The Real Story: Praize Productions Inc.’s “Smells Like Freedom” with Enneressa Davis
From the very beginning, America was a place people sought to escape persecution and oppression in their homelands. Countless people have and continue to sacrifice their lives to maintain that freedom, yet in many ways, oppression and persecution still exist. That persecution lives in the recent instances of police brutality against people of color. That oppression still exists in a lack of true workplace equality for women and members of the LGBTQIA community. And on a more personal level, we often oppress ourselves with negative thoughts that devalue our self-worth and affect our confidence, which in turn has the power to affect our future. Just as there are a multitude of ways for oppression to exist, there are an equal number of freedoms. That multitude of freedoms is what the artists at Praize Productions Inc. explore in their upcoming performance of Smells Like Freedom.
Praize Productions Inc. has a history of creating award-winning productions, and Smells Like Freedom is sure to be another addition to their history of excellence. PPI CEO and founder Enneressa (Reesie) Davis has written, produced and choreographed eight full-length productions, four of which were awarded the Black Excellence Award by the African-American Arts Alliance of Chicago for “Best Overall Dance Production.” For Smells Like Freedom, Reesie has gathered a high caliber group of artists to bring her latest vision to the stage at University of Chicago’s Logan Center for a one-night only show. The production combines choreography, spoken word, live music and visual art through three acts to engage, inspire and encourage audience members to explore their own freedom and the value that it has in their own lives.
Smells Like Freedom is also an expression of the company’s mission and vision: to provide opportunities in dance to people of all ages and backgrounds. Each and every individual should have the freedom to pursue any path in their lives but first, that path has to exist. Through PPI, Reesie and her artistic team have worked countless hours to ensure that the road to creative freedom in dance is available to all who wish to walk it.
DancerMusic Dance Editor caught up with Reesie to get an in depth look at the inspiration behind the production, her creative process and the artistic team that supports her vision. Here’s what she told us:
…as I grew as an individual, I subsequently grew as an artist. They are one and the same.
Kristi Licera: Many experienced choreographers develop methodical ways of creating new work: some choose to use music as the point of inspiration, others start with a concept or idea, some begin with a phrase of movement as basis for a motif. The method for creation can be the pillar by which powerful works are created, but every now and then an idea comes along that challenges a dance maker to change their approach. Can you tell us about your typical approach to creating new works and how Smells Like Freedom challenged you to change your methods?
Enneressa (Reesie) Davis: Every production’s process is different; each experience varies. I feel like my “process” reflects the real-life experiences that I journey through, as I am creating each show from start to finish. Believe it or not, all my struggles and triumphs are described within my productions. In my earlier productions, I didn’t “own” my experiences within my art. I created pieces but didn’t show my attachment to them to the audience – like I told my stories in secret. However, as I grew as an individual, I subsequently grew as an artist. They are one and the same. The artist is the individual, the individual the artist… the art is the artist.
At the end of the day we are all connected, but we fail to see that because we front our “representative” to the world, instead of our true selves.
When I began to outwardly connect to my own art and voice ownership out loud, I was able to connect with the audience internally – no longer at just the surface level. I used to be so afraid to show people who I really was. Growing up we kept personal matters within the household, and that caused a level of disconnect with my audience that, at the time, I didn’t realize. I was so worried about giving the audience what I thought they wanted that I didn’t give them what they needed, which was me. They needed me in my most truthful, unapologetic form. God blesses all of us with “something,” something that is so uniquely ours that the world must come to us and us alone to receive it. By denying my true, authentic self to be exposed, I was denying the world of Enneressa: a witty, bold, flawed, creative with a voice that stems from her soul and reaches the souls of others. And when I began to give people me, I allowed them to see themselves within my art. At the end of the day we are all connected, but we fail to see that because we front our “representative” to the world, instead of our true selves. Real can’t connect to fake and fake doesn’t have the power to truly connect; it simply attaches. It attaches to insecurities, fear and low-esteem, forming masks that separates us from one another and ultimately separating us from who we are truly called to be.
When you’re FREE, nothing can hold you down! Hurt feelings turn into gratitude and trust – trust in timing, process and my art, which is truly the root of who I am.
Reesie: I pride myself in being a storyteller with my art with continuity being my strong-suit, but this project, Smells Like Freedom, made me question that. Trying to define this thing called FREEDOM and make something intangible, tangible was challenging to say the least. I literally typed my layout a few weeks before the premiere of the production! I had to trust the process.
This process truly taught me trust – trust in myself and in my work. Throughout my journey in creating Smells Like Freedom, I had so many doors close in my face. From not receiving a corporate sponsor this year to getting denied grant after grant, submission after submission. But, you have to chill. When you’re FREE, nothing can hold you down! Hurt feelings turn into gratitude and trust – trust in timing, process and my art, which is truly the root of who I am.
Freedom was learning how to truly live and live in abundance. I found it in so many shapes and colors that one would truly miss it if he or she was not searching for it and open to it.
Reesie: I found that freedom takes many shapes through the various seasons and stages of one’s life. In August, I found freedom on my sister’s bathroom floor, as I grieved my dear friend who committed suicide (I am dedicating this production to him) and my mom telling me “it’s okay to not be okay.” I found freedom when I gave myself permission to simply not be okay and being “okay” with that. Freedom was me ignoring emails, texts, and phone calls, so I could simply be. I sat on my couch and played Robert Glasper and John Coltrane. I sat with myself without the world’s distractions. Freedom was me smothering my nephews with kisses until they pushed my face away when I visited them in New York. Freedom was feeling God, I mean really feeling God, on an early Sunday morning in church, hands raised in surrender, soul open to what’s to come. Freedom was me crying in my car when life was too much. Freedom was learning how to truly live and live in abundance. I found it in so many shapes and colors that one would truly miss it if he or she was not searching for it and open to it.
