These texts were written by visitors who attended the performances in San Quentin State Prison. These responses were then printed on paper and read to the inside members of the Artistic Ensemble.
Dear Artistic Ensemble,
Thank you for the rewarding artistic experience of Site Unseen. My expectations were high and you did not disappoint.
This year I was again struck by the virtuosity of the entire group. On the whole, your performances are grounded and delivered with a confidence that is typically seen in only the most seasoned performers. The balance of commitment with control is outstanding. By this, I mean that it is apparent that each performer puts his heart and intention into his work, but everyone maintains a level of physical and emotional specificity.
I appreciated the vulnerability that various performers shared throughout the show—moments from childhood, feelings of helplessness or being misunderstood—but I appreciated, even more, the performance of strength. I have come to think that it might be relatively easy for an outsider to come into a prison and to recognize the humanity of an individual performer through their sadness, their loss, or the myriad ways in which they have been cheated by a dysfunctional society that actively seeks to destroy their personhood. I wonder if it is a little more difficult to embrace a performance of strength, of righteous outrage—a performance that is not designed to make an audience feel good. I deeply appreciated the many moments of discomfort I experienced throughout the show, from the tone of Chris’ opening and Prince’s (?) closing monologue to the final image where you were all turned away from us. I could not look away from Choy’s (newly) solo dance piece. In all these moments, I felt that you were refusing to reassure us, to offer us comfort or friendship. This is not to say that the performance did not feel at times like an act of love, but I felt the love between the performers more palpably than towards the visiting audience.
The work of the Artistic Ensemble is a gift to any who are lucky enough to see it. I look forward to more in the future.
Dear Artistic Ensemble,
Site Unseen was incredibly moving and I’m still reeling from it. It was profound, humanizing, and full of empathy — for immigrants, for your fellow inmates, for yourselves.
There were SO MANY MOMENTS that made my eyes tear up and my pulse race. Here are a few impressions (with my apologies for lacking the language to do them all justice!):
The opening: As we filed in, and performers are silently looking through the hole in the brick wall t.v. with Christopher’s monologue (that tone!) rolling over us. His words slowly starting to sink in through repetition as we found our seats, reminding us that prisons are not just physical spaces, they are social and emotional constructs. It was my first time attending and I hadn’t been on the AESQ website before the event: I really didn’t know what to expect and this opening piece set the stage perfectly.
The relationship between the performers and the outside audience is so unique and I really appreciated the different ways that your pieces invited us to look directly at that. All those moments that blurred the line between audience and performer — like when you traded places with the white woman, or when the audience held programs up to our faces and we peered out from our own prisons — were heady and powerful. I continue to try to process it.
Rauch’s intense energy (that startling gymnastic climb around the table top!). My Body is a Tool. Reece’s piece with (was it Choy?) mirroring the movements, the cop shooting rounds point blank into the couple while standing on the table. Antwan’s rapping, Emile’s words, Choy’s dance solo, Edmond’s story. You Don’t Know Me. They gave me chills. The ways you chose to integrate movements, words, sounds, and each other to tell your stories was mesmerizing.
Your stories matter! I can’t wait to read the texts over again when they’re up on the website and share them with others to amplify your voices. Thank you for creating them and for letting us be a part of that experience.
Apologies that I’m not getting to this in time for you to share this with the amazing AESQ performers in your visit today, but I hope that my thoughts will make it to their ears eventually. Thank you for asking for our response. Wow, it was so overwhelming and powerful. I have to admit that, being my first visit to a prison, it was challenging for me to form sentences after the performance. (It was dizzying, just physically witnessing the weight and seeming arbitrary and mundane nature of the systematized, oppressive forces there. There were so many aspects to being there that were just confusing.) Thank you for inviting us to see the performance, and for all your work creating and facilitating it. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to witness the performance, to have seen first hand the thoughtful, brave work AESQ does. The performers’ vulnerability, focus, physicality, and clear intention in the performance were so deeply moving and inspiring. The moments that have stayed with me are the moments in which the performers worked in close collaboration to physically carry and support each other, seeing that intimacy and connection within the group was moving. The repetitive piece, “You don’t know me” has echoed in my head for days. The piece that was spoken as we were entering was also moving, as well as the pieces by Emile and the moments when Rauch threw down his papers, and Edmund violently bouncing off of the others’ bodies as he tried to walk. I hope to be able to see the video and hear all the text again so I can absorb it more deeply. I also really appreciated the q&a afterwards and everything that folks shared. It was good to hear Emile’s thoughts about acknowledging the leadership of the people on the inside. Thank you to you all so much.
