Our past is inseparable from our present. Only through an examination and acknowledgement of those before us can we truly understand ourselves and the communities we inhabit. In Auntie Val, a play written by longtime Artistic Partner and Freehold faculty member Daemond Arrindell for Freehold’s Engaged Theatre Tour, this entanglement of time and history permeates all aspects of production, from costuming to music to acting. The story revolves around the titular Auntie Val, a woman who prioritizes her own sense of control and those in her inner circle but must undergo a transformation to let go and accept the power of her community. The play uses a live score and is inspired by and incorporates elements of Conscious Hip Hop Artists like Killer Mike, Blue Scholars, and A Tribe Called Quest throughout.
To further understand the visual and physical aspects of the play and how they portray the themes of ancestry and community, we sat down with costume designer Ricky German and actor/fight choreographer Treavor Lovelle. Rehearsals have now resumed for a few small live performances this summer which will be shared in a streamed recording with our larger community and our Engaged Theatre partners incarcerated at the Washington Department of Corrections.
FT: Could you tell us a little bit about your role within the play?
Treavor: I play Jamal and Dale in Auntie Val. Jamal is a young man who developed a speech impediment after being beat up. He dies and is resurrected by the ancestors to fulfill a prophecy, and that is to look over Auntie Val and to show her the way to becoming more involved in the community. He only speaks through lyrics, so all of the late 80s and early 90s hip hop comes through here: Tupac, Public Enemy, The Fugees, De la Soul, all of these huge hip hop artists during that time. He’s the only one who speaks in lyrics. Since being brought back, he’s the only one still living that can see the ancestors and vibe on their frequency. He’s in-between.
Dale is Auntie Val’s father. He’s the one who started her off on her path of taking care of the community. A lot of the time it’s referenced that he’s the grandpa in the neighborhood; he takes care of everyone. He was the owner of the shop that Val runs now, and he ran the lottery for the community. If someone gets the numbers, they all help out the church or the kids. Think Tulsa, Black Wall Street. He gets into some trouble for running the numbers. Nobody knows where he is.
FT: How have the music and themes of community affected the fight choreography/movement?
Treavor: We had to think about cop violence not just physically but mentally. Val is constantly harassed to give them money. With fight choreography, we had to find a way to show their corruption during fights. Sometimes the cop comes in with a baton and holds someone down to exercise authority. It’s not just physical blows.
Some of the choreography comes out of hip hop music. Jamal is showing off his clothes and during that dance number, a dancer decides to rob him. So we’re incorporating the fight within the music in a sense. It’s the antithesis of having a good time with the community. All it takes is one person, especially if nobody stops them.
FT: How has the melding of the ancestors, old and new, history and present, affected your take on costuming?
Ricky: It was interesting trying to kind of localize the feeling of being a member of a diaspora in clothing. The costuming represents bits of black diaspora culture and then collective historical memory. I like to think of the ancestors as black excellence. Phillis Wheatley, she’s amazing: she’s someone who mastered language on someone else’s terms just to flip it in their face and do it her way. To see that and to get strength from that was something that we tried to put into these costumes. The ancestors have to be the most beautiful and fun version of these folks. They’re three dimensional.
We used a lot of Jacob Lawrence colors. I think of these bold colors and I think of the South. They’re colors you don’t really see up here.
We also have this 90s sort of aspect, and that’s Val with her shop. There are parts that are very Law and Order and are going to look like that. Very much the city with coats, bucket hats, and denim. Wide legged denim, slouchy denim. All of those things that are part of late 80s/early 90s hip hop era, part Living Single.
FT: This idea of cosmic graffiti has been floating around in reference to Auntie Val. What is it and how is it used?
Ricky: We have this kind of cosmic, diaspora palette that is like graffiti and cowry shells and African fabrics and denim. Daemond brought in graffiti, and it’s something that you see all around the country with its own flavor. With the DJ, we have this afro-futuristic aspect as well. Looking to the 70s was a large part of it. Betty Davis is this really cool, funky, guitar player and she shreds. She wore thigh high silver boots, amazing blouses, was very sexual, very in control of who she is and that was another renaissance time for black people and our culture, to take those things and mix them together to make this cosmic sign of home, safety, culture, and coping.
I don’t want to call it a fantasia, but the show is everything. Black panther, leather, lunch counters, sumptuous winged collars, shield aviator sunglasses. It’s new, it’s old, it’s this mystical magical cosmic world, and then it’s the past interpreted in this beautiful way. I love that we get to explore the world of visual art. It’s Basquiat too; it’s that very fly expression of who we are. I haven’t seen it yet, and I’m excited to see it come together.
FT: How is this play different from other works that you’ve done before?
Treavor: I think that this idea of ancestors affecting us in the present is more felt in this play. Because Jamal sees these characters, it reminds him that the ancestors are with us all the time. Ancestors, in this case, means people who built the world for us, who have our backs. It doesn’t have to be our specific bloodline, but instead people like Harriet Tubman who propelled us all forward. The play does a good job of reminding people that you’re not alone, and when you’re feeling alone, you have help. You have a shoulder to lean on.
Ricky: I would say that I actually get called in to do this kind of work. Work that is the present and history combined. Work that kind of has these conceptual pieces to it as far as world creation goes. I would like to think that’s how when people ask, “Who needs to do this,” that my name comes up (laughter.)
But I mean, it’s the collaborative process. This started during the pandemic. We were there in the park. We were there together thinking up these things with Daemond and Jen and it was everything and everyone was talking together. A lot of the time that doesn’t happen in theater. It was cool to workshop it first, and to have a year to have things settle. It means you can toss out things that are a little less conventional. Theatre can be kind of very…precise, too precise. It’s not that precision doesn’t eventually come, but it’s cool to have that ability to just be and create together. When Jen has an idea, it just flows from her fingers and mouth and she has these visions, these flashes of inspiration. That’s the part of the creative process that has been so exciting. Usually, you have two meetings to figure everything out and then 4 weeks of rehearsals before showtime. That’s something that’s changing about theatre, and I enjoy that aspect of Freehold.
FT: Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
Treavor: There’s something magical that’s felt in the room as we’re rehearsing, and I feel a lot of it has to do with the ancestors. Having a mostly black cast helps us tell the story; after all, we’re all just stories. We have such a diluted history in America, a history that is not correctly and that isn’t told at all. So when I think about Henry Box Brown, Phyllis Wheatley, Bass Reeves, I think about how we’re all connected. I thank them before every rehearsal. We are all connected and we all have the power to do what they do. What can I do, what can I sacrifice to make the community better?
Ricky: I think that the pandemic was crazy. I want to call her out and I want to say it. It was weird because the world just stopped for a while, and it felt so nice to have this kind of community, this little sort of commune, arise and cradle this work. It just feels so necessary to come back from that break making connections about the past. And how present benefits from it. It feels good. It feels like a cosmic hug.