For the past two decades poet, performer and teaching artist Turiya Autry has been getting up close and personal with Portland audiences. Known for her visceral, lyrical autobiographical pieces, she works in many mediums, from radio shows and slam poetry competitions to her education and mentorship work through both Portland State University and Caldera Arts, where she served as education director.
Last year the seasoned slam poet released “Roots, Reality & Rhyme,” her debut poetry book following a young black woman’s search for identity as she navigates poverty, violence, oppression and motherhood. The collection seemed to come at the perfect time. As police brutality against African American men continues to be a national talking point, “Roots, Reality & Rhyme: offers insight into the much overlooked experience of black women in America and the oppression they face.
This month Autry and director Kevin Jones will premiere “Roots, Reality & Rhyme: The One-Woman Show.” It’s a multimedia poetry performance based on the book. The show will be one of several works premiering as part of Fertile Ground 2015, a city-wide festival theater festival focused on highlighting new works in the Portland performing arts scene.
I recently sat down with Autry for coffee and to talk about her one-woman show, the purpose of art and poetry, and what is next for this tireless activist artist.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: What was the genesis of this project?
Turiya Autry: It was right around this time last year that I self-published the book “Roots, Reality and Rhyme,” and I had this vision of a one-woman show for this project to kind of close the chapter. So this is actually the stories behind some of the poems.
It talks about my experience with domestic violence as a child, my mother’s experience with that. It talks about assault, about being homeless briefly, finding out I’m pregnant with my daughter, all these really personal things that a lot of people don’t know about my story. My hope is that it’s beautiful and transformative. Then my other goals would be in telling my story, connecting it to the bigger story. I think we hear a lot of statistics about what it is to be black and a woman and poor and a single mother, all those different demographic things, but it doesn’t get personalized. It’s just these numbers. I think people are really immune to that information. (For example) there’ve been some recent studies that were done where they interviewed thousands of black women and come to find out that out of the pool like 60 to 80 percent of those black women have experienced assault by their early 20s. So what does that really mean to think that most black women have been assaulted, that a large percentage will deal with domestic violence? We see those numbers but we don’t ever have to deal with black women as human beings. They’re always still mythic, separate, as if we don’t need help. There’s this way where black women are just pushed to the side. So my hope is to make us more visible and to make these situations visible in a way that people can relate to and think about and maybe start to engage with the community in different ways. I want other people to feel empowered to share their stories. So while it’s my story, I’m very aware that it’s not the individual: It’s this bigger picture and I’m just one of many people who have had these experiences.
A.G.: Tell me about translating this book into a performance.
T.A.: This book has been this work of pain and joy and love for over a decade. Only a small percentage of the poems in here are actually in the one-woman show. It’s not going to be just me reading the book. I can cut and pick what I want to be said and I don’t have to worry about losing something because the book still exists as is. Some of it has been shifting the language, too. There’s a poem in there, “Purple and Yellow,” that’s about the situation with my mother and domestic violence. It still has those poetic elements and you don’t necessarily know whether or not it’s my story. In this I’m actually going to be talking about my mom and me at the bus station trying to escape and about how we actually got out of that situation. I talk about some stuff in college. I reference date rape and slut shaming, so it’s also this kind of retrospective, meaning being where I’m at, looking back on it, analyzing it, seeing how those things shaped me. At the end of the day, what I hope people take away is that even as we survive through all this pain and hardship we can still come out whole and beautiful. We can choose how those things define us.
A.G.: Do you find yourself thinking about your audience when you are writing or writing to a certain audience?
T.A.: I tend to think when I’m writing or when I’m looking at a piece, that I’ll probably share it because I perform all the time. So there’s a way that I’m looking at pieces as far as how does that sound off the tongue or is that clear, will people understand? With a one-woman show, because I’m going into really heavy topics I’ve tried to keep it in a way where hopefully it’s not triggering. I think about those things. At the end of the day it’s really about being true to me. I write for myself and to please me, and then I give it out to the world. I think that’s a better way to write and the truer I am to myself the more relatable it is to people who are reading it.
A.G.: When you’re performing to a mostly white audience, to you ever feel like you have to explain more the experience of a black woman or do you think that it is just enough that the story is out there?
T.A.: I think you can’t control how (the audiences) hear it or how they interpret it or what they get from it. I think in this region, especially as the majority and not having to deal with a lot of actual diversity, I think sometimes people are working on a different level of understanding. It’s a lot of people wanting to do the work to make things better and it’s not going to happen if folks who have privilege don’t step back and commit to doing some work. And that work is not just asking the brown or black people that are in your office or in your class with you. No, get a book, do the work, and then come to me so we can have an actual conversation. There are bookstores and libraries with shelves and shelves of authors talking about (the African-American experience) from every angle about every issue with as much statistical information as you want, with as much poeticness as you want, you name it. Pictures, illustrated, child version — it’s out there.
A.G.: What do you see as the social function of poetry and its performance?
T.A.: Poetry, it’s really accessible, which is why I like it as an artform for the people. I think anyone can write. I’ve always felt that at the end of the day it’s not just about me, the individual artist. It’s like, how do we make spaces for other people to find their artistic talent and express it? So a lot of the work I’ve done has been around hosting events, creating events and creating the spaces for adults but also I do tons of youth work with lots of organizations helping young people write and step to a stage and share their stories. It’s very much about how we all contribute our unique gifts to the world, because everyone has something that they’re here to offer. Artistic expression is a way for people to come into who they are. Everyone has a mission. How do we help them get there?
A.G.: What’s next for you?
T.A.: I’ve been working on playing violin. I want to get back into music and really just start pushing my own boundaries and really defining who I want to be as an artist. Being a poet has been really practical and it’s definitely my calling. But now I’m thinking about where I want to go with my art.
Now I’m a playwright, so that’s pretty cool. I’m curious about exploring that. I’ve acted in a couple works of local artists, but this (show) is really pushing me in a different way because I’m taking on different characters and really trying to personify, so who knows? Maybe I’ll really like this acting thing. I’m kind of just being open.
Roots, Reality & Rhyme: The One-Woman Show premieres Jan. 24, 2 p.m. at Conduit Dance, Inc. Visit turiyaautry.com to purchase tickets, view additional performance dates, and learn more about Turiya Autry.
A beginner’s reading list of black feminism
Turiya Autry’s work is informed by Black Feminism, a school of thought emphasizes the intersection of class, gender and race in oppressive social structures. Black feminist works most often focus on documenting the varied experiences of black women and their struggles for self-realization and identity. Here are Turiya Autry’s four must-reads for anyone looking to learn more about Black Feminism.
-Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins
-Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur: First published in 1990, this critical text was among the first to specifically name and define Black Feminism. The book explores the work of several prominent black feminists, using their writings across different time periods and genres to form a critical framework for Black Feminist thought and critique. Activist and former Black Panther Assata Shakur wrote this autobiography while in exile in Cuba, where she remains today.
-for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange.
-Poem About My Rights by June Jordan: This choreopoem, a collection of poems meant to be choreographed and set to music, presents the heartwrenching coming of age stories of seven black women, each representing a different color of the rainbow. Demonstrating the many varied and complex experiences of African American women, the book is a great example of black feminist thought as expressed through poetry and fiction.