As I think through the process of how to bring an AESQ performance to the outside space that Southern Exposure resides in, I’m struck by the impossibility of translation–of even translating the physical experience of just being a temporary observer for a brief period of time. There are many repetitive performative gestures that the audience coming on the 24th had to enact to reaffirm the hierarchical structure of the space (that obviously are not anything resembling what the performers endure and manage on a daily basis, but conveyed in small part, a bit of the essence of the nature of the performance that one enacts with the institution), and I wonder if that’s a way to bring some of the experience to an audience on the outside, to bring a bit of the sense of the complicity and powerlessness I felt in that space. Emile and I have spoken about installing sound recordings in the gallery space at Southern Exposure, and about creating an event where visitors here are connected to people inside, to bring their voices into the performance space of the gallery. Would it be possible to speak with some of you about this? Is this something that others from AESQ are interested in?
Thank you again to all of you for the opportunity to witness the performance. I look forward to all your future work.
I have now attended two AE performances – “16 Ways to Disappear” in 2016, and “Site Unseen” this Wednesday. They were very different, and yet equally powerful and provocative. As in 2016, I find it very hard to reduce my thoughts and the ideas behind them to words, but I’ll try. Apologies to anyone who thinks I go on too long, but my reactions are complex and hard to express.
My principal reaction was that each of the 11 men we saw performing (plus the 12th – Banks, whose presence was definitely felt by all) was driven by his own personal passion. No two of them had identical or necessarily similar passion. I think passion can be manifested in many ways; it might have been involved in acts that led some to incarceration, but despite the person being walled in, the passion persists and probably grows. “Site Unseen” seemed to me to be based on those passions.
Choy’s comments demonstrated to me that he clearly understands that his passion is perhaps best expressed in movement (e.g., his unforgettable pas de deux with Banks in 2016), while others are more likely to express theirs through words, spoken, sung, or rhymed. (Richie, whose presence I also missed this year, did some of his own expression through his guitar, particularly with his mournful playing of the National Anthem as the audience entered in 2016.) In “Site Unseen,” the balance between movement and spoken word was masterful – both elements would have been good without the other, but alone neither would have been as good as when it was part of the whole work.
Many – really all — of the men who performed this year used the opportunity to create this remarkable performance art as a way to give voice and vision to his own personal passion, but to do it in a way that blended and interwove with the passions of his fellow performers, in what I suspect were ways that none could have ever expected or predicted until they came together. Each of these proud strong articulate men had to give up a little of himself to be able to become part of the Ensemble and to do so in a way that made the group possible, but that more importantly made each man a BETTER man for having become a participant – a vital part of something much larger than himself. I think that each was able to demonstrate at least a part of the passion that drives him, and to do so in a positive and constructive manner. I salute each of them, and will never forget any of them.
In my personal life and in my working life, I have been involved in many situations where it has been obvious that the passion of one or more individuals has been the key to the success or lack of success of an organization or effort. When a person is able to give voice or form to his or her passion in a way that others can see or interact with, or perhaps be inspired by, the result will always be far greater than the organization or effort would otherwise be. So I again salute the men who so beautifully and powerfully channelled their individual passion into the incredibly moving and emotional “Site Unseen” work.
To Edmond, a belated Happy Birthday – I loved the look on your face when you talked about Tuesday’s rehearsal followed by the one-day-late serenade led by your brothers. To Chris – in the “Tool” number, you showed you’re still able to play football with the best, but that you recognize the far greater message your artistic creation demonstrated. To Rauch – your passion is palpable, your words are provocative and articulate, and your participation in the Ensemble is invaluable – I hope you will continue to search for ways to express what drives you, because you have a great deal to say.
To each of the men who performed, and to all those who worked with them to make “Site Unseen” come to life, thank you. You have done something truly memorable and important.
Dear Artistic Ensemble,
I thought the entire piece was unbelievably moving. Attending this performance was such an incredible experience, and I have thought about the performance so much over the last couple of days. I’m sure I will keep thinking about it for a long time to come.
I’m also not sure how to qualify this experience in words or writing. There were so many amazing moments. I won’t possibly be able to capture everything that stood out, nor will I be able to fully describe how this performance made me feel. Your lyrics and movements that made me feel things I have not yet fully processed.
