Jillian Walker's THE WHITNEY ALBUM Comes to Soho Rep This Month

Performances run May 24 - July 2.

By: May. 15, 2023
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Jillian Walker's THE WHITNEY ALBUM Comes to Soho Rep This Month

Soho Rep presents the world premiere of multidisciplinary theater-maker, musician, and composer Jillian Walker's The Whitney Album. Walker's ritual performance flows between incantation, love lecture, scene, and song as it considers the labor of performance itself and honors the legacy of Whitney Houston and so many other Black women beloved, and consumed, for their art. The Whitney Album concludes a 2022-23 Soho Rep season consisting entirely of works commissioned by the organization, and takes place May 24 - July 2. The production opens on Tuesday, June 6.

The Whitney Album follows Walker's 2019 work SKiNFoLK: An American Show, a sweeping concert/play co-produced by the National Black Theater and the Bushwick Starr that retold Walker's family history and explored her "identity, heritage and legacy as a Black woman in this America." In a Critic's Pick review for The New York Times, Jose Solís called SKiNFoLK "transcendent," writing that the work retold "Walker's family history-and by extension, the history of America-in the hopes of reclaiming the joys of blackness in all its complexity," and noting that "Walker layers dialogue and songs so that the two engage in a multipurpose dance, filled with both conviction and questioning."

In The Whitney Album, Walker continues to invite audiences into collective imagining with the interplay of words sung and spoken. Perceptions of Whitney Houston, a woman made an icon and a symbol, become a portal into a reexamination of perceptions of performance-a call to transcend false and consumptive distinctions between audience and performer, reality and performance.

As Walker incants in the piece:

So i have qualms about how performance is treated in our culture as unnatural

As some put on

A heightened state? Sure

But unnatural?

Undone-or an undoing yes.

But not unnatural.

Not inauthentic.

Throughout the performance, Walker unpacks our culture's relationship to the woman nicknamed "The Voice": a name at once deifying and dehumanizing. She says, "I began this work in part thinking through my own relationship to Whitney Houston, but it has expanded from the 'I' into the 'we.' I entered this piece through the exit wounds: I felt wounded by perceptions of her and even the name 'The Voice,' as somebody who's also a performer and Black woman. But the writing for me has evolved beyond this, beyond the shadow aspect of these perceptions. Her voice is something that is a spiritual experience for so many of us. So what does it mean to hold both of those things, and how do you speak to both of those things in one work? And how does the 'I' become the collective, and how is Whitney Houston herself an example of many?"

Walker recently stepped into Sangoma priesthood, and here also collaborates with Nia Witherspoon, who has guided the production as its Process Priestess, creating what Walker describes as a "collaboration with spirit itself - the unseen energy that exists between bodies in performance, audience members and between breaths." Together Witherspoon and Walker are reconnecting the theatrical process and form it to its ancient ritual, medicinal, healing, and communal purposes.

Walker says, "How do we ethically and radically bring forward and center the Spiritual labor that has always been present in art-making as Black women? And how do we honor it as such without hiding it and calling it another name? There are constant revelations in the [rehearsal] room about how spiritual work is also intimacy work. Nia has also been crucial in helping us build intimacy with ourselves, one another, Whitney, this work, and our spiritual locations as we navigate these big and vital questions."

The Whitney Album's cast features Portia (STEW, To Kill A Mockingbird), Jillian Walker (SKiNFoLK: An American Show), Stephanie Weeks (The Coast Starlight, Mourning Becomes Electra), and Ben Jalosa Williams (Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge, Pathetic). The creative team includes Set Designer Peiyi Wong (Weightless, A Delicate Balance), Costume Designer Jojo Siu (North, Caucasian Chalk Circle), Lighting Designer Oona Curley (Dark Disabled Stories, The Appointment), Sound Designer Ben Jalosa Williams (The Terrifying, Gatz), Wig Designer Earon Nealey (Fat Ham, Chicken & Biscuits), Dramaturg/Archivist abigail jean-baptiste ('Bov Water, the salt women), and Process Priestess Nia Witherspoon (Messiah, The Dark Girl Chronicles). shiku thuo is the Production Stage Manager.

