“Filling Basins” reclaims the domestic space as a site of elastic revolutionary potential where the socioeconomically disenfranchised washer-women of Georgia ask: Who gets to demand freedom? Who gets to enjoy the dignity and agency proclaimed and promised by the American government? At what point do we rise up and revolt? It is an incredibly passionate piece of theater that feels both contemporary and historical. In recounting a magical experience of resistance, rebellion and organization beyond structural restraints through the pain and joy these moments require, a.k. Payne ’19 has conjured an urgently delivered experience of theater.

The narrative centers around six black women in the post-emancipation American South who organize a strike for higher wages, respect and autonomy in the workplace — their labor, their sacrifices, their memories, their bodies. The sense of motion and urgency inherent to this chase for freedom is the pulse of the play, and paired with the quotidian context, the collective explores heavy existential themes stripped of pretense. All were born slaves but the youngest, Annette — delivered with all the wisdom and sincerity of teendom by Saphia Suarez ’21 —, allowing the women to interrogate the essence of freedom and its deliverance in relation to state power.

The play imagines power through pleasure through the dynamism and vitality of the body, mind, soul and voice by interspersing dialogue, dance and experimental multimedia vignettes — the most potent being a poetic shadow projection recounting histories of lynching. The overt ferocity demanded by such a theme is in consistent negotiation with the delicacy and implicit strength of the choreography. As Louise, the eldest of the group — delivered with the wisdom and practicality of age by Rayo Oyeyemi ’20 — remarks: “Love is giving all and knowing your body is the soul to give”.

In the confusion and hopelessness of centuries of traditional subjugation, the subversive home-space remains a static reminder of strength. In the political climate of today — and in the neoliberalism it spins so consistently — it is important to remind activists, students and scholars of our academy that revolution, or resistance, begins in the routines of your life at home. “Filling Basins” asks us to care for and revere our emotional responses to the world through the charm of communal affliction and the charity of kindness it begets. It inquires into a people whose history advocates for radical, lived and fearless resistance. The beauty of Payne conducting this empowering orchestra: the politics of joy.

“Filling Basins” was soul-wrenching and heavy, but it was often quick to evoke laughter. It is a hearty show with amalgams of dramatic monologues and characteristic quips. Zyria Rodgers ’21 masterfully balanced this contrast as Leanne — making it too natural, too real and too funny to ignore, even during the very soul of the show’s intensity.

The play examines the role that personal and collective memory plays in fashioning the future, using a deliberate historical and political moment to map current debates on race, gender, economics and freedom. Its currency and relevancy is blatant, albeit occasionally heavy-handed, as the women of the cast lay a template for revolution. “If they ain’t with us, they against us,” Loretta exclaims at the height of a particularly impassioned moment. The all-or-nothing stakes of the narrative is rarely dropped in a stunning achievement of collective performance mirrored in both the dialogue and delivery. The theme of movement serves as the meta-engine of both the plot and staging, which renders the moments of ultimate stillness whole and devastating.

If the show had any flaws, they were in its pace of storytelling and scattered climax. Maybe we liked the play too much, but it seemed like the goodbye came too soon — the cast’s presence too hurried, too inconclusive or too incomplete. The shadow projection show was the show’s strongest moment and the moments before the ending its weakest, most abstract and opaque. Opacity is, at other times, brilliantly employed in the story — in Patty’s advisory soliloquies or Louise’s concerns about the practicality of the strike — but the end finds it only as an unsolved obstacle. This is the subversiveness of the script: It is an exercise in memory, sisterhood and imagining revolution, deviating from the norms of traditional theater to tell a more important story, to open up the very meaning of experience as a theatre-goer. Although, in the end, the credit for the women’s strike is handed over to a group of white men, Rodgers delivers a powerful monologue claiming this history as their own ending with “We mattered. This is our revolution. And they full of all types of jokes.” The women, proud, defiant and successful beyond the narrow confines of hegemonic success, gather for a final round of poetics and movement, a final ode to the body. And then, a final breath.

 

Zulfiqar Mannan | zulfiqar.mannan@yale.edu

Casey Odesser casey.odesser@yale.edu