Joy beyond just showing our teeth in a smile: A response by Joelle Mercedes

A response to J’Sun Howard’s Working On Better Versions of Prayers

Feb 15, 17 and April 28, 29, 2018

Director: J’Sun Howard

Collaborators: Dedrick ‘D. Banks’ Gray, Damon Green, Willyum Labeija

Sound: Justin Mitchell

Lighting Design: Ken Urbina/Giau Truong

image by: Stephanie Toland


& we first gaze at them

          been knowing our ancestors been waiting for us

& we gaze at them more-

          since genesis, able to fly & outdo any angel with our slay

— J’Sun Howard


What are the potentials of a Black touch, a Black closeness? My brother once told me he loved men because he loved our father. A relationship activated at its best in endurance. If a black person is seen or touched with love by another black person, does their body swell up? Does it reduce an urgency to protect itself? To maintain its cool?

The elasticity of cotton candy is really an illusion. The more you unravel it the thinner it gets, the easier it falls apart. One can quickly be fooled by the sugar high, but never underestimate its teachings on indulgence. The stage is sparsely adorned in cotton chandeliers or a gigantic piece of candy earned after winning a carnival game. The cotton also has a less magical connotation, a reminder of a burden that those most acquainted with the night sometimes carry. Intermission comes to a close, as a track by Deniece Williams, Free, lingers in the air, a flirtatious melody about love, liberation and self-actualization. The dance begins in three, moves to two, one, three, two, one, three, one. Three bodies creating one large universe, holding each other, breaking each other, sweating. The shadows outlining the bodies are invisible, arms extending far over the moon. The performers are shapes of reaching, a possibility that rips open basketball nets. A hoop, a loop that welcomes transformation.

As I watch the first duet, words like passing, shooting, grabbing and switching circle within my head. Boys dancing or battling in a playground, friends teaching one another other new ways to deal, “new” ways to move. Perhaps through endurance, always through play.  This duet directly follows a few contemplations in attempting the impossible. One could say, staying alive and not just surviving. Flowers are brought for the dead to celebrate the cycle of evaporation as a result of fermentation. Flowers are highly romantic, but they hold stakes. In the middle of the show, performer Damon Green’s head is replaced by an angelic, floral, iridescent head piece. Green becomes an elegant centaur, bringing forth a message from the nearest hanging cloud. The message reads: “What does it mean to pray without shame?” Our desires are sacred, and we deserve joy beyond just showing our teeth in a smile.

I think about the tongue. The piece was a collection of tongues. A tongue out in jubilation. A tongue out in exhaustion. A tongue out in emphasis. Before the piece comes to a close, birds of paradise cover the chest of the performers, and the spiritual Over my head I hear Music sung by Kathleen Battle plays, fully textured in the background. Where does one place their tongue when singing such a powerful song? Do you have to push your tongue closer to your gums, or place the tip towards the roof of the mouth when you say, “There must be a god somewhere”  in order to feel the vibration of the song fully.

I remember when my father and I would disagree, he would say that I had birds in my head. I always thought, what a complex tune, the smacking of the wings of a bird on my skull, my body a nest.


Joelle Mercedes is a multimedia artist who currently lives and works in Chicago, IL. His work has been shown at Threewalls, Roman Susan and Arts Incubator among others. Mercedes’ work aims to create new metaphors that complicate the notion of self- determination, self- authorship and personal mythologies. Recently, Mercedes was an artist and faciliator in the Eclisping Festival: The Politics of Night, The Politics of Light at Links Hall. He was a visiting artist at the California Institute of The Arts, as part of The Paul Brach Visiting Artist Lecture Series in 2017.