The Whitney Album continues an ongoing relationship between Soho Rep and Jillian Walker, who was one of eight artists in the inaugural, 2020-21 cohort of Soho Rep's Project Number One, through which the organization gives theater-makers staff positions, with salaries and benefits. During that time, Walker developed The Orange Essays, which she presented on Instagram Live in the summer of 2021 and can be heard here. If the lyrical essays in that work theoretically explored, as poet Eunsong Kim writes, how "Form & Content, Form & Power are inseparable," The Whitney Album puts that notion into practice as it morphs between lecture, song, and scene.

Along with Jenny Koons, Portia, Weeks, and Williams, and the team of designers, Walker has created a work that-paralleling its symbolic through-lines of water and sweat-will be fluid in response to the audience each night.

Jillian Walker :: Gogo Yemah is a multidimensional artist (composer, playwright, performer, vocalist, dramaturg), diviner, healer, teacher, and Sangoma Priestess. She serves the larger mission to awaken the creative x ancestral spirit of humanity for the liberation of All.

With her spiritual practice as the central portal, she has created and supported over a decade of art in the fields of theater and performance, music, film, television, as well as throughout the academy, in healing spaces, women's circles, prisons, places of worship, and sacred spaces at and across the oceans.

Jillian :: Gogo comes from a lineage of teachers, healers and community builders and is rooted in her midwestern US upbringing, followed from the red-dirt-South of great-great and 3rd great grandparents, and the ancient ancestors of Southern Africa who called her to initiate and reclaim the medicines and Songs of her people.

She blesses the honor of her lineages through performance and practice. Her most acclaimed work, SKiNFoLK: An American Show (The Bushwick Starr/National Black Theatre: NY Times Critics Pick, Kilroys List, Lilly Award) is forthcoming from 53rd State Press. Her other plays and projects have received numerous honors and include Songs of Speculation (JACK, 2020 Third Coast Audio Unbound Award) and Sarah's Salt.(Winner Columbia@Roundabout, Bay Area Playwrights Festival Finalist, Relentless Award honorable mention).

One of Jillian :: Gogo's favorite descriptions of her onstage work comes from Poet and Prophet Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who described her Joe's Pub concert, Blue Ink, as "Transformational, Black feminist, ancestral-portal-opening, love-centered musical work."

With her multifaceted training and education in traditional academic spaces (BA: The University of Michigan, MFA: Columbia University) and ancient afro-indigenous traditions (Chief teachers, Makhosi Himi Gogo Thule Ngane, Queen Baba Solstice Kha Ekhaya Esima, Makhosi Foundation), Jillian :: Gogo holds a unique combination of intellectual curiosity, spiritual rigor and an incredible capacity for deep listening and collaboration with people, built and natural worlds, time/space, Ancestors and all of the unseen.

Some of Jillian :: Gogo's favorite collaborations include: writing/performing and serving as Process Director with The TEAM (Reconstructing), creating Move, Meditate, Make with Libby King, working as a setlist dramaturg on Common's Let Love tour, serving as dramaturg of divinity on the second season of Terence Nance's Random Acts of Flyness (HBO), holding prompt-based performance classes with the students at The University of Washington and Harvard, holding circle with the women in Nisha Moodley's Soul of Leadership, and sitting in prayer, song and healing space with her spiritual family at the Makhosi Foundation.

BLK GRK (or, hiding in plain sight), a multiversal, poetic exploration of the history of Black Greek Letter Organizations, is a deep upcoming collaboration with co-conceivers, Rachel Chavkin and Eric Berryman, and has expanded Jillian into its screenwriter, composer and star, alongside Eric Berryman.

Her onstage script(ure), The Whitney Album, starts performances at Soho Rep in New York City in May 2023.

