After a performance on the opening weekend of PURPLE: A Ritual in Nine Spells, I overheard the choreographer Sydnie Mosley chatting with friends who had come out to see her work: “This is basically my dissertation,” she said, laughing.
Looking around the lobby of the Clark Studio Theater at Lincoln Center, in the afterglow of the two-hour experience that she and her collaborators had conjured, you could see—and hear and taste and touch and smell—what she meant. Adorning the space, a multisensory, multimedia art installation brought audience members into the many dimensions of the PURPLE-making process, which has unfolded over the past six years. During that time, Mosley and the members of her Harlem-based collective, Sydnie L. Mosley Dances (SLMDances), have immersed themselves in the work of Black feminist writers and artists, emerging with their own research-rooted meditations on sisterhood, spirituality, community, and care.
On a table laid with flowers, fruit, and candles stood a portrait of the guiding light in that process, her smile beaming into the room: the poet and playwright Ntozake Shange, who pioneered the form of the choreopoem, most famously in her 1975 tapestry of dance and spoken text, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Mosley, a writer and mover in equal measure, has been working in the choreopoem lineage since before she knew it existed. While drawing from many sources, PURPLE honors Shange above all.
In the theatrical component of PURPLE, twelve performers—including the veteran dancer and choreographer Dyane Harvey, a luminous presence—build an altar to Shange and other creative ancestors, with the gently elicited help of the audience. The choreography, too, becomes a kind of communal assemblage, with audience members contributing moves inspired by each altar item. From a place of introspection and breath, what Mosley describes as a series of “activations,” the ritual gathers joyous momentum, until, in the final moments, everyone in the theater is dancing together. A vivid canopy of lavender, designed by Shani Peters in almost neon tones, hovers over the stage, in part a reference to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. (Lavender also infuses the lobby, where guests can admire a quilt in shades of purple, woven by Kim F. Hall, and take in the scent of the flower in sachets.)
Mosley has always created community-driven art, and PURPLE is no exception, integrating the stories and experiences of elders from Amsterdam Houses, a public housing complex on the Upper West Side, with whom she first worked through Lincoln Center Education. (PURPLE is co-presented with Gibney, whose Lower Manhattan location houses a second installation.) The project also expands on her longtime commitment to accessibility, with services like ASL interpretation and audio description available at select performances.
As former classmates at Barnard College, Mosley and I have known each other for close to twenty years. I have always been struck by the clarity and calm tenacity of her vision: She sets out to do something, and she finds a way to get it done. Which isn’t to say it’s easy. After the first weekend of PURPLE performances, we spoke about the long and winding process behind the work, including its uphill climbs and what Mosley calls its “divine” alignments.
Rail: I’ve been curious about the origins of your relationship to Ntozake Shange. How did she first come into your life?
Mosley: I was in high school in Baltimore, and our Black student group did a performance of for colored girls. I actually didn’t end up being in the performance, but my English teacher, who was a Black woman and our group adviser, got us copies of it. That was the first time I came into contact with Shange’s work. It actually didn’t resonate with me then, but I kept it and came back to it after college. That was around the time I was developing The Window Sex Project [a work addressing street harassment], in that 2010 to 2012 era.
I think when I first read it, I hadn’t lived enough life or had enough womanly experiences, good or bad or in between, for it to really land. Then in that early twenties moment, when a lot of transition was happening in my life—I’d come out of grad school, I was trying to start a dance company, I was making work explicitly dealing with things that happen to us as women—I was like, “Ohhh, I get it.” Ever since, I’ve been kind of circling around her work.
I also credit the wisdom of Barnard professor Kim Hall, who was my teacher and is now my mentor and friend. Around the same time, 2011 to 2012, she was working with Shange to bring her archives to Barnard. And she was like, “You need to be in these conversations.” She was developing a class called Worlds of Shange, and so Shange was coming to campus more, and there was a lot of opportunity to engage directly with her and her work. Kim invited me to develop a movement curriculum for the class, because she was very clear that Shange was a dancer as well as a writer, and that that doesn’t get lifted up as much.
Rail: How did you decide to make a work more directly inspired by Shange?
