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Dance from the Archives

In 2014, five years before writer Toni Morrison passed away, Princeton University acquired a collection of the luminary’s personal papers, letters, and manuscripts. The goal behind the collection (known as the Toni Morrison Papers) is to inspire original creations across genres; a more forward-thinking approach than simply cultivating research on Morrison and her work.

Jones and Speis in rehearsal. Photograph by Ryan Halbe, courtesy of Princeton University

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Last month, two performance artists, Mame Diarra Speis and Daniel Alexander Jones, brought this vision to life, debuting a dance theater piece inspired by the collection at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center as part of a three-day Morrison symposium.

Speis, a dancer, choreographer, and the co-artistic director of Urban Bush Women and Jones, a playwright and performer known for his alter-ego Jomama Jones, spent a year and a half in and out of the archive, reading, writing, moving, and ultimately collaborating to perform what they call “an offering” to Morrison. I spoke with them about Morrison’s far-reaching influence on their creative lives, how they translated Morrison’s papers into performance, and the ongoing relationship between dance and archives. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

What are some of your favorite Toni Morrison works or the elements of her legacy that made you most excited to embark on this project?

Mame Diarra Speis. Photograph by Hayim Heron

Mame Diarra Speis: All of her work has touched me in some kind of way. What really got me turning is the complexity and nonlinear approach to telling a narrative. These overlapping narratives inside of a larger narrative, that is very much the way that I work; seeing the individual stories inside of this larger story.

Daniel Alexander Jones: The thing that was so powerful for me about getting into that archive was recognizing how Morrison was part of community. That she wasn’t separated in the way I think the mainstream often frames her as having been. She was always part of the firmament as I came up. Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, these were people in the literary world who were a kind of familial presence, because their words and wisdom were lodestars for me coming up into my consciousness as a young American person, a Black person, and an artist. Morrison said, as Black people, we’re free to be ourselves.

From my own time working in archives I know that sometimes you stumble upon something that might not figure into your work, but is simply thrilling. Were there moments like that for you?

Daniel Alexander Jones. Photograph courtesy of Jones

DAJ: Growing up, my wall was always covered with images of brilliant Black artists who gave me ways to understand what my path was going to be. And one of those was Lena Horne, the great singer and actor. What was important to me was that she was also deeply political and profoundly involved in the civil rights movement. On my third day in the archive I was reading a letter James Baldwin had written Ms. Morrison and I felt this pressure of, How will I ever be able to be in relation to this stuff? And so I thought I’d just look at photos for a while. I opened the first box, and sitting on top was a picture of Ms. Morrison with Lena Horne at the Beloved book party in 1987. I said, Okay, that’s the sign I need to get over myself and get back to writing. It was proof again of the ways these artists who I knew occupied the same space at the same time really did connect with one another.

MDS: Daniel said exactly what I was going to say in relation to [activist, filmmaker, and writer] Toni Cade Bambara. I could sense her relationship to Morrison through their correspondence, the sisterhood they had. There was coding inside of it, but also outright transparency of the experience they were having as Black women. I felt drawn to those moments.

How did you go about translating the inspiration you felt from these photos and letters into creating a dance theater piece?

MDS: It was a combination of writing, sitting still, and listening. There were times I didn’t have words that could express what I was feeling, so I would tap into the resource of my body to help me understand, which was often explored in an improvisational movement framework. If I experienced something that felt connected to the archives, I would give myself permission to be inside of what I called a rant, and just move through whatever was coming up. Then I could go back to it, because I had the physical imprints. Also the mappings that Toni Morrison did to create the environments her characters lived in was really fascinating to me as I continued to think about my archive, my body, and how in a sense it is a map of all that I have inherited and hold for myself.

DAJ: I didn’t actually spend a lot of time on a daily level going through the material. I tend as an artist to get hit with a whole vision, and then it’s quickly obscured, and I have to go through a process almost like tuning a radio, to get in alignment with what was revealed to me. There was a particular moment where I saw myself and Mame Diarra in space, and then I had to tune in and that meant a lot of false starts and deep, contemplative practice. That was aided by the fact that I got COVID and had a surgery, so I had to be in my bed. I had 80 pages of text when I got to Princeton to make our offering, and then the question was what the real work was going to be, now that we were in a room together.

Jones and Speis in rehearsal. Photograph by Ryan Halbe, courtesy of Princeton University

What did the offering—the work in progress that you just performed—look like?

DAJ: There are many folks who might contextualize the two performances as steps in a process, and I agree, but they are also ends unto themselves. They were offerings in whole. And that to me is the distinction between working in what I would call a jazz idiom, rather than a classical idiom in that you’re repeating a shape that’s been predetermined. We had a really great palette of things—text and music and projections—but we were playing in real time, and that’s what I live for as a performer.

MDS: We had a kitchen table that was our home base. I love what the kitchen represents: It’s a space of gathering, and a space where you get some teachings, and it’s a home space. We would leave the kitchen table but we always came back. We started and finished there.

DAJ: And we had huge, sheer curtains that were able to be drawn across the space, or could collapse into pillars or be balled up. They became these veils of time and space for us to play with. Mame Diarra added a bunch of the text we’d been playing with and images of our families, and some of those were actually quilted onto the curtains. There were moments where one of us would be holding the space primarily and voicing or moving through something. It had a dialogic feel, like how Morrison would move among narrators to make sure we knew that the story was bigger than any one person telling it. The structure really did draw from Morrison. But if you were only looking for us to be talking about Sula or Milkman, you’re not going to find that, because we didn’t think that would be something Ms. Morrison would be interested in.

Archives can be an amazing treasure trove, but many performing artists might not think about utilizing them. How have your thoughts on archives as a resource changed?

MDS: It’s continuing to charge me on the importance of archiving my work, specifically as a Black woman who is an artist in the dance field. I think about the mentors and artists who I’m in relationship with; there’s something really special about receiving the oral, given the constructs of the world we live in it feels very important to archive our work, so that there isn’t erasure. Recently we’ve been archiving all of Urban Bush Women’s work from the early years. Being able to have something tangible is really important; something we’re in ownership of.

DAJ: What feels lost in our particular time period is the value of the past. For many young people there’s a wholesale rejection of the past that can occlude examples of artists who’ve walked a path that is not mainstream, whose stories don’t get told. I also am always going to be an advocate that you have to make archives accessible, because the people who most need them are the people who least have access.

Chava Pearl Lansky


Chava Pearl Lansky is a Brooklyn-based writer completing an MA in Biography and Memoir at the CUNY Graduate Center. Formerly an associate editor at Pointe, she is currently a contributing writer at Dance Magazine. Chava has also written on dance for publications including Tablet, Playbill, Musical America, Dance Teacher, and Dance Spirit Magazine. Originally from Amherst, MA, she holds a BA in Dance and English from Barnard College.

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