Playwright Celeste Jennings remembers surreptitiously listening to family and elders talking, telling stories, and she so much wanted to be included.
“Through that kind of eavesdropping, I learned so much about my relatives they didn’t necessarily tell me to my face, especially as a child, and there were a few particular stories that always stuck with me,” Jennings said. “As I got into writing, my immediate impulse was to dramatize them into plays. I was so excited to talk to them and ask them more questions, to get the full story and finally get what I consider to be a beautiful interpretation of my family history up on stage.”
But Jennings quickly found her family didn’t necessarily want to see themselves up on stage, nor their ancestors’ personal secrets being aired publicly.
“I then shifted the kind of story to explore this really beautiful connection we have to our elders and to our ancestors that we don’t even know that we are a part of,” she said. “I just got really excited about exploring what community means, what a bloodline means and how it’s so much better than just being related to somebody else — especially being a descendant of enslaved people.”
Northern Stage will present the world premiere of Jennings’ “’Bov Water” Jan. 25-Feb. 12 at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. The Upper Valley professional theater won a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support the development of the production.
“’Bov Water,” written by the 2018 Dartmouth graduate and author of Northern Stage’s acclaimed 2020 production of “Citrus,” focuses on four generations of Black women as they travel through American history from the Civil War to the 1960s to modern-day America. Throughout the play, or “choreopoem” as Jennings calls it,” three African American actresses play various women, everyday people, loosely moving through time, resulting in a portrait of a family as it faces a changing world for Black people. It’s touching, very funny and deeply moving.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about collage when I think of ‘’Bov Water,’” explains director abigail jean-baptiste (the director prefers the lower case for her name). “And when when we work through and rehearse this play, the ways that the past, present and future sort of overlap and overlay, and are in constant conversation with each other, influencing each other, building meaning from each other as we try to navigate through all of them, and the pile up of different timelines and different periods, of the world before us and the world after us that we are existing in, is sort of informing who we are and how we operate in the world. That’s sort of top of mind for me.”
Jennings started writing “’Bov Water” immediately after she wrote “Citrus,” her choreopoem about Black American women.
“In the process of going back to my family members and asking them to recount (their) stories, I quickly realized that it actually was causing a lot of harm, particularly for traumatic stories,” Jennings said. “I learned this huge lesson that I’m not entitled to all the deep history that I’m part of. But just because I don’t know what those stories are doesn’t mean those stories aren’t a part of me. And I think they still exist in my very soul and being and bloodline.”
As parts of Black American lineage simply aren’t available, Jennings started out simply, like discovering the names of her great-great-great-great grandparents.
“But in doing this work and learning all these really good lessons, really just shaping my pride in connection to my family history, and communities and cultures, all the above,” she said, “I have been so grateful to understand that we all are part of unimaginable rebellions and parties and celebrations. There’s just so much we will never know we’re connected to, but it doesn’t mean we can’t (celebrate it).”
It’s the unique structure of “’Bov Water,” in which stories constantly overlap, that makes the stories intriguing, but creating it was a big challenge.
“I’m a very early career playwright — I just got into theater in this discipline,” Jennings said. “But my challenge with ‘’Bov Water’ was to write a play that incorporated more dialogue, as opposed to ‘Citrus,’ which really is 21 poems.”
Jennings said she still feels more like a poet than a playwright.
“When I think about plot and the story I’m trying to tell, writing a poem comes to me much more innately or instinctually than writing a story that’s only created of dialogic characters,” she said.
Still, “‘Bov Water” is a linear story in that it goes chronologically in one direction.
When jean-baptiste reads the play, she said she thinks of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.
“She has an essay about structure where she has her plays being repetition and revision, and the structure of jazz, where you can pick up a theme and it comes back and changed,” jean-baptiste said. “I feel like that when some of the lines repeat.”
Interestingly — and authentically — the characters’ dialects change through time
“I found a lot of joy in just writing how I talk, how I grew up talking and how my family talks, so I think I always encourage myself to start like that — it’s my baseline,” Jennings said.
Jennings also referred to a book. “Letters from Black America,” edited by Pamela Newkirk.
“I had it when I was working on ‘Citrus’ too,” Jennings said. “They’ve collected all these hand-written letters specifically from Black people generally to other Black people from the 19th century until about the ’80s. They’re incredible.
“I have loved reading it over and over again because you can really pick up on how people actually addressed one another, and how they talk to one another, and it is very different than the text messages today, really, really lovely,” she said. “I base most of my language on some of that ‘Letters’ from the early, early time period.”
“I feel like a lot of your writing is orally-sourced, like watching you do rewrites in the (rehearsal) room, like it comes from the speech first, and then getting that down to paper,” jean-baptiste said. “That process has been really incredible, because you’re thinking how it sounds, and how it feels in the mouth before like how it’s supposed to look grammatically on the page. So that’s also what you’re seeing on the page. You’re seeing a capturing, or a snapshot of how it sounds.”
For jean-baptiste, staging was started with its physical world.
“And then, once we had our actors building that continuous journey through the stuff with our language, it sort of came organically,” she said. “I don’t even want to end the play. It’s so circular and ongoing, I’ve avoided using the word ‘arrive’ in rehearsal.”
jim.lowe @timesargus.com / jim.lowe @rutlandherald.com