When author Toni Morrison died Aug. 5, she left behind a legacy in the arts and culture of the United States beyond just literature. Austin actress, writer and director Crystal Bird Caviel is just one artist influenced by Morrison to create work that reaches beyond the page.
Now, as the inaugural production for SpiritHouse, a brand new theater company she has founded, Caviel is producing a one-night-only staged reading of Morrison’s works. “Our Truth Teller” combines music, selected video and performance of passages from Morrison’s writing to both honor the late author’s life and to herald the future of black artistry in Austin.
American Statesman: "Our Truth Teller" is a multimedia staged reading of works by the recently deceased writer Toni Morrison. What will that performance look like in practice?
Crystal Bird Caviel: I invited performers that I feel are natural storytellers, who understand already what I'm trying to do with this tribute and could bring Ms. Toni's words to life. We selected passages to weave together with music and video, to offer a round, dynamic look at who Ms. Morrison was and how transcendent her words are. The deeper I delve into her life, the more discoveries I make. For instance, I had no idea that she was also a composer! Her love of music is evident in the lyrical nature of her prose, but I didn't realize that music played such a big role in her life. So naturally, it had to take on a larger role in the show.
I've been curating music for the show based on the music she loved, collaborated on, and was inspired by. J. Christian King (of Hello Lovers) will provide musical interludes in between passages. This show is an opportunity for people who love her to revisit her work, and people who have never read her work to get a taste of the worlds she created, and hopefully be inspired to get acquainted with her books.
How has Morrison inspired you, personally, as an artist? Does her writing inform what you create as a performer and theater artist?
Her work is inexorably a part of who I am. I was fortunate enough to grow up reading her words and be shaped by them. I remember being young and reading her first book, “The Bluest Eye,” and being so moved and so horrified, but also completely understanding the themes in the novel. Growing up white-adjacent and living under the societal standards of beauty, and very often being the only black girl in a space, she spoke to me and my experience. And that's how her work is — she allows you to see yourself in her stories, paints a world just for you. She unearthed a magical, mystical element in black life that has forever inspired me — the inherent magic of blackness. I carry it with me, and it informs how I see the world, and the approach I take to my own work. I endeavor to imbue my work with that magic — and that's what SpiritHouse is.
This is the inaugural production of a new theater company that you've founded, SpiritHouse. Can you tell us a little bit about the company and the gap that it will be filling in Austin theater?
I'm so excited; it's all really happening! I have been carrying this desire for years, and it has finally come to fruition with the opportunity to curate this show.
There are so many facets of what this company means to me and what it stands to achieve. I first saw the name some years ago when I was reading about black theater history in Harlem and elsewhere, and saw that Amiri Baraka had founded a sort of poetry collective/theater/community hub that he called the Spirit House, and that it was a gathering place for black culture and political consciousness, and I was struck by the name. So in part, it pays homage to all the black artists and theater makers that blazed the trail for us, while also acknowledging our ancestors and our spiritual traditions.
Theater is a vital part of building community. We are struggling for representation in a city that is rapidly losing its black population. When I was born, the city was at least 20% black and now it has dwindled to around 6%. I think we find ourselves working overtime to make art that represents us and holds fast to who we are while watching the populous disappear along with our actual physical history in the form of historic neighborhoods and streets.
And most importantly, this company is led by black women. Black folks need to be at the helm of telling our stories, not in support roles, not as props for validation. These are our stories and it is imperative that we hold the lens through which they are being told.
It seems like SpiritHouse has one foot in the past and one in the future, in order to connect vitally with the present. How will the company navigate between the spiritual and storytelling traditions you're evoking and creating work that redefines Austin theater?
Storytelling is inherently ritualistic. We tell stories to connect us to ourselves. They inform us, serving as a tie to the past, while prompting us to imagine bright, limitless futures beyond possibility. Ritual theater contains the potential to heal, elevate and transform those involved. I believe that the telling of our stories can provide catharsis for past and present generations, and I see this company as an act of public service. SpiritHouse is about reclamation, about connecting, about dreaming in that space of Magical Blackness. Our aim is to honor our ancestors with our work, to acknowledge them in ourselves, and to keep the "spirit" of the work alive.
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