Signal and Noise
Language, for the playwright and performer Aleshea Harris, is medium and character at once. Her plays perform themselves visually on the page long before they reach the stage; dialogue leaps across margins, changing size and typeface the way a human voice might shift in volume or tone. As they reckon with racism and misogyny, centering Black characters and underrepresented geographies, the plays shine a light on what is often overlooked—about both people and the words by which they understand each other. In August, Harris spoke with her mentor, the poet and librettist Douglas Kearney, whose typographically experimental poetry collections have earned him honors from the Whiting Foundation and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. (Kearney was in Rondo, the neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he lives.) Their conversation touched on translating the ineffable, contending with anti-Blackness, and the complex realities of anger and vulnerability.
Douglas Kearney You and your work have been in spaces with varying degrees of support and varying degrees of resistance to what you were doing. Would you care to talk about how you’ve navigated some of that?
Aleshea Harris Sometimes I still feel bound by resistance, external or self-imposed, to what I want to do. For example, with Is God Is (2016), I had moved away from a reactive space and was really dancing in my Black radical imagination, if you will. And then, with the success of What to Send Up When It Goes Down (2018)—and this moment that we’re in, and the way that some folks are understanding anew what anti-Blackness is and how it is destructive—there’s a feeling that again I’ve been pushed into a reactive space. A space where, when people want to talk to me on a panel about What to Send Up…, it’s about anti-Blackness and about my anger around it.
Recently, I was working on a play that I had a tough time with. I was trying to do some of the things I had already done, I think successfully, in What to Send Up…. So it was like, “What else do you want to do, Aleshea? Where are you now in your journey, without the noise of white racist fuckery?” I ask myself continually, “Is it a betrayal to be like, ‘Forget that—I’m not talking about that?’” Is it a betrayal of my people? Of my purpose? But we don’t exist in a vacuum. So no matter what I do, that’s coming with me, right?
AH What allowed me to finish that play—literally a few days ago!—was a reminder that healing for me is in the subversion of that noise and that expectation placed on me by other folks that I’ve allowed into my head to wag their fingers at me. Anything I do—anything I do—is going to be resistance. I know my own stories. I know some of the stories in the collective. So I can gleefully in my psyche be like, “I know what the fuck y’all want, but this is what I’m doing.” That’s what I’ve landed at.
I felt such a healing in that. And it’s fun, artistically and aesthetically. It’s not the same old thing. But I think this question of whether or not to speak directly to the challenges of being in the minority must come up for all artists who belong to oppressed communities. Where are you with all of this?
DK I love that you launched this in a way that talked about your agency. I hear in what you’re saying both awareness and a resistance to repeating yourself without having a particular critical interest in that repetition. For you, I would see that as also being about a sort of safety. And for you—as anybody knows who’s followed your work or had a conversation with you—that kind of safety is deeply boring. If there is one thing that you are allergic to as much as white supremacy, it’s boredom. [Laughs.]
So, to answer the question you asked, “Where do I find myself in that space of responsibility?” there’s always for me that question of, “Does my work do enough?” I’m always grappling with that. Is it useful? And if it is, I wonder whether I am writing what I feel like writing. These often overlap for me, and I value that. That sense of serving the culture and doing whatever the fuck you want—whether it’s happening thematically or in terms of form or approach—is something I treasure. If I feel challenged by what I’m called to make, then pleasurably engaged while I’m composing it, and then, if I’m all: “Whoa, what is that?” afterwards—those might be indicators of truly feeling I did what I actually wanted to do.
AH Do you forget things you’ve written? Because I do all the time, and then I get so pumped for what past Aleshea was up to. I found something yesterday, a first draft of that piece I finished a few days ago, and I thought, “Bitch, you were killing it.” [Laughs.] Does that happen?
DK I keep journals and I also keep computer drafts and shit. About four or five months ago I was looking at old drafts, and I was like, “Damn, you’re just wild on this one.” It was from way back in the day when I was first thinking about The Black Automaton poems—from my second book, The Black Automaton (2009)—which then became these performative typographies in the work. It was this riff off the colonialism and racism in Indiana Jones movies, called “The Black Automaton versus The Temple of Doom.” Yeah, that shit was exciting as hell.
Anything you’d keep from your first draft? That you’d go back to?
