Creating The Immeasurable Want of Light
There were many phases, and many challenges, in the process of transposing Everyday Afroplay into its latest iteration. Through the chaos guaranteed by a long gestation period, the harmony and discord of collaboration—with editor Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, myself, and numerous mentors and readers offering suggestions, amendments, and questions months on end—and the usual dramaturgical quandaries posed when manifesting Everyday Afroplay, Daaimah Mubashishr wrestled The Immeasurable Want of Light into existence. Prefaced with an incisive introduction by Amauta M. Firmino, the result is a funky intergalactic piece of afro-avant-garde theater, interspersed with four complimentary digital collages by the artist and historian Nell Painter.
I wanted to connect with Mubashshir to document and interrogate what had transpired. Over a few conversations, email exchanges, and a slightly more formal sit-down interview, the central questions that guided our conversations emerged and could be separated into two major categories: What the Immeasurable Want of Light is; how the play and its publication came to be; and what are the stories, messages, themes, etc. being communicated by its highly poetic, highly esoteric text?
Here, I present an edited composition of our communications that addresses that first pillar of our inquiry, what it is and how it got that way. As before, my questions and comments will appear in bold with Mubashshir's responses in plain text.
Okay, so let's just start at the beginning. What is the book? How did it happen? Who is publishing it?
Shortly after the show, actually in August of 2017, I got an email from Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, who directs 3 Hole Press, and she wanted to maybe talk about Everyday Afroplay. And we had a conversation about what [publishing the play] would look like and so that's how this book got “bornt” so to speak. It's been oh my goodness a long journey. The thing about Everyday Afroplay that is important is that I've envisioned it as something that is a living play that should be used to fit in whatever container.
Oh my god. I feel like there is a different way to describe that. So, Whenever there is a collaborator that I'm working with on Everyday Afroplay, I really want to shape Everyday Afroplay to fit the space that, the destination space so to speak. If it's going to be a show like at JACK or Bushwick Starr I really think about the space that we're embodying, the people that are involved, and so shape the text to fit that model. Also duration comes into play. And I think with a book I had to think about what is a publication, what is it to read this text on the page and how will the end reader interact with this text and what does all that mean? And so, in collaboration with Rachel and in collaboration with 3 hole press, I reshaped Everyday Afroplay text into a whole different play, The Immeasurable Want of Light. And basically, The Immeasurable Want Light tracks an artist's journey from becoming invisible to visible through the lens of the star formation and looking at Dark matter and looking at a character but out of space.
How has the publication process, say working with Nalebuff as an editor, been different from say working with theater-arts based collaborators in the past like directors, actors, or me, or other dramaturgs etc.
It's basically been, really, it's been wholly different, because you don't have actors or a director involved, it's really been just me Rachel and Stephen kind of going back and forth with the text.
Stephen, you mean me?
Stephen meaning you, Stephen.
Could you elaborate on that difference? Do you mean it's a little bit more of an intimate process?
I'd say it's definitely more intimate and definitely more cerebral. That's what it is. It's a very cerebral process, keeping in mind the reader. And how a reader is definitely different [from an audience member]. And that's been a very long learning curve for me, learning that a reader is different from an audience member. A reader I think grasps things in a cerebral way where as an audience member has to live in moments with the actors. So it's a shortened process because you're cutting out the live actor, you're cutting out human energy that happens live. So that's just a completely different language.
But don't you think some of that is incumbent on your readers, to understand that reading a play is different than reading a book?
Exactly. It is. Therein lies another layer of the challenge of crafting text. And so we've been looking at these plays collectively as a whole and as individual Everyday Afroplays as sort of poetry; we've been shaping the text as if it were closer to poetry than prose in the literary way, if that makes sense. A lot of the comments that I got were to treat the story as if it were something that someone could enter into in the middle and flip back and forth. Which is not what I've written. But I think looking at The Immeasurable Want of Light as a book of poems, or like poetry, has been a measuring stick of how to shape the play. And that's not what The Immeasurable Want of Light is, it pushed against those boundaries and broke them and disobeyed those rules in a lot of ways. In the end, we got to a place that was in between something like a book of poems and an entire play.
I think people would find when they looked at it that it's got a significant amount of variety in the way that it looks and the sorts of stories that you present, but that's partially just the episodic nature of sort of the Everyday Afroplay process.
Yes Everyday Afroplay tends to be, because I write it very fast and it's influenced by whatever I'm influenced by just that day, whatever I'm reading, whatever I'm seeing. I've allowed myself to experiment with form from day to day. So there's really no cohesiveness in form but there's a cohesiveness in the underlying interaction with blackness. That's the only thread that really ties all of this together. Everything else is up for grabs.
Let's talk a little about how you put this specific manuscript together. How did you choose the individual Everyday Afroplays that would or wouldn't be included? What new content did you have to create to complement those designs?
