Embodying Grace

October 14, 2016

Carrie Mae Weems and the Art of Resistance

Abigail Storch (M.A.R. expected ‘18)


What is the role of grace in the pursuit of democracy?


This is the driving question behind Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, a new production by Carrie Mae Weems at the Yale Repertory Theatre for two performances in September. Supported in part by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School, Grace Notes is a multimedia experience, incorporating video, dance, photography, spoken word, song, step routines, and interviews into a mosaic of social commentary and soliloquy. The production, originally performed several months ago at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, explores conceptions of embodiment and resistance through the lens of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Carrie Mae Weems writes that she initially conceived Grace Notes as a gift to President Barack Obama in the wake of the June 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, which claimed the lives of nine black women and men during a prayer service. Two weeks after the shooting, President Obama closed his eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney by spontaneously singing “Amazing Grace,” responding to the violence with a heart-rending benediction. Weems explains that after she heard Obama sing, the idea of grace took hold of her and refused to let her go. “I called my pastor, I called my friends, I called my mother,” she tells the audience at the beginning of the production. “I asked them what grace is.” Invoking the wisdom of her mother, Weems concludes that grace is a kind of charity, an offering of oneself as a gift to a world that is fraught with suffering.

But grace is not passivity. As one apt observer pointed out in a panel discussion hosted by the ISM before the second performance of the play, the language of grace and forgiveness has so often been used to aestheticize suffering instead of confronting the horrors of racial violence. How can we expand our understanding of grace to represent more than acquiescence to systems of harm? Willie Jennings, a panelist and professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, observed that the choice to embody grace is a gesture of agency in the service of liberation. “Forgiveness is a word that should not be used in political discourse at this moment,” Jennings told the audience. “But to ask the question of grace is to frame the world – the universe – in new possibilities.” To inquire into the nature of grace is to find that like violence, it is always incarnate. “Grace has a body,” Jennings noted. “Grace is God in flesh, moving among those who have chosen violence or peace.”

It is this embodied nature of violence and peace that Weems seeks to show us in Grace Notes. It is crucial to remember that when statistics and political jargon are stripped away, racism is ultimately an experience of violence done to the body. Weems does not shy away from the truth of this; addressing the audience, she declares, “State-sanctioned violence is as intimate as a forced kiss.” Near the close of the play, as we commemorate the recent victims of racial violence by speaking their names together, we witness the footage of the shooting of Philando Castile on a huge screen. There is no passivity here; there is no acquiescence. Instead, we are confronted with the details of Castile’s murder in all its horror. Earlier in the show, a step team honors Castile by dedicating a routine to his memory. “Philando Castile: he would have appreciated something like this,” they chant, before breaking into choreography, an artistic expression of dissent.

Daphne BrooksYet even as violence is embodied in the production; grace too is experienced and expressed through the body. As the play opens, Weems is sitting at a writing desk in the middle of the stage, situating herself in the center of the conversation that is about to commence, and throughout the play she appears onstage both to speak and to witness what transpires. As panelist and Yale professor of African American Studies, American Studies, and Theater Studies Daphne Brooks (pictured at right) noted, Weems “places her body in the image as a symbol of artifice and critical memory.” Weems offers her reflections to us, but even more, she offers us her presence. The other performers do the same: the solo dancer moving across the stage, the trio of singers (dubbed “The Three Graces”), the step teams, the spoken word artist. Through mournful singing, militaristic stepping, or incantatory speech, the performers embrace the rituals of embodiment.

In the minimalist set of Grace Notes, one feature demands our notice. A clock is mounted on the wall between two windows, and the hands never move from their positions: the minute hand pointing straight up toward twelve, the hour hand at three. We are reminded of the Three Graces that lead the song cycle, but further, we are reminded of the production’s subtitle, Reflections for Now. The issues addressed by Grace Notes are not those of the past, not even the recent past; rather, they are issues that are now and at hand. We are presently in the middle of them, and they demand our full attention.

In the words of Willie Jennings (pictured at left), “Carrie Mae Weems is a prophet; she lives and dances in that space between prophetic and artistic.” And the art she gives to us in Grace Notes is indeed prophetic: it is an invitation to enter in, to taste the sorrow and courage, to remember the lives lost and imagine a way forward. In all its mourning and celebration, Grace Notes: Reflections for Now is an articulation of beauty amidst trauma, an invitation to consider the ways that our own bodies serve as channels of violence – or peace.


Ed. Note: The panel discussion sponsored by the ISM as part of the weekend of activities surrounding the Grace Notes performances was held on September 10 in the Yale University Art Gallery Auditorium. | SEE THE VIDEO

Panelists included

Laura Wexler, Professor of American Studies and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, and director of the Photographic Memory Workshop at Yale | moderator

Daphne Brooks, Professor of African American Studies, of American Studies, and of Theater Studies, Yale

Susan Cahan, Lecturer in Art and Associated Dean for the Arts, Yale

Willie Jennings, Associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies, Yale

Nell Irvin Painter, Edwards Professor Emerita of American History, Princeton

Photos by Sachin Ramabhadran.