World-renowned artist Toshi Reagon might learn just as much from Wesleyan students as they learn from her.
As part of her artist residency at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts, Reagon is currently on campus developing her latest project, following virtual visits to two Dance Department classes in April which helped to inform her work.
The Center for the Arts will present a work-in-progress showing of “You’re Having Too Much Fun So We’re Gonna Have to Kill You” as part of the 2022-2023 Performing Arts Series in the CFA Theater in October, offering a special first glimpse into her process. Throughout the past year, Reagon has been in conversation with Wesleyan faculty, students, and community members around her new project, as well as her currently-touring work, an opera adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.”
“Toshi Reagon uplifts the strength and power of the collective to create liberated space for bodies who need it, which is every one of us,” said Campus and Community Engagement Manager Rani Arbo, who is working closely with Reagon during her residency at Wesleyan. “To have this work unfold within our institution has been galvanizing. Toshi’s exchanges with our students and faculty have been profound, circling the question: What is most important for our collective survival and joy in this moment?”
The multi-talented Reagon – a singer, composer, musician, curator, activist, producer, and storyteller – described her new work as “a right-now story using the era of disco music to steep us in testimony, to surface our glorious and soulful truths.”
“Hard to resist the joy of a heartbeat pounding, hard to hide when somebody’s calling your name. Hard to take cover when you are bathed in beautiful light. Hard to be alone when everyone is moving together,” Reagon said. “Spend 24 hours a day with your soul activated and let the vibrations your body can make be your conductor and your collective salvation on Earth.”
In her new work “You’re Having Too Much Fun So We’re Gonna Have to Kill You,” Reagon interrogates the intense anti-Black and homophobic backlash towards disco, from the “disco sucks” campaign to the 1979 disco demolition night in Chicago. She also explores how disco was appropriated by the global music economy, and how its demise intersected with the AIDS crisis. In telling the story of disco, Reagon ultimately examines how Black and Queer joy, expression, and movement in the United States is consistently and violently suppressed by institutional powers.
Reagon has already given Wesleyan students an inspiring glimpse into her to creative process during two virtual lectures given in April.
Reagon visited “Dance as Activism,” taught by Assistant Professor of the Practice in Dance and Visiting Assistant Professor of African American Studies Joya Powell. Reagon spoke to the class about the role of the discotheque in the liberation of Black, Latinx, and Queer bodies in the 1960s and ’70s.
“Her curiosities instigated a rigorous semester-long embodied investigation of history, place, community, music, movement, and fashion,” said Powell.
Students in the class, along with Michayla Robertson-Pine ’23, produced a Silent Disco on April 13. With string lights, gobos, disco balls, and light sticks, the experience transformed an outdoor tent into a secret, invite-only underground disco club. Throughout the evening, they taught dance moves using silent headphones to 50 fellow students.
Reagon followed up with a virtual visit on April 20 to the course “Queering the Dancing Body: Critical Perspectives on LGBTQ Representation” taught by Professor and Chair of the Dance Department, and Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Hari Krishnan. Reagon talked about her artistic practice, the origins of her new project, and the collective strength needed for liberatory work within oppressive systems.
“Toshi Reagon’s profound reflection on the politics of the unexpected and the unpredictable is an urgent call for us to transgress with fierce empathy and measured intensity,” said Krishnan. “The veracity in which activism, art making, social history and queerness are brilliantly braided in her universe is awe-inspiring.”
Reagon started her year-long Wesleyan residency in November 2021, with a live-streamed improvisational performance with vocalist, record producer, songwriter, musician, author, and actress Nona Hendryx of Labelle; and artist manager, producer, remixer, music supervisor, performer, recording artist, writer, and DJ Bill Coleman. The event was co-developed and hosted by the Free Center in Middletown with the center’s Founder and Director, Embodying Antiracism Community Fellow Kerry Kincy.
Reagon’s artist residency at Wesleyan University is supported by the Mellon Foundation, as well as the Association of Performing Arts Professionals as part of their new program APAP ArtsForward, which supports the performing arts field’s safe, vibrant, and equitable reopening and recovery.