Mosley: Even if I hadn’t made a conscious decision, I think my work was already functioning in her legacy, which is why Kim, for some time now, has been like, “You need to be doing this,” in her very loving and gently guiding ways. In terms of this project, I had been germinating PURPLE ideas in 2017, 2018, and starting to make movement. I knew that as part of this practice, I wanted to create a series of solos on elder artists, and Shange was the first person I wanted to make a solo on. I did a talk with her at Barnard in the fall of 2018, and I was hoping that would be a moment for us to rekindle our relationship, when I could ask her to be part of the process. And then she passed away the very next month.
At the same time, Eva Yaa Asantewaa was curating the first “Solo for Solo” at Gibney [a series inviting younger artists to choreograph on veteran artists], and she put me and Dyane Harvey together, having no idea what my ideas were. When I say everything about this process has been divine, I really mean that. Dyane and I start talking, and I say, “What do you want to make? What are you interested in creating?” And she said, “Well, my dear friend Ntozake Shange just passed, and I really want to make something that honors her.” She told me she had been in the original production of Spell #7 at the Public Theater in 1979 and she wanted to work with some text from that, a monologue she always loved that wasn’t part of her character. With all these things aligning, it started to take its own form.
Rail: When Dyane welcomes the audience into the theater, she says, “This is not a show,” which is also the opening line of your artist statement. Why did you want to establish that?
Mosley: That refrain is something I’ve said in all our work-in-progress sharings over the years. It was really both an affirmation for myself and for audiences, because people think any time you see something onstage, what they’re seeing is the final thing. So that’s initially where that came from. On top of that, this work is actually a ritual, it is actually a ceremony. My collaborator Ebony Golden [a Harlem-based artist, scholar, and cultural strategist] talks a lot about theatrical ceremony and what it means to invite an audience into a process that is really real between the performers. Yes, it is a performance, and also the separation between audience and performer does not exist. The audience is activated. We call them “witness participants.” For me, if you are in the space, you are part of the work, and that’s always been a value for me. So I think naming “this is not a show” at the top helps the audience to reframe in their minds how they’re entering the space and what is expected of them. You’re not going to walk into a theater and sit back. Your witnessing is very active, and we actually need your active witnessing in order to make what we’re doing work.
Rail: I was so impressed by the ability of your dancers to engage the audience. I think audience participation is sometimes awkward or stilted because there’s a lot of ambiguity. But your performers were so clear in what they were asking of us, while still leaving room for decision-making and play. Is that something you consciously worked on?
Mosley: Absolutely. Generally speaking, within the creative partners, our core SLMDances collective, facilitation is a skill that we intentionally cultivate. And then in terms of Spell 8—the big culmination where we have the whole audience moving—the people who were section leaders were chosen specifically because I knew they could hold the space. But it was very carefully crafted and workshopped. We have someone in a chair on both sides so they can demonstrate how to do the movements while sitting, and we workshopped the language with Kayla Hamilton, who was our accessibility consultant, so that people could feel welcome to move. For instance, if the movement is “flutter-flutter,” you can flutter any part of your body, if not your hands, then maybe your elbow or your foot. We also talked about, in terms of accessibility, what is the scale? What does this movement look like as it is given to us? What does it look like in a really big way or a really small way? And how does it have the same energy and dynamic no matter what way you choose to enter it?
Rail: You began your relationship with Lincoln Center through community engagement. How does your involvement with the local community connect to Shange’s work?
Mosley: They’re very interconnected. Kim told me this story, which I’ll reshare. I don’t remember how she came across the story, but basically, Ntozake had been writing about all of these people in her work, and I think some artists she was working with were like, “Are these famous people? Who is this person, who is that person?” And she was like, “No, that’s the lady down the street.” It’s this idea that our neighbors—Miss Marie and Miss Pat and Miss Jacqui, who might not be recognized or famous, in the sense that you see them on TV or they’ve published something—that they are just as worthy of being named, lifted up, and amplified. This work kind of takes that to the max, in terms of who we’re going to namedrop. It’s not going to be tons of famous people; it’s going to be our neighbors.
Rail: We’ve spoken about some of the challenges you faced in producing this project within a large institution. Do you want to talk about that?
Mosley: I could talk about it to the extent of what it means to be a Black woman who is also the executive producer of your own work; what it means to cull together every resource, relationship, institution that you can get your tentacles to touch to make something happen; and then what it means to do that work from a grassroots place in relationship with a large institution like Lincoln Center that has no concept of what that actually is.
