February 17, 2020 • 2 minute read
by hip-hop artist Dahlak Brathwaite
“This tale so old . . .” are the first words you hear in Try/Step/Trip. It becomes a loaded refrain that not only comments on the recurring American story of Black subjugation, but is also a nod to the piece itself: my second attempt to tell the story of my personal experience in the criminal justice system.
My teacher Fred Carl once told me, “Plays are never finished, they are just abandoned.” I would say that was true of Spiritrials, my first solo show, which inspired Try/Step/Trip. It may become true of Try/Step/Trip as well. I believe these works of autobiography are especially vulnerable to the truth of my teacher’s poignant quote, because a play about my life is never finished until my life itself is finished. If I am growing and evolving, my perspective on these life-altering moments will continue to change as I change, as the world changes, as the ghosts of its trauma manifest in different forms.
The first support I received for my solo work came after an informal interview with a foundation panelist. She wondered what makes a piece of theatre “hip-hop theatre,” a title I proudly align myself with. I replied that for me, at minimum, it is rooted in hip-hop’s relentless request for lived experience and authenticity.
“But how many times can you tell your life story?” she asked.
I told her that every time I pick up a new Jay-Z album, I know the story that I’m going to get, but—as in the retelling of all great myths—the fun is in seeing how it is refocused and reinterpreted for the time.
Try/Step/Trip felt necessary for me because there was still meaning from my experience that I had yet to explore, extract, and translate. Furthermore, I was inspired by the guiding philosophy of a fundamental aspect of hip-hop: sampling. To sample is to believe that there is more to be discovered and revealed from the remnants of our past, to hope that those remnants can even be improved upon. I wrote to my cast:
Have you ever heard a song
That transported you to the time and era
When you were listening to that song
Where you get a sense of that moment in a way that you would otherwise have no access to?
Let’s then say that song has the power to contain and conjure memory.
And let’s say—what memory is to the individual,
History is to the collective.
And therefore song also has the power to contain and conjure history.
So when we hear Black music
We also hear Black history.
A history as linked to that music as it is to the pain of not being free.
As our narrator uses song to conjure the memory of not being free,
He is also conjuring the history of not being free.
And the question is:
Are we bound to our history?
Are we bound to our memory?
Can we be more than it says we always have been? Always will end up becoming?
Or we can look at the history differently?
Look at the memory differently?
At the same time, to try again felt like the process and the point. I believed that there is something to be gained through repetition. And there has been—that something is Try/Step/Trip.