Let’s say, just hypothetically speaking, that it’s been a rough week for everyone. The grocery store feels like a saloon in the hundred-plus degree heat as you roam the aisles for trash bags. When you are not engaged in a conversation, the ache of every headline gathers in the area around the slightly-too big crown in your mouth or that weird rash in your left armpit or as a general full-body soreness that will only be relieved by weeping. Everybody at Albertsons is loosely based on the persona of John Wayne, or at least this is what your worried eyes must say. Until two white men, independent of each other, smile and speak with a gaze so steadfast you know it means: “I’m sorry for the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and I do not hold you responsible for the deaths of those five police officers in Dallas.” A black man asks, “How are you?” in passing and you practically chase after him to ask if you can go shopping together.
You have a hangover not because you drank, necessarily, but because you chose to take a nap yesterday instead of going to the Black Lives Matter vigil that attracted hundreds of your friends and neighbors and their children. When given the chance to join large crowds of people you have always needed a bit of encouragement. Before there were shootings, you were scared of stampedes.
Perhaps you are just avoiding the fact that everyone you know will want to do this thing you have always found challenging, which involves some combination of crying, making eye contact, doing whatever your mouth does when you make eye contact while crying, and holding hands. Or maybe you are avoiding the way that hundreds of human faces would make the grief rush to the surface so fast and strong you would have to lie on the street and put your face down on the concrete until it was over and this could take days. When you are black in a city with a black population of, I think, 3 percent?, the prospect of this kind of spectacle makes grieving something you would prefer to do alone. This is probably, like, empirically the incorrect choice, but you watch yourself make it, and you feel even more alone because this is what you have done.
At night, you hear a gunshot and count eight more. Your girlfriend is out of town. The sound reminds you of a TED Talk where Chris Abani recites the poem Ode to The Drum by Yusef Komunyakaa: “Trouble in the hills / Trouble on the river / too.” You say your favorite part of the poem out loud in your empty house: “Kadoom. Kadoom. Kadoom. Kadoom.” Earlier, you could hear a drum playing in your neighborhood like a languid heartbeat. The kind of drum you’d hear at a Yaqui deer dance. It slipped in like something holy when you opened the door. Your puppy shifts his stance so that he’s standing on your foot and you decide, “I guess I’ll watch that movie that Laneia asked me to review.”
We all have a context for which Revival: Women and the Word provides a balm.
First of all, who doesn’t need to watch b-roll of queer poets shopping for clothes at a store that looks kind of like Target? While they make, just, hot as hell outfits in the mirror and engage in a conversation about androgyny? Is there a better way to spend time? The answer is no.
The film follows Jade Foster, Be Steadwell, Jonquille Rice, T’ai Freedom Ford and Eli Turner on a road trip as part of the Revival tour, wherein these queer black poets perform their work in various cities across the country.
You can’t quite tell if Jade Foster is doing stand up, rapping, praying or casting a spell on you before she is done and you are laugh-crying, wondering where she went so fast. Be Steadwell is twenty voices harmonizing with each other while she sits in one chair making women wipe their eyes. T’ai Freedom Ford manages to tell the story of her mother’s history of addiction in such a way that her mother can sit in the audience, raising her two arms up above her head, beaming with pride. If you are devastated by the state of this country and you aren’t sure what to do about it, you will watch this film and feel differently. I mean that.
Some of the most beautiful moments, for me, link the Revival tour with earlier moments in history when black queer women took refuge and pleasure among one another. The author Alexis Deveaux, whose blond dreadlock Mohawk is worth the price of a ticket alone, tells of the period of time in the mid-70s when she offered a space for poetry in her own Brooklyn living room. Her memories of this era speak to the way in which a tour like The Revival is not about poetry so much as it is about intimacy: “We wanted to have a space where we were going to be wanted. And where other women would come and know that they were wanted.”
In Durham, North Carolina, the tour makes a stop at the home of two women who were friends with Audre Lorde, or as Eli Turner calls her “Our great Mother Lorde.” Turner says this while wearing a sweatshirt that says “Praise the Lorde.” Indeed, there were moments of watching that reminded me of the film Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, in which this radical poet who touched just about every single human I know is dancing in the living room, exchanging kisses with her lover, dying of cancer, loving every ounce out of life.
A tour volunteer named Ryann, who is helping to organize one of the Revival events in Brooklyn, explains: “There’s this hotbed of queer culture happening, so I think they’re capturing a lot of that energy by being here. And it’s really historic. There’s like a mini renaissance happening that hasn’t been named yet.”
I have always wanted to watch a reality TV show about writers. I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that anyone would ever make something along those lines that was exclusively about queer black writers who do things like get annoyed with each other in a minivan. And watch the film Friday in a minivan. And stand in the street wearing a bow tie talking about being turned on while watching the rest of the group pack up their stuff on top of the minivan.
It’s alarming how many times the police are called throughout the course of the film. To contextualize the resonance of this, National Book Award-winning poet Nikki Finney explains during one of several appearances in the movie: “In 1739, the slave codes of South Carolina stated that if a black person was caught trying to read or write, they should be thrown in some sort of prison or killed or maimed.” She goes on: “The fear of reading, the fear of writing to the status quo was so great, was so immense, that they would take your life? They would throw you in prison? Because this is the most powerful thing you could do with yourself.”
Jade puts it this way: “This is a reminder: this is America. America is not for us. And this is why we’re doing this work.”
The Revival: Women and the Word is screening Friday, July 15, at 7:15 at OutFest L.A.