The fact of the matter—and this is true across most large institutions, not only performing arts centers but also corporations—is that true collaboration, transparency, and genuine relationship are not prioritized. And when that’s the culture of your institution, and you are working with a Black woman-led grassroots organization, there is a lack of awareness of how what might seem like simple missteps actually impact me as the artistic director, and then the ripple effects on the twenty-five other people I’ve hired to work on this project, most of whom are Black women.
To say that you want to work with community, work in community, lift up the stories of marginalized communities, that requires doing more than what you are used to doing. Truly the only reason we were able to navigate this is because I’m really smart and I’ve spent my entire life navigating white institutions. And I say this not to call out this one institution, because I know it’s happening across institutions, because I’ve talked to my colleagues who are working in other places, and we all have the same stories. The lip service paid to diversity, equity, and inclusion, the lip service to being community-engaged or community-accountable, is just that. And it’s only going to be real when you actually start listening to the people who you say you want to be in relationship with. It is a challenge they must rise to meet, if this is what they really want to do. If they don’t want to do it, then don’t do it, but don’t say that you’re doing it, you know? If you actually want to be with the people, work with the people, work with artists who make work for the people, then you have to shift.
Rail: Having been through all of that, how does it feel for the work to be up and running?
Mosley: It’s really great. It is the first time I have ever opened a new work and on the first day I wasn’t nervous. I was confident that what would be shared was exactly what I wanted to be shared. Full trust in the performers and in what they would facilitate with the audience. I’m sitting on the edge of my seat. I’m riveted. I laughed, I cried, I danced, and that feels really good. Being showered with a lot of love this weekend—I needed that. I have been working so, so hard. I’m seeing the fruits of that labor in the work, how audiences are receiving the work, and also my people are taking care of me, and that feels wonderful.
Rail: Can you talk a bit more about Dyane Harvey, and what she’s brought to your process? I was so enchanted by her presence.
Mosley: She brings wisdom and experience, but also humility, compassion, understanding. This is not the first time I’ve worked with an artist who is older than me, but certainly she’s the eldest artist I’ve ever worked with. From the beginning of our collaboration, she was very clear: You’re the director, you’re driving this ship, this is your work, I’m just happy to be here. To receive her trust in that way has been a huge gift. She’s been a professional artist for fifty years and has done everything from concert dance to Broadway to theater to coffee houses to running a dance company with her husband to putting on DanceAfrica. She’s done everything in the business, and for her to keep saying yes, to keep showing up with respect and humility—I don’t take that for granted at all. I’m getting teary about it.
I think that it has given me an affirmation over and over again that I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t need people to tell me “You’re an artist,” but when certain people do, it is really affirming. She literally was like, “You are carrying on the legacy of the choreopoem.” A month ago Ntozake Shange was getting a posthumous award, and Dyane Harvey and Dianne McIntyre were like, “Neither of us can go, and we need someone there to represent the dance contingent of Shange’s legacy. Sydnie: Go.” It’s like I’ve been knighted, you know?! [Laughs] By Dyane Harvey and Dianne McIntyre! Again, I don’t take that lightly, that they believe in me and trust how I am carrying this legacy forward.
Rail: What messages or lessons from Ntozake Shange are you carrying forward with you?
Mosley: That words and movement, or writing and dance, live on the same plane and come from the same breath. As a producing artist, I’ve often had to choose what to focus on, with these two creative practices fighting for top billing. But when I was growing up, really leaning into the practices that make me who I am, they always felt hand-in-hand. The fact that Shange’s writing practice was intimately tied to her movement practice, that she would go take dance class, work up a sweat, move her body, get the endorphins going, and then go write, and that one didn’t exist without the other, that’s the thing that feels most core to me.
For a lot of people who are working in the choreopoem legacy, words are at the forefront. They’re writing poems; they’re essentially writing a play. But for me, movement is coming first, and the words come after, and that feels so in line with how she was working. I think we forget about that. In theater, the artifact of a published play makes us think the words are primary, because the movement is ephemeral. A lot of people are not aware of how deeply integrated Ntozake Shange’s movement practice was, and so I’m foregrounding that.