AH I wrote it years ago, but it resonates so deeply in this moment when we’re dealing with COVID. It’s a piece that plays on small-town tropes in a place that has its own consuming dogma. There are these rules in the town that I found exciting. Like, if someone got a certain kind of cough they had to walk this long road that was essentially the road to their death. It was an exile imposed on anyone who had an illness or looked odd or got too old as far as the society was concerned.
So much of what I’m trying to talk about in this new play is the structures within the town that are repressive. In light of that, the road is so odd and discomfiting, which is my jam, and so true. I may go back in and retool that and see where it goes.
DK Talk about rich. The excitement of what could happen if the person who’s on that road encounters someone or doesn’t. Of course, it makes me think about how time works in your plays. Time is weather in your work. What does “rep and rev”—the idea of repetition and revision in theater that Suzan-Lori Parks developed from the blues and jazz—do to time? It transforms our relationship to time; if this is a compositional idea that’s rooted in Afro-diasporic cultural practice, then it goes back to what you were saying, which is, “When are you not in it?”
When I was working on the Sweet Land opera (2020), there were times where I felt, “Okay, this is not going to be a scene where a person goes, ‘Ah, this is a Black character. This is a Black story in those trope-ish ways.’” But that’s only one way of presencing Blackness in a work of art. If I write a libretto using Black-identified cultural techniques and compositional ideas, then there doesn’t have to be a single Black person walking across the environment. As we well know, you can have an entire cast full of Black people, and it can be the most anti-Black thing you’ve ever seen.
DK It’s extraordinarily important for you to make that present as a part of your practice. But it’s also important as an artist right now to remind people about the possibility of saturation of viewpoint, of outlook, that is specifically Aleshea Harris. It is specifically the fact that Aleshea Harris is a Black woman in the early twenty-first century interested in the tricky history of Black performance on- and off-stage. It’s the fuckery being examined a little bit more closely, maybe, and so again those two things—the public space of the cultural and the private space of the personal, here—are not contradictory. You can hold two things at the same time. That’s just reality.
AH Let’s talk about translating the dineffable, a term you use in the essay “Din,” from your book Mess and Mess and (2015). When I encountered that word in your essay, I was like, “Do I just not know this word? I know this word!” I’d love to know what it means to you.
DK Absolutely. The “Din” section of the book—which came out in 2015 from Noemi Press’s Infidel Poetics Series, published by Carmen Giménez Smith—is playing on this idea of din as being the suggestion of noise, loudness, but also spinning off into pun around the prefix “in-,” as in “not.” But it also spirals into all these negative ideas of “din,” like dinginess and all that. The dineffable—and I’ll just quote the essay here—is “a state in which something, often because of extremis or intensity, can only be described via signal that seems noise.” Something that was important in Mess and Mess and was the idea of this binary of noise and signal, noise being a kind of frequency without any real information, and signal being the opposite, this frequency that’s full of information. There’s babble and there’s the communication, the message. I was thinking about how much of Black shit people think is just noise—and how often, in our attempts to talk to people, we code-switch out of signal to something that is actually noisier to us. But I also think of the power of what it means to be able to make signal that seems like noise to other people. What it means to walk into a raucous house party, and you can read it. The danger of that of course is that if the wrong person walks into that house party and misreads it, they might call the police. So how do people who don’t know what the fuck’s going on try to read that situation? How does their imposition of signal versus noise or noise versus signal create a situation?
Dineffability in some ways is about when you and I—both of us people who produce texts—are writing in such a way that we are aware that some readers are going to see it as noise, and some readers are going to see it as signal. What does that mean for our writing? What does that mean when we’re writing something that we’re aware certain readers or audiences are just going to say, “Oh, okay, this is the part where I can tune out. This is a break.” Whereas for us, it might be the most important part. And even when they do understand it as signal, its proximity to noise might make them misread it.
Have you ever listened to the Roots album Rising Down (2008)?
AH I don’t know that album.
DK The first track on it, “The Pow Wow,” is this recording of a phone conversation between Questlove, Black Thought, and A. J. Shine, an early manager. They’re arguing, and I think it’s Black Thought who gets super heated-sounding. He’s, like, screaming on the phone. Now if you hear it and you are inclined to put noise on any moment of Black elevated and mood, you might just hear anger. But if you heard this thing right now, it would break your heart because he sounds so scared. This is a person who has been dreaming for so long, and right now he thinks it might get taken away from him. He’s talking to some of his biggest confidants and partners in this process and going, “How did you all let this get here? How did we get here?”
