At dusk on the last Sunday in March, Gina Breedlove is standing in the center of a tight circle of black women seated on a carpet at Chapter 510 in downtown Oakland. Wielding a long feather in her right hand, she recites a blessing — like a spiritual lullaby — asking the women to let themselves rest and be loved. All with eyes closed, some women suck in satisfying yawns, while others openly weep gentle tears, and many release long, heavy sighs. Outside the circle, audience members hum in unison, filling the space with a comforting buzz.
Afterwards, the black women are sent on their way with hugs and pillows that had themselves been blessed with sage and essential oils earlier in the night. The group of about 20 heads to a private boarding house elaborately outfitted for the purpose of rest and replenishment. “I hope that you have all been cradled at one point in your lives,” says Ellen Sebastian Chang, the co-director of the occasion, as she bids the women farewell. “This is your chance to be cradled. Let us care for you.”
The ritual is called The Blessing of the Beds, and is only the beginning of "Black Women Dreaming: A Ritual Rest," the 11th “episode” in Oakland’s Deep Waters Dance Theater’s two-year, multi-site performance series House/Full of BlackWomen.
House/Full was started by co-directors and longtime Bay Area performers Amara Tabor-Smith and Ellen Sebastian Chang in December of 2015 as a way to address the displacement, well-being, and sex trafficking of black women and girls in Oakland. The extensive series takes the form of “episodes” (intended as a pun reclaiming female mood swings) that each have their own concept and cast. The March 26 episode centered on sleep and dreaming — an idea that came about in reaction to a study that revealed black people literally sleep less than others.
“We are evoking the right of black women to have rest,” says Tabor-Smith. “We know strong black women, we know fierce, we know sexy, we have all of these images. But we don’t see sleeping beauty, we don’t see a rested black woman. This piece is in honor of our right to rest.”
“Black Women Dreaming” is also the first episode in the series to be publicly announced. So far, all ten prior performances have been advertised solely through word-of-mouth invitations in order to encourage participants to foster connections and give them agency deciding who takes part.
It’s important, too, because many of the episodes take place publicly and unannounced — and the directors like the receptiveness of unsuspecting audiences. “When you happen upon it, it inspires another kind of both inquiry and experience that’s more vulnerable,” says Tabor-Smith. “One of the questions that’s driving this work is, ‘How do we find that place of mutual vulnerability?’"
Other episodes have included “Now You See Us,” which involved a procession of performers all in white illuminated by handheld lanterns, and was meant as a ritual uncovering of sex trafficking in Oakland. (Two weeks later, the Oakland Police sex scandal was exposed, Tabor-Smith notes.)
For “Song Circle: The Pleasure of Blackness in an Age of Redemption,” they staged an all-night singing ritual that drew 80 women at its height and consisted of non-stop group singing from dusk until dawn.
And “The Meaning of Canaries” was an extensive performance at the EastSide Arts Alliance & Cultural Center involving a sculptural nest that housed dancers, a ritual in a vacant lot calling out Oakland's biggest evictors, and a disorienting maze of chairs — “because that’s what displacement feels like,” says Sebastian Chang.
“Black women, we are the canaries in this toxic mine that we’re all living in,” she says. “We’re sex trafficked as little girls, we’re evicted the most. So we’re shining a light on what’s happening to us.”
Each episode is developed collaboratively by an evolving collective of black women under the direction of Tabor-Smith and Sebastian Chang. For “Black Women Dreaming,” artist Shelly Davis Roberts took a lead role in co-designing the show, which takes place at three sites.
At the undisclosed boarding house, over 50 black women are signed up to sleep and record their dreams over a continuous period of seven days and nights, ending on April 3. At Regina's Door, a downtown vintage dress boutique and sanctuary for survivors of sex trafficking, artists transformed the space into a whimsical "Day Dreaming" room where visitors are asked to give themselves permission to sit and do nothing. (No phones allowed, but singing and storytelling are encouraged.)
And at Chapter 510, the "Night Room" is a windowless chamber representing the dark side of dreaming through magical realism. Visitors must walk through a hallway entirely covered in cloud-like fluff before arriving at a severe wooden sculpture — designed by artist Yoshi Asai — projected with anxious imagery and accompanied by recordings of women reciting their dreams.
Separately, the "lounge" installation is inspired by the life of Harriet Tubman, who is said to have become narcoleptic as a child after being hit in the head with an anvil while trying to protect another slave. An arm chair covered in indigo cloth is set up as an altar to Tubman in a cozy room created from quilted curtains. Davis Roberts says she was inspired by "how [Tubman] embraced that condition and the strength that she gained from the forced sleep, the visions that she had from it, and how it helped her lead herself and many others to freedom.”
Aside fromm the sprawling installations, the episode also consists of several events, including two dream journal workshops for black girls, a practical talk with sleep technician Robyn Woidtke, and a "Decolonize Your Dreams" night of indigenous dream analysis and music. The public installations will be open until April 7, when the episode culminates during the First Friday Street Fair with a performance from some of the rested women and readings from youth in the writing camp (5-10pm at Chapter 510).
Episodes of House/Full of BlackWomen will continue until October 2018 — some announced, others simply occurring. Sebastian Chang and Tabor-Smith intend for the finale to occupy an entire house, with performances and immersive installations in every room that allude to each of the series’ episodes.
"Black Women Dreaming" is a crucial rest stop to gear up for the second leg of the series and to creatively envision the episodes to come — some of which will be interpretations of dreams experienced during this latest durational performance.
"We want to say to black women as an invitation, 'It’s okay to dream, to let go, and be free, and to rest,'" says Davis Roberts. "It’s also a universal call to everyone else to let go of the perceptions and the limitations that they put on black women, to come and dream with us. For everyone to just be open to receive.”