A blog by performance artist and playwright Daniel Alexander Jones

Feeling in the Dark (a preface to DUAT)

I wrote this as the preface to Soho Rep's published version of the performance text for Duat. I share it at year's end as a testimony.


Feeling In The Dark

(A preface to Duat)

By Daniel Alexander Jones


Lena Horne sat in an interview with the noted television interlocutor Dick Cavett in 1981. Flush with the impact of her victorious show, The Lady and Her Music, Horne spoke with candor when Cavett referred to old perceptions of her as a “cultured introvert” in contrast with the ferocity of her persona in her show, and in the room that night. “I was a late bloomer”, she said, “I didn’t ‘un-introvert’ until I was 50…I was behind a mask that I thought would not make me seem stereotypical…I went way back and got some kind of mask that just erased everything…an unknown category, I could not be reached. I would not give myself easily because of my hangups, racially and otherwise. …But I found that some of them were creating a block in me artistically.” She went on to discuss the impact of hearing the voice of Aretha Franklin, a voice she called, “an ultimate free sound”. Franklin’s voice broke her heart open. And it became a model for her, not to emulate stylistically, but to understand emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. “I was very icy for many years, and I could not be at ease with you, with many people. Because of the ice that society had put around my heart.” 


We live in heartbreaking times. Our individual proximity to the burning eyes of violent destruction is determined by a number of factors, including privilege (or lack thereof) on the one hand and chance on the other. In the United States, there are particular new cycles of violence, rooted in old, poisonous and systemic scripts, that prey upon us because of bodies we are in, the rights we assert, the culture we embody, and the transformations we enact. The cost of courageous confrontation is grave. The codes for access to comfort and relative safety may be updated, but they are not new; and there is definitely no guarantee that your deal with the devil will be worth the skin it was written on this time around. The impact of that violence will reach everyone, eventually, for that violence is irreparably damaging our Earth. As the old spiritual says, “the rock cried out—no hiding place”. The ice caps are melting fast.


I always felt kinship with Horne’s iciness. It was hauntingly familiar. I would sometimes stare at her face, a face that many folks said my own resembled. I could feel her brilliance, and also her unambiguous decision to be in charge of who did, and who did not have access to the inside. While she was a peerless luminary in the pantheon of great Black stars, and I was just a little kid from a working class neighborhood in a small, fading, Northeastern city, I felt some resonance between macro and micro. From a young age, I had developed my own distance and reserve as a way of disrupting the caging and distorting projections, and deflecting the barely veiled attacks from folks within the strange world I’d entered, so different from my own home and neighborhood. That home was a so-called interracial household; that neighborhood was a diverse, close-knit, working class enclave. That strange world was a predominantly white public school system. I was, in the 1970s and 1980s, an integrator. Part of a generation that came of age in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, who boarded yellow buses to make our way away from our neighborhoods to receive a complicated education. We were meant to embody and enact the sunny side of the ideals espoused, the faithful interpretation of the letter of the laws passed; but we also navigated the shadow side of pernicious resistance, silent retreat, and gradual yet persistent reversal. Buoyed by a crystal clear combination of a) the unwavering assumption of our capacity for excellence, instilled in us by family and community, and b) their unerring faith in us, my friends and I experienced an odd prescience that we were entering something far more complicated than just ‘going to school’, but that we were not only equal to it, but were expected to stay on top of, and ahead of it. Whatever ‘it’ was. 


Years later, I would come to understand that ‘it’ included a tightrope dance over a treacherous terrain of absorptive and erasing white supremacy at worst, cultural chauvinism at best, patriarchy, misogyny, and just plain old meanness. Those are not descriptors that would resonate for a bus full of elementary school students; but I assert, that while we couldn’t name ‘it’, we could sure as hell feel ‘it’. And we could sense the harrowing damage it wrought, sometimes slowly, sometimes swiftly, as we grew in macrocosmic and microcosmic ways further away from original intentions; one way that integration failed. There was no halcyon time. No idyllic, CHIC-soaked rollerskating haven immune to the shadow side. But, there were real people, in community, with all of their complexities and contradictions who made a go of it and practiced a way of becoming based on a kind of radical if quotidian vulnerability. A fragile web of actions rooted in a desire to enact equality, hold space for difference, make room for people to stretch out beyond the habits of their identities, and do with some measure of intentional kindness, one way integration succeeded, however briefly. 


“And, I said God, let me open up myself”, Horne continued, recounting Franklin’s impact on her self-described icy heart. “When she, and things that happened to me, of course, broke my heart, I realized I wasn’t ice. I was very fragile, very human, and a woman who had been this way for protection, so I loved it that she made me cry. Because I wouldn’t cry for years.”  