That’s the first thing on the album. To me, I feel like at some level they put that on there to be dineffable. It’s on there to say, “Some of you are not going to hear this.” Or: “You’re only going to hear this one thing. But we’re trying to tell you something.” In that way, maybe it’s the opposite of a dog whistle. ’Cause a dog whistle says, “We ain’t saying nothing.” There’s an alibi in that. But dineffability says, “We said it. We just knew you wouldn’t be paying attention. We knew that you were predisposed to not believe that we would feel this way, that you would think we’d just be talking loud and ain’t saying nothing. But we said it.”
AH I am grateful for all of that. It made me think about how I have sometimes used a broad stroke of anger to talk about what propels my work, and I wonder if that’s an erasure of nuances within it—if I myself am not thinking with complexity about what I’m doing. When I use the word anger, and the emotion of anger, it feels protective. This is something that I am growing and will continue to grow out of, artistically and personally. I wonder if there’s something about the way that I’m like, “Yeah, I’m angry about misogynoir and that’s why Is God Is is what it is, and that’s why What to Send Up… is what it is: anger about anti-Blackness.” But if my anger is for white people or for non-Black folks, what do I have for my folks?
I think what I have to offer my folks that’s more useful than my anger—because I don’t feel fed by other Black folks’ anger, necessarily—is vulnerability. That’s the signal as you speak of it, the signal that says, “I’ve experienced something similar in academia, in this space or that space. Come and be with me around that thing.” It feels more community-minded and more nurturing to myself and anyone who experiences my work. If there weren’t pain—if I didn’t feel like I wasn’t safe and I needed to grab hold of a life raft—I wouldn’t make the work. Just being brave enough to acknowledge that feels important. And to not reduce my work—which is a lot of signal that’s very deeply considered—to what people will do with the word anger as attached to work by a Black woman.
DK I want to testify to the fact that I’ve never heard Aleshea Harris anywhere say that the only reason she wrote something was because she was angry. I’ve heard you say anger has helped you keep writing. I’ve heard you say anger has helped you make artistic decisions that you might have slacked off of. So I want to first and foremost amplify what you’ve said in other spaces: anger that incites something has to be understood as different from anger as a theme.
This doesn’t mean that anger won’t appear in the writing. You could be angry that a play with love as its core theme has to exist in a world where that love will inevitably be read as resistance to whiteness. But there’s a difference between saying, “Every time I do something, it is a ritual in which I’m engaged with Black culture, Blackness, and all of these constructions,” and saying, “And therefore that ritual is a tool of resistance.”
Your work also investigates what happens when characters explore anger onstage in different ways. Is God Is and What to Send Up… have very different modes of thinking through anger. Anger as protection, on the one hand, and yet also anger as the potential, as we see in Is God Is, for self-immolation. It’s interesting to think about anger within the ecosystem of an Aleshea Harris play: anger that is not tied to a sense of justice. Anger outside of justice.
AH Anger outside of justice. That’s really provoking. How much of your typographical exploration is about trying to translate the ineffable or the dineffable?
DK The major development in my typographical work right now is how not to be a body in front of people reading these poems. I’ve recently started talking about the three different kinds of software I use to make poems; there are Microsoft Word poems, InDesign poems, and Photoshop poems. The recent poems have tended to be Photoshop poems—poems that I have no intention of ever reading in front of people. Part of that is that I am critical of violence against Black people being combined or conflated with spectacle. I use my poetry frequently as a way of articulating that critique. And yet I can perform these poems with as much spectacle as possible. Now this is a huge part of the African American aesthetic tradition: many of us have used our art to present violence against ourselves, our kin, our kith, our neighbors. But I began to feel a way about doing a poem about James Byrd, Jr. being dragged behind a pickup truck and then either hearing applause when it was done or getting myself into a position to do a Q&A and having to shift modes. I wanted to create work where I literally couldn’t do the poems any kind of justice by performing them in front of people.
Page from Douglas Kearney, Over Deluxe AF, 2018.
I found that people read the work, especially the more typographically driven stuff, collectively. Four to five people in a classroom will read it together, and that’s the dopest thing in the world to me. My question for you is: As a playwright, when you are doing your work with performative typography and you’re aware that people are going to read this out loud, but that it isn’t going to be you, and you aren’t going to be directing it—how does that influence some of your decisions? How do you feel about the interpretations that actors are going to make?
