New Play THE MESSIAH COMPLEX to Explore Legacy of The Black Panthers at BRIC

By: Apr. 27, 2016
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BRIC is pleased to present the world premiere of THE MESSIAH COMPLEX, a new play written by Nia Witherspoon and visionary director Charlotte Brathwaite with choreography by Ni'Ja Whitson and dramaturgy by Cherríe Moraga.

Featuring a predominately black, queer and trans cast and creative team, THE MESSIAH COMPLEX is a play about the legacy of the Panthers in the age of crack, where a scratch at a DJ booth incites a replay of the past, an action that interrogates generations of violence on black, queer bodies. This BRIClab Commission brings ritual into the theater, shifting from the secular to the sacred through rites already present in black life-the frenzy of a nightclub, the libations poured on street corners, and the sonic landscapes of hip hop. Ultimately, THE MESSIAH COMPLEX tells a story of recognition, revolution and forgiveness.

THE MESSIAH COMPLEX is a love story. Or many. It centers on Malika, a teenager on the trans-spectrum, who creates an alter-ego named Messiah, a popular basketball-ball star and aspiring rapper. When Messiah's secret is revealed at 16, all comes crashing down, and s/he makes a fatal mistake. "DJ Messiah," 10 years later, must face the literal ghost of a past mistake unearthed through a nightclub turned ritual. But this ghost wants more than reckoning. Set to the sound of hip-hop, the ring shout, and the wailing of ghosts, Messiah must find a way home.

Moraga (co-editor This Bridge Called My Back and acclaimed West coast playwright/director), who has mentored the project from its inception, returns to New York theatre after almost 20 years to act as the project's dramaturg. Emphasizing THE MESSIAH COMPLEX's unique mission, Moraga says, "through its prophetic and poetic protest, Messiah gives me renewed faith in the possibility of social transformation. Here queer bodies of color move center stage and to the center of a revolutionary promise fifty years in the making. Playwright Nia Witherspoon speaks on our behalf, across generations and genders, to remind us of that dangerous desire for freedom."

Playwright Witherspoon remarks, "As queer people of color we've got programs, non-profits that pass out condoms, but do we have a reason to live? This is one of the questions THE MESSIAH COMPLEX explores. This project is unique in its ability to call upon African diaspora ritual language, listen to the shouting of unsettled ghosts at the bottom of the Atlantic (and the subway line), and yet remain frighteningly embroiled in the ghetto history of our present as urban people of color with tribal roots. This project is not afraid to make connections between the ancient and the contemporary, suggesting the existence of a divine imperative for queer bodies that has been all but forgotten."

The cast for THE MESSIAH COMPLEX includes Mikel Banks, Marcus Brandon, Anyanwu Glanville, Joel Daniels, Kirsten Davis, Tiffany James, Linda La Montanez, Shelley Nicole, Kirya Traber, and Tanisha Thompson, with original music composed by Justin Hicks..

Performances of THE MESSIAH COMPLEX will take place May 20-26 (see schedule above) at BRIC House, located at 647 Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn. Critics are welcome as of May 20, which also serves as the official opening. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door and can be purchased by visiting or by calling 866.811.4111.

About the Artists:

Nia Witherspoon (playwright) is a multidisciplinary Brooklyn/Phoenix based artist investigating the social and spiritual realities of blackness, gender/sexuality, and intergenerational trauma. Working primarily in the mediums of theatre/performance, vocal and sound composition, and creative scholarship, Witherspoon's work has traveled both nationally and internationally to venues ranging from theatres and universities to activist organizations and non-profits. Described as "especially fascinating" by Backstage Magazine, Witherspoon has been the recipient of multiple awards, including: Astraea Foundation's Lesbian Writer Award and Global Arts Fund Grant, Downtown Urban Theater Festival's "Audience Award," a three-month long Wurlitzer Foundation residency, Lambda Literary's Emerging Playwriting Fellowship, a CASH Grant from Theatre Bay Area, and a Mellon Dissertation Fellowship. Her work for the stage has been featured at HERE, the National Black Theatre, BAAD, and the Painted Bride (Philadelphia), among various venues in the Bay Area, including The Lab, The Garage, La Peña, and Eastside Arts Alliance. As a performer, Witherspoon is co-founder of ceremonial music collective SoliRose, a world-premiere cast member (and in the touring company) of Sharon Bridgforth's River See, which opened at Chicago's Links Hall, and has been a featured vocalist in the work of Cherríe Moraga in La Semilla Caminante/The Traveling Seed (Intersection for the Arts). Witherspoon's writing is published in the Yellow Medicine Review, and forthcoming in Women and Collective Creation (Palgrave), The Journal of Popular Culture, and Imagined Theatres (Routledge). Her most recent play, You Mine, commissioned by the Obie-award winning Fire This Time Festival, premiere in January 2016. Witherspoon holds a BA in American Studies from Smith College and a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from Stanford University.