This process had me on an emotional roller coaster with highs and lows. It put me through stages where I had my hands raised in excitement with a smile tattooed on my face, and other stages when I was literally hanging on for dear life. But at the of this ride, I happily skip through this amusement park of a world to the next ride that my life has to offer. And no matter how big it is, it’s drops, it’s highs, I’m ready!
By generating a show that marries various genres of art, it appeals to multiple senses.
Kristi: Dance alone can be an intimidating art to swallow for both new and existing audience members. Potential patrons may even decide against entering a dance performance because they feel pressured to understand a specific idea or fear that the abstract nature of dance is too difficult to comprehend. Adding elements from other art forms like spoken word, visual art and live music have the power to bridge that gap of understanding and make dance more palatable. Can you tell us more about the additional artistic components included in Smells Like Freedom and how they support the overall message and concept of the production?
Reesie: One thing that I love about PPI’s productions are their structure. We create theatrical productions that are so uniquely ours. It’s not purely a dance concert, nor a play or a musical. We infuse various art forms to story-tell. Our productions comprise heavily of dance, live music with a band and singers, spoken word and visual arts to narrate a specific story line.
I am both a dancer and writer. I infuse both those gifts, when producing our shows. I try to connect to each person in the audience. I realize everyone may not be a dance enthusiast or music/spoken word fan. By generating a show that marries various genres of art, it appeals to multiple senses. Even in my storytelling, messaging can be as simple as the audience member is willing to understand. Or, it can go as deep as their vulnerability and ability to reflect will allow. Simply put, there’s something for everyone.
When you add movement with that music, there’s a transference of energy that resonates.
Reesie: I work with some pretty phenomenal artists on our projects. One is our music director, Dave Felton. He composes original music or remasters some of my favorite songs to create scores for our productions. Sometimes I will hear or feel a certain sound or feeling. I describe the vision to Dave, and by our next session he creates something amazing that I can create to. I love using the element of live music in my shows. It stirs something in one’s spirit that tracked music can’t. When you add movement with that music, there’s a transference of energy that resonates.
Marshaun Robinson, our technical director, ensures that lighting, staging and sound are all in place. He is the one who ensures all the technical details are in line with the creative. Together, the three of us call ourselves “The Dream Team.” This is our 7th production together and when we put our creativity together and something better than magic occurs. It becomes ministry and we are able to use our art to do what art is truly intended to do: make people feel, think and act.
Darrow is the introduction to our production. Without him, people wouldn’t want to sit in those seats.
Reesie: I also work with a visual artist, Darrow Alexander. He serves as our art director. He does all our flyers, graphics and promotional campaigns. This year, he used pop art graphics to both lighten and highlight the serious topics that we touch on. Darrow is the introduction to our production. Without him, people wouldn’t want to sit in those seats. He listens to the vision of the show and then creates it in visual form. This year is one of my favorites of his visual/promotional campaigns.
Smells Like Freedom has more of my writings within it. I included four spoken word pieces in this production. Usually I only write one or two pieces, but through the process of this project, I found myself writing/journaling. I would post many of these writings on social media, simply sharing my truths and process. The responses I received were outstanding. People truly connected to my experience and shared some of their personal experiences. I was able to get informal feedback about the content, too. I put three of my most powerful pieces about Smells Like Freedom, Act III titled “Unapologetically Free”. One of the pieces, “Smells Like Freedom,” I randomly wrote last spring, and it ended up being the premise of the entire show.
Today I walked outside, allowed the sun to tattoo my brow; I closed my eyes, opened my soul, and took a deep inhalation through my nostrils, filling my lungs with air, with life and it smelled like FREEDOM.
The production is divided into three acts. Act I: The Absence of Freedom demonstrates the first step in achieving freedom. In order to be free, one must realize that they are in captivity – whether they are in physical bondage or emotionally, socially and/or spiritually enslaved. I thought about the famous quote from Harriet Tubman: “I freed a thousand slaves; I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Many times, we are living a life of deprivation but have no idea. This act looks at freedom from a historical and cultural context.
Act II: Freedom Ain’t Free is probably our heaviest and most emotional act. This section of the production narrates the “cost” of freedom. This act takes on a more social and political focus on freedom. I thought about this quote from Malcolm X: “the cost of freedom is death.” This quote is layered in its meaning. One is that people sacrificed their lives to achieve freedom for others. Another is the idea of how we achieve freedom through death, thoughts of being with God in the afterlife and how we have to “die” or submit to certain things or allow things to “die” in order to truly live.
Act III: Unapologetically Free is about all things free. It looks at freedom from a more individual stance. What does it look like to the individual and what do we do after we achieve freedom? How do we help others to arrive at this place? I love the stanza from my poem Smells Like Freedom to describe the thought process of Act III: “Today I walked outside, allowed the sun to tattoo my brow; I closed my eyes, opened my soul, and took a deep inhalation through my nostrils, filling my lungs with air, with life and it smelled like FREEDOM.”
Praize Productions Inc. presents Smells Like Freedom Saturday, March 23 at 7pm. The performance takes place at the Performance Hall at the University of Chicago Logan Center for the Arts (915 E 60th St Chicago, 60637), with a catered VIP reception for VIP ticket holders
in the 9th Floor Penthouse, 6-7pm. Tickets are currently SOLD OUT for this performance.
To learn more about Praize Production Inc. and keep up with their calendar of performances, visit praizeproductions.com.