AH It can be tricky when I’m actually in the room for the first time with folks trying to find a way into this typography. It’s important to say to collaborators that I have an idea of how something might be performed, but I really don’t know what seeing this language laid out in this way on the page will do to your voice and your body. It’s a true experiment. Years ago, I would try to give a workshop like, “This is what this means.” But you know what, it’s so intuitive on my end that I don’t always know! It’s like I’m trying to be smarter than my intuition, which is absurd. Part of the adventure and an important part of the process is seeing actors take the leap. I don’t expect that it’s to everyone’s taste; to some actors, it may be, “Why is she messing up? We have this way of doing things; why is she just throwing in these speed bumps? Is she trying to be cool or avant-garde or what-have-you?” But for the most part, at least to my face, actors seem shaken up and excited to encounter something different.
I’m interested in moving beyond anything that feels like a boundary. When I sit down to write—and not just as a Black woman, I should say, but as a writer, a person who lives in LA, all of the conditions of my life as a human being—I sit down and I’m wanting to be expansive and use every tool at my disposal to transmit something to a reader. With Is God Is, for example, when a character is burned alive—sorry, spoiler—I tried to imitate, though I’ve never experienced it, what it means to have the skin crackle away from bone. To try to transmit that by way of indicating the sonic experience, through what the actor says. But also visually, with the letter S repeated to look like fire, like flame. I understand that I will always fail, that I will always fall short of that thing, but I want to get as close as possible. And I’m fine with leaving space for the imagination of the reader or the collaborator.
I also use typography to indicate to readers and collaborators that this isn’t realism, because I’ve encountered with my work a lot of folks who want to quickly box it in and try and make it a mirror of the world as we understand it instead of allowing it to be a dreamscape, a space of metaphor and the surreal. The language doesn’t play by certain rules. If the content doesn’t get them there, and the poetry of it doesn’t get them there, then maybe there’s something about the visual of the letter S twenty times in a row that tells them, “Don’t try to make this a realistic play.”
Excerpt from Aleshea Harris, Is God Is, 2017.
DK It’s not a docudrama. It’s not based on a true story, precisely. It’s extraordinarily stylized in ways that are not about the ways people talk but are keyed into a different relationship to speech. Another way of thinking about it is like the space of ritual. What do we do to put ourselves in a particular space, to get ourselves ready? Your actors are going through your acts; they’re people you have to put through this process of saying, “This is my imagination.” Can you describe what it feels like to move with somebody through their process of wading into the lake that is your imagination? How does that feel to you?
AH It’s a bit overwhelming because to root through a play for years and then to turn back and look at that play and at the time it took me to write it—that’s a huge task. I might not remember exactly how I got here. But this body, this spirit of mine experienced all of that. She went through those tens of thousands of decisions that it took to arrive at this play. For anyone to ask me how I got there (which is a question people want to ask: “What was the journey to this play?”), there’s no way I could tell the truth. So I’m first of all trying to summarize what’s most useful to the collaborators as they endeavor on their own journey.
I also understand that I am not smarter than my collaborators. There are things I believe in and things I feel strongly about, but I always want to leave room for the genius of the person who picks it up. Now the flipside of that is that they could think something I’m strongly opposed to or that doesn’t feel right. But there have been so many moments of beauty because another person comes in and looks at the work and says, “This is doing this.” And I hadn’t thought deeply about that.
It can be hard, too, to feel the sadness of my work. First reads can be particularly brutal. To see someone else ingest Is God Is or What to Send Up…, and just these movements of emotion that remind people of a thing they’ve experienced. Particularly with What to Send Up…: that piece calls for folks to remember, to sort of unzip themselves. I think all of my work does, and I’m intentional about that. But what I don’t want to do is exploit someone else’s pain. I don’t want to have them unzip their trauma, have it walk around the table at the reading, and then have them leave this space feeling exposed and retraumatized. All of my characters these days are Black. I’m dealing with human beings who are actors, who are vulnerable in particular ways. I’m dealing with heart-centered folk, which you kind of have to be in the theater. So I have to do a lot of interrogation and a lot of close watching in a reading. There are so many stories inside the person who is weeping as they embody a character. They’re being exposed. I just want to make sure people are okay.
