Nia Witherspoon Writes to Excavate the Authentic
Nia Witherspoon is a multidisciplinary Brooklyn/Phoenix-based artist. She investigates the social and spiritual realities of blackness, gender/sexuality, and intergenerational trauma. The artist/sch0lar/playwright uses a process of excavation to find the “authentic, both inside and outside of me that needs to be said.” Witherspoon works primarily in the mediums of theatre/performance, vocal and sound composition, and creative scholarship. She says that her creative process “takes a lot of listening to fears and feelings created in the dark.”
Mentors Enabled Witherspoon to Find Her Voice
Her work with mentor Cherrie Moraga changed everything. Witherspoon says that Moraga helped her find a different voice and form for her writing practice. This is something that she had not been able to access before. She took a playwriting class from Moraga at Stanford University, where she received her Ph.D. Witherspoon has also done a great deal of work with Sharon Bridgforth, another mentor. Creative Capital Grant recipient and Doris Duke awardee Bridgforth has been a resident playwright at New Dramatists since 2009. Working with Moraga and Bridgforth, Witherspoon has been provided with opportunities to find her voice as a writer and to hone her skills as a director and performer.
Messiah Complex Exposes Anti-Queer and Anti-Black Violence
Unresolved issues that trouble Witherspoon are violence against and inside of black and LGBTQQIAA communitiesThe world premiere of her play The Messiah Complex was billed as “a look at generations of violence on queer, black bodies.” The latest incarnation of the work in late May 2016 at BRIC in Brooklyn, NY featured a predominantly black, queer and trans cast and creative team. The performance brought “ritual into the theater, shifting from the secular to the sacred through rites already present in black life… [Audiences experience] the frenzy of a nightclub, the libations poured on street corners, and the sonic landscapes of hip hop.” There have been other productions of all or part of the piece as well.
Healing and Restorative Power of Performances
“My process for the readings/collaborations associated with The Messiah Complex was contingent upon the deeply restorative capacity that the stories of the characters in my play bring up and out to resonate with performers. When Black and queer lives are in a constant state of literal and symbolic violence, their being witnessed in all their beauty and complexity is a restorative act that reverberates throughout the community.”
Healer, Julia Bennett, a member of the Third Roots Collective, was present at each and every show. She was present because of the possible triggering effects of the material. Witherspoon says both audience members and cast members availed themselves of the healer’s gifts and services at various performances. “I’m responsible for my own work and I know my work (not me) may intentionally trigger opportunities for healing or missed opportunities to unearth and excavate the unseen in order to release tremendous truths,” she says.
Messiah’s Secret Revealed
The Messiah Complex is an exploration of the legacy of the Black Panthers on queer Black bodies. It is an exploration “centering on Malika, a teenager on the trans-spectrum, who creates an alter-ego named Messiah, a popular basketball-ball star and aspiring rapper. Messiah’s secret is revealed at 16. Then 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.” (Excerpted from press materials.)
The Diaspora and the Panthers–Art Imitates Life
The play calls out the legacy of the Diaspora. It specifically names South African Apartheid, American Jim Crow, the Native American Genocide. Additionally, it exposes much more deadly codified and institutionalized violence against people of color as well as queer peoples.Witherspoon’s father worked with the West Philadelphia Black Panthers food program as a young man. According to PBS, the FBI established a special counter-intelligence program soon after the founding of the Black Panthers. The purpose of the program, called COINTELPRO, was to neutralize political dissidents. According to FBI documents, one of the purposes of the COINTELPRO program was to ‘expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of the Black nationalists’.
Hunting and Stopping the Black Messiah
The FBI wanted to prevent the rise of a black “messiah.” Martin Luther King Jr. had been amongst the candidates until his assassination in 1968. Then the attention shifted to Black Panther Huey P. Newton. COINTELPRO took 295 documented actions. The program directed 233 of these against the Black Panther Party.” (Source: According to FBI documents, one of the purposes of the COINTELPRO program was to ‘expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of the Black nationalists’. They wanted to prevent the rise of a black “messiah.” Martin Luther King Jr. had been amongst the candidates until his assassination in 1968. Then the attention shifted to Black PantherHuey P. Newton. COINTELPRO took 295 documented actions. The program directed 233 of these against the Black Panther Party.” (Source: http://www.pbs.org/hueypnewton/actions/actions_cointelpro.html)
Giving Ghosts a Voice
Creating a social practice as well as an artistic practice is vital to Witherspoon. She says a big part of her struggle as a writer is that indigenous spirits and ghosts appear. Nia asserts that “they are very present and they, therefore, require a certain level of accountability.” Witherspoon says her connection to these spirits and to the daily violence against her peoples leaves her rocking and crying. She sits in cafes in Brooklyn, and elsewhere, writing. “It’s a scary place when I get there,” she says. “But, it’s seductive because this is clearly deep sea diving for meaning and truth.”
In her mode of inquiry of the intersections of Black and queer identity, the different bodies manifested in gender, race, social identification and social categories. Witherspoon says she “sees social bodies through a spirit lens. “But, as a scholar, I understand this is not at all romantic. The entire landscape of Diaspora, our stolen African past, has radical implications for the larger Black and queer communities as well as personally for me and the people that I love and am in relationship with.”
Witherspoon: Prolific and Multi-talented
Witherspoon possesses an impressive body of work. She is part of SoliRose, an emerging ceremonial-music venture which seeks to enact home/culture-making in Diaspora. Witherspoon accomplishes this by calling on the power of the ancestral lines and the lands that shaped them. She is a scholar with writing on topics of Diaspora, Queer Bodies and Violence Against Women, the Black Community and the LGBTQQIAA Community. She is also a teacher, a theatre/performance artist, and a visual artist.
Widely Presented and Award Winning Works
Her work has been presented/produced as a guest artist at the Black Women State of the Union. Add to the list the arts residences in San Francisco(The Garage and Intersection for the Arts). The Painted Bride in Philadelphia has presented Witherspoon’s work. So have the Downtown Urban Theatre Festival (at HERE) and BRIC in NYC among others. Witherspoon was also a recipient of the Astraea Foundation’s Lesbian Writer Award. She won the Global Arts Fund Grant. Add to that the fact that she completed a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging Playwriting Fellowship.
Lifting up legacies of women is also a theme in much of Witherspoon’s work, plus the emphatic assertion that Black and queer existence are not mutually exclusive. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ja08Rmow4u0