I know "trigger warnings" are like what's hot on the streets in Seattle. So I'd like to warn you right now, before I even get started saying anything, if you place yourself in the direct flow of #Truthiness (FYI: a white man used this word, so it's legit now) that emanates from Anastacia Tolbert, you might lose some of your White Fragility and/or Guilt and realize that it's really, truly, not all about you.
Now you've been warned.
I've known Anastacia Tolbert since before I moved to Seattle in 2008, and if it weren't for her I would've been a lonely, lonely, lonely soul in this cold-hearted freeze of a town. No matter what I was going through—stress, anxiety, creative crisis, white man problems, black man problems, white woman problems, black woman problems, and everything in between—she was and still is an unshakeable creative force of love in my life. If you don't know how rare and special it is to have someone like that in your intimate landscape, ok. But if you do, you'll know why it is a task for me to try to be objective as I review her work. Luckily, it ain't my first time around this chuck wagon. Black girls got skillz.
Hugo House is in the midst of a renovation/transition/revamp, and Anastacia Tolbert is currently one of their Writers-in-Residence. Through this program, Hugo House provides time and a place for writers like Tolbert to complete manuscripts. During the residency they also meet regularly with other writers regarding their work, curate events, teach adults, and mentor teens. I will interrupt myself to make a quick plug for Hugo House because without institutional support, writer-artists like Anastacia would not have the means to embark on creative adventures like 9 Ounces.
This one-woman show debuted at The Project Room earlier this year and was performed at Hugo House December 17th-19th. So yeah, you missed it. Cue your White Guilt and corresponding White Fragility. It's ok. Plenty of white people and people of all shades went to the show. But when you get another opportunity to see Anastacia perform, it’s probably best to not miss it because one day she will be too famous to acknowledge you on the street. Just kidding. She's not that type at all. When I went on Saturday, it was like a reunion of people who I've missed and loved in Seattle for a long time. What is it about this city that creates a strange time-vortex where months go by between opportunities to hang out with the interesting and inspiring folks that you want to get to know better?
Anyway, I digress. Here's what you missed:
"I like Therapist," Alice says.
[I Put A Spell On You]
We see a black woman with short hair and an oversized white dress shirt and jeans trying not to smoke a cigarette. She paces and stops in front of the audience before removing her shirt to slap her own ass, check her teeth, and admire the muscle tone of her arms. The audience is her mirror and what we are seeing is a black woman appreciating, or trying to appreciate herself. This is already kinda radical. Fer real.
This is Alice. Alice is congratulating herself. It's the first thing she does before stirring the air with her palms. She explains to us, her reflection—the audience is residing beyond the third, fourth, or fifth wall—that "Depression Intermission" is the place where you've decided that you are "fine" and no longer "want to kill yourself." Totally relatable. Audience is snagged. This takes less than five minutes. She speaks about her therapist as though her therapist is not human, but some kind of an alcohol-fueled memory machine. "I like Therapist," Alice says.
It is Therapist who has given Alice the assignment to talk to herself in a positive manner in the mirror. Alice congratulates herself for getting up, getting dressed, and feeding herself. Alice has become the hero of everyone in the audience who has ever suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder or worse. Alice has gone so far as to set her intentions and these include connecting eye-to-eye with a stranger. Alice is clearly more ambitious than most of Seattle. She is fine. She keeps it moving. She doesn't wallow. Well, not really. Alice keeps it moving mostly with a bottle of dark rum in one hand and an unlit cigarette clutched to her chest.
Alice tells us about her brown Midwest hippie parents. Alice tells us about using knitting as an excuse to get out of shit she doesn't want to do. She relays hilarious episodes from her life, each one ultra-pixelated with relatable details. We know why Alice was kicked out of the knitting circle and why she now knits alone. We know that she hates downward dog and spending $42 on a Lululemon tank top. Alice is not us, but she is so familiar. Who is the mirror really? Is it us, or is it her?
In the blue-lit place of romance, Alice takes a drink from her bottle of rum, which sometimes serves as Therapist's doppelgänger. There is waiting. The audience leans in to sympathize with coos and mms. Breast self-examination becomes a religious metaphor for the audience to catapult off of. There are facts for those of us who need them:
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among black women. Before, African American women were being diagnosed less with breast cancer but dying at higher rates with breast cancer cause of economic and systemic disparities. New information is now painting an even grimmer picture. Black women have also not been afforded the same kind of nutritional luxuries or self-care amenities or regular rituals as white women. “It is a crisis,” said Marc Hurlbert, chief mission officer for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. “The increasing incidence is unfortunate because the mortality rate for black women is already so much higher, and now if more women are getting breast cancer, then unfortunately, the number of black women dying from the disease will go up.
It becomes evident that these facts, that the audience reads as subtitles, all add up to the realization that black women and white women do not receive the same level of medical care and attention.
