When I set out to make "Belonging in the USA: Stories from our Neighbors" in February of 2017, I had no idea it would take so long nor that I would learn as much as I have. It was a year filled with firsts that culminated in our first screening of the rough cut of our pilot episode with a group that went beyond just family and friends.
Leading up the screening I felt nervous and self-conscious as one often does when showing art that has taken a substantial emotional, financial, and time investment. I was confident about the material itself, optimistic that
the audience of mostly people who didn't know Michael D. McCarty would be just as captivated by his life story as I have always been. I was less sure about how the other parts of the experiment would go. Would they stare blankly at me in my opening remarks? Would they not bother to answer the questions I hoped would be thought provoking? Would they not participate in the post-screening dialogue process? (JJ's face on the right somewhat shows the anxiety I was feeling). Thankfully, the couple of hours between leaving home and people arriving flew by thanks in part to Lara Golan, the co-composer for the pilot and a dear friend, who drove down with me to the event.
As people arrived and checked in, I was struck by the feeling of having successfully assembled a relatively diverse (by Chicago's standards) group of people. Here are some things I can tell you about the attendees beyond that I didn't know them all personally. There was a diversity of race (mostly Black or White), age (from 20s-70s), occupation (teachers, artists, social workers, scientists, sales people, CPAs, housewives, activists, lawyers), socio-economic status, where they lived (people from the South, West, North, and far Northshore of Chicago attended) and marital status (single, divorced, married).
As everyone arrived and got settled we handed out a piece of paper with three questions on it: Here’s the first question and some of the responses we got to it:
When you hear the phrase “Belonging in the USA” what does it evoke?
What does the word Freedom mean to you? When or where have you felt the most free in your life? And why?
What are you expecting/hoping from this evening? What brought you to this room (beyond knowing Arielle or Michael;)?
We got incredible, thoughtful, and thought provoking responses some of which we will be sharing on social media in the coming weeks and months. What I recognized right away in their answers as I scanned them and later that night as I pored over them for over an hour, that like me, they were hungry for a place to explore and express themselves about these ideas that are circulating around over the past couple of years.
What does it mean to belong anywhere? What are the United States of America? What makes any of us feel free? All of these questions are central to our pilot episode, to Michael's amazing journey, and to the series itself.
Most of us don't have the spaces or communities to gather in to discuss and dialogue about these questions in an open, non-threatening space with people who may not be like-minded but are willing to at least be open-minded.
I feel proud that we in this first screening, were able to create a space to do this. After the episode we had the audience fill out questions that were specific to the episode itself, asking for feedback on things that resonated with them or things that confused them. And then came what for me was the most exciting part of the whole evening, the part I'd be anxiously anticipating, the deep talk.
I first encountered the phrase "deep talk" this past summer, while listening to a keynote given by Orland Bishop at a conference I attended. He was referencing the Zulu culture who use "deep talk" or indaba to faciliate solving problems a community is facing or to work through interpersonal dialogue. It immediately resonated with me as something I do often and naturally, but would like to be able to do more openly and intentionally with other willing people looking for more than the usual "small talk." Deep talk implies a deep sense of listening as well as talking, a give and talk, a flow. And that's exactly what I felt happening in the room as we shifted from critiquing the episode itself, and began to focus on the deeper meaning to each of us personally, and what we could walk out of the room and back into our lives with. It is a way to experience the other as truly connected to self, and the self as other. It is, in my mind, inherently a radical form and practice of empathy.
I am grateful to my amazing team, JJ Evans (editor & co-composer), Claire LaBarbera (intern/assistant editor), Lara Golan (co-composer), and Heather Lopez (outreach coordinator). I'm also thankful to Claire's father, Mike, who arrived early, helped with setup, and took all these amazing photos.
I am eager for the next screenings, hopefully many that we will haver over the next year. I am as you can probably tell from this post, even more eager for the "deep talk" that I know will follow. I am eager to bring people together from different walks of life, and create a space for them to connect to their own journey and the journey of those around them in a truer, more authentic way.
This is how the night ended, with me playing "The Belonging Song" which I wrote to go with the series, but didn't make it into this episode. Only JJ and Lara got to hear it at the end of the night (we ran out of time for me to play it for everyone), but I plan to record it soon and maybe I'll even share it on this blog. Who knows? Stay tuned...and thanks for reading.