Marie Tattiana Aqeel is sitting at the kitchen counter, strumming a guitar quietly, and two friends pause in their conversation to listen to her sing. They’re sitting together as Laura Cabrera chops peppers and onions on a cutting board, and they’re giving each other room to breathe, as though they’re rubbing each other’s shoulders at the end of a long day while they make guacamole.
They’re making a safe place here between them, no matter what’s happening outside the windows. Near the hearth a young girl is lying wrapped in a blanket, as though she has fallen asleep listening to their voices. On the walls, pages from old books are repainted with bright symbols.
They have come a long way to be together in this room tonight. Aqeel is a performance artist, herbalist and farmer from Washington DC, where her mother’s family came from South Carolina during segregation and her father’s from northeastern Brazil. Tashi Colston is a mother, sustainable farmer and community therapist working with young people in Oakland, Calif.
Cheryl R. Riley has grown her work as an artist for more than 30 years, from the Smithsonian to New York to San Fransisco. And Cabrera, co-founder of Latinas 413, has lived in the Berkshires for many years, since her family came here from Veracruz, Mexico, when she was in her teens.
In the pandemic, more than 45 artists and performers have come to the Berkshires from
across the country and beyond to create a new work of theater together, and 68 have gotten involved, in all. For 10 days in August, Berkshire theater artist Pooja Prema realized a long-held dream, as Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision transformed the Whitney Center in Pittsfield into a living performance honoring the lives of women of color. On November 5, she will offer a virtual performance and a conversation with the artists.
They spent three years in the making, she said — moving the performance forward when pandemic hit. In summer 2021, they came together to make the house physically real. They had 10 days to turn an old brick Victorian, now an office building, into a stage set with 21 stages (27 rooms of cure). Up at all hours, pulling 20-hour days, she felt the house coming alive around her.
She felt a space taking shape around her that she had only imagined. She had wanted it and looked for it and hardly believed she could find it anywhere as a real, living community. Together, the artists made a place where women felt free to tell their stories. Women who carry pain could feel loved and seen and heard. And together they could feel confident enough to invite anyone who came to walk in and listen.
It began, she said, through a conversation with a friend, almost 10 years ago. They are both theater artists, and they were talking about the kinds of experiences that they felt women rarely talked about — pregnancy, the loss of a loved one, experiences in childhood or adolescence or aging.
She had a vision then of a house with rooms for times in a girl’s and a woman’s life. She saw a child jumping on a bed. She imagined a woman talking about the reality of carrying a child in her womb, how her body was changing, how she felt happy and scared and overwhelmed and confident … how she felt about becoming a mother and caring for a young, growing person.
“It was so simple and poignant, I had to do it,” she said.
How to do it has taken her years to fathom.
“None of us had imagined anything like this,” she said. “We have no map — it doesn’t exist. But the need for it is there. … I had no idea what I was getting into, or how powerful it would be.”
Artists make a home
She has spent three years calling forth a community of artists to come to the Berkshires, wome of all ages and backgrounds, sexual and gender orientations, professions — doulas and activists, teachers and grandmothers. She began by word of mouth, she said, as people she knew talked with friends
The youngest in the group is three years old, and for Prema she brought the energy of a girl who can go out into the world and be curious, confident and free to express herself in a way many of the women in the show have never felt allowed to be. And the oldest woman among them is 75, learning to be an elder in a country and culture that often does not respect people with decades of lived experience.
As the artists came into the work, she asked them to imagine a room, each one centered around a time or a theme in the life of a woman, the body and mind of a woman. Loss, forgiveness, love …
They would talk about the rooms they chose, and she felt their attention focus intently as they made their visions palpable.
“It made us stronger,” she said, “… more powerful than we’ve ever been. It was so hard, and so beautiful.”
Nourishment grew into a seed pantry, she said, a way to feed body and mind. Legacy became a place where a woman can touch the soil she’s made from and recall the plants and sunlight and water in her bones. Diaspora mapped journeys in photographs to show women leaving home, making new homes, missing the people and the places they come from.
A womb could take shape in a place that holds potential, and a bedroom could enlarge, sometimes as a sanctuary and sometimes a place where women experience pain and look for healing. A kitchen could warm into music and voices, a place where women create what they want to and generations can come together with joy.
Dreams made real
The artists dreamed their own spaces, she said, translating strong feeling into something they could hold. They wove their own stories through sights and sounds, to make those ideas real. Some had two years, and some less than two months, depending on when she met them. Some had simple, pared-down spaces, and some needed a wide range of resources to make them tangible.
This summer, each space took shape in sounds and scents. Hundreds of roses were blooming in glass jars, and musicians set up hand drums on the stairs. Rich scents mingled in a pantry full of spices. Most of all, the house was coming alive with the women who were creating it. As many of them as could travel were finally together in one place.
To be in these spaces and see them taking shape moved Prema deeply. As the rooms filled with water and earth and, healing herbs, they became intensely personal spaces for each woman, she said. They changed and transformed, even on opening day and throughout the five days of performances. The artist might not know fully how the room would take shape until she was there with her sleeves rolled up, making it happen.
To have that vision and make it through was a life-changing experience, she said, for her and for many people involved.
“We’re singing together,” she said, “crying together, laughing together.”
After every performance, the artists would go through the house in a group, with the drummers playing in a cacophonous party. And then they would come out into the summer night with the music still playing, and they would gather on the lawn, 40 women and more dancing with abandon in the center of an old mill town.