From a heartspace that flows out of The Love of the Ancestors, she incites and inspires sublime new forms of art, structures, and communal systems that break the brutal boundaries of the colonial imagination.

Connect with Jillian :: Gogo and her practice as an artistic and ancestral healer, here.

Jenny Koons is a director and organizer. Projects: Regretfully, So the Birds Are (Playwrights Horizons / WP Theater), Oedipus (Deaf West Theatre), Head Over Heels (Pasadena Playhouse with Sam Pinkleton), Hurricane Diane (Huntington Theatre), Now Becomes Then (Actors Theatre of Louisville), Men on Boats (Baltimore Center Stage), Speechless (New Blue Man Group North American Tour), The Tempest (The Juilliard School), Between Us: The Deck of Cards (Denver Center for the Performing Arts), A Midsummer Night's Dream (The Public Theater Mobile Unit), Burn All Night (American Repertory Theatre), Theatre for One: In This Moment (Pershing Square Signature Center), Gimme Shelter (Why Not Theatre, Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games commission), Theatre for One: I'm Not the Stranger You Think I Am (Arts Brookfield), A Sucker Emcee (National Black Theatre, LAByrinth Theater Company, SPKRBOX Festival, Norway), Queen of the Night (Diamond Horseshoe Nightclub, Drama Desk Award), The Odyssey Project 2012 (site-specific NYC). Koons was a 2021 Vision Resident at Ars Nova and has developed new work at Steppenwolf, Roundabout, and New Black Fest, among others. She was the 2017 curator of New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center Lobby Project, co-curator of the 2016 Toronto ThisGen Conference, and co-founder of Artists 4 Change NYC (National Black Theatre). She is a Lilly Award recipient and proud member of the SDC.

About the Cast

Portia (she/her). Credits include To Kill A Mockingbird (Broadway), Stew (Page 73, Pulitzer finalist), The Rose Tattoo (Broadway), Rinse, Repeat (Pershing Square Signature Center), Ruined (MTC/Geffen Playhouse), McReele (Roundabout Theatre Company), and Our Lady of 121st Street and In Arabia We'd All Be Kings at LAByrinth Theatre Company.. Regional: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Pittsburgh Public Theater), Celebrating the Black Radical Imagination/don't get got and Artney Jackson (Williamstown Theatre Festival), Sweat (Mark Taper), Fences (Long Wharf & McCarter Theater), Our Town (Ford's Theatre). Film: Lapsis, All The Little Things We Kill, Skin, From Nowhere, St. Vincent, The Greatest, The Messenger, Please Give. Television: Diarra From Detroit, New Amsterdam, Big Dogs, Madam Secretary, Bull, She's Gotta Have It, The Blacklist.

Jillian Walker (she/her). See above.

Stephanie Weeks (she/her) is an award-winning actor and director. She has performed at theaters including The Public, Playwrights Horizons, Soho Rep, and La Jolla Playhouse. As an Associate Artist With Target Margin Theater, was awarded the OBIE for Recognition of Artistic Achievement and Commitment to Excellence in Theater. Weeks starred in the film Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted-Mutha, directed by Melvin Van Peebles (Tribeca Film Festival). Television credits include Tales of the City, starring Laura Linney (Netflix), The Good Fight (CBS), and Law & Order (NBC). She has voiced numerous audio books and is a 2023 Audie Award Award nominee for Sex Lives of African Women by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah. She holds an MFA from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and has a certificate of study from London Academy of Music and Drama.

Ben Jalosa Williams (he/him) is an actor, sound designer, and director based in New York City. He has worked in experimental theater for 20 years. He is a member of Elevator Repair Service and a founding member of Minor Theater with Julia Jarcho. Awards for sound design: OBIE, Lucille Lortel, Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, and the inaugural Third Coast International Audio Festival "Audio Unbound" Award. Ben produces and curates category : other, an award-winning platform for experimental audio. He freelances as an audio consultant-for clients including the NBA, StoryCorps, and Harvard-and teaches sound design at The New School.