It’s a joke my friends are very familiar with: “I don’t cry; I don’t drink enough water to make tears”. Partially true, it has been my way of deflecting attention, others’, yes, but largely my own, away from the ice around my own heart. I haven’t cried, because the water was not in liquid form. Now, the peculiar algebra of navigating a post-integration United States landscape, while trying to keep hold of integrity and while seeking some measure of civic possibility (that is dynamically inclusive, egalitarian, and aggressively anti-colonial) is nothing unique; it is a well-worn story of trusting hearts face to face with a fundamentally untrustworthy proposal. And, that there has been something braced, coiled, rigid, sentinel and ready-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop-as-a-signal-that-it’s-time-to-rumble in the core of me, too, is nothing unique. I don’t think my experiences are “special” or that I am somehow divorced from a larger context. But, I begin with my testimony because it is my melody, and it is a truthful point of departure—in it remain insights only revealed through the playing, and, with it I can call to others to put their hands on their own melodies, as we move, together, into a particular experience of the larger contexts within and without. My heart pierced by the accelerated, unspeakable violence and loss I have witnessed these last few years, I have wept. My heart breaking open, from within, in a sustained unstable wail for the irreparable and irreversible damage being done, macro and microcosmically. Throughout, I have been visited by fragments of memory, flashes of emotion and insight flowering forth from the past. Evidence. In Duat, the Archivist (Ma'at) says:


…death don’t worry me. 

This is different.”


I sense that my personal struggle, and the greater, more pointed struggle of many others, is in part a struggle against the erasure of potential, against the winnowing and constraining of the breadth of life and expression, against the wholesale assault on the imagination. The urgency at the core of me, and the connected urgency of many others, is to voice that potential both in terms of what gets imagined, and, in terms of what gets remembered. We manifest what we imagine. My forbears imagined freedoms they did not, themselves, experience. And, by so doing, became architects of a trans-temporal reality. I have felt a block in me—a block of ice. I am sure I cannot articulate all the reasons why it exists. But, I can say, without question, that the block has to go. And, I can say, with certainty, that most people I encounter, on the real, are contending with some version of this block, regardless of whatever elements comprise their own. I understand that we need to be fully available to imagine beyond the boundaries of this current experience. Heart in hand, I consider the evidence. My heart has surged with a profound, unambiguous love for the beauty, and bravery of all those who face this abyss and keep breathing, moving, seeking, cultivating expansion in the midst of harrowing reduction, even erasure. A community of feeling in the dark.


And, so, this work began as an impulse to explore a ritual of deliberate undoing and transformation that felt at once future and ancient. I asked for inspiration and information from both those temporal spheres. I relied on the words of the late Alice Coltrane, “They’ll be there. They’ll be moving in a translinear path”. Within the Black American autobiographical tradition, there is an implicit relationship between “I” and “we”; the first person narration is specific, yet part of a congregation of experiences that are familiar, it is hoped, in the sense of that word. Testimony is a call, witness is a response, intended to arouse an affective experience, for which each individual has particular vantage points. We share space.


In the belly of Duat, Osiris sits back to back with the god Atum. It is a space devoid of anything save the structure upon which Osiris sits. There is no light, no sound, no movement of air. He is aware of the sentience of Atum, but that awareness alerts him even more keenly to his ultimate isolation. After the death of his “self”; other than, yet housed among the ruptured (phantom?) fragments of that dismembered self; beyond that which was remembered then released by those who loved him, he is, alone. Nothing stirs. The crucible of his own thoughts, regrets, longings, fears grows ever more intense. With no marker, he cannot tell if he has sat there for a moment or a century. In desperation he cries out, “will I be here forever?”… The answer comes back—“yes”. 


In the tradition of mythic conundrums, this rates pretty high up there. For, the soul’s journey through Duat is beset by doubts and demons, riddles and lies, distortions and derangements, and, too, cues and clues. The imprint of the seed, does it remain long after germination? In one sense maybe, “I” will be there forever—the person that any of us were in the dark, does that person, that aspect of ourselves, in part, remain, tethered?  Does that person give way to our transformation, to our becoming like the hull of a seed gives way to the plant within? Spoiler alert: Osiris makes it out. But, he is changed. He has been killed, dismembered, remembered, resurrected, then “dies” to the world to live in the eternal world of the dead (an alternate dimension of the gods in the sky above us). Is the fear of willing myself out of the icy dark not in fact connected to the visceral knowledge that I will be irrevocably changed when I do? Pain awaits. That thing which breaks open in me could destroy or renew me; but it will shed the life I’ve been living in the process either way. Easier to hang back in an ‘unknown category’, a windowless, airless, still fortress of solitude. Easier, ’til you can’t no more. 


I commit this to you: I will offer you my real heart through Duat (no ice). Indeed, my work and the work of my collaborators has been to stay in the heat of that realness. Some aspects of that realness are revealed in oblique ways, since there are spirits in the corner that you can only spy through your peripheral vision, and so, sometimes, we conjure abstractly. Other aspects of that realness must be offered directly. No distractions or attempts to prettify. Uncut. There is a conscious dance between familiar and unknown, set and improvised. This text, for example, is like a chart in music; ultimately, a point of departure into a lived experience. Duat is an experience into which you are invited. 


If myths are narrativized symbol sets; deep within the symbols themselves lie urgent desires to recollect the pieces of experience, and in the chambers of the heart, remember and communicate them to invite others to imagine their way beyond caging habits of reduction and into the wide, pulsing feeling of life.