It was in Austin that she started
performing her work publicly, and once again, the impetus for her to get out
into the community as an artist came because of "a pretty woman" she
met at a bar.
"I can’t even
remember her name," she said of the woman she met. "She told me she
was a drummer and I said, ‘Well, I’m a poet.’" The woman told Bridgforth
to give her work to the women who ran Word of Mouth Theatre Company.
"I thought I was
giving them poems," Bridgforth said. "They read them and they called
me and they said, ‘We’re going to produce your one-woman show,’ and I said, ‘Whaaaaat?’"
The show, called sonnata blue,
featured Starla Benford, who is now a Broadway and television actor. The late Marsha
Anne Gomez, a co-founder of the Indigenous Women’s Network, came to one of the
performances and was so moved that she took Bridgforth under her wing and introduced
her to the other artists and activists in the community.
Even as Bridgforth held
day jobs, her artistic output flourished in Austin. She started the root wy’mn theatre company,
a groundbreaking theater troupe that toured the country from 1993–98,
presenting work that combined poetry, dance and music to tell the stories of African-American
women. And in 1998, after years of getting her work rejected by publishers,
RedBone Press published her book the
bull-jean stories, which chronicles "the course of love returning in
the lifetimes of one woman-loving-woman named bull-dog-jean." The book won
a Lambda Literary Award in 1998.
In between that book and
her next work, love conjure/blues (2004), she became deeply immersed in community
activism, working with allgo, a Texas
organization for queer people of color. She also began mentoring young artists and
facilitating workshops. Giving back to the community is important to Bridgforth
— she calls it a black American tradition.
But like many
artists/activists, she overdid it. Bridgforth had been maintaining a heavy-duty
schedule of performing, working in the community and lecturing around the
country, on top of being in a seven-year relationship. And then in 2005, she
was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
"I do believe that
part of what happened was that I was exhausted for a very long time," she said.
"I was holding things that did not serve me, like resentment, fear, hurt,
shame and sadness. I was also kind of holding back my own work, and I think
that stuff eats you from the inside out."
She is now cancer-free,
and urges younger artists and activists to take care of their health and their
"We start doing a
lot of things," she said, "but you don’t have to do everything that
you are able to do. You have to do what you’re supposed to do, and what you’re
supposed to do is take your deepest desire, expand it and gift it and know that
that is important."
Community organizing, she
acknowledged, can cause fatigue. "The thing that I always think about is
what if James Baldwin or Langston Hughes or Toni Morrison or any of our great
artists — what if they hadn’t done their work? What if they had got caught up
in some organization and never came out?"
These days, the 50-year-old,
single Bridgforth is honing her craft with a new work, delta dandi. It follows in the tradition of the jazz aesthetic, in
which making art is an improvisational and communal process encompassing
different forms of expression.
She explained: "delta dandi is a multimedia theater
piece that looks at the life of a conjure woman named delta dandi as a vehicle
to speak on and document black American history. The piece itself lives in the
tradition that Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams innovated back in the day —
what they called sacred concerts.
"And also I’m
working with the idea that some jazz artists like Ellington and Charles Mingus worked with, called tone poems. So I will
conduct, using the text as the score, a choir, a jazz quartet and a core group
of actors in this concert. We might also have dancers."
She has moved to New York
for a playwriting residency where she will plan laboratory workshops of the
performance. It will premiere in Austin
in January 2009, and it is the culmination of years of striving to get to a point where she can fully concentrate on her own work while still being a part
of the community.
"I am in a time in my own personal career where I’m
coming out of doing a lot of community work where I facilitate other people’s
work," she said, "and I’m now focusing very much on my work as an
For her, delta dandi is the perfect project.
"I get to use my
facilitation skills," said Bridgforth. "I get to go in and meet
people in different communities, which I love to do. And I get to experience
the diamonds that are everywhere, and have all of that be a part of the whole
process of seeing my own vision come to life."
For more on Sharon Bridgforth, visit her official website.