This past weekend, I attended Camae Ayewa’s Circuit City, a performance that took place June 20-22 at FringeArts in Philadelphia. Part play, part spoken word, part free jazz, Circuit City spun a diffuse tale about an indeterminate time in the future – a time that trapped humanity in high rises owned by major corporations, living highly surveilled lives of circumscribed pleasures. The main characters, who are never named, have an exit strategy: a machine by Liberation Technologies that will allow time travel, freeing anyone who is brave enough to walk through the door.
These loose contours of structure are where the clarity of Circuit City ends—or begins. Over the 60 minute performance, that story bleeds into episodes of dissonant music and oracular poetry, both of which concentrate the experience of now. The audience is invited to contemplate the connections between black pasts and black futures, to disrupt Western sensibilities of time, and to interrogate the emancipatory potential of time travel, even as our bodies appear to stay stationary. Liberation Technologies, which at first sounds like the company that makes the time traveling machine, ends up as a metaphor for freeing oneself in general, through music and art, through poetry and action.
The themes of Circuit City would be familiar to anyone oriented to Afrofuturism—an artistic and political movement that has many components but, above all, wants to imagine a distinctly black future imaginary. Stereotypical conceptions of the future tend to imagine race as a vestige of the past that can simply be discarded, or a burden that leaves those marked by it as indelibly from the past. Instead, Afrofuturism seems the future as multiple, time as polychronic, and many pasts as relevant to and bearing upon the presents we construct. “That’s why we don’t age,” Ayewa says at one point during a poetic interlude, in a nod to the old adage about black skin being more resilient to the weathering of age. “All them years confusing each other.”
Ayewa, who also works under the name Moor Mother Goddess, is an interdisciplinary artist working across multiple media. She is a powerful poet, able to command attention and blend diverse styles of language. The music—performed by Irreversible Entanglements and the Circuit City Band —was enveloping and moving even if not always describable as “pleasant.” And while the dystopia—and the liberation—of Circuit City may feel beyond the realm of possibility, the performance communicated the imperative of future possibility that all of us need to embrace. Black people, and humanity writ large, are oppressed not just by the powerful, visible forces that constrain our world, but also by our ideologies that limit our horizons, construct our experiences of time and space, and devalue our ways of knowing. These are the same forces that suggest that the future is something that happens to us, rather than something that we concoct and build together.