Saraphina's slow syncopated steps make my own back hurt with sympathy and I stretch a bit in my seat. Hm, is the first thing she says, but once she gets started she goes. Like many older people, Saraphina likes to be heard. She needs to be heard because she's already earned it. And luckily the audience has plenty of "home training" and keeps quiet while Saraphina talks some smack about The Facebook. But Saraphina is a vivid storyteller. Like Alice, she is fully fleshed out. There isn't a shallow bone in her body and when she says, "Your elders are the best Google ever," we all laugh and believe her at the same time. Saraphina is also a radically positive black female character. Like Alice, who is actively managing her mental wellness, Saraphina is accountable to her needs. She says she has no regrets because she has community, co-op housing, a shared garden, and love. She describes the love of her life the way Alice described the woman she was in love with, except Thelonius was presumably there until the end of his life. She says that their 50+ years of marriage (also a nicely embedded silent fuck you to any preconceived anti-black-family stereotypes) renewed in each moment of each day. A love that perseveres. A love that skips over breasts, breast cancer, and even death, to get closer to your heart. This is the dream. Saraphina holds the place of happy wisdom. She is able to validate herself. As old as she is, she is hardly fragile. Her strength doesn't seem two-dimensional though. This is a well-crafted character, who has a distinctly challenging and loving voice. "How do you live on a block with people and you don't know your neighbors?" Alice asks, and we are all implicated. Saraphina is the way to be. She is allowed to be because she has triumphed over insecurity with love, community, and self-care. She has a lot to share and what she says seems to be capable of saving the collective lives of the audience.
[I've Got My Life]
And here we meet Luna, a pan-dimensional seven-year-old whose best friend is a lightbulb. Comic relief. Luna helps us remember ourselves before we developed candy-coatings of distrust and bitterness. She is easy to love and disarmingly intelligent at times, but always always always carefree. I'm not usually one to invoke a lot of bombast, but the reason why it was almost impossible to take notes while watching Luna is because she takes up all the room in your heart. After the show, I was checking Facebook notifications for images I posted, and saw a video of 4 baby bunnies falling asleep in glasses. Never in my life has anything made me cry because of extreme cuteness, but this gif was the kicker. I think my tear-ducts were primed for the pump because of Luna's equally otherworldly cuteness.
Here we have three different depictions of black womanhood—each fully rendered, believable, and stunningly positive, relatable, and uplifting. What a serious surprise in a time when we are bombarded by the contrary, and what a gift!
I'm not going to spoil it by giving away any more. I will tell you that you will laugh more than you will cry watching 9 Ounces, and neither are easy to do, all by your lonesome, on a stage. So, yeah, I'm fucking proud of my girl because she put a stilletto-heeled boot in it's ass for three nights in a row. Run tell dat.
I, being the weirdo I am, was curious about the audience because no one seems to collect demographic information at their events (which is not difficult, people slash organizations!). So, with this intention, I went around to almost everyone present on closing night to ask one question:
How Do You Identify?
Here are the answers I collected. Please draw your own conclusions:
"Human. Flawed. Not Struck By Lightning."
"As a woman."
"An old guy. Happily retired."
"An older woman who is surprised that I'm old. Married to a professional weed grower. Trying to be a poet. Past the age where I'm trying to identify myself by my sexuality."
"Gay. [Strike that] Charming, genuine, and compassionate."
"Straight. White. Cis. Although in certain ways queer, but not directly."
"Queer woman of color and a poet."
"Woman, perverse, I guess bisexual."
"Cisgendered female, bisexual, athlete, writer, artist, massage therapist, stylish person with good boots."
"Geek, African-American, Man, Playwright, Screenwriter, Teacher, Director. My labels move around."
"[ ] Rural, urban, middle class, white, female, cisgendered, um ... non-bioparent."
"A black burst of laughter on my better days. On the other days I'm just tired."
"As a white woman."
"Straight white guy. Student."
"Straight white man. [Chuckles] Yeah. I'm very aware of that."
"Honest, straight, white woman doing a lot of thinking."
"Black and queer."
"Biracial and queer."
"I don't know if I have an answer for that right now."
"I have no way to respond. I find it a perplexing question. Writer."
"Woman came to mind."
"That's the first thing that came to my mind as well. Shapeshifter. Timeless."
"Omigawd. Human. Woman. I remember once when I was 9, I was on old man and I taped a cotton ball to my top lip. I borrowed my dad's old glasses to wear on the end of my nose."
"Queer and as a writer and appreciator of Anastacia and Hugo House."
"Goddess. The Moon. Female."
"Designer of space."
"Excellent company keeper."
"There's so many things. A daughter, a friend, and a world citizen."
"Speaking from this end of life—the realization that that young child is always within you and you hope that the elder wisdom is always there."
Now, I have to wonder, if we all want to see ourselves as individuals, how do you describe yourself when you have three other people living inside of you?
Anastacia Tolbert isn't planning any further performances of 9 Ounces in Seattle, but plans are being made to take it to NYC, KC, Chicago and LA. In the meantime, there are two upcoming readings:
Seattle Spit January 14th
April Festival March 18th
— Author Natasha Marin is struggling to accept the danger of identifying as a single black mother living in America. She practices radical transparency as a form of digital performance art and serves tea to strangers all over the world at midnight. Follow her like a creeper on Twitter @mikokuro.
All images courtesy of Natasha Marin.