginning of a discussion.”

The work opens with text and vocal musings that babies take time to develop the ability to detect color, and asking when it is that we go from being colorblind to using color as the primary means of assessing someone’s value.

While footage of BLM marches and militarized police fill the screen, a group sings the Black National Anthem, James Wheldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — a song that was penned in 1900, resurrected during the Civil Rights era, performed by Alicia Keys during the 2020 Super Bowl, and is now played before all of the 2021 NFL games.

Throughout the film, a group of artists representing different races, genders, ages, and sexualities alternate between asking and answering questions about race, perception, the police, and our responsibility toward one another, and performing bits of choreography that interpret the topics at hand.

Not one new concept is discussed, but in 2021 the same conversations are still necessary. 

Of the recurring and viral recorded evidence of police brutality and murder of Black people, one participant said, “You can witness a man dying yet nothing is changing.” Another called the phenomenon “confirmation of a deep feeling that things have not changed.”

The participants ask and answer questions about interactions with the police, which varied predictably depending on race. A white woman was never harassed; a Black man was held up, having been given the undying and conveniently nebulous excuse that he “fit a description of a suspect.” All the while, the dancers stand in a line, pushing and shoving one another to get closer to the front and confront the camera close up.

This work is about the need to be heard, after all. And it’s about the responsibility of those who hear.

Quotes from the late United States Rep. John Lewis and others fill the screen between visuals, and audio of First Lady Michelle Obama, poet and musician Saul Williams, and Rochester-based poet Reenah Golden are paired with hoodie-wearing performers’ movements. 

In a slower-paced moment but with no less urgency, a single performer sings Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”

A clip from Hettie Barnhill's film A Love Letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle, which had its Rochester premiere on Sept. 21, 2021.
Credit Create a Space NOW

All of the choreography in the film illustrates what is being said — a Black man speaks with emotion about the fear of Black bodies, and the other dancers hop away from him, as if frightened by his firm tone. A white woman is lifted by the other dancers and extends her arm in a reaching-out gesture while giving an anecdote about fearing a Black man who called after her, trying to return her dropped phone.

An important point the film repeatedly makes is that change won’t come from the efforts of Black people alone, that it requires some deep and worthy internal work by everyone who has grown up in our racist and discriminatory world. 

The film outlines and underscores specific areas that need work, including white feminism and its tendency to shut out the voices of women of color. It clearly defines intersectional feminism: the understanding and acknowledgement of how overlapping identities (race, sexuality, disability, etc.) impact the ways that women experience discrimination and oppression (the oppression is compounded).

The film was many years in the making, Barnhill said.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and East St. Louis, Illinois, Barnhill traveled back home with her partner Robert Gertler, shortly after the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and participated in the protests that formed the infancy of the BLM movement.

In her bio, Barnhill says she returned to New York feeling an urgent need to use her work to fight for justice. 

In 2016, she brought together several coworkers and friends, artists of different races, ages, sexualities, and genders to discuss Black lives with their minds and bodies. They created a video about current social justice issues that blended dance and text, which became a series of videos that combined art and conversation about tough topics. 

Create A Space NOW debuted its first site-specific theatrical experience using dance, film, and text at the 2019 Rochester Fringe Festival at the Fielding Stage at Geva Theatre Center. And that stage play was adapted into this film in 2020 in response to the pandemic.

Combining beauty with a drive to prove we can do better for one another, Barnhill’s work is interactive in that it leaves viewers reminded of the same directive we too often ignore: that we are all participants in the world, and a deep internal look is required to discover our part in improving it for each other.

“A Love Letter to Brian, Lesley, and Michelle” will be shown again on Wednesday, Sept. 22, at 6 p.m., at Rochester Contemporary Art Center, and will be followed by a conversation with Hettie Barnhill. $15 general, $12 with student ID. 13 and over. For more information and tickets, go to rochesterfringe.com/tickets-and-shows/a-love-letter-to-brian-lesley-and-michelle.

-RR

The Spirit Room: Making space for death

As venues go at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival, The Spirit Room’s collection of shows exploring dark subjects such as death and mental illness seems a perfect fit.

“Two doors down, a notorious mobster was strangled in the basement,” says Jacob Rakovan. “All these buildings are continuous, we are the oldest continuously used storefront in the city of Rochester.” In fact, Rakovan says he’s traced the building that is now The Spirit Room – or the basement, anyway, back to the 1850s.

That particular block, where Andrews Street T-bones into State Street, has enjoyed a slight Renaissance over the last couple of years. The windows of a few vacant properties still stare out onto the sidewalk like the empty eye sockets of a skull. But along with The Spirit Room, the recent arrivals of the UUU Gallery and the Center City Market at least offer a whiff of upscale development.

And at The Spirit Room, Rakovan and his partner, Rachel McKibbens, have created a setting with a whiff of… well, death.

“She has a Mexican-American background, and mine is Appalachian,” Rakovan says. “And they’re both, they both center on death in a different way than the predominant culture does.”

Rachel McKibbens and Jacob Rakovan of The Spirit Room.

The predominant décor of The Spirit Room is Victorian, heavily accented by what Ravokan says was one of the building’s previous incarnations, as a funeral parlor.

The place feels haunted.

“Yeah, absolutely, absolutely,” Rakovan says. “Besides the fact that our space is profoundly haunted, and we have to have some kind of dialogue with them, we have staff policies about them, so I must believe in them. You are to greet them, and we share the space, that’s the deal.”

“And it seems to work pretty well.”

There is a sense of humor in the room as well.

“Well, skeletons are funny,” Rakovan says. “I think part of that is we’re all walking around with one.”

Rakovan describes The Spirit Room’s atmosphere as a healthy acceptance of death.

Our healthy rituals of death have been lost, he says. Replaced by squeamishness, “and a willingness to hand everything over to the professionals.”

“I think when we exclude it completely, and don’t speak about it, then we give it a terrible and terrifying power.

“I think there’s something to be said for just having room, making space in the room for death.”

And now, The Spirit Room is in the midst of a festival that makes room for shows about tarot cards, the occult and prostitutes.

“In current American society,” Rakovan says, “to speak about death or grief or any of those things automatically puts you in the Fringe.”

- JS

The complete Rochester Fringe schedule is available at rochesterfringe.com. Go to “Find a Show,” create a list of events by date, venue and genres, then hit the “Filter” button. Tickets to each event are available at the web site, by calling (585) 957-9837, or at the venue one hour before the start of the show if they are still available.

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's life editor. Feedback on this article can be directed to dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's arts & life editor. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.