Claudia Rankine

Poet, Playwright
Claudia Rankine

Photo by John Lucas

Transcript of conversation with Claudia Rankine

Excerpt of play.

Music up and under

That is an excerpt of the play The Provenance of Beauty, A South Bronx Travelogue, which is performed on a bus ride through the Bronx. It was written by poet Claudia Rankine.

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, and raised in Kingston and New York City, Claudia Rankine is an innovative and thoughtful writer whether she is turning her hand to poetry or to theater.

She's the author of some four collections of poetry, including the award-winning Nothing in Nature is Private. And although her book, Don't Let Me Be Lonely is a multi-genre project that combines poetry, essays, and images, writing for the theater meant taking a leap of faith. But what a leap she took!

Presented by New York's The Foundry theater and selected for the NEA's New Play Development Project, The Provenance of Beauty is a poetic travelogue performed on a bus traveling through the South Bronx. The audience boards a bus in Spanish Harlem, puts on headphones, and looks and listens for 90 minutes as three narrators -- two recorded and one live -- reflects upon the sights that pass by the windows. Places and street corners that generally go unnoticed from corner stores that have been there for 30 years to theaters that are now churches - these all become characters in a neighborhood that's continuously evolving. It is an evocative and complicated piece of theater that makes the viewer think about what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood and about what we choose to see or not. It's a play that evokes and I was eager to speak with Claudia Rankine. I caught up with her at a writer's conference in Washington DC, so you'll occasionally hear a little clatter in the background. I was curious to know how the poet put on the playwright's hat. How did she move from writing poetry to writing and a play.

Claudia Rankine: Very difficultly. I'm almost 50 and to have an invitation come from a completely different field in the middle of your career, it's amazing, and so when Melanie Joseph from the Foundry contacted me and said she'd read my last book and would love if I would consent to writing the script for this new play that she, at the time, had a vague idea about what she wanted, it was a huge sort of excitement and trepidation. It was with trepidation that I went forward and it was difficult, I won't say it wasn't, but it was also incredible to move into working in a live genre.

Jo Reed: Well, the play we should say that we're talking about is The Provenance of Beauty, and it was part of the new play festival at the Arena Stage. It was originally produced up at The Foundry Theater in New York, and it's quite unusual. So why don't you take us back to actually what happens when one goes to see The Provenance of Beauty?

Claudia Rankine: In the original production in New York, the audience arrived at a church in East Harlem and got on a bus and the bus toured the South Bronx as a way of literally showing the way the landscape has changed in the last 30 years. And so the logistics of putting together a site specific performance, negotiating things like New York City traffic was incredible, it was incredible and frustrating and marvelous.

Jo Reed: So people would get on the bus?

Claudia Rankine: Yes.

Jo Reed: And they would put on headsets?

Claudia Rankine: Oh that's correct, yeah.

Jo Reed: And there'd be a live narrator in the bus with them and then there were two taped voices who were also making observations. Why the decision to use the headsets?

Claudia Rankine: The decision to use the headsets came because of the poetry actually, because the text was so intimate and there were no characters outside of the characterization of the Bronx and the voice speaking from the landscape, which is how sort of I imagined it, and Melanie's directorial note was that if that's the case, if we're working from inside a single voice then that voice should be made intimate and so we decided on the headsets as a way of locking down the space.

Jo Reed: I guess my question is what was your relationship with the Bronx? Did you live in the Bronx?

Claudia Rankine: I grew up in the Bronx but not in the South Bronx. I was born in Jamaica, my parents are New York City immigrants who came over in the early '70s, late '60s, early '70s and we moved to the North Bronx. I went to Cardinal Spellman High School where Desoto Sotomayor actually also went.

Jo Reed: And my best friend.

Claudia Rankine: And your best friend. But I lived in North Bronx in a West Indian community, very close to New Rochelle. I had never been to the South Bronx because while I was growing up it had the reputation of being incredibly dangerous and so it was not a landscape I knew.

Jo Reed: Did Melanie know the South Bronx?

Claudia Rankine: Melanie did not know the South Bronx either.

Jo Reed: Okay, so why the decision to focus on the South Bronx?

Claudia Rankine: When Melanie contacted me, she said, I would love to do a tour of a neighborhood in the city. In her words she said, I know I don't want to do Manhattan, and so let's go and look at some neighborhoods. At the time I thought, well I could write something about growing up in the North Bronx and so that's where I thought we were going, but logistically to get an audience from Manhattan to the North Bronx just took too much time and we found ourselves constantly in our drives ending up in the South Bronx, talking to people in the South Bronx, and then becoming fascinated by the history of the South Bronx and so that's how we ended up in the South Bronx. Logistically and also just in terms of the explosive nature of its history we just gravitated there.

Jo Reed: And how did you work out the idea? I mean was there an "a-ha moment" when you said let's put people in a bus and make it a poetic travelogue?

