'mouf//full' — OYSTERKNIFE's spiritual exploration at Grace Cathedral

  • by Cornelius Washington
  • Tuesday January 23, 2024
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Chibueze Crouch and Gabriele Christian in 'mouf//full' (photo: Chani Bockwinkel)
Chibueze Crouch and Gabriele Christian in 'mouf//full' (photo: Chani Bockwinkel)

The Bay Area's hottest live performance from the Black queer community for African-American History Month is OYSTERKNIFE's "mouf//full," Friday, February 2 through 4 at the venerable Grace Cathedral. The series blends song, dance and visual design in a three-day performance event that honors Black faith across diaspora, secular and institutional, indigenous and inherited.

This immersive, participatory performance explores how Black cultures have transformed Church into a uniquely syncretic cultural space. The two lead creators and performers, Gabriele Christian and Chibueze Crouch, spoke about the upcoming work.

Chibueze Crouch and Gabriele Christian in 'mouf//full' (photo: Chani Bockwinkel)  

Cornelius Washington: What was the genesis of the show?
Gabriele Christian & Chibueze Crouch: In 2019, CounterPulse (our co-producer) offered us our first incubation residency, called "Performing Diaspora." To make "mouf//full" l ultimately a work in progress. This show, "mouf//full," is all about bridging our personal black faiths between American Black Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal, with Igbo Catholicism, examining our sense of rejection and self-doubt that emerged in these worlds in the 1990s/2000s as kids.

During this initial residency, we really pushed the limits of both content and form, making a longer show than our 30-minute allotment, inviting in a large range of Black and majority Queer designers and performers, with six different endings to the work. Very ambitious: we clearly had something deeper to excavate. CounterPulse approached us about mounting an evening-length version of the work in 2020 and then the pandemic happened, pushing back our original timelines. Now, almost five years later, the show has finally re-surfaced again.

What particular cultures are you reflecting in these series of performances?
It was the gambit, honestly. You could say that's partly why we call it "mouf//full." We're inviting all of the cultures that we can; house, ballroom, Igbo masquerade and ritual, drag, contemporary dance and culture and jazz. We're also conjuring queer performance as protest culture, asking critical questions of Grace Cathedral as a site, while defying the often punitive culture of Christianity.

What is the catharsis you've had from rehearsing the show?
OYSTERKNIFE's process is pretty different from typical scripted theater work. We live in the experimental, and we have a broad range of collaborators. We won't really feel the impact of the full show until all the pieces land into place until we perform.

But we can say that the entire creative process — from auditions to conceptualizing to poetry sessions with our collaborator Marvin K. White to submerging ourselves into the Saint John Coltrane Church — have each been a little piece of catharsis. There's something about visioning and watching the daily drip of that vision that is fundamentally cathartic, like watching the moon slowly grow into fruition every night.

Do you have any pre-show rituals? How do you wind down after a show?
Our mutual pre- and post-show, we are all about checking in with each other, reading up on and listening to our ancestors (Nina, Baldwin, Zora), remembering our bodies' need for rest and intimacy.

Chibueze Crouch: Pre- and post-show rituals include a consistent prayer practice, where I go to my personal altar at home to speak with my ancestors, Igbo deities and spirits who guide me, rosary beads from my upbringing, self-written prayers in Igbo, and tarot cards.

What do you think will be the evolution of Black queer religious beliefs?
We will see a reckoning of the role of the black church across the diaspora, especially among young people who are more progressive and more queer than their parents. There's a widespread awakening to the cultural and religious conditioning to which we've all been subjected. We also see that Black queer people are at the forefront, refashioning faiths in their own images, bending them to suit our purposes, and not the other way around.

What would you have your audiences take away from your performances?
We want you to connect with someone unexpected, to breathe deeper, to free your beliefs. We want you to feel that you've come home.

OYSTERKNIFE's 'mouf//full' Feb. 2, 3 & 4 at 7:30pm. Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St. $25-$45. www.counterpulse.org/mouffull

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