By Bridget Kelso, member of the 2009 Emerging Writers Group
I remember the first time I saw myself reflected on television. While watching Sesame Street one day, I saw a little black girl with a big curly afro being sent to the store, all by herself. Her mother gave her a list of things to get, and she repeated them over and over as she skipped to the store: “A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter...” It was a revelation. Here was someone who looked like me, who sounded like me, and who had a Mom who trusted her to go to the store, just like me. The artistry of that moment – how she was drawn, the voiceover work, the writing – has stayed with me and continues to shape me.
I remember watching a girl play a young Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on television and thinking, “I could do that.”
I remember wanting to live in a world populated by children like in the movie Bugsy Malone.
I don’t remember all of these things because they happened yesterday. These are movies and images that were released more than 30 years ago. I remember them because there is something about them that made an impression. Certain images can, and do, stay with me... forever. It’s like there’s a particular combination of pictures and words that when entered unlocks the secret of who I am, and helps shape the person I am becoming.
I want to walk away from a play thinking differently. I want art to make me run home and write, take a class, sing, join a movement. I expect art, including mine, to rearrange my view of the world. I expect good art to move me, or at the very least, to shift my internal barometer.
That’s what I’m looking for EVERY time I go to the theater or the movies (but most especially the theater) – not just to be changed or moved, but to be remade, refashioned, to emerge different. No – not just different, more revealed. I believe this huge mystery of life is revealed in art, and so I take being an artist seriously. It really is a calling.
I think there are lots of people who feel this way, and it’s reflected in their performances. There have been people over the years that have created moments for me that have the same resonance as my “stick of butter” memory.
When I was pregnant with my son, I saw Zainab Jah in the Classical Theater of Harlem’s production of Trojan Women. The play was amazing, but I never forgot how Zainab’s portrayal of Helen made me feel. Very often when someone is good in a role, I’ll compare myself to their performance, or even feel envious. I felt nothing but admiration for what I was seeing that night: full immersion in a role, done in a way that I could not fathom. For the first time, I understood why men would go to war over such a woman; she was magnetic and dangerous, and I could not take my eyes off of her. The image of her in a cage, biding her time, has never left me.
Tunde Samuels was well-known in the theater community as a producer at the National Black Theater. But I never knew my friend could sing until I saw him in The Legacy. He joined in on the end of one song, and his voice filled the space like Gabriel’s horn. I walked out of there feeling like I had been a part of an ancestral awakening.
And just recently, two friends of mine performed some of my poetry. Alex Ubokudom and LaKisha May took my words and flew with them. At one point, Alex even repeated a line in such a way that it felt like a correction. They owned the piece, and the picture of them on stage together now belongs to that poem.
I hold these images and feelings close to my heart. They leave an impression like finger prints on a glass. I hold them because I want my work to have the same effect on others. What’s the point of art that’s easily forgotten? Like the new Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) ads on the train, I want my art to “hit you” later on. You will have your own list of hits and memorable moments, your own assortment of fingerprints.
Choose wisely. Like Maya Angelou said “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” Get some good art, let it feed your soul, and then later on, when you least expect it, let it warm your heart.
“A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter...”
Bridget Kelso is an Adjunct Lecturer at the City College of New York and a teaching artist for Judith Sloan’s EarSay Project at the International High School in Queens, which helps Immigrant Youth by transforming trauma into art. She is currently working on a solo performance piece entitled SLIDE SHOW: THE EVOLUTION OF RADICAL FEMINIST THEOLOGY.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.