Jillian Walker's "Speculative Histories" asked participants to look outside their points of view


Jillian Walker

“What does it mean to see?” --Jillian Walker

Speculative Histories was a Dr. Martin Luther King Day Jr. event sponsored by University Musical Society as part of its No Safety Net festival. Hosted at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown branch, award-winning playwright and UMS Research Residency artist Jillian Walker led a workshop that invited participants to engage with history in a way that may be new to them.

During her time with UMS, Walker will be working on her upcoming play, Tignon. She used some of her preliminary research to lead by example and provide exercises through which participants could get a taste of this speculative way of looking at history. Tignon is set in New Orleans during the late 1700s. It is named after the Tignon Laws of 1786. The Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Esteban Miró, introduced the Edict of Good Government, a set of guidelines that he believed would maintain social order. As a part of this was what came to be known of the Tignon Laws requiring women of color, slave or free, to avoid dressing extravagantly and to cover their hair. 

Walker’s play will be grounded in the experiences of people of color. But a major challenge in this endeavor is that there is little primary-document-sourced history told from that point of view. Part of Walker’s approach is to “decolonize” the way that we think about. In an interview with UMS, she described it this way: “I think we do this by valuing imagination as much as we value fact, and by valuing art making and creation as much as we value the census, or whatever.”

Walker’s research has involved traveling to New Orleans and also collecting imagery that is specific to the region. She uses the information and the images that she is able to gather and then fills in the gaps with her imagination. These images and experiences framed the exercises she led the audience through during the Speculative Histories workshop. 

Walker shared a slideshow of images of New Orleans she created or found. In the first exercise, she asked the audience to take a moment with the images that were projected onto a screen and think about the thoughts and feelings that they conjured up. 

Participants were then asked to choose an image that spoke to them and then write about it. We then shared what we had come up with in our small group. Two of three of my tablemates chose the same image I did, a hand that was appeared to be partially painted blue. One of the women was reminded of indigo, which she grew up using as a fabric brightener. The other wrote mostly about her general resistance to this type of writing exercise. I wrote a very short piece of fiction:

She was a magic-maker, reaching her hand into the night and coming out with her magic. It was less a thing that she did and more something that happened to her. Something she was born into. 

It stained her hands, got deep into the creases of her fingers, and the lines of her fingertips. It got beneath her nails. It stained her.

She spent nights trying to fall directly into sleep, trying to escape this that chased her. 

But each morning she awoke with the stains. They grew darker each day. People began to tell her they were beautiful. 

But, she knew the truth.

Before leading into the next exercise, Walker took us back to New Orleans. Congo Square is an open space located within what is now Louis Armstrong Park where free blacks and slaves could gather during slavery. It is known for the drumming and dancing that occurred there and for its connection to New Orleans jazz. Walker is interested in how these people danced. It is known that they played a drum called the bamboula during their gatherings. Bamboula is also the name of a dance that took place there, and she showed the workshop a video of the dance as performed in the contemporary West Indies. While the dances would have shared common African roots, it is not known how close this dance is to what happened in Congo Square. We were then asked to respond to the dance as we had been asked to respond to the image and share that response with our table:

There is language in the
dance. One body talks 
to the next. One step given,
one step taken. A push
A pull, onlookers watch
keeping time, measuring
in beats what the hips
say, and the heart,
and the feet.
The rhythm. Restraint.

Walker then asked the participants to reach further into sound. She shared a video of the McIntosh County Shouters whom she recently learned about. The group, located in the coastal south, performs the traditional ring shout, believed to be the oldest surviving African-American tradition. The name ring shout refers not to shouting but to the movement, deliberate steps taken in a counterclockwise ring. My response:

I hear these rhythms everwyere.
Samba’s sister, salsa’s cousin.
One rhythm whispering to the next. 
These beats an ocean-crossing,
a thread, time travel.
A background against 
bodies that talk, 
then souls.

Finally, Walker having touched on sight, sound, and movement, tackled the sense of smell. She pointed out that one of the images we had been shown earlier was of the cypress, which grows abundantly in Louisiana swampland. She distributed cypress-scented tissues to the half of the tables. The other table received Walker’s interpretation of a potion called Fast Love, which she first saw at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. 

Again, participants were asked to respond and encouraged not to limit ourselves to the page. One of the groups took this encouragement to heart. When engaging with the scent they had discovered that they all liked the Fast Luck and that they wanted to wear it. They were inspired to make up a dance. 

The dance pantomimed one person trying the scent, liking it, and then spreading this new discovery to the next person. The next person kept that chain of sharing going until they all danced together, happy to have a new and shared experience scent. 

As Walker closed the event, after answering questions from the participants, she expressed gratitude for the opportunity to share her mind with people. Based on the engaged participation that evening, the diversity of creation that filled the gaps between the information that she presented, it seems that attendees, too, were also grateful for the same opportunity.

Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.

Jillian Walker will participate in the UMS event "FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity" on Jan. 22 at 7 pm, 202 S. Thayer St., Ann Arbor. The "No Safety Net" festival runs through Feb. 3.


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