|This piece was originally published in our July-September 2022 edition of SF Heritage News. To view the full issue, click here.|
BY CHIBUEZE CROUCH
Chibueze Crouch (she/they) is a Nigerian American multimedia artist, writer, and curator working across ritual theater, song, movement, and film. She is the cofounder of the directorial and performance duo OYSTERKNIFE, an SF Heritage artist in-residence and creative force behind September 2021’s “Time of Change” in the Haight-Ashbury. To learn more, please visit her website: www.cchibuezec.com
Your work with OYSTERKNIFE for 2021’s “Time of Change” explored overlooked stories of Black life in the Haight-Ashbury, and put them in dialogue with public perceptions of the neighborhood’s “lionized Counterculture era.” Tell us about your research process and your experience bringing these stories to life in the show.
Much of our research process involved hours and hours of conversation – between me and my cofounder Gabriele Christian, our co-directors, the cast, production team, and through interviews with eleven different creatives who were connected to the Haight-Ashbury in some way. We also talked about our own personal connections to the Bay Area, family lineages, and our ancestors, using these conversations to facilitate choreographic and ritual investigations in rehearsal. The majority of the interviewees used in the show were Black elders living in the San Francisco Bay Area for decades, including legendary artists like choreographer Amara Tabor-Smith, actor Danny Glover, director and performer Rhodessa Jones, and singer-songwriter Blackberri. We listened for hours, taking notes on stories that stood out, consistent themes that emerged, and compelling quotes that felt like key narrative moments, centering the experiences of Black folks in the Haight and the impact of the hippies.
As OYSTERKNIFE developed choreography, music, and film with our cast — Levi Maxwell, Clarissa Dyas, and Jarrel Phillips — we used our notes as dramaturgical guideposts. Gabriele and I discussed sections of interviews with each performer, directing them to dance, write, and sing about particular excerpts in devised rehearsals. Eventually, with the support of our sound engineer James Ard, I whittled down the recordings to specific stories and compiled quotes assigned to certain solos, duets and group performances. But even with all that made the final cut, there were still many, many anecdotes we didn’t have space to include.
How did the opportunity to do site-specific choreography in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood inform how OYSTERKNIFE chose to tell these stories for an audience?
We had to be extremely creative! Gabriele and I spent days wandering around the Haight, searching for the best sites to host our work. We tried to strike a balance between creative resonance, accessibility for our walking viewers, low technical needs (as we had no power sources), and best visuals in the changing light, since we began the show in August and performed through September when the sun sets earlier.
For example, we began in Buena Vista Park in part because Blackberri, the LGBTQ activist and singer, mentioned it as a whites-only cruising spot back in the 1960s and ‘70s, where men lit matches to attract potential lovers at night. The entrance to the park where our audience gathered had a series of stone steps that looked like the neighborhood stoops that writer Tobe Correal described as overflowing with Black kids like her playing in the Haight. Lastly, while we started the show in daylight during opening weekend, by mid to closing weekend, our section of the show started in darkness. This meant we could play with illuminated orbs purchased by our lighting designer, Grisel Torres, to create gorgeous, ghostly images of people dancing in the park, while visually referencing the matches described by Blackberri. Although this dance with the orbs was striking, ending in a song lamenting the “darker folks” who’d “filled these streets for miles/sittin’ on their stoop with child,” Blackberri’s story of segregated cruising that follows this song illustrated the racial tensions prevalent. Each site — from the anarchist bookstore sporting communist heroes who inspired young Danny Glover, to the empty storefronts at the Doolan-Larson Building, to the building itself — was chosen for its specific relevance to the stories featured in “Time of Change.”
You have recently returned to the Doolan-Larson Building as an SF Heritage artist-in-residence in June 2022, where you are completing a writing project based on the research you compiled while working on “Time of Change.” Tell us more about the project and why you think it is important to continue your work in the Haight. Why did you decide to choose writing as your medium?
I chose to write about the historic and cultural context of “Time of Change” because dramaturgy and writing are key parts of my creative practice. I write in every single creative project I do, either as research or as part of the finished product, so it feels natural to me to revisit this work through poetry, prose, and archival investigation. Specifically, I am writing about the recorded audio used in OYSTERKNIFE’s section of “Time of Change,” which describes the Black histories of the Haight. This writing may include short profiles of the interviewees, poetic musings, and (where permission is granted) excerpts of additional material we couldn’t fit in the show.
Part of my desire to do this writing comes from a sense of urgency and mortality: one of our interviewees, Blackberri, died at the end of last year, and we lost another beloved Bay-born collaborator, musician Monica Hastings-Smith, during the run of the show. Most of our surviving interviewees are elders with a wealth of untapped stories, and I am very aware of how little time we have left. I want to share their stories before it’s too late for me to ask them questions or ask for permission.
I also firmly believe that the research gathered during this show should be freely available as a matter of public record. These stories about the Black community of the Haight — before and after the hippies came — are crucial, little-known aspects of early Counterculture history. By writing about them, I hope to make this history accessible beyond just the show attendees. OYSTERKNIFE firmly believes in disrupting and revising the archives to reinsert more Black queer perspectives told on our terms, and I seek to honor our mission during my residency.
What is one thing that has surprised you about the interviews you have done or the material you’ve researched?
Before creating “Time of Change,” I had no idea that the Haight-Ashbury was a majority Black neighborhood, located at the edge of the historic Fillmore, once known as the “Harlem of the West.” I incorrectly assumed that the mostly white hippies we see in archival footage of the era were already reflected in the neighborhood. I also didn’t realize how much drug addiction, mental health, and youth homelessness were huge issues within the Counterculture movement, and that many pioneering public-health policies were started in the Haight to address them.
With so much research behind you and more to come, what is one thing that you think is important for people to know about the Haight and its history?
It’s important to know that the Haight was not just free love and gentle white kids with long hair. Yes, there was radical work happening here: progressive public-health policies, activism, arts, music, and more. But there was violence, darkness, and erasure happening alongside the more positive imagery that most know — and in fact the Summer of Love came at the cost of a majority Black community.
If you’re interested in following Chibueze’s work, visit her website and follow her on Instagram @carefreeblackauntie.