I thought the way you had us enter the performance room was so creative and interesting. I had many different images in my head about what the performance room might look like, but I definitely didn’t expect to have to walk through the stage to get to my seat. By walking through the audience, you get the feeling that you will have to engage with this material differently than you do for other performances. You definitely re-centered my thoughts and brought me right into thinking about the performance. It was also amazing to see the commitment of each of the artists—sitting unmoving as we all entered the room.
I also really loved that you all used so much of the room as your stage, which is very different than many performances, where the stage usually feels much smaller. I appreciated that this arrangement gave you all so much room to work with and that it forced me to be really present to try to capture everything that was going on around me. I know after the performance, one of the artists mentioned that you all only had a few hours to practice in that space—and that your rehearsals usually took place in a much smaller room. It’s incredibly impressive to me that you so effectively inhabited that space and that your performance so precisely filled that space.
I thought the first number was so powerful (where you talked about the US as being the home of the slave). You made some very interesting references to the military and our broader calls for patriotism, foiled against a country that has oppressed men (and women) of color since its inception. I thought the lyrics were so smart, profound, and succinct. Very impressive. It was amazing that you seemed so powerful to me at that moment, even as you described a system that has tried to deny and strip you of any power.
I loved hearing Edmund’s story, and I was so impressed that he maintained focus while being hit (even if he knew it was coming!). I thought you did a wonderful job telling and showing us about your experience—I could absolutely picture you as a little boy dealing with all of those bullies and emotions.
I loved the final piece in the performance. I was incredibly moved by the way that you took snippets of popular songs that I hear in the car or at a shopping mall and told us a brand new story with their words. I will never hear those songs the same way again because you’ve added a new dimension to their meaning for me.
I was so impressed by so many of your movements. I was amazed at how well your movements worked alongside your lyrics—never stealing the spotlight or detracting, but truly working cohesively. I loved when you talked about your safe space and you crawled underneath your fellow performers. It was such a good visual representation of what you were describing. It was also amazing to see how well you all worked together and trusted each other. I was so mesmerized by the part where you all started moving in synchronization. It was so interesting to watch how you each gradually fell into that movement and then slowly, one-by-one, stopped moving. I also thought the piece where you move in mirror image synchronization, back-to-back, was incredible. To know your movements and the timing so well was truly impressive. And there was also something fascinating about the idea that you were both doing the exact same movements on the same side of each of your bodies, and that you would have looked the same had you both been facing forward.
I think the movements also helped to solidify this contrast that seemed to be made throughout the play—the individual vs. the collective. There were times that you each told such deeply personal stories that you stood out as individuals among your group. There were other times that your stories seemed to tell a universal truth, understood by all members of the group. You portrayed this same idea with your movements—sometimes the movement of one was powerful and sometimes the collective movement was powerful.
It was amazing how your movements were so controlled with each step so finely choreographed. There was also a fierceness and power to each of your moves. The balance between the mental and physical stamina to do your movements—to know precisely how, where, and when to move and to be able to do such athletic and powerful moves—was amazing. Also, I can’t get the image of one of the performers climbing under and around the table out of my head. At that moment, it felt so unexpected and powerful.
I also wanted to comment that I loved how well your stories/songs/movements emphasized a common humanity, not just with each other but also with your audience. I felt like there were times when you were directly giving us advice or lessons (like the comments about being obsessed with an iPhone), which made me feel so engaged with your work. But I also felt like I could connect with part of your stories, like they also in some ways alluded to my experiences. Seemingly, I would have little in common with many of these stories (I am a white woman), yet I was amazed at how I connected personally to certain experiences that each of you described. I know that feeling of needing a safe place. I know the feeling of not fitting in with some kids and feeling different. I know the feeling when people assume they know you. Again, I recognize that my circumstances and the circumstances in which I had these experiences are very different from yours, but I thought there was a real beauty in that you could tell your story and also enlighten me a little bit about my own story.
I so appreciated the Q and A segment after the performance. It was wonderful to get to stay to watch you bask in the high of the performance. I haven’t been on a stage since I was a little kid, but I will never forget the rush you feel right after you finish performing and the applause begins. It was truly special to watch you enjoy your success. When we were mingling after the performance, I was impressed by your succinct questions about what I enjoyed or what I felt. You weren’t interested in just hearing that I enjoyed the performance—you wanted details about what particularly spoke to me and what exactly I felt. I loved that you all were so engaged in your artistry.