DK You are very alert to what your plays demand of your actors. You’ve said directing was not something that you necessarily set out to do. But I’ve always had that sense when you talk about actors doing your plays that your hand is there in a way that’s different from other playwrights’. I guess my question is: Is my sense of how you talk about actors’ relationships to your play, is it fairly typical? Or am I right in thinking that that is not generally the way playwrights talk about actors responding to their plays?
AH I don’t know. I know that I’m a stage mama for my plays. I’m walking in with an energy that I hope isn’t destructive, that still allows for space from a director. I understand that the dynamics in a room depend on the room, depend on the artist. It’s like a romantic relationship. It’s like any relationship: “What can you fuck with? What are you like?”
I remember hearing a playwright say that there’s a director they work with who has them read the entire play on the first day to the cast so that the cast can hear it from their body, in their voice. And I would not be mad, Doug. I would not be mad if a director wanted me to do that. That’s because I love the voices so much and I also want to put myself through the challenge of embodying them. I would likely fall short of any actor who had been hired to play it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s as it should be. I do want to play in these universes I create, but I recognize that they can be more effectively presented if I am just the playwright. I know that there are writers who will write a piece for twenty bodies in which they are playing the lead, for example. I do not see myself ever doing that—because I’m too concerned about what I will miss. I just want a bird’s-eye view, especially in these pieces where there are so many bodies.
DK Finding that space between protecting and collaborating is complicated. You said something just now about wanting to be in the universes of these plays, which might strike some as, “But these universes are so fraught!” But there’s a tenderness in that. It’s important to keep in mind that even in Is God Is, tenderness is so present. Not even just the tenderness and affection for the characters, but for being in that world, the world of the play, even though there’s something harrowing about it at the same time.
It goes back to that thing we talked about early on: What are the spaces for your imagination? What are the spaces for imagination in general, especially as Black people, Black artists, to create places where worlds can be built, not as alternatives to, but first as worlds? And what does it mean to create a world that might be a world of trouble and danger and still be, “Yeah, I want to be in this world.” Not as an escape, not as a resistance. Even in something as brutal as Is God Is, there’s joy—the joy of its very creation. The joy of what you are able to do, that you’ve been called to do it, that you are able to do it. Or else why would anybody go through what it takes to possibly make the world of a play?
What’s important is that the work you are doing retains these layers of generosity. Generosity can be a prickly word to say when you’re talking about being an artist, because it can sound self-aggrandizing. It can sound like a person is saying, “I gave this to you. You should be grateful.” That’s not it at all. It’s a reciprocal relationship. It is generous of the artist to say, “I will perform this.” It is generous of the audience to come and be attentive and respond. You are willing to allow your vulnerability to be present because to not allow it to be present would be to start telling us lies, the wrong kind of lies. The desire to keep experimenting is about being generous with yourself for your capacity to possibly fail, to be willing to allow the people involved to take it where they’re going to take it. Again, this is not generosity in the sense of largesse, of tossing out pennies and crumbs. This is about participating in a space in which you give something of yourself and keep giving beyond what might be necessary for the occasion.
So for me, I just want to reciprocate by always reminding you that whatever strikes you as something worthy of your attention, something that you are interested in, it demands no justification beyond the fact that you’re interested in it. Aleshea Harris, what you want to write about is enough.
AH Thank you for that word, Doug. I deeply appreciate it.
DK I appreciate you. What I am proud of is how hard you worked to do this the way that made sense to you. I am proud of you because you write what you need to write, and if you don’t do it every time, every time, every time you write, you are trying to get closer to it. And this is not a world that necessarily rewards that.
AH No. [Laughs.] No, it is not.
This conversation appears in the Winter 2020 print issue of The Yale Review. Purchase a downloadable version of the issue at the low rate of just $5, and get writing by and conversations with Anne Boyer, Julia Cho, Samuel R. Delany, Aleshea Harris, Bhanu Kapil, Yiyun Li, Jonah Mixon-Webster, Namwali Serpell, and Maria Tumarkin.
Aleshea Harris’s Is God Is won the Relentless Award, an Obie award, and the Helen Merrill Playwriting Award. What to Send Up… was featured in American Theatre Magazine and won a Special Commendation from the 2020 Blackburn Prize.
Douglas Kearney’s six collections include Buck Studies, winner of the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Award. His newest collection, Sho, is forthcoming. His operas include Sucktion, Sweet Land, and next year’s Comet / Poppea. He lives in St. Paul with his family.
Images: photo of Aleshea Harris by Reginald Eldridge Jr.; photo of Douglas Kearney.