Our “Fellows Friday” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.
This week, we speak to theater artist Jennifer Kidwell (2016), whose poignant, performer-driven theater work addresses the complexities of race and notions of American history with sharp intelligence and wry humor. Invested in probing challenging social and historical truths, Kidwell is the co-creator of Underground Railroad Game, which was lauded by The New York Times in its “Best Theater of 2016” feature. Kidwell is co-artistic director of the theater company Lightning Rod Special and co-founder of the Brooklyn-based performance space JACK. In April, she will appear in the multidisciplinary performance piece, I Understand Everything Better, as part of the 2017 Fusebox Festival in Austin, TX.
How did you become an artist? Is there a particular experience that drove you to this choice?
The summer before I began first grade, my parents sat me down and offered me a choice: I could either join the Brownies—which I had been begging to do—or I could start violin lessons. Since I failed to convince my parents to let me do both, I went out on a limb and began playing the violin that fall. Private lessons expanded into weekly Kodály, solfège, rep class, and orchestra. I was hooked on learning and playing music and the ensemble nature of orchestra. I stopped lessons when I was 16 because performance had become too anxiety-inducing. I remember violently shaking with nerves at every solo performance, so I decided to put the violin down. I took a year off from music, but ended up getting a scholarship to study voice my senior year of high school. That program included private vocal and piano lessons, music theory, rep classes, out-of-town trips, performances, etc. Somewhere around that time, I saw an actor perform a monologue from [Ntozake Shange’s] for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. I was blown away by the writing and the drama of it all, and continued to be into the rigor of the vocal program in which I was enrolled, so I decided against studying law and opted to study art and performance instead.
You have studied and worked in both New York and Philadelphia, among other cities. Why do you choose to work and live in Philadelphia? In your experience, what makes this arts scene distinctive?
I feel that the impetus of the arts scene in Philly is one of absolute possibility. There’s a lot of pluck and nerve, as well as curiosity among Philly artists. I also find the community unbelievably tight and strong. The spirit of doing, the closeness of artists across disciplines combined with the relatively low cost of living make Philly ideal for experimentation and making. I have been blown away by the number of opportunities I’ve had here, as well as the support of and interest in my work.
You’ve cited the work of 70s-era American comedians and their ability to “crack open dangerous truths” as a source of inspiration. What truths are you interested in uncovering as an artist? And what do you hope audiences take away from experiencing your work?
If I had to pare down what I hope are myriad interests of mine into an essential question, I’d have to say I’m most interested in paradox, the ways in which we act against our own interests. I guess I articulate these inconsistencies of ours as lies, so the truths are the paradoxes we shun, but with which we nevertheless live. I think humor has the incredible gift of allowing us to both confront and celebrate our paradoxical natures , as opposed to deliberately overlooking them out of a sense of shame. If I hope the audience takes anything away (besides a desire to return and see something else), I hope it’s the capacity to recognize and speak to these paradoxes.
How does your approach shift as a performer when acting as an interpreter of others’ work versus a creator of original material? What is constant for you in either role?
I don’t think it should be different, but I’m afraid it tends to be. Things one makes oneself come from inside and bubble out. There’s a way everything articulated in such work is germane to who I am— performance or not—so there’s a natural flow and confidence in the material. When I’m interpreting the work of someone else, there’s a necessary separation that I fear compromises the work. In those cases, I work harder as a performer to conquer my own ego in order to support the piece the lead artist wants to make.
What single ethical consideration most impacts the decisions you make as an artist?
If I were to be perfectly honest, can what I’m doing at all change things? If not, how might it?
What was the first work of art that really mattered to you? Did it influence your approach to your work?
Purple Rain, both the album and the movie. My cousin and I rocked out to and sang that album at full volume whenever we could. I remember begging my parents to let me see the film as I felt a real affinity, a real kinship to Prince. I finally got to see an edited version and it was worth the fight. I think the style, the attitude, and the music had quite an impact on me—one that’s not exactly identifiable, but I nevertheless feel it spiritually.
What music are you listening to and/or which books are on your bedside table?
I’m deep in research for a piece right now, so I’m reading Ned Sublette’s The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square and The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry. Besides Sublette, there’s Eugene D. Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy, [Joy James, editor], Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Sven Beckert’s Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development. New album I’m about to listen to is Frank Ocean’s Blond(e).
If you could collaborate with anyone alive today, who would it be?
A partial list in alphabetical order: Andre 3000, Aziz Ansari, Angela Davis, Viola Davis, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Jim Jarmusch, Kendrick Lamar, Young Jean Lee, Kate McKinnon, Steve McQueen, Janelle Monáe, Fred Moten, Michelle Obama, RuPaul, Hank Willis Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Jesse Williams, and Serena Williams.
Philadelphia Dance Projects began a presenting series of dance performances, workshops, and “informances” by individual dance artists.
Bonnie Clearwater is director and chief curator at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, where she leads the development of exhibition programs and the expansion of education initiatives and public programming.
The Settlement Music School hired a consulting firm to conduct a search for a new executive director and oversee the transition process.
A live and digital theatrical experience will question the impact of technology on human connectivity as two actors perform their roles on separate continents—one live in a theater and the other projected through a live-streaming video feed.
Astrid Bowlby is a visual artist and a 2005 Pew Fellow.
Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design fosters the study, exploration, and management of the arts: media, design, the performing, and visual.
An outgrowth of the anti-graffiti network, Mural Arts Philadelphia has produced over 3,600 murals since 1984, making it the largest public art program in the United States and earning Philadelphia the nickname “City of Murals.”
This month in Fellows Friday news: Vera Nakonechny is named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts, Alex Da Corte exhibits at White Cube, and much more.
Steve Zeitlin is the founding director of City Lore, an organization dedicated to the preservation of New York City’s—and America’s—living cultural heritage.
royal hartigan is a percussionist, pianist, and tap dancer. He has studied and performed the music of Asia, Africa, Europe, West Asia, and the Americas, and is versed in the traditions of African American blues, gospel, funk, hip-hop, and jazz. He served as a Center Performance panelist in 2014 and a Performance LOI panelist in 2015.
Through more than 100 published works and many recordings, Bernard Rands is well-established as a major figure in contemporary music.
Through the Center-funded project An Artist Embedded in History, Ain Gordon unveils the first part of his new play, created in residency at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.