Stage Director Charlotte Brathwaite is known for staging classical and unconventional texts, dance, visual art, multi-media, site-specific installation and music events which have been seen in the Americas, Europe, the Caribbean and Asia. She recently conceived and directed the Obie award-winning Prophetika: an oratorio at La MaMa Theater in NYC which was celebrated as, "conceptual yet viscerally powerful," by the Wall Street Journal. She has collaborated with choreographer Kyle Abraham/A.I.M. and with director Peter Sellars on several projects. Recipient: Princess Grace Award, Julian Milton Kaufman Prize, Rockefeller Residency, National Performing Network Creation Fund. MFA Yale School of Drama. 2013/14 Artist-in-residence Amherst College. Currently Assistant Professor of Theater Arts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ni'Ja Whitson (choreography) is a 2015 Bogliasco Fellow, 2013-2015 Movement Research Artist and Residence, 2014-2015 artist in residence at the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, and Creative Capital "On Our Radar" artist. Whitson has been a student and practitioner of indigenous African ritual and resistance forms for over ten years, creating and performing work that reflects the sacred in street, conceptual, and indigenous performance. Their work engages a nexus of postmodern and African Diasporic performance practices, through the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and spirit. Working internationally, creative and scholarly works include collaborations with leading artists in multiple genres such as Allison Knowles, La Pocha Nostra, April Berry, Marjani Forté and Darrell Jones, and with Brazilian and American organizations as a titled capoeirista. A noted innovating practitioner of the Theatrical Jazz Aesthetic and accomplished improviser, Whitson enjoys ongoing collaboration with award-winning artist Sharon Bridgforth, currently as a touring member of Bridgforth's River See. Respectively, they are a member of Douglas Ewart's (AACM Chairperson) Nyabhingi Choir and Inventions ensembles performing at venues across the country with creative and jazz musicians such as Mankwe Ndosi, Tatsu Aoki, and Joseph Jarmon. Whitson's work as an independent choreographer includes working alongside Dianne McIntyre on the 10-year anniversary revival of Crowns, written and directed by Regina Taylor at the Goodman Theatre, as choreographer for Nia Witherspoon's Messiah Complex, and Susan Watson-Turner's direction of Anon(ymous), both of which received New York audience and ensemble awards. Other recognitions include a Time Out New York and Chicago Critic's Picks, Vermont Studio Center residency, LinkUp Inaugural Artist in Residence, 3Arts Artist Award Nominee, John G. Curtis Jr. Prize, Mellon Foundation research fellowship, and a Fellowship Award as an MFA graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Justin Hicks (composer/performer) Using sound, and text, Justin's work aims to create work that reaches toward a dialogue and the corroboration of instinctual values held by the diaspora of working people. Through interdisciplinary collaborations, singer-songwriter style concerts, and music theatre, Justin explores themes of economics, marriage, religion, race, and labor. Along with solo efforts,he has collaborated with several artists and organizations including Kaneza Schaal, Christopher Myers, Alexis Marcelo, Frank Lacey, Steffani Jemison, MoMA, Steirischer Herbst in Graz, Austria, Lincoln Center, NURTUREart, Hank Willis Thomas, among many others.

Cherríe Moraga (dramaturgy) is a co-editor of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, republished in a new edition by SUNY Press in 2015. As a political and literary essayist, she has published several collections of writings, including, most recently, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness; Writings 2000-2010. As a playwright, her latest work, New Fire: To Put Things Right Again, which she also directed, premiered at Brava Theater in San Francisco in 2012. A collaboration with visual artist, Celia Herrera Rodríguez, over three-thousand people witnessed the work. Moraga is the recipient of the United States Artist Rockefeller Fellowship for Literature, the American Studies Association Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Lambda Foundation's "Pioneer" award, among many other honors. In 2015, she was awarded the MAP Fund/Creative Capital grant for her new play, Mathematics of Love, to premiere in 2017 in San Francisco. For nearly twenty years she has served as an Artist in Residence at Stanford University in the Department of Theater and Performance Studies and (since 2008) in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity Program. She is also a founding member of La Red Xicana Indígena, an advocacy group working in the areas of education, culture, and international and local indigenous women's rights. She is presently completing a memoir entitled The Native Country of My Heart.

The Messiah Project is made possible in part by a grant from the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice's Global Arts Fund.

BRIClab is a commissioning and residency development program for both emerging and established local artists to explore and expand the possibilities of their work in music, dance, theater and multi-disciplinary performance.

BRIC is the leading presenter of free cultural programming in Brooklyn, and one of the largest in New York City. The organization presents and incubates new work by artists and media-makers that reflects the diversity of New York. BRIC programs reach hundreds of thousands of people each year.

BRIC's main venue, BRIC Arts | Media House, offers a public media center, a major contemporary art exhibition space, two performance spaces, a glass-walled TV studio and artist work spaces.

Some of BRIC's most acclaimed programs include the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival in Prospect Park, several path-breaking public access media initiatives, including the newly renamed BRIC TV, and a renowned contemporary art exhibition series. BRIC also offers education and other vital programs at BRIC House and throughout Brooklyn.

In addition to making cultural programming genuinely accessible, BRIC is dedicated to providing substantial support to artists and media makers in their efforts to develop work and reach new audiences.

BRIC is unusual in both presenting exceptional cultural experiences and nurturing individual expression. This dual commitment enables BRIC to most effectively reflect New York City's innate cultural richness and diversity.