Like her previous book Swallow the Fish, Gabrielle Civil utilizes a multigenre approach to archive performances, letters, interviews, book reviews, photographs, and more. So much of this book is about tracing collaboration and community, and reading it feels like an embrace in a warm ceremonial space. Civil begins in her introductory letter to the reader, “Preparation for ritual is ritual. / How shall we start this time?” She continues later: “This book is a lot. / Really, this book is a lot of people. / My friends, blood and chosen family, ancestors, artists, muses, students, and multiple versions of myself. / Still remembering.” It is in this beginning that as a reader, I am invited into Civil’s world of the body in performance, of many voices, of documentation, of a shifting archive of living practices. The book is peopled on every page, and I am invited into fellowship, quite literally, with all of them.
My favorite part of the book is “Call and Response”, which details how the title performance/festival/pieces came to be: Experiments in Joy. In her keynote address, “Experiments in Joy: Intersecting Blackness”, which she delivered in 2017, Civil writes: “I want to start here to suggest that we, in this moment, in this country, are at a crossroads. We have to decide who we are, who we want to be, what we are doing, and what we want to do. We have to bring that spirit of the crossroads into our body. / We have to be ready.” Reading this now, in June 2020, I know that we are still at this crossroads, that some of us have been preparing for this moment, while others have not. Some of us are ready, or have at least readied ourselves in some way. In the address, Civil leads a gathering of energy, from ancestors and from ground, to ready and to protect for this time in the crossroads. She writes that this is “our first experiment in joy.” Joy being a protective force in the land of the crossroads. Other forms of joy include telling the truth, making something new, and inviting someone in. I remember Duriel E. Harris—who like Civil was part of the original Call and Response project with other black women performers, out of which came the idea of Experiments in Joy—saying this in a talk at Naropa too: Tell the truth. Make something new. Invite someone in. Document. Repeat. Sources of joy that protect us at the crossroads. For me, it is this cultivation of friendship, friendship through creativity and honesty and joy, that offers the deep protection of the soul. That this friendship can be with contemporaries, with ancestors, with the earth.
I return to her opening letter to the reader, where Civil writes, “To claim joy at a moment of siege / may seem selfish or delusional at first….Black feminist joy does not disown awareness of systemic injustice. It does not deny oppression; it defies it.” These experiments in joy are as necessary as protesting in the streets, as reading anti-racist books, as donating and signing petitions, as having hard conversations with friends and family. Experiments in joy allow for imagination in the face of the unimaginable. And imagination is necessary when we are at a crossroads, to defy the status quo, to first envision and then manifest a new future: “So urgent and so lovely.”