Call and Response: Keith Hennessy + I Got a Truth to Tell
Skywatchers. I Got a Truth to Tell. Dancing life, death, struggle, and dreams in the Tenderloin. Skywatchers is an ongoing project precariously situated at the intersection of class war, inner city, social practice, somatic healing, case management, feminism, activist art, and choreography. I Got a Truth to Tell is a house concert in a theater lobby. Followed by a Civil Rights-inspired singing parade around the neighborhood. Preparing us for a theatrical event of live dancing, music, and speech. And a dramaturgy that prioritizes communal witnessing. The Skywatchers’ core practice is a weekly support group a.k.a. rehearsal in the community room of a Tenderloin SRO. 1 They are as likely to manifest as an open mic blessing of a community garden as an experimental performance in the Tenderloin National Forest. 2
When imagining a “companion work” to Rauschenberg’s Pelican I wanted to stretch art history by inviting the reader to draw tactical lines from the performance/dance/art experiments of the 1960s to the social justice and community-based art works of the current era. I wanted to lift up a project that is unlikely to be canonized, unlikely to be featured in museum retrospectives, and yet is innovative and influential.
Place. History. Movement. Where are we? The Tenderloin is San Francisco’s most densely populated and diverse neighborhood. Also, per capita, the most poor, most children, most vibrant, most potential. Abundant in social services and art spaces the TL is heavily targeted for renewal-gentrification-and-displacement by the City, arts funders, and tech companies.
At some point in the histories of art, the people gathered around contemporary art (makers, audiences, producers, funders) realized that Choreography is a Conceptual tool and practice. And at some later point, these people — always already under the influence of modernism, jazz, exceptionalism, diaspora, and the land itself — identified Relationship and the Social as vital and necessary fields of aesthetic and conceptual inquiry and transformation. Grounded in histories of activist art, Skywatchers “is structured on the belief that relationships are the first site of social change.”
Instigated, directed, and lovingly held by Anne Bluethenthal, the work is realized by an extraordinary collaboration of artists and organizers, at least half of whom are residents of SRO public housing, while the others are professional teaching-artists from the wider Bay Area. Anne’s work has helped to inspire and define the socially-engaged and feminist trajectory of Bay Area dance and performance. Growing up white, Jewish, and socially activated in the South, Bluethenthal’s practice is grounded in the Africanist aesthetics, tactics, and philosophies of the Civil Rights movement and the cross-cultural collaborations pioneered by intersectional feminists. Skywatchers’ leadership includes African American master artist-performers Melanie DeMore (choral director and vocal activist) and Shakiri (performer, choreographer, and writer); in collaboration with several other artists, predominantly queer and non-white, Bluethenthal, DeMore, and Shakiri alternately anchor, steer, and bail out the boat.
I Got a Truth to Tell allows every person to shine, to bring their stories — however tragic and complicated — to the light of shared witness, mutual respect, and communal salve. The situation is so precarious — the people, the relationships, the lack of resources, the abandonment of civil society, the multi-generational trauma. And yet audiences also are transformed and healed through this work. Every time. It’s fucking amazing.