Claudia Rankine: I think there was a commitment by Melanie Joseph to do a site-specific piece and the only way to get them there was through the bus, because I think she didn't want it in the theater. So that was something I think she knew going in. I think she had been thinking about this before she even contacted me. The part that I played, I think, was more in allowing us to find the landscape, but I think logistically the idea of a tour was something that was in her mind from the very beginning. I think she wanted-- she was committed to bringing the audience to the space as in the live space in the neighborhood.

Jo Reed: You know what struck me is that you're a poet which tends to be, even though you've done a lot of collaborative work, it does tend to be more solitary where you really have a great deal of control over the outcome, and here you take on theater which is not only extraordinarily collaborative but in this case, so unpredictable because you're putting people in a bus and the bus is driving to the South Bronx and around the South Bronx, so as you point out you have no idea what's going to happen with traffic and even as you're directing people, pointing out sites along the way, you don't know what's going to be going on, on the street on any particular day so the difference must have been extraordinary.

Claudia Rankine: It was and it wasn't because in a certain way the way I put together books has to do with thinking about how to orchestrate the experience of reading, which means that I try and build into the text places where the mind can wander and I often work interdisciplinary and they're images and text, and I want the reader to be able to go away and come back. So having a chance to have this thing literalized in the real world was amazing because it sort of lined up with how I actually feel being in the text should work except it was a live experience and all the sudden now the text is going but what happens outside the window of the bus could take the audience member away in terms of following X-person down the street. So it was a kind of nice marriage, actually in terms of kind of intellectual idea meeting the world.

Jo Reed: As you said, because you didn't know the South Bronx that well, I would imagine you needed to do a certain amount of research. What did that involve?

Claudia Rankine: The Foundry did, and by that I mean Melanie, Cinder, they did an incredible job setting up interviews with people who have lived their entire lives in the South Bronx so for the first year I would fly-- I live in LA, I would fly in and meet with people and they would take us on tours in their cars of places that were meaningful to them, and so we spent days just driving around with people who have lived there forever and listening to them talk about why X place was meaningful and what had happened here and how it had changed over the years and alongside that I also read a lot of books on city planning, on Moses's building of the Brooklyn Boulevard, all of that kind of stuff obviously went on, but the more interesting for me was actually meeting people who had lived in the neighborhood.

Jo Reed: I think part of the question that's being asked in this is what creates a neighborhood? So I'm going to put it to you.

Claudia Rankine: It was partly what creates a neighborhood, but also the question was, for me, the question was how much should we expect change not to occur? That is the changing of the neighborhood part of its natural life? Or is fighting against, say something like gentrification a fight you do because, of course there are things you want to hold onto, but is it a part of the cycle of the change of a neighborhood and does it bring things that maybe benefits everyone. Is it necessarily a necessary evil? So those kinds of questions, keeping those floating and in the air were sort of the things that kept me involved in the writing of the text.

Jo Reed: I think you're also coming to grips with how people shape the landscape but landscape shape the people and this relationship that forms, that's almost impossible to unravel.

Claudia Rankine: Exactly, that it's a live space. When people talk about the global city now and you think about Manhattan, one of the things that I think makes them sad is the sense that the space has been co-opted and commercialized to a point where it doesn't move, where everything becomes the same and then that kind of push and pull that happens between who lives there and what's happening in the store fronts and in the streets, slows down to a commercial stand still and so yeah, yeah.

Jo Reed: I am a New Yorker and I visit the city often. There are football fields of difference between making it safe and making it homogenous.

Claudia Rankine: Right, and that is a problem, that gentrification has been tied to a kind of homogenous planning that loses the interaction between the moving of the populations that move through New York. And also I think it gets locked down because after a certain point, if it costs x-amount, then it is exclusive to a certain population.

Jo Reed: Who's the audience for your play, The Provenance of Beauty. Who were you thinking of when you wrote it?

Claudia Rankine: Well I think that there are two things I hope happens for the viewer or the audience member. On the one hand we're saying look, the South Bronx has gone through an incredible history and sort of come out on the other side of it in a way that is glorious, but we're also saying the fight doesn't stop there because if you have been there and held onto your housing and renovated you might lose it if all you're motivated by is money. If people start coming in and buying up houses you're going to lose this neighborhood and it belongs to you. And nobody should tell people they shouldn't be able to move if they don't want to move, but I think the piece was directed not just from the outside, it was directed also to the population that lives there and asking them to think about their choices in a sense. So it was not purely a piece directed at outsiders to say do not come here and gentrify this neighborhood, that's going to happen anyway, but it was also talking to the neighborhood.

Jo Reed: Well, you called it in I think an article, you said, "It was a place that's been persecuted by representation." And it would seem that that would place a particular burden on you to not do that but to try and be clearer.

