Carrie Mae Weems Embodies Grace and Humility in our Ungraceful Times
Internationally acclaimed artist Carrie Mae Weems created Grace Notes: Reflections on Now in response to President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” during a eulogy for one of the nine African-Americans murdered in the 2015 mass shooting, by a white supremacist in Charleston, SC. Originally performed in July 2016, at Spoleto Festival in Charleston, Weems reprised the performance in the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, DC on October 20. Weems composed an ensemble of artists including poets Aja Monet and Carl Hancock Rux, singers Nona Hendryx, Imani Uzuri, Alicia Hall Moran, and Eisa Davis, and dancer Francesca Harper to create a layered performance which explored the meaning of grace and who it is reserved for, in the present moment complicated by race and racially motivated violence.
As the theater began to fill, a woman with her back to the audience sat quietly at a typewriter. The performance began with a video of Weems walking through an empty museum and it was revealed that, in fact, the woman on stage was the artist herself. The “Three Graces” Uzuri, Moran and Davis were introduced with simple white backdrop including falling snow, a barren tree, two windows and a clock. The performance was a harmonious combination of song, video, a recorded phone call of Weems and her mother, spoken word and dance.
At first, I thought the performance might be a moment of remembrance for the tragic events at Emmanuel AME Church, which led President Obama to arguably his most vulnerable moment while in office. Rather, the performance was a commemoration of all black people killed by way of the police/state sanctioned violence and white supremacists. In setting the scene for one of these tragic murders at the hands of the police, spoken word artist, Monet, calls to the audience “How do you measure a life?” Soon after, the painful videos of the murders of Eric Garner and Laquan McDonald were played. Interestingly, this performance, conceived months before Donald Trump ascended to the presidency, is relevant now more than ever, in the wake of white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville and all over the country.
Grace Notes closed with the most powerful moment—the whole ensemble calling the names of people killed in racialized violence and in between each name stating in unison “Commemorating”. Moments after this the audience joined the ensemble, led by the powerhouse vocalist Nona Hendryx in singing, “Grace will set you free!” It is a novel idea that freedom could come from people of color having grace even in the midst of the most difficult, violent and racist moments in our history. Weems is not suggesting that grace requires forgetting but rather vividly remembering and using art (however you define it) to process the physical and emotional labor of this trauma.