Behind the Scenes of “Primer for a Failed Superpower”

August 21st, 2017

Photography by Tess Mayer

The recent combination of Charlottesville and Donald Trump returning to New York City for the first time since he became President brought New Yorkers out onto the streets for another round of protests and rallies. August has also brought a few cultural events focusing on protests, like the Whitney Museum’s An Incomplete History of Protest and now The TEAM’s Primer for a Failed Superpower. On August 22nd and 23rd The TEAM, a New York theatre company, will present Primer for a Failed Superpower, a concert/event that will feature protest songs performed by an ensemble made up of teenagers, baby boomers, members of The TEAM, and other New York theatre artists. As director Rachel Chavkin describes it, “Primer is such a strong, rigorous attempt to form community and bridges across genders, across generations, across race and cultural divides and personal histories, while also not negating any of those differences.” The production also features video interviews with a range of activists. The two-night-only event will take place at Roulette in Brooklyn, and both performances will be pay what you can. We recently visited a rehearsal where photographer Tess Mayer documented a portion of the people involved in the production, and members of the ensemble shared their thoughts about why being part of this production is important to them and what they hope audiences take away from the show.

How are you managing balancing the creative part of the show with the political aims of it?
Rachel Chavkin: Well, they’re not separate, is the answer to that. I have felt this way for quite a while, that there’s a unity between aesthetic excellence and racial and cultural diversity. One of the specific goals of amassing the group that is performing this, but has also created this, was a real move to decentralize whiteness in the room from the leadership team on down, and that is deeply tethered to the artistic excellence of this piece. This is a piece about dissent and speaking truth to power and how music figures with that. So the two things go hand in hand for Primer.

What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
Rachel Chavkin: It’s called Primer for a Failed Superpower, and I think a large part is about priming our muscles to be consistently engaged in the struggle for collective liberation, which is lofty and exactly what we intend. That is the point of the room. We have been guided by this Lilla Watson quote. She’s a Murri woman, and we have her quote in the room: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” That quote has been a really guiding principal of the room. I hope that this concert leaves people energized with this incredible music and this bounty of humanity that is onstage and in the space and will be in the audience, and I hope that force just keeps people lit up for the struggle that is awaiting us and is at our doorstep for the days and years ahead.


Sumaya Bouhbal, Vickie Washington, and Diana Oh


Director Rachel Chavkin


Vickie Washington


“My hope would be that all who come to experience the show are reminded that we have super powers. I hope that experiencing these protest and freedom songs will stir up our powers, and that we will use our super powers to do justice across the board. To fight oppression/repression, and all the evil -isms that are a continuing scourge—racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, ableism, consumerism, militarism, capitalism, etc. In my faith tradition, there is a saying: “I believe I will run on to see what the end’s gonna be.” I hope that Primer will renew our spirits and our energy to “run on”—a little harder, and a little longer, with renewed purpose and passion.” – Vickie Washington


Jarrett ‘Kai Pelton


“Being a part of this production is extremely important to me. Voices of trans women of color are not heard and not appreciated, and I know my voice is heard and appreciated in this space. I’m given plenty of hugs and love and support from the beautiful people of this ensemble.”—Jarrett ‘Kai Pelton



Music Supervisor Orion Stephanie Johnstone




Diana Oh


“Because it is a rare room where trans, queer, people of color, and women can exist and be who they are without feeling shamed. Because we live in a culture of shame, and it’s directly connected to whether someone lives or dies. Because spreading love saves lives. Because there’s no other room I could possibly be in right now. Because I need to be with my people right now. Because Orion Johnstone teaches me what love is. Because I’m not religious, but being in rooms like this makes me feel like I have a God. And this God is definitely not a man. Because I can only be a part of things that speak from the heart right now. Because every day we are in mourning and we need the reviving power to keep going for one another. Because being connected to other humans in a genuine way to save lives.” – Diana Oh


Cele McEwen Pahucki


“Protesting can be very different things. It doesn’t have to be going out in the street and marching. Someone said that just performing—your art—can move people and give them more knowledge about what’s happening around the world, and to be more aware. Protest can be many different things, and I hope people learn that.” – Cele Pahucki



Music Director Nehemiah Luckett



Ching Valdés-Aran and Diana Oh


“What could be more important than to stand hand in hand with thirteen 23-year-olds and 30-somethings and to sing songs of unity, love and peace. It is an honor and privilege. It is a moving and a humbling moment for me. It is my small way to resist hate, racism, xenophobia, sexism. My hope is for the audience not only to have a fun night but to open up their hearts and minds. It is a call for action. Every little action counts. “Courage is an exhilaration, more than fear.” –Eleanor Roosevelt.” – Ching Valdéz-Aran


Ching Valdés-Aran and Diana Oh


“The decision to jump in front of someone’s bullet comes from the heart, not the head—may this concert drop us deeply into our hearts. May everyone feel ferocious love.” – Diana Oh


Sawyer Eason


I hope the audience wants more of me and will allow me to keep giving myself. Being an out trans woman has limited my options to share my revolutionary self with the world. I hope this production will be an opportunity to continue to get in and fit in.” – Sawyer Eason


Vickie Washington and Diana Oh


“The day before I flew up for rehearsals, my newest grandbaby was born. One of the reasons this production is important to me is for the babies—all the babies. There is a line in Justin Ellington’s composition Village Harvest that comes from the Isley Brothers’ song “Harvest for the World.” The line, which simply states, “All babies together, everyone a seed / half of us are satisfied, half of us in need,” is a reminder that each and every one of us must redouble our efforts to make sure that all of humanity gets satisfied and none are left in need. Primer has given me an opportunity to be in the midst of people who are passionate about using the sacred gifts of theatre, music, and song to continue to prime the pump for doing this great work of justice. The #TEAMprimer experience has been a full and very rich one. I love the intergenerational exchange and energy, along with the intentionality of the process and the commitment to a safe space. And quite frankly, after many years of directing, it is so great to be performing.” – Vickie Washington


Rachel Chavkin


Shamiea Thompson


“I hope that audiences take away that though certain issues don’t directly affect them, they have a responsibility to help. We are all humans and we all live in this world and we need to make sure that society and the planet can flourish.” – Shamiea Thompson


Libby King


I suppose my greatest hope is that the line between us completely dissolves. That by the end, there is no separation between audience and performer. We just become one unified community. One unified, empowered community, filled with productive rage and an unshakeable trust in one another that we can make the world we want to live in.” – Libby King




Digital Content Producer Em Watson and Producer Madeleine Foster Bersin


Standing: Company Manager Brittany Coyne and Stage Manager Jhanaë Kadie-Chantal Bonnick
Sitting: Em Watson, Madeleine Foster Bersin, and Producing Director of the TEAM Manda Martin