3 Things I Learned About Making Art from James Ijames’s White

Covid-19 has taken a lot of things from us. Like the ability to breathe without a piece of cloth in front of our faces. And the chance to meet up with a group of friends without strategic planning. And the opportunity to head to school and be bored in a classroom rather than be bored in front of the computer at home. And even hugs. I miss hugs.

Early on, Covid-19 took some big things from me, artistically speaking. In March, when the “hit” came, I was writing a play set to go up this Christmas. Between the chaos of suddenly having everyone in my household suddenly always being, well, in my household and the stress of the disease lurking around, my play suddenly didn’t feel relevant. So, I spoke to my theatre ensemble and begged off. And the production was cancelled. At the same time, another production was tabled and two more were postponed until later this year.

And tomorrow, one of the postponed plays, White by James Ijames, will open virtually at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

After months of strategizing, months of emotional turmoil, months of tears and sweat and stress, a recorded version will be released.

White is about Gus, an artist who wants his work to be included in an upcoming exhibition put together by Jane, his museum curator friend. However, Jane informs him he’s “the exact opposite of what I’m looking for…No white dudes.” Gus refuses to take no for an answer and hires a Black actress, Vanessa, to present his work as the work of a Black artist they name and create together, “Balkonaé.” Everything seems to be working, until the character of Balkonaé takes over and takes matters into her own hands…. It’s hilarious, and relevant, and magical.

So, what did I learn about making art from White?

1.Art finds a way. The production team and cast that put together White worked for months to figure out how to deliver this story to the public. There were discussions with the playwright, the publishing company, SET, and all the artists to figure out a way to tell this story safely. More than once the question of cancelling came up. But this story was too important and too relevant to let slip away.

So, resources were scrambled. Rehearsal and production schedules were extended – the process started in March and it opens tomorrow. You can do the math.

But I think the real reason this play has come together is because the artists involved understand that art is important. They showed me that, if you believe enough and are determined enough, you can make it happen. Art finds a way.

2. Art is work and it won’t be rushed. A completed piece, whether a book, or a play, or a painting, just doesn’t magically happen. Thousands of hours of effort go into everything you’ve ever read, watched, or observed. Even the shittiest cartoon you watched as a toddler is the result of massive amounts of work.

I’ve always known this. And, as I’ve worked on my own projects during these quarantimes, I’ve often thought I should be finished sooner, producing faster. In essence, I’ve thought that I should be done with the work. But to do a piece well, whether it’s a story or a play or a painting, you have to spend time with it. It’s not an assembly line.

White is a play and Springs Ensemble Theatre is very good at producing plays (if I do say so myself). But every play presents its own challenges, right? The regular formula – rehearse, tech, open – did not apply here. Everything about the pattern was thrown off. So artists had to spend time, effort, and work with that project, get to know its challenges and overcome them. To do it right, it couldn’t be rushed.  

3. Art should push the artist. Anything you create should be a learning experience. I’m not going to single any one person on this creative team out, because every last one of them pushed hard in this play. Whether it was presenting a point of view different from their own, whether it was an emotional exploration of their own feelings about race, art, and representation, whether it was making sure the environment itself was safe for people to create, the cast and crew of this production pushed themselves. As a result, I think anything any of them create in the future will be richer because they’ve pushed themselves – which is uncomfortable, hard, and ultimately strengthening.

And, the good news is, no matter where you are in the world, you can by a ticket and access this play anytime between September 24 at 7:30pm MT to October 11 at 11:55pm. https://springsensembletheatre.org/show/ After that, like sandcastles and dandelion wishes, it’s gone.

2 Comments on “3 Things I Learned About Making Art from James Ijames’s White

  1. Thank you, Jenny!! I loved the “art” that was created for WHITE. Dante’s power point for the top of the show, for example, required him to think and represent what all these white male artists made that got them into The Parnell in the first place. Michael’s Gus paintings, Dana’s Gus “madness” painting… and then the inclusion of all the actual art created by local artists! I learned a lot!

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