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BMJ 1336
December 25, 2009
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. Throughout this year, we Americans have been taking note of Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. The official celebrations are almost over, but our fascination with the 16th president is sure to continue, because every generation must negotiate with his ghost. That haunting presence from our past, living on in marble and memory, who had the saddest eyes, told off-color jokes, died too soon and even now seems to tap us on the shoulder, as if to remind us, "I'm still watching to see how you're doing." He never seems satisfied. And perhaps that's his power over us. From his unfinished life, he ponders and worries for an unfinished nation and an unfinished dream. Of all that was done this year to remember Lincoln, the most imaginative, daring and provocative — at least to some of us who followed the year's commemorations — is the extraordinary piece of dance and theater created by the choreographer Bill T. Jones.
BILL T. JONES: That's good. Well, let's go for it then. Let's go for it.
BILL MOYERS: Bill T. Jones is one of our country's greatest dance artists.
BILL T. JONES: You did this and I was doing this. You know, they're different right?
BILL MOYERS: In his three-plus decades, he has conjured for his audience dozens of indelible works. And he's been showered with more awards than I can list, including the Tony, the Obie and the MacArthur genius award. He's currently getting raves for his work on the Broadway hit called "Fela!"
But earlier this year, it was Jones' contemplation of Abraham Lincoln and his legacy that caught my eye. The dance is called "Fondly Do We Hope, Fervently Do We Pray" — a phrase from Lincoln's second inaugural address, spoken as the end of the Civil War was near, and just two weeks before he was assassinated. You've never seen Lincoln's story told like this before.
NARRATOR: So we've started and yes we are a crowd up here. Who am I? I'm one of a crowd.
BILL MOYERS: Bill T. Jones, welcome to the Journal.
BILL T. JONES: It's so great to be here, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Abraham Lincoln may be the most scrutinized figure in American history. What can a dance tell us that 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 books haven't done?
BILL T. JONES: Well, first of all, you sort of start at really at a very sensitive place, where I'm living right now. Is dance the primary language of what I do? I'm very proud of "Fondly." Some people take umbrage with the fact that dance does not seem to be the central mode of expression. But I'm trying to make this for an internet generation. I'm trying to make it for a generation of people who watch television more than they read books. I'm trying to make it for a generation of people who are much more visual, in some ways than they are in any way literary. So, yes, dance. But it is a performance art work that is multimedia. Almost trying to suggest the number of ways in which one could ask the question, "Who was this man?", which is less interesting to me than can we see that man anywhere in ourselves or around us right now?
BILL MOYERS: You did several things to me in this dance. One of them is to — you know, we think of Lincoln as gangling and lacking grace. But there he is, very young man, dancing, swaying like a willow in the wind.
BILL T. JONES: Paul Matteson. And, you know, initially, I wrestled with that idea. I said, "Bill, your company has been known for doing nontraditional casting. Why do you have to have a man? Why does it have to be a white man? Why does it have to be any one person on that stage identified as Lincoln?" And through processes which are probably a little boring, and I actually kind of, I don't understand it myself, but I began to look for something to hold onto always thinking about the audience that would be watching it. So, somebody had to evoke Lincoln. Now, if you think about it, who is the long tall handsome black narrator?
NARRATOR: Let me tell you a story. The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat.
BILL T. JONES: No, that is not Lincoln. No, that is not Frederick Douglass, although he says Frederick Douglass' words. He also says Walt Whitman's. He also says Abraham Lincoln's words. And he says to us at one point, "I'm a member of a crowd." He is the voice up there. But he looks more like Lincoln than Paul. That's just the point. Let Mr. Lincoln relax for a moment. Lincoln is a spirit. Lincoln is an idea, a way of being. Once people can become comfortable with that, then they can begin to maybe feel Lincoln's lyricism, and how this artist is trying to talk about his relationship to Lincoln.
BILL MOYERS: Let's go to that extraordinarily beautiful scene in the dance when young Abraham and young Mary Todd are dancing. Take a look.
Watch her weeping, Mary Ann
Our tears are forever, in portrait and fold
Restless weeping, Mary Ann,
We wait for another, to curl up and come home
Echo forever, Mary's man
Through heart and through body
In the void of the mind
Enter screaming, hapless world
The loss of her hero, the loss of his girl
BILL T. JONES: I realize I'm very, very fond of that section, and you know, we fought so much about that. I was so afraid to give that kind of emotion. I was so afraid that the piece would settle around the myth of that husband and wife, which is its own cottage industry, as you know right now, Mary Todd and so on. So, I said, OK, let's embrace it in the moment and find the most