As dusk sets in over Charlottesville, young girls swing silver buckets to and fro in front of the Ix Art Park entrance on Monticello Avenue. Over dark clothes, they wear filmy white plastic leaf bags fashioned into skirts, tops and oversized hair bows that rustle as they dance. They’re called the Water Bearers, but their pails carry light, not liquid.
With their dance, they draw passersby to the Ix park upper platform to witness NO WAKE, a multimedia performance directed and produced by Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell, The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative’s 2016 public artist-in-residence, and created with the help of various local artists and a host of middle and high school students.
NO WAKE is the story of Teli, “an 11-year-old girl who finds herself adrift in the ocean with a mother she can’t reach and a father who’s lost,” says Tidwell. It’s about our responsibilities to each other and to our environment, and how we often deny those responsibilities. This performance is an adaptation and expansion of a play (also called NO WAKE) that Tidwell wrote in 2014. The story is loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey and told through Teli’s perspective.
Tidwell, a playwright, performance artist and co-founder of CLAW, likes to work with myth, and Greek myth at that. While living on the island of Vashon, Washington, in the Puget Sound, she invented one of her own. In Vashon, she saw houses built precariously close to the shoreline, homes that looked like they were about to tumble into the water. “There, I dreamed up this story that a widow had been so troubled by how her husband died that she was paralyzed,” says Tidwell. The widow, Yuli (played by Deandra Irving), couldn’t hold a wake or a funeral, she couldn’t tell her daughter, Teli, what happened, and the entire town judged her for it. Yuli abandons Teli (played by Sydney Wynn) and returns home intending to kill herself, only to find Teli there waiting for her.
NO WAKE has no dialogue; it uses physical movement and exaggerated expression to create a heightened emotional state that appeals to the subconscious. The set is a collapsible frame house atop a stage floating in an ocean of plastic water bottles. Film clips projected on a backdrop convey plot elements and settings while electronic music mixed with whispers and lines of spoken word flows around the actors’ movements. The effect is both post-apocalyptic and timeless.
Teli tries to connect with her grief-stricken mother, but Yuli rebuffs every attempt at a hug, a snuggle, even physical proximity, and the more alcohol Yuli drinks, the more violent her rejections become. Teli can’t quite make sense of reality, so she starts to imagine: She dances with masked animals, fights a sea monster and contemplates how her father might have died. Each vision provides a new understanding of the complicated and often ugly nature of adult life, of sex, violence, alcoholism, abandonment and death.
It’s a bit unconventional, but that’s the point, says Bridge Executive Director Matthew Slaats. The public artist program exists to support a Charlottesville artist, such as Tidwell, making a new work on a significant scale, and, if possible, with the public. Tidwell is The Bridge’s inaugural public artist, though the organization has tested the program in previous years.
The Bridge provided $10,000 for the production of NO WAKE, and the upcoming performances through April 16 are the result of nearly one year of planning, fundraising and rehearsals. Nearly everyone involved with the performance—the five actors, plus various set designers, composers, stage managers, costume designers, filmmakers, choreographers and Water Bearers—is being paid for their work. The local students who helped create the plastic bottle monster and messages in bottles for a related exhibit did so as part of a class and thus could not be paid.
“I have this pie-in-the-sky dream that making something that’s innovative and experimental does not have to be for people who have money and go into a black box theater,” Tidwell says, which is why she’s offering free tickets to the open-air performance. She wants anyone over 10 years of age to follow the Water Bearers’ light into the Ix park to witness Teli’s fraught—and familiar—awakening.
The performance bursts with symbols both overt and subtle. For most of the play, a sock puppet covers Teli’s right arm. At times, an invisible force (childhood) tugs at that arm. The puppet is Teli’s entertainment, her comfort, but when she loses it to the plastic bottle sea monster, she’s never the same. Pretty soon afterward, she’s donning urchin goggles and standing motionless and in awe at an unknown sight while Yuli finally emerges from her drunken slumber.
Like many children her age (and plenty of adults), Teli seeks the truth. And when she sees it, it’s not pretty, but at least she knows. She is awake. “I want [NO WAKE] to be both entertaining and, in a way, foreboding,” Tidwell says. The performance asks questions and presents problems, but it intentionally offers no resolution. It’s meant to be unsettling.
NO WAKE encourages us to listen to children, to each other and the world around us. “We all have to live in the world together,” says Tidwell, and we must realize the truth and the consequences of our actions. Once we do, we can more easily shoulder the weight of life together.
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