An aerial dance show that addresses mass incarceration was brought to the public to raise the awareness of life behind bars and the parallels of the Jewish experience.
“Meet Us Quickly with Your Mercy” was performed on an outdoor stage in downtown San Francisco. Dancers perform in and around cages suspended from the facades of the CounterPulse art center and the Dahlia Hotel, according to The Jewish News of Northern California.
The location was chosen because of its closeness to a halfway house for formerly incarcerated people to watch from across the street.
“I think that there are Jews who don’t necessarily think about mass incarceration in America as connected to their own experience,” said Choreographer Jo Kreiter and producer of the show to Jewish News. “If there’s anything this piece does, I want it to bring that connection forward.”
Kreiter makes it clear that she is not comparing Black and Jewish suffering with her installment.
The show was presented in partnership with Bend the Arc Jewish Action, the Museum of the African Diaspora and Prison Renaissance. The Oct. 14 to 17 shows were free.
“We created this piece amidst a triumvirate of obstacles that I don’t wish on any artist,” said Kreiter. “I’m so grateful to my cast and crew for hanging in there and persisting in their creativity despite so much discomfort and fear.”
The production had to endure major disruptions such as: the pandemic, smoke from the wildfires, and one dancer dropped out over health concerns. Jewlia Eisenberg, the late musician who worked on the score for the show, passed away. Also, rehearsing at a Mission studio with the doors open was a challenge — trying to adhere to the COVID precautions were difficult, noted the article.
“Meet Us Quickly with Your Mercy” is Kreiter’s second installment of her “Decarceration Trilogy.” It was written in collaboration with San Quentin resident Rahsaan Thomas, a co-host of the popular “Ear Hustle” podcast, which is broadcast from San Quentin.
There are three separate sections in “Mercy,” each inviting viewers to further research and reflect. The first section, “Pushed and Shoved,” intertwines with Thomas’ story “Why I Run in Prison,” which Thomas read over the phone from San Quentin to Kreiter. The recording was overlaid on the score by Eisenburg.
“I try to outrun my past,” said Thomas about why he runs.
The second part of “Mercy” is called “Trogn (Carrying).” It has two Yiddish songs that mix with another of Thomas’ stories. Kreiter calls it “the ancestral memory” of the holocaust capture.
The final part is “Chasing Freedom.” It has the most athletic aerial features. It adds quotes from Bay Area 1960s Black Panther revolutionaries, professor and activist Angela Davis and social justice advocate Eric Ward. The quotes are laid over music and urge listeners to “be a partner in the struggle for civil rights.” It also links anti-Semitism with “violence that targets people of color.”
In addition, artwork created by incarcerated men at San Quentin was on display at the “Mercy” showing.
Before she passed, Eisenberg selected and performed two Yiddish songs for the sound score. One is about non-Jewish Europeans that hid Jewish children in their homes during the Holocaust, and the other speaks to the plight of migrants at the southern U.S. border.
“That’s a choice that Jewlia made, and I wish she was around to talk about it,” said Kreiter, about Eisenberg song selections.
“The Wait Room,” was Kreiter’s first episode in the trilogy. It focused on the struggles of women with loved ones in prison. Kreiter’s husband also served six years in federal prison. He is now a “returned citizen,” said the article. “Mercy” builds on the personal narratives of being caged or trapped that link the Black and Jewish histories. The final production in the trilogy is “The Decarceration Trilogy: Dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex One Dance at a Time” — set to premiere in 2022.
“Meet Us Quickly with Your Mercy” presents a new view of mass incarceration through dance. Kreiter quotes the Bible Psalm 79:8 to bring clarity to her work: “Don’t hold the iniquities of our forefathers against us. Let your tender mercies speedily meet us, for we are in desperate need.”