Do Not Forget to Breathe: “in the absence of things (work in progress)”


Presented by ArtsEmerson
Commissioned by Krannert Center, Baryshnikov Arts Center (New York), and ArtsEmerson. This event is also presented in partnership with the National Black Theatre.
Writer and Performer: Somi
Director: Mariona Lloreta
Producer: Priscilla Nzimiro Nwanah
Editor: Victor Xavier Monzó
Sound Designer: Justin Ellington
Cinematographers: Sara Escobar & Jon Lowenstein
Lighting Designer: Michael Williams
Set Designer: Priscilla Nzimiro Nwanah

Live screening on Dec. 01, 2020 at 7PM
On Demand viewing Dec. 1 @ 9:30PM – 15 @ 6:00PM

Review by Kitty Drexel

ArtsEmerson/On Demand — in the absence of things is a ritual. Applause starts the film and fades to silence. Vocalist & songwriter Somi is presented with her back to us on an altar in darkness and shadows. She lies on trifold swathes of champagne, white, chocolate, and bronze fabrics while cradled from three sides by delicate purple flowers and greenery. Thin branches stand tall as if reaching to the heavens. Virtuosic piano music plays as a voice the texture of noil silk says in voice-over, “In the absence of things, there is breath.” 

If Somi is on an altar, then her performance is an offering to the spirits of art and performance. She stands on the lip of a stage wearing a kauri shell headdress. Her arms raise as if conducting the silence room’s silence. In a break in the poetry, Somi calls out. There is no one to tell her that a Black woman’s voice is taking up too much space, that her story won’t be believed. Only bodies that want to hear her exist in that space. She is free. 

Somi’s exploration of the theatre space and its silence is a spiritual love song. She is now accompanied by hot jazz and running up the stairs between rows of empty theatre seats. Her dress and overcoat in a white, linen-like fabric are a shroud. She is mourning the living performances aborted by the pandemic. Not just her stopped tour but all of the performances we creators quit once the coronavirus realized itself as an unstoppable force. Somi says, “In the absence of things, I do not recognize myself.” 

in the absence of things runs less than 10 minutes but expresses the ineffable. Somi is a woman caught in limbo: she is vulnerable and craving her sacred home on the stage. The expression of her loss is deeply personal but captures the universality of a performer’s loss during this pandemic. We are a large, diverse population of musicians, creators, writers, composers, songwriters, and other artists from across the globe who align through our creative identities. Somi captures our inconsolable longing.  

A talkback  Obie Award-winning Artistic Director of New York City’s National Black Theatre (NBT) Jonathan McCrory leads a talkback with Somi and video director Mariona Lloreta. They discuss a broad variety of topics but return again and again to finding grace, trust, and what Somi describes as a “posture of surrender.” We must remain malleable. 

Somi looking a-mazing.

They discuss how it is a gift to be creating when a virus is ravaging the world community. To attempt the creation of art while being present in it is to triumph over the pandemic. All three speakers have great words of wisdom to offer to the performing community. I found myself crying conciliatory tears of relief and fellowship. 

Please know that while this film is not created for the white gaze, it has much to offer all viewers. At a time when Black Lives are finally begining to matter as much as the lives of rich, white, cis, hetro men, it is vital that white viewers embrace the discomfort in appreciating art that wasn’t created for them in mind. in the absence of things only gets better after the first viewing. 

in the absence of things is captioned for the hearing impaired. The talkback has an ASL interpreter who’s skills were on fire that night. Interpreter Vania  with True Biz has a very expressive face and hands.  

On November 24,  Somi’s live album Holy Room – Live at Alte Oper with Frankfurt Radio Big Band was nominated for a 2021 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album.  This is her first nomination. It is glorious. 

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