I also appreciated hearing about how much time and care went into planning this performance. I really appreciated the comments about how performing gave you a sense of agency and power that you had been searching for. Again, I think everyone can relate to the idea of needing control or power, but we make it much easier for some people to fulfil this need than others. There was so much self-awareness about why performing matters in each of your answers.
As I read over these comments, I realize that I’ve said amazing, incredible, and impressive about a hundred times. Your performance truly was all of these things and more. I am so grateful that you shared your art with me, and please know that these stories will always stay with me.
Thank you all so much,
First and foremost, thank you Freddy for inviting us and all of you for doing this work. It’s always difficult for me to be in any prison because it brings up a lot for me personally. I’ve visited way too many prisons as a kid and as an adult and I’m always a wreck after leaving. I’m glad I went though. It was very healing for me.
I thought the work, artistically, was beautifully crafted. The one thing I will share because I appreciated it so much was the varying degrees of vulnerability in the storytelling. Sometimes this work can push our families to share details that aren’t necessary and not for everyone to know. I don’t appreciate when our trauma is put on display to please the audiences. I love that some of the stories were shared only through movement and some with limited dialogue and yet all of them moved me and others as well.
Please keep me on the list. I’d love to see future performances 🙂
I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to sit and write up my thoughts sooner this time but I had to rush home to work. I’m so glad that I came though and hope you will continue to invite me to these amazing productions that you all create.
Because I didn’t get to write right away, my memories are more fused into an impression of the whole, but I do have particular moments that still ring so strongly for me.
Just in general, I am so impressed by how you all are able to so effectively layer poetry that pulls together personal stories with cultural truths and make it move and kick and punch and gouge an opening into my assumptions/ understandings
about personal autonomy, cultural bias and what it means to be seen and to belong. I have to say that it seems like the orientation of the performance in the room made the acoustics less favourable than the facing that was used for “Ways to Disappear”. I had a harder time hearing all the language than it did the previous time, which I had no trouble with at all. It was one of the reasons I really want to read the texts again.
But even if I’d caught every word, there was so much richness and wisdom that I want to be able to dip back into for a long time. What I got in a way that seriously altered and excited me is the connection that was made for me culminating in Reese’s speaking piece where everyone was using sounds or breath or beats or drumming on garbage cans to be the sound of being
alive, being in a body, being a part of something unified that was made by each person’s unique part. That being in this body is home, this is belonging. I just loved how I slipped into the music of the sounds being taken by it all, aware in that way
that you are when you know you’re seeing something all come together– aware of how clever and perfect and satisfying that whole section was, reveling in his words, just grooving on the rhythms and words and then like a slice, the warden walks
through and, wham, it all goes silent. Vitality reined in, words silenced, life suspended. A gut punch for the audience—for me. Each man separate, voice gone, breath held, retracted, an alien in his own time and space. It spoke of a broader sense of being an immigrant to me, of belonging or not, or being welcomed or not, of feeling right, or not, in the place that you are.
And for me as a bodyworker, I got an essential link between recognizing our bodies as our own turf, our own domicile in relation to the issue of homeland and belonging or not. All the men’s personal stories of having to squelch creativity or emotions or desires or thoughts or power in that regard are like having to live as an alien to yourself. You all have given me another dimension to consider in doing the work that I do.
I love that first scene with Rausch as broadcaster giving us the day’s “reality check” and Gary, as his handler, showing that even the one who reports what’s going on is being manipulated. I loved that he ended his broadcast still in his chair but lying on his side. Tilt. Such a good beginning. And the slits that everyone else was looking out of, for me, was a visual reference to all these words truly being only a slice of what is really true.
The football game, Edmond’s story, the relative safety of the table made by the woven legs of four men. All of the movement choices so integral to the stories. So well done and moving. And then the end… Nate’s simple, stinging reminder that we
don’t know him. It’s such an important reminder that really we don’t know anyone unless we try to get beyond our biases and assumptions, whatever they may be. And, so often we believe what we think we know from by some cultural signal of
dress or skin color or style of hair and then act accordingly. Thank you for such a clear, penetrating moment that I carry with me.
Your work together is so heart opening even as it is also wrenching. Both pieces I’ve seen have left me feeling a deeper capacity for questioning, for rattling my own cage, for not being satisfied with my first reactions to anything.
Thank you for doing this work, for all that you put into it, for your honesty and your artistry, for putting all aside to create this meaningful piece.
I wish you all well and all the best to you, Choy! Keep dancing!