Oh my goodness. Okay so initially Rachel invited me to think of someone outside of theater I'd like to have write an introduction to the work. And Immediately I had three names that came to mind, that I would literally die if they were able to write an introduction and that was Nell Painter, Hilton Als, and Fred Moten. All of those authors have, in the past five years, given me something artistically or culturally, something to hang on to or a reason to stay on the planet and work. I don't know. They're like my writerly big brothers and sisters, like it's okay to be here in this crazy house that we live in. I felt a very special affinity and I wanted to interact with their writing and their spirits. What would it be like to maybe shape Everyday Afroplay around Nell Painter's work, Hilton Als' work, or Fred Moten's work? And so literally I gathered maybe 10 to 15 Everyday Afroplay plays that spoke to my relationship to Nell Painter's work, I then came up with, gathered 10-15 plays that related to Hilton Als' work or my relationship to Hilton Als work, and the same with Fred Moten, and I put all those plays together and was like okay guys here's your book.
And then Stephen, that's right you Stephen, and Rachel was like ummmm this doesn't make any sense. No no seriously they didn't really say that . But it wasn't yet a book. So over the next six to eight months we have pushed and pulled this text into finding out how to makes this into a whole work. And so I think back in December, after realizing that the way I'd set up the book into these three sections wasn't working at all, I threw away the sections and all the plays that sort of didn't fit. Me and Rachel had a session and we looked at all the plays that really felt like they spoke to each other and we cut away [the rest], and then decided to create a frame that would go over, that would hold, the core. There were probably 10 to 15 core Everyday Afroplay plays that fit together and I created a frame that could hold those plays, and that's when The Immeasurable Want of Light, as it is today, was finally born;.after a few months we got to that place. And then I think over from December or January til now, it's been about really shaping that work to make sense and that's workable for the public or any arena.
How did Nell Painter come to make original artwork for the play? How does the art interact with the text?
When I was at Columbia , I rediscovered Nell Irvin Painter. A professor recommended I read The History of White People after a very honest conversation about being black in an ivy league school. The book saved my soul and brain. I became obsessed with Nell Painter and discovered that she had been with me through high school and undergrad. When I took any course on African-American History, Nell Painter had been there. I'm not proud of this but reading historical text as a young student I was more concerned with memorizing the data than who wrote the text. I'm older now and pay closer attention.
Since reading History of White People, I discovered Nell had changed careers and is now a painter. I found her art to be equally engaging as her history texts. Rachel and I had numerous discussions of the possibility of using visual work to supplement the text. So when we reached out to Nell for a contribution we let her decide the way she would respond. She chose illustrations. Which I find stunning. Both as a compliment to the story and as a artistic conversation between student and teacher. As an emerging writer at the beginning of a career to have my first publication illustrated by my number one intellectual hero (she-ra) in the new way she is expressing herself is breathtaking and beyond belief. It feels like a circle has been closed.
You touched on this already, stating that the big picture connection between all these different things is their relationship to blackness, but can you elaborate on what that means?
Just living in it. What does it mean, what do we mean by asking the question of how best to make black and brown bodies visible and what's it cost? What does it cost to make black and brown bodies visible? And for me going back to Nell Painter, Fed Moten, and Hilton Als, when I read their text when I read their work, those were the moments where I felt most alive most visible. I felt like I had been seen when I read their work.
So of course I wanted to answer back to Nell Fred and Hilton; here is my journey to be visible with you. And that is what the book is about, what does it look like to become visible or what does it feel like in a body. And that ties to Everyday Afroplay in the sense that its about the many different ways, the many facts, the many, oh my god, what it's like to live in black skin and there's so many, actually I mean there are so many ways to live in the human body, no matter what your heritage, ethnicity is. But the reason why I'm focusing on blackness itself is because that's my body, and like, and I just realized I'm only person. So Immeasurable Want of Light uses blackness as a launching pad to talk about visibility.
Is it fair to say then that this iteration of Everyday Afroplay is more autobiographical than previous versions? Some of it seems like it's very specifically about you, some of the new Maker and Tress material.
There's this sort of loose, not even, relationship that never happens. And it's a, it's a, you know an African American woman and a white woman. And I'm clearly, I'm single so kind of like... Tress isn't really about anybody specific. Literally. It's only autobiographical in the sense that. Here, let me back up. The relationship with Maker and Tress is not specifically in a straight one-to-one, apples-to-apples autobiographical thing. What Maker and Tress represent for me is my love relationship with whiteness.
But you have infused some personal information into the story? Like the student debt details.
Okay, so yes. See that's just the way I write. I create, I create characters based on little fragments and ideas in myself. Yes, that student debt is real, real, real, true. All those numbers are true. [laughing] All those numbers are true.
They feel real.
That's real. Unfortunately because I'm so ambitious and refuse to wait for people to notice me, I don't have a social life. But that debt is real, because, I told this to Stephen earlier, y'all don't pay me. And I want you to write that, Stephen.
Alright. I'll make sure that gets included. Lastly, how many drafts would you say you've done of this thing?
Hold on, let me wipe up the blood. At least 30. Maybe 25-30. I didn't count but it's been... I may have worked on this play more than any other,consistently. but I think that that's because I've had a different type of support. Putting on work for an audience at my stage of development as an emerging playwright as an emerging playwright that is not directly attached to an institution, I've taken it upon myself to push my plays forward on my own. And unfortunately there is just only so much I can do by myself which I've learned. Without this publication deadline, I'm not sure how I would have gotten to the place where I think, “We're going to play with 30 drafts.” It's not that I don't like doing it, but I'm only one human being. I thought I was five but now I'm realizing I'm only one. I literally just woke up last week folks, last week.