About the Creative Team

Peiyi Wong (she/her, Set Designer) is a Bessie Award-winning scenographer and interdisciplinary artist. Based in Brooklyn, NY, she designs sets, installations, and costumes for performance and film. Recent scenic design credits include Weightless (WP Theater), A Delicate Balance (Transport Group | NAATCO), The Vicksburg Project (Mabou Mines), SPEECH (Lightning Rod Special), HOUSECONCERT (Object Collection), Song About Trains (Working Theater | Radical Evolution), Memoirs of a...Unicorn (NYLA, 2018 Bessie Outstanding Design). Wong was Set and Costume Designer for A Hunger Artist (Sinking Ship), The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (Transport Group), MukhAgni (The Public UTR), TiQ: The Seventh Voyage (Sinking Ship), and All the Different Ways Commodore Matthew Perry Could Have Died But Didn't (New Georges). She was Costume Designer for Namour (ARRAY feature film, Netflix). In 2023, her design work received support from the Edith Lutyens & Bel Geddes Design Enhancement Fund and NYSCA Support for Artists Grant. Faculty at Playwrights Horizons Theater School, NYU Tisch. MFA: CalArts.

Jojo Siu (she/her, Costume Designer). Jojo Siu's work spans film, opera, theater, and dance. She is an advocate for equity, diversity, and inclusion, and values storytelling above all else. Her work includes North; The Trial of Dedan, Kimathi; Hello, Goodbye and Caucasian Chalk Circle (Singapore Repertory Theatre); The Madres (Skylight Theater); Sanctuary City (Pasadena Playhouse); Oedipus (Deaf West); King of the Yees, Joy Luck Club (Sierra Madre Playhouse); The Ferryman, Desert Rock Garden, and Intimate Apparel (New Village Arts); Mad Madge (Counterbalance Theatre); Into the Woods (Maui Performing Arts Center); Fun Home (Perseverance Theater); Kim's Convenience (Laguna Playhouse); A Grand Night for Singing (Musical Theater West); Striking 12 (Chance Theatre), Kvetcher in the Wry, Celtic Knot, Night Moths on the Wing (O.C. Centric New Play Festival); The Tempest (OC Shakespeare Festival), In the Heights, Spring Awakening, Bright Star, Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (Fullerton College); and Native Gardens and Vinegar Tom (Chapman University).

Oona Curley (they/them, Lighting Designer) is a lighting and scenic designer. Frequent and favorite collaborators include Knud Adams, Tara Ahmadinejad, John Anselmo+Crew, Ngozi Anyanwu, Jason Ardizzone-West, Alex Bechtel, Eliza Bent, Liza Birkenmeier, Montana Levi Blanco, Oana Botez, Martha Graham Cracker, Will Davis, Machine Dazzle, Stacey Derosier, Jordan Fein, Loretta Greco, Morgan Green, Emma Griffin, Trish Harnetiaux, Sam Helfrich, Ásta Bennie Hostetter, John Jarboe, Qween Jean, Jenn Kidwell, Jes Levine, Taibi Magar, Peter Mills Weiss, Gunnar Montana, Stowe Nelson, Kimie Nishikawa, Meredith Ries, James Rutherford, Scott R. Sheppard, Stoli Stolnack, Mikaal Sulaimaan, Ashley Teague, Awoye Timpo, Annie Tippe, Alex Torra, Masha Tsimring, Mfoniso Udofia, Whitney White, Jenna Worsham, and Alice Yorke. Oona is a company member of Lightning Rod Special (creators of Underground Railroad Game and The Appointment), an Associate Artist with Bearded Ladies Cabaret, and a member of USA829. MFA: NYU/Tisch.

