“I can’t breathe.” Those were the final, repeated words of Eric Garner, as he died at the hands of a New York City police officer in 2014.
Garner’s death — and the haunting last words that became a rallying cry in the movement to confront police violence against Black lives — has inspired the creation of “The Ritual of Breath is the Rite to Resist,” an immersive, multidisciplinary performance piece that both mourns Garner’s death and calls upon the community to respond.
Directed by theater artist Niegel Smith, “The Ritual of Breath is the Rite to Resist” is a contemplative seven-movement opera that combines the music of Stanford University professor and composer Jonathan Berger, the visual art of Enrico Riley, the words of poet Vievee Francis, and the choreography of Neema Bickersteth and Trebien Pollard (Bickersteth, who is a multidisciplinary artist, also sings in the production). The piece includes the input of other artists and activists as well, such as Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, and involves community outreach and participation. Co-commissioned by the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College and Stanford Live, the piece debuted at Dartmouth. It comes to Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall Oct. 14-15.
“The piece, from the get-go, is about breathing. This idea of breathing as sort of a ritual act,” Berger said. “By the end of the piece, it becomes very rhythmic and melodic. It ends with the sense of, ‘we are a community and we can react.'”
In “The Ritual of Breath,” text, sounds, movements and images come together to confront the topic in a powerful way, representing multiple perspectives and inviting the audience to be an essential part of the experience.
Soprano Bickersteth gives voice to the late Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, who became an activist following her father’s death. Her singing, interpreting Francis’ words and accompanied by Berger’s music, is joined by the vocal performances of lead chorister Isaiah Robinson and a community chorus. Jazz saxophonist Greg Ward and four other musicians interpret Berger’s score, while movement by Pollard and visual projections of Riley’s artwork represent other ways to witness and grapple with the piece’s themes.
It is, Smith said, “a work that acknowledges itself. It’s not a place where you need to suspend your disbelief. We know it’s happening right here in front of us; we’re using all of these modes of expression to take us through these seven movements of ritual.”
Berger and Riley first began working together around 2016, after meeting as Rome Prize Fellows. Riley had been painting a series on police violence toward Black Americans.
“The idea for this piece emerged at the time, and then took a number of different routes,” Berger recalled. “As we brought in (Francis) to write the libretto, it then morphed from something centered on the murder of Eric Garner as a symbol for what was going on. Vievee took it to looking from the perspective of Erica; it then became a work that was about community, and creating communities of engaged resistance.”
Smith said he was invited by producers to meet with Francis, Riley and Berger when the piece was in its early stages, and he quickly appreciated their vision for making experimental, provocative art centered in the human experience, as well as their willingness to embrace him as an equal creative partner.
“I was just really drawn in by the three of them as artists; this question of, ‘How do we create a work that directly engages the travesty of the lack of respect and value for Black lives from our police?'” Smith said. “Their artistry, what they were working on, their openness to my artistry and my deep commitment to works that are as much works of community engagement as aesthetic experiences and moments of expression — all of that made me want to be part of it,” he said, recalling that at his first meeting with the team, he proposed the idea of a choir made up of local singers.
With Smith’s guidance, the project now “is about bringing people together to engage and act, and become activists and resist,” Berger said. “The piece as a work of art stands by itself, but it is this sense of community that I’m very pleased with.”
On the local level, the effort is being led by Creative Producer for Engagement and Community Kimberly Thomas McNair, a lecturer in Stanford’s department of African & African American Studies.
“We are inviting organizations whose work aims to end the epidemic of anti-Black racism in policing here in the Bay Area,” McNair, who has a background in community organizing and experience researching Black grassroots movements, wrote in an email interview. “This project is an offering and a call for justice, and we believe that these organizations have played a major role in the call for greater accountability, transparency, and strategies to help us move toward restorative and transformative justice.”
McNair described her multifaceted role as including outreach into Bay Area communities of color affected by police violence, and curating several free public events leading up to the performance dates that “sit alongside, prepare and provide a way into ‘Ritual of Breath’ to create participants as much as audience members,” she said.
Those events include “Ritual for Black Levity and Auspicious Attention,” a listening ritual on eco-social repair on Oct. 6 with Lead to Life Creative Director/ecological educator brontë velez; “Elevate Our Departed: Ritual for Safe Passage,” a guided grief practice on Oct. 7 (also led by velez); and a collective breathing ritual and procession to Bing Concert Hall, led by dancer-choreographer and Department of Theater and Performance Studies Artist-in-Residence Amara Tabor-Smith on Oct. 14 (more information on the in-person and online rituals can be found at ritualofbreath.org or live.stanford.edu).
When asked what he hopes audiences take away from the piece, Smith was clear.
“I hope that people join or recommit themselves to the Movement for Black Lives. Period,” he said. “And see themselves as part of a larger community that is committed to it.”
“The Ritual of Breath is the Rite to Resist” will be performed Friday, Oct. 14, at 7:30 p.m. and Sat., Oct. 15, at 2:30 p.m. at Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford. Tickets start at $32. More information is available at live.stanford.edu/calendar.
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