Talking about what it means to be human with Amina Henry

When I heard that Amina Henry was starting her own theater company I was thrilled. I’ve been a fan of her work since actress Cate Bottiglione brought her in to work on the Sticky series, with her play Bride at Midnight in 2011. Her play An American Family Takes a Lover, at Theatre for the New City last year, is on my top ten performances of all time list, and at present, I can’t even remember the other nine.

Amina’s got an indiegogo campaign going for her new project– Hunter John and Jane— with her new theater company– The Table— so I thought we should talk about it.

li88y
Why did you decide to start a theater company? We’ve talked about playwright as producer before, and how essential it is for playwrights to be their own advocates. What made you take the leap?

Amina
I decided that I had to take the leap because I want to be able to control my own growth as an artist, at least to some degree. I’m inspired people like Young Jean Lee, Kristina Satter, YOU – it’s so important to be able to advocate for your own growth. I don’t want to always be in the position of pitching to others to let me work – I just want to work. Also, I’ve found, and am confident that I will continue to find, artists who I truly love collaborating with and I love looking for ways for us to be in rooms together.

li88y
The premise of Hunter John and Jane is really compelling. I’m particularly drawn in by some of the questions the play asks: “… how can humans remain connected to what it means to be human? What does it mean to be human? How can we continue to see value in human life?” This is what plays should be talking about.

Amina
Yes, I agree, we should all be talking about what it means to be human. I got the idea for the play after watching hours and hours of the Investigation Discovery channel and trying to process how horrible people can be to each other. But then too, people are capable of such tenderness, we have so many feelings, we’re so vulnerable. Witnessing all of the protests against social injustice going on right now is really amazing.

li88y
It is amazing. And so important I think for people to have an outlet for this righteous anger. What’s going on with police brutality erupting into the mainstream consciousness has almost no adjectives– it’s just so necessary. I remember the first time I became aware of police brutality: I was told that it exists and mentally, emotionally, I couldn’t handle it. My first reaction was to shut it down. My second reaction was to join the protest movements of the late 1990’s– Mumia, gay rights– and the anti-war protests in 2003. When did you first become aware of police violence, police violence against black people?

Amina
Well, I’m a black person so I think even from a very young age I was aware of a certain tension between black people and the LAW. Rodney King was a wake up call for me. On a more personal level, I became deeply aware of institutional racism when I was around 23 and began to volunteer for a prison enrichment program which I was active with for about ten years. I’ll never forget walking into Sing Sing prison and being greeted by black men everywhere; I went home that night and cried. It’s very stark and I don’t really have the words to describe it.

li88y
So Jane looking for her bones in a play that asks how humans can remain connected to what it means to be human, a word the very root of which means to bury (humando, Greek, I think). Do you think that an essential part of humanity is linked to burying? Is about the physical self and mortality?

Amina
I think that an essential part of human nature is ritual and burying, to me, is a ritualistic act. Most rituals have to do with birth, life, death, time, love, spirituality – a reaching for something beyond the physical through the physical. I mean, I think.

li88y
That’s so beautiful. I think of theater as being akin to the original humans, telling tales of the hunt around a fire. Ritual, rights of passage, are so much a part of growing up human. Was there a right of passage, or a ritual, as part of your growing up that represented the transition from childhood to adulthood?

Amina
In an odd way, I think most of my rituals, or the rituals that I remember, had to do with becoming a woman and what that seemed to mean in my family. Learning how to cook. Looking after my brother. Doing the dishes. Cleaning the house. Mundane care taking in its various forms. Then there’s the whole GROOMING thing that seemed to signal a shift from childhood to womanhood – shaving and whatnot.

li88y
There’s this idea that the human brain is a collection of chemicals and electric impulses, and that as such, we will reach a point where people can download their consciousness into giant servers and live on forever, perhaps in some kind of simulation of physical life, or as an omniscient, disembodied, consciousness. Do you think those consciousnesses, formerly housed in physical bodies, could be considered human? Do you think the definition of human can evolve, just as the beings themselves have, or do you think it’s a fixed definition?

Amina
What an interesting question! Yes, I think that the definition of human can evolve because it HAS evolved. I think the word “human” has as many definitions as there are people in the world, it’s that complicated.

li88y
We spend so much time trying to categorize every aspect of the natural world, the man-made world, and of human experience, trying to define “normal” experience, “normal” reactions. What would happen if we stopped trying to label everything?

Amina
I don’t know what would happen. I’d be interested to find out. I’m a compulsive “labeller”. It’s funny, though. I’m not sure that I could give a meaningful definition of “normal”; the word “normal” is itself, on its own, strange. Normal in relationship to what? To whom? To where?

Here’s what Amina Henry’s got coming up:

HUNTER JOHN AND JANE workshop reading
Directed by Benjamin Kamine
The Brick
January 2-3, 2015, 7 pm

DUCKLINGS Reading
Directed by Christopher Burris
National Black Theater
Monday, January 12, 2015

Brandon Jones and John Hume in Amina Henry's Bride at Midnight, directed by Barrie Gelles. Presented at Sticky at Bowery Poetry Club, 2011.

Brandon Jones and John Hume in Amina Henry’s Bride at Midnight, directed by Barrie Gelles. Presented at Sticky at Bowery Poetry Club, 2011. Photo by K.L. Thomas

Amina Henry.

Amina Henry.

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