Kendell Pinkney discusses “Bread of Heaven”

Kendell PinkneyOn Thursday, March 17, LABAlive will present an evening of theater and subversive teachings exploring our relationship with beauty. The evening will feature teachings by Ruby Namdar and work by fellows Lior ZalmansonJoshua Max Feldman, and Kendell Pinkney, who will present scenes from his piece in progress, Bread of Heaven.

Here, Pinkney talks about his project and the inspiration he found in our house of study.

Tell us about your project. 

This project is unlike anything I’ve ever written because it is immensely personal, which might be the reason I’ve had a hard time coming up with a title for it. I pitched the artistic team of LABA on the idea that I would use the fellowship to write about my conversion experience through the lens of my long-standing fascination with the Book of Ruth. The piece has since evolved dramatically (awful pun intended). As of now, the piece takes the audience through a kind of expressionistic conversion experience by blending personal memories of my childhood growing up in a black megachurch, audio interviews with fellow converts to Judaism, dance/movement, Hebrew text from the Tanakh, and live music/soundscapes.

How do you see it developing in the future?

Even though I’m still in the messy stage of the creative process, I like that my collaborators (Avi Amon and Jennifer Harrison Newman) encouraged me to expand beyond my normal writing process, which usually involves way too much coffee, frustration, and Minesweeper — yeah, I like to kick it old school with my game selection. My hope is that this will develop into a full-length piece, however long that might be. Beyond that, no idea.

Any new thoughts about beauty?

As I’ve told any number of my friends over the months, beauty, especially LABA’s focus on human beauty, is an especially fraught issue for me. When I think of human beauty, my mind often goes to the role that media plays in highlighting who is beautiful. Growing up as a black man in America, I felt as if black bodies didn’t have equal access to beauty. I know that is a strange statement, because we can all point to any number of individuals who happen to be black and happen to be beautiful. Still, this notion that beauty is neither applied in an egalitarian way from individual to individual, nor from ethnic group to ethnic group, rings true for me — whiteness was/is often presented as beautiful and blackness was/is often presented as ugly unless it conforms to certain standards. Whether this is true or not, my understanding led me to be uncomfortable talking about human bodies as beautiful. Instead I would often highlight certain physical qualities with other synonyms (so and so is striking, has a unique look, is well built/hot, etc.). Interestingly enough, one of the places where I liberally use the word beautiful is when talking about literature, especially ancient Jewish literature.

Which of the texts we’ve studied so far, or the discussions we’ve had, have most stuck in your mind, and why?

The story of King David crying over the death of Absalom has stuck with me most vividly. In spite of all the ways in which Absalom worked to embarrass his father and usurp his throne, David — the brutal warrior after G-d’s own heart– cannot muster the will to be brutal toward his beautiful, blemish-less son. This makes Absalom’s death-by-vanity (hanged by his luxuriously thick hair getting tangled in a tree) that much more painful and tragically beautiful to read.

How have they, or other texts, inspired this work?

Well, the Book of Ruth was what kicked off my whole LABA process, so it has had a fairly strong influence on the work. Honestly, all of the texts we’ve read this year have inspired the work in some way. I’ve really enjoyed grappling with how un-PC all of the Tanakhic and Talmudic texts are on the subject of physical beauty. Since I am able to acknowledge and trust the beauty of a text quite easily, that trust has somewhat compelled me to look at physical, human beauty more closely, and in the longer version of my piece I plan to interview folks in the beauty industry (models, make-up artists, hair stylists, etc.) as there are some interesting parallels between the processes of “creating” a model and “creating” a Jew.