It’s no secret that black women are caught in the crosshairs of violence—not just when encountering the police but also in our own communities and homes. But how often do we really talk about it?
While the Black Lives Matter Network was co-founded by three black women—two of whom identify as queer—police brutality continues to be gendered as an issue that only black men and boys experience. Meanwhile, the cases of African-American women such as Sandra Bland, Rakia Boyd, Miriam Carey and countless others prove otherwise.
Statistically, black women experience sexual assault and intimate-partner violence, or IPV, at disproportionate rates. A 2011 study by the Black Women’s Blueprint found that by the age of 18, more than 60 percent of black girls have been coerced into sex. In addition, African-American women account for a mere 8 percent of the U.S. population, but we make up 29 percent of all women victimized, and we are three times more likely to die from IPV than white women are.
Despite how easily available the facts are, silence around these epidemics persists. But one new play may undo that erasure.
Described as Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls-meets-Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, SHE successfully addresses misogynoir using videos, contemporary dance and powerful first-person narratives. Debuting at New York City’s HERE Arts Center on May 5, the choreoplay fiercely tackles sexual, physical, emotional and state violence, along with self-care and healing.
Jinah Parker, SHE’s creator and choreographer, shared that her newest play is an extension of a past project.
“Last year I workshopped a similar show that was mostly dance with a few monologues, and we received such a powerful response. After that, I expanded it into a full script based on interviews of women of different races and ethnicities and research,” Parker told The Root.
SHE’s director, Phaedra Michelle Scott, shared that she was drawn to Parker’s play because the subject matter hits close to home.
“My entire life has been about advocacy and domestic violence—my mother did this work for years. And so, as an artist, I wanted to create work that speaks to these real-life experiences,” Scott says.
The Root recently sat down with Parker and Scott to discuss the new choreoplay, the link between dance and freedom, and the power of centering narratives on black women.
The Root: Given the pressure to live up to the myth of the black superwoman, why was it important to address our pain and trauma?
Jinah Parker: Black women’s pain has either been glossed over or we’ve been painted to be quiet and just endure it. Our show sends a different message: We are showing how this type of trauma impacts us, and the importance of self-care and healing.
Phaedra Michelle Scott: I just keep wondering, when did we start believing that our pain wasn’t important? We’ve internalized this myth, and too often, survivors are silenced. What I love about this play is that we are uplifting women’s stories about their pain, but also how they move forward.
TR: So many times when black women call out sexism in our community, we are accused of bashing black men. How does SHE hold black men accountable without pathologizing or demonizing them?
JP: First, this is not [about] men or bashing them. This is about women coming out of a dangerous situation and being empowered. And if men are upset, let’s talk about why. Because we are not alienating men—we need them to be part of the solution. However, we do need for them to witness this issue through the eyes of women.
PMS: Like Jinah said, this isn’t about men. Traditionally, society has been built from the male perspective, but SHE removes that element, and sadly for some, not being at the center feels like a threat. But our show is a safe space for men and women to be educated and re-educated on these issues.
TR: How does Sandra Bland’s death fit into SHE’s themes?
PMS: Bland’s death stems from patriarchy and systematic abuse by the hands of people who are supposed to protect you, not inflict pain. And of course, that societal violence and nonconsent seeps its way into our personal relationships. This is all connected.
JP: It was also important for us to highlight that this type of violence isn’t just happening to black men but to black women, too. For whatever reason, the media ignores that, so we’re using art to show this reality.
TR: SHE could have been a series of monologues. What does dance symbolize in terms of black female agency?
JP: Well, actually, this couldn’t have been done without dance—we needed both to tell this story in this way. Now, people may deny it, but there is research that focuses on how movement heals trauma. From slavery to Jim Crow, dance and music have been a way for black people to communicate and foster a strong sense of community. And thank God for dance—it uses your entire body, and what other art form is better to convey gaining control of what has been stolen from you?
TR: How has working on this project impacted you?
JP: I had been to therapy, and it wasn’t until this show did I realize that I had my own story about abuse, which I added into the show. Thank God for this show because this is everything I needed to love and accept myself.
TR: SHE ends with a 30-minute dialogue between the audience and a panel. Why was that added?
JP: It would be unwise and irresponsible for us to put on a show like this and not have a dialogue afterwards. This topic is too heavy to just let people out without having a conversation. The audience may have been triggered by their past experiences or have just realized they have experienced violence and didn’t know prior, so people need to decompress it all and have a safe space to process it all.
TR: SHE has received some serious support—from everyday supporters to celebs such as Gabrielle Union, Kevin Powell and Eve Ensler. Plus, the show is sponsored by Elle magazine.
PMS: It is such an honor to have advocates like that believe in us and to have such a talented group of actors and dancers involved. Without them, this show wouldn’t exist. But I think that all speaks to how important this story is, and I’ve learned that the right people will always show up when the work is good.
Editor’s note: SHE runs in New York City from May 5 to 21. Purchase your tickets here.
Kellee Terrell is a Chicago-based, award-winning filmmaker and journalist who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture. Her articles and interviews have been featured in Essence, The Advocate, Hello Beautiful, Ebony, Al-Jazeera, The Body and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter.