Silos, Scarcity, and Specificity: Holding Space for Complexity After PILLOWTALK

“Feminist Perspectives on Building Intersectional Communities,” facilitated by Joy Messinger and guest speakers Hana Ii-Epstein, Jessie Fuentes, Kyra Jones, Lenox Magee, Denise Yvette Serna, and Guest Culturebot Writer Tanuja Jagernauth.” Photo Credit: Ishmael Muhammad.

Written and directed by Kyoung H. Park, PILLOWTALK (which recently was performed in Chicago at ConFest, the 6th National Asian American Theatre Conference and Festival at Victory Gardens) is a play that defies the tidy sum up. It’s a piece of art that demands an audience that is willing and able to hold complexity and sit with art that raises more questions than it answers. As evidenced by the post-show long table discussion, the City of Broad Shoulders has more than enough capacity to welcome and hold theatre that breaks through silos, inspires abundance, challenges power structures, and illuminates internalized oppression.

Disclaimer: In this report back, I humbly aim to share the threads of the conversation as I followed them. This report back is by no means a comprehensive transcription of the discussion, and I often refrain from naming the names of specific contributors. I apologize in advance for any unintended misrepresentations, erasures, and basic stuff I just got wrong.

The post-PILLOWTALK long table discussion was facilitated by Joy Messinger (Prog. Officer of Third Wave Fund) and featured invited speakers: Lenox Magee (from The Sip), Denise Serna (from Pop Magic Productions), Jessie Fuentes (from Puerto Rican Agenda in Chicago), Kyra Jones (from Northwestern University), and Hanna Ili Epstein (from Nothing Without a Company).

The discussion began with a very intentionally-crafted framework of community agreements meant to give everyone an opportunity to listen and be heard in the space as we prepared to explore intersectional feminism and the dynamics that folks of color face in Chicago.

The community agreements stressed the idea that conflict can and should exist in the space and ideally be generative. An additional and necessary part of the framing included naming the heavily racially-segregated reality of Chicago. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s name was brought into the space as being the person who first coined the phrase “intersectional feminism” to describe the violence that Black women face and the ways in which power collides, interacts, and intersects(1).

After the community agreements were shared and the guiding framework of this longtable was created, Messinger opened the discussion with a question about the different power dynamics seen, experienced, and navigated among different communities of color in Chicago.

One participant at the table immediately spoke to their perception of limited distributed resources in the arts. In this person’s experience, limited resources leads queer folks of color to create silos of shared resources that often break down along racial identity lines. In these silos intersectionality can often be sacrificed for a sense of shared identity and the comfort of mutual recognition.

This sparked a question from another participant at the table: In creating spaces of affirmation, do we hinder ourselves? Can the perceived safety of those spaces be turned against us?

One person spoke to their experience of spending most of their career in mostly white spaces. They recently have been seeking out more specific identity-affirming spaces. Having found those spaces, now they only want to spend time in those spaces. They recognized that this approach may be limiting even if it’s nourishing in certain ways. After all, there is power in creating space for ourselves.

Lenox Magee from The Sip acknowledged that The Sip was created to celebrate the specificity of a Queer Black experience. In and only of itself, The Sip could be seen as not intersectional. I would argue, however, that collectively, it is filling a void, occupying a valid niche, and contributing to a much-needed collective complexity.

Another participant shared that they do actually spend a lot of time in spaces that honor their intersecting identities. They have had to intentionally create those spaces and actively curate the space to include voices that were not present. From personal experience, I can affirm that intersectionality in any endeavor requires intention and active outreach to create and maintain.

When the actors from PILLOWTALK took the two remaining open seats at the table, JP Moraga spoke to the power of being able to play a specific ethnicity while also endeavoring to bring every other part of themselves to the performance. Moraga found deep empowerment as an artist when they decided to start speaking about their own experiences as a queer Filipino.

Jessie Fuentes spoke to her experience as a politically conscious Latinx woman working hard to accept the machismo of her toxic father and meet him where he’s at.

“Folks of color work so hard to belong at home that outside acceptance feels so far-fetched.”

JessIe Fuentes

Fuentes’ experience has taught her that you have to confront your own and others when you live in a body at the intersection of many marginalized identities.

Circling back around to the beginning of the long table discussion, Messinger pointed out that we need to beware of using the scarcity language of funders in discussions of our own communities. We have to interrogate our own language and the foundations that habitually underfund organizations doing work dedicated to LGBTQ issues. Messinger shared that a mere $0.33 of every $100 of foundation funding (1/3 of 1 cent of each dollar) goes to all LGBTQ issues.

The collective conversation quickly pivoted toward an examination of the system that makes us fight each other while exploiting our images for their promotional brochures.

I appreciated this reminder that the individual and group struggles that we face exist within a larger oppressive framework, much like the white frames that created the walls of the one-bedroom apartment in PILLOWTALK. As Buck (played by JP Moraga) and Sam (played Basit Shittu) struggled with one another and themselves, the white frame of the walls stood firm and vibrant. The color of the frame shifted to a brilliant golden yellow when Buck asserted their needs, wants, and desires clearly. In owning and naming their truths they found a way of resisting systemic and internalized oppression.

While we collectively have much work ahead in breaking through systemic and self-created barriers to create social change that centers the experiences of those most impacted by systems of oppression, we can look to unapologetically queer projects like Chicago Dyke March that prefigure the world in which the Chicago LGBTQ wants to live and love. Projects like Chicago Dyke March create spaces for more of us to, like Buck, own and express our many intersecting identities while challenging systems of oppression.

In my humblest of opinions, the long table discussion could have benefitted from at least 30 more minutes. By the time the conversation hit home and began to address issues that really energized the table and the room, it was time to wrap things up. Given the collective constraints of time and space, I am thrilled that our conversation addressed the systemic, financial discrimination that the LGBTQ community faces.

(1) Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality, More than Two Decades Later

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