By Elizabeth Roan
Many of the stories shared in Portraits of People on the Move are incredibly personal and fragile to those who were brave enough to share them. To protect the identities of the many people interviewed by Jennifer Baker, original images by Jennifer will not be shared in this article. It is encouraged that you see and read these stories for yourself at the Wilma Theater or visit supperdance.com
Choice: a simple noun in which roads have been paved for—and bridges burned over. To most Americans, it’s easy to assume that choice is something we’ve taken for granted, but as my generation so fretfully pontificates: the struggle is real. For other Americans, choice is as exotic as the freedom sought when immigrating. In Wilma Theater’s original production Adapt!, written and directed by Blanka Zizka, a kaleidoscopic and surreal story is told of a girl named Lenka, a young immigrant on her journey from a Czech refugee camp to New York City, choice is a major theme. Through memories and the responsibilities due to both her her family and country, Lenka is faced with choosing between staying in Czechoslovakia (in a context that appears to be pre-Czech Republic) to take care of her family or immigrate by whatever means necessary to New York City in pursuit of a brighter future. During her journey, she is haunted by Orwellian pigs in suits and the voice of Reaganomics reason. She argues with her future-self who has grown into stagnancy and is guided throughout by a muse whose characteristics are a composite of Eastern European and Native American folklore. Lenka is forced to grow up as she shifts between dedicating herself to patriotic loyalty and her dreams. In several scenes she is reminded: you have to adapt to your new situation.
When speaking about immigration, limbo doesn’t fall far from cultural adaptation. Since 2015, InLiquid Artist Jennifer Baker has asked over fifty immigrants to tell their story as she documents their moments of self-discovery, memories, feelings, and even the meals eaten, during their journey to the United States in her continuous curatorial project Portraits of People on the Move. Originally a companion to Cardell Dance Theater’s Supper, People on the Move, choreographed by Silvana Cardell, Portraits is being remounted at The Wilma Theater during the run of the play Adapt!
Both Portraits and Adapt! examine moments of displacement. In Lenka’s journey, she has cut herself off from the world she knew—by both choice and necessity—not knowing what the new world will bring. Her journey ends in Central Park, where after what seems like an eternity of starvation, she eats the Everest of American cuisine: a hot dog, while contemplating the many opportunities ahead. In Baker’s Portraits, one of the commonalities shared between each interviewee was a feeling of displacement. Baker tells me, during an interview in her art studio, “every story had some tearing apart of a family. Sometimes those separations are by choice, other times out of real dire necessity.”
As a painter and printmaker by trade, Baker’s Portraits has recently opened her to photography as she captures a single image of most of her interviewees. But the greatest challenge was found in getting people to share their stories without inhibitions. “A stranger isn’t going to tell me their story in great detail–because why would they?” Baker explains. She began first by interviewing friends, to which other mutual friends felt comfortable sharing their stories. With the slight degree of separation, the circle grew wider resulting to a list of over fifty people. One of the initial ice-breaking questions she’d ask was what meal they had before leaving their native country. Naturally, it unleashed her interviewees’ Proustian madeleines. She says, “it’s amazing how so many people have a story, but won’t know how to tell it. The best thing to do was to start with a simple question like ‘what did you have for dinner?’ and before you know it, on top of the story, they’ll explain the feelings that coursed through their bodies before they became an American.”
Opening night for Baker’s exhibition, and the first performance of Adapt! was on March 22nd. A full house mused through the lobby of the Wilma Theater where the exhibition currently stands. Intended for the audience to transcend into the mindset of immigration, fourteen of the interviews are displayed on panels featuring a photographed portrait of them taken by Baker. Centered in the room is a portfolio filled with every interview Baker has done. During the reception a few of the subjects were present, including Jennifer’s friend from Japan, who, mentioned during our interview, was one of her first interviews. I read part of her story:
“At first, I was able to use English to say things but it took a long time to be able to dream in English.”
Taking a bite off the complimentary brie, before Adapt!’s world premier, I thought: woah. I began thinking about choice (ironically faced with a wide variety of cheese being served in the spread) and how choice is sought, both the literal and proverbial cheese, in this country. Blanka Zizka’s play in collaboration with Jennifer Baker’s Portraits couldn’t go more hand in hand in portraying the pursuit of happiness.