Ben Jalosa Williams (he/him, Sound Designer). See above.

abigail jean-baptiste (any/all pronouns, Dramaturg/Archivist) is a theater-maker, director, and writer born and based in New York City, with familial roots in Haiti and the American South. Guided by questions about blackness and femininity and kinship, her work uses images, fragmented language, repeatable gestures, and tangible objects in a search to build unconventional and nonsensical ways of being. Currently: I Am Soul Directing Residency at National Black Theater and The New Georges Jam. Past directing projects include Angela Davis's School For Girls with Big Eyes by Thalia Sablon (Rutgers School of the Arts), The House That Will Not Stand (Le Petit Theatre in New Orleans), The Story of A Circle by David Ryan Smith (Soho Rep), and the salt women by Audley Puglisi (Playwrights Realm, INK'D). Jean-Baptiste was a Soho Rep Project Number One artist, a member of Roundabout Theater Directors Group, part of the Bushwick Starr Reading Series, and Resident Lead Artist at The Mercury Store. Jean-Baptiste has worked as associate/assistant director to Lileana Blain-Cruz, Saheem Ali, Diane Paulus, Sam Gold, and John Doyle. In 2020, Playbill featured her as one of the "Powerhouse Women Directors Theatre Fans and Industry Pros Alike Need to Know.". Most recently, she directed 'Bov Water by Celeste Jennings at Northern Stage, workshopped The Womb Abyss with Nicole Acheampong, and associate-directed Create Dangerously by Lileana Blain-Cruz at Miami New Drama. She is a 2018 Lilly Award winner and New Georges Affiliated Artist. B.A.: Princeton University.

Nia O. Witherspoon (she/they, Process Priestess) is a Black queer multidisciplinary artist + healing justice practitioner investigating the metaphysics of black liberation, desire, and diaspora, as they track across the space-time continuum. A forever student and practitioner of African cosmologies, and combining Black feminism, eco-feminism, and auto-critogrophy with mediums in writing, performance, sound, and installation, Witherspoon creates portals for communion, witnessing, and healing into the ancient future. Current and recent works include: Priestess of Twerk: A Black Femme Temple to Pleasure + Wisdom School (HERE Art Center/Musical Theatre Factory, 2024), Chronicle X: The Dark Girl Chronicles (The Shed, 2021), and MESSIAH (La Mama, 2019). She is a recipient of NEFA/NTP, NPN Creation + Touring Fund, and NYSCA, as well as having been a Creative Capital Awardee, a Jerome New Artist Fellow, a current artist in residence at HERE Art Center and Musical Theatre Factory, and former resident at BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange + New York Theatre Workshop. Her work has been or will be featured by The Shed, BRIC, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Joe's Pub, HERE, JACK, La Mama ETC, Playwright's Realm, Links Hall, National Black Theatre, Brava Theatre, BAAD, Movement Research, BAX, Dixon Place, Painted Bride, 651 Arts, and elsewhere. Her writing is published in the Journal of Popular Culture; Imagined Theatres; Women and Collective Creation; and IMANIMAN: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands. She has held academic appointments at Williams College, Fordham University, University of Massachusetts, Florida State University, and Arizona State University. Witherstoon earned a BA from Smith College and a PhD from Stanford.

Earon Chew Nealey (Hair, Wig and Makeup Design). Broadway: Fat Ham; The Public: shadow/land, The Harder They Come, Baldwin & Buckley..., Fat Ham, cullud wattah, Mojada. Other design: Dames at Sea, Kinky Boots, The Last Supper, Twelfth Night, On Killing, Little Girl Blue, ...Meet Vera Stark, Matilda, On Sugarland, Nina Simone: Four Women, Little Women, Cadillac Crew. IG: @earonnealey

shiku thuo (any pronouns said with respect, Production Stage Manager) is a stage manager, actor, and director hailing from Southern California and taking residency in New York. Their most recent works include On that Day in Amsterdam (Primary Stages), Confederates (Signature), Thoughts of a Colored Man (SM Fellow) The Latrell Show (PSM - IAMA Theater), The Shipment (Director).


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