Claudia Rankine: Well that was the difficulty writing this piece the point of view issues were incredible because I am a black person, Melanie is a white person, the population in the South Bronx, majority Dominican, Puerto Rican, and so you don't want to speak for anyone, and you don't want to be put in a place where you're misrepresenting which is one of the reasons why we landed on a kind of historical point of view and the landscape so that we weren't actually putting words in anybody's mouth and just talking about the transformation of the space as a place to live. But it was difficult. We had difficulty in terms of the actress, should she be white? Initially we had a white actress because we thought she represented the potential future of gentrification, but when we put her on the bus and went through the streets the difference between this white actress and the people on the street was stark and it made it seem as if we were pointing, and we actually wanted to kind of be included and so then we changed actress to be somebody who could be of the neighborhood and then mic'ed the bus so that the sounds of the neighborhood came into the bus through the earphones and that way we tried to dissolve the walls of the bus so that as much as we could we became a part of this landscape.

Jo Reed: And Sarah Hayon.

Claudia Rankine: Sarah Hayon was the actress.

Jo Reed: And she's wonderful.

Claudia Rankine: She's incredible.

Jo Reed: What a voice.

Claudia Rankine: Incredible. I think the New York Times called her "affable." And she's amazing. I mean she's an incredible actress and I think was able to move into the places where the text took on the voice of the neighborhood as individuals and then moved back out into a generalized voice in a way that was incredibly unbelievable. So yeah, we owe a lot to Sarah Hayon for her performance.

Jo Reed: I'd like to talk for a moment about the title, The Provenance of Beauty, it's quite unusual and it sent me running to the dictionary to make sure I really did know what provenance meant, and it implies a kind of ownership. Talk about that choice and what you wanted to convey with that title.

Claudia Rankine: I realized that the title seemed a little high falutin and distant, but I wanted that sense that floating above the life on the street was different ways in which the landscape was determined by who owned it, by who was invested in it, by who stood to gain from it, and so I wanted a title that showed the passing of ownership from one group to another, from one developer to another, etcetera.

Jo Reed: But then, because it's interesting just in thinking about this there's the investment of lives, of people who are actually living there and what they invest by living there.

Claudia Rankine: Right, exactly. And that also trumps everything in the end, that there's a line from the play that says, "I am built out of lives," and ultimately despite the ownership, despite the decisions around what should be where and what boulevard should break up what neighborhood, you still have a thriving community because people stay and they live there and they have made their lives and grown up their children and had their jobs and had their homes and so I hope that ultimately the play communicates that that wins out in the end.

Jo Reed: Let's talk just briefly about the relationship between form and content in your work, because that's very, very crucial to your poetry and clearly to this theater piece.

Claudia Rankine: There is no form without content for one, I think; I really believe that the content determines the form. So that our commitment to showing this neighborhood, bringing everyone sort of up to date, had to do with why it had to be site specific, why the bus had to go through the streets, so that you could actually see and see what had happened between then and now. But it's true for everything I do, I don't think that you can move forward successfully unless whatever it is you're talking about adapts itself to the vessel that it's in, which is why I've asked Melanie why she thought to invite me to work on this and she said because your books are theatrical, and I think in a sense I am very interested in the ways in which things perform themselves and when I attempt to write about it, whatever it is, I wanted to enact itself, and that's why I'm very sensitive to what form the content takes.

Jo Reed: Well your last book, Don't Let Me Be Lonely in American Lyric, well the title is so beautiful.

Claudia Rankine: Thank you.

Jo Reed: And the book itself is so evocative, it's poetry, prose, but as you point out you direct people by using TV stills, for example, at various points throughout the book and it seems, as you mentioned earlier, you can see the trajectory between that book and the theater piece that you produced.

Claudia Rankine: Yes, and thank you. As someone who spends as much time reading as I do, I think I'm very sensitive about the perception that reading is passive. I really feel like reading is a very active thing and as a reader I'm very aware of the ways in which I move around the text and the places where my imagination is allowed to kind of go away and come back and how much time it takes me to kind of settle in and so when I put together books I think about those things and I think about giving time, it's almost like listening, that reading is a kind of listening, and it's also a kind of seeing, and a kind of remembering and all of those things are constantly in play as you are taking in this text and so I'm working on a new book now and in the back I'm putting a list that is entitled In Conversation With, where I will list all of the people who gave me the idea or said the phrase that found its way into the text. Because there's also that sense, and I think this has come out of working on the play, that sense that actually all of thinking is collaborative and you're constantly in community pulling from those around you and so the sense that the writer is alone, actually the writer is not alone, the writer all day long is listening and taking and reading and taking and considering and taking and it's finding its way back into the text and so I thought it might be interesting to kind of locate in the text the places that came out of, say our discussion right now.

Jo Reed: I really look forward to that. Claudia, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Claudia Rankine: Thank you so much.

That was poet and playwright Claudia Rankine. We were talking about her work, The Provenance of Beauty.

You've been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpt from The Provenance of Beauty, used courtesy of Claudia Rankine and The Foundry Theater; Randy Danson was the narrator on the bus.

Excerpt from "Shoe Shine" composed by Marlysse Simmons, Rei Alvarez

And performed by Bio Ritmo At the Salsa y Toros Festival, Dax, France 2011. Used courtesy of Bio Ritmo.

Special thanks to Jim Byers of WPFW's The Latin Flavor

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.

Next week, NEA Jazz Master Delfeayo Marsalis.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Claudia Rankine discusses her play The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue. [26:03]