By Bianca Thompson
When the clock hits 7:00 P.M., the cast members of We Used to Wear Bonnets & Get High All the Time know to make their way onstage and find a space on the floor to lie down. For the next few minutes, our only obligations are to breathe, pay attention to our bodies, and stay present in the space. We begin rehearsal every day with meditation led by Julia May Jonas, our director. As someone who has participated in many different warm-ups for various rehearsal processes, I can say that this is one of two aspects unique to the Bonnets cast warm-up. The other is a free-dance, which is exactly what it sounds like; Julia plays a song and we all dance to it. Something that interests Julia, as she explained at our first rehearsal, is the vulnerability it takes to let oneself go, take up space, look someone in the eyes, and dance. With our cast of all women, such an exercise feels liberating and empowering. As time passes, the dance moves tend to get weirder and weirder. This is where our ensemble begins.
These practices in tandem have been crucial in grounding my work as a choreographer. We are expected to take care and be aware of our bodies, as well as to be brave with them. Bonnets zooms in on womanhood throughout recent history; whether you lived as a woman in the 1890s or live as one in 2018, there are experiences and traumas that women inherently go through just by existing in our patriarchal society. By the time the big dance number happens in the play, the audience has met all the characters and seen each of their arcs. When I began choreographing, using the stage directions as a jumping off point, I found it especially important that we see all these women, characters and actors alike, owning their power onstage. I wanted to create movement that feels good for everyone; empowering, cathartic, sexy, vulnerable, expressive, technical, freeing. I have a hip-hop background so that’s the genre we’re mostly working with, but as I explained to the cast on the first day of dance rehearsals, here it does not matter how much dance training you have, if any. Hip-hop is so much about taking choreography and making it entirely your own (and I know everyone can dance because we do it every day!), so I encouraged everyone to be patient and allow themselves to find their own styles as we worked. As we keep working, I implore the cast to be curious about how each movement lives inside their bodies, and to speak their truths using this different storytelling medium.
One of the very cool things about Bonnets is that many characters share the same name. In this play that takes place in four different time periods, shared character names indicate lineage; all the Lauras are in the same family line, all the Ediths, all the Roses, etc. One day in rehearsal, Julia had us use the detailed character descriptions in the script (à la Eugene O’Neill) to generate gesticulated phrases of movement in our various character groups. These gestures embodied characteristics that same-named characters share across all the different time periods. During our second dance rehearsal, we dance-ified these phrases. Each character group worked together to create some choreography for their characters. I asked the cast to use this as a way to explore these women in a new way and discover how they might express themselves if they had the physical freedom to do so.
All this to say that not only will you see my choreography onstage, but you will also see movement generated collaboratively among every single person in this cast. The dance would not be what it is without everyone’s contributions, as well as Julia’s wonderful guidance and vision. The play also features original music by composer Brian Cavanagh-Strong, who has brought the dance to life in ways I never could have imagined. My only hope is that you have as much fun watching it as we did creating it.
Bianca Thompson is a senior theater major. She is an actor in We Used to Wear Bonnets & Get High All the Time, as well as the production’s choreographer and fight/dance captain