Go Deeper Behind the Scenes with the Awakening Team

Behind the Scenes with the Awakening Team

Posted March 26th, 2021

With our final Awakening feature, we hope you have enjoyed learning about the work as much as we have enjoyed sharing it with you!

Today, meet Charlotte Braithwaite, director of the new operatic work. Brathwaite (Canada/Barbados/UK) began working with La MaMa E.T.C’s Great Jones Repertory Company as an actor at the age of 16 and performed in New York and internationally with the company for over a decade. As a director, she is known for her unique approach to staging classical and unconventional texts, dance, visual art, multimedia, site-specific installation, video, film, performance art, plays and music events. Named as one of the “up-and-coming women in theatre to watch” by Playbill, her work has been seen in the Americas, Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and Asia. With subject matter ranging from the historical past to the distant future, her work offers unique perspectives on form as it illuminates issues of race, sex, power and the complexities of the human condition.

Awakening continues a collaborative partnership between Charlotte, composer Courtney Bryan, and designer Cauleen Smith, working at the intersection of concert, theater, visual art installation, and ritual. Back in March 2015, Prophetika: An Oratorio premiered at La MaMA. The work is inspired by the legacies and lives of Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, and Harriet Tubman. See an excerpt from Prophetika below.


Awakening librettist Sharan Strange studied at Harvard College and earned her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. She is a founding member of the Dark Room Collective and served as co-curator of its Dark Room Reading Series, which presented over 100 established and emerging writers, musicians, and visual artists of color to audiences in the Boston area from 1988 to 1994. Her writings have been featured in numerous publications, in The Dream Unfinished concert series #SingHerName, and in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum, the Skylight Gallery, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland, and Core Gallery in Seattle. Strange’s honors include the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, the Barnard Women Poets Prize, an Artist Award from the DC Commission on the Arts, Georgia Writer of the Year Award, Pushcart Prize nomination, and residencies at the Gell Writers Center, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. Strange teaches creative writing at Spelman College and serves as a community board member of Poetry Atlanta. Sample her poetry here.

Central among the spirits in Awakening is the least popularly known – Rebecca Cox Jackson (February 15, 1795 – May 24, 1871).  She was born free right here in Philadelphia and lived with her brother, Minister Joseph Cox, as well as her husband, while an active member in the African Methodist Church. In July 1830 during a thunderstorm, Rebecca Cox Jackson had a spiritual awakening and left her family to join a Shaker community in Watervliet, NY. Impressed by her spiritual gifts and ecstatic preaching techniques, the Shakers embraced her as a prophet. She and Rebecca Perot (known as the two Rebecca’s) eventually left this Shaker community to begin a Philadelphia community of Black Shakers. After Jackson’s death, Perot took the name Rebecca Jackson, Jr., and continued to lead the Shaker group. The Black Shaker community in Philadelphia continued to exist as late as 1908. To learn more about Rebecca Cox Jackson check out the book entitled “Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress” which has her complete writings from 1830 to 1864. No known image of Jackson exists. Pictured left is Rebecca Perot.

Our last artist feature on the Awakening team is Art Director Cauleen Smith, an interdisciplinary artist, whose work reflects upon the everyday possibilities of the imagination. One of her recent projects related to themes and characters in Awakening is Sojourner (2018). In Sojourner (see feature photo above), women process through Dockweiler State Beach, Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum in Joshua Tree, California carrying large orange banners with text by Alice Coltrane. Smith’s writings, along with those of Sojourner Truth, are intoned throughout the film. Sojourner concludes with a reading of the Black feminist Combahee River Collective manifesto, emphasizing Cauleen Smith’s commitment to activism and spirituality as modes of collective resistance.

Operating in multiple materials and arenas, Smith roots her work firmly within the discourse of mid-twentieth-century experimental film. Her films, objects, and installations have been featured in numerous group exhibitions, including those at the Studio Museum in Harlem; the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; the Yerba Buena Center for Art, San Francisco; the 2017 Whitney Biennial; Prospect.4, New Orleans; the New Museum, New York; D21, Leipzig; and Decad, Berlin. Smith has had solo shows of films and installations at the Kitchen, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; the Art Institute of Chicago; and Threewalls, Chicago. Smith is the recipient of several grants and awards, including the Rockefeller Media Arts Award, a Creative Capital Moving Image Grant, the Chicago 3Arts Grant, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts’ Ellsworth Kelly Award, Expo Chicago’s Artadia Award, and a Rauschenberg Residency. Smith earned her BA in creative arts from San Francisco State University and her MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. Smith teaches in the School of Art at CalArts.

See the rest of our Blog posts on Awakening here and here, and look out for more information on this dynamic new work coming to our platform in 2022! Research by International Contemporary Ensemble. Follow their Instagram at @intcontemporary.

Major support for Awakening has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from a catalyzing gift from Arlene and Larry Dunn as co-commissioned by the International Contemporary Ensemble, FringeArts, and Opera Philadelphia. Production and Development is supported by The MAP Fund, supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.