Interview by Henry Jacob, Yale 21'
Transcription by Margaret Hedeman, Yale 22'
YHR: You have used the phrase “sit at someone’s feet” a few times when discussing your evolution as a creator. How does it feel now to be the creator and to execute your vision from start to finish?
EFB: It’s a good feeling, but sometimes quite scary and a little exhausting. I have never, ever done anything like this before. We all stay in our lanes. I wrote the libretto and everything is based on the libretto. I raised the money, I wrote up the grant proposals, and I'm the spokesperson for the work. The composer’s area is the musical, the film maker’s area is the visual. I don't try to tell others how to compose or film. That being said, it is interesting to see things through each other's eyes.
As a historian, the emphasis remains on the sources. You're in the archives, you’re interviewing people, reading newspapers, finding the different kinds of primary sources we use. With artists, the emphasis is about the experiential. I developed a scab so that I can stand in front of my students and teach this material about slavery every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday for an entire semester, two semesters a year, for many years. I snatched that scab off by becoming an artist. I had to experience those emotions again and then translate them into words. For me, the creative process is about being willing to be vulnerable and to go to places emotionally. in order to take the audience to certain places, I had to go to those places. It’s not always fun and not always safe, but it’s important. I'm principal investigator for a team of scientists and so sometimes the scientist, the artist, and I, the historian, go out to the rice fields together. This environment has become second nature to me. It has become over the years of my career, but not something that I paid attention to in this way. I have been to the rice fields so many times in West Africa and South Carolina, but I never paid attention to the sounds of the birds and texture of the trees, leaves, soils, and grasses as I do when I am in the rice fields with artists and scientists. I thank my collaborators for opening my senses.
Sometimes it's frustrating because artists, historians, and scientists can think very differently. We don’t always get along and I, as executive producer, have to solve this problem quickly so we can get back to work and get this thing done. On some days I threatened that I was going to go back to the archives and sit by myself because that's what historians do. There would be days when I thought I would find comfort in sitting alone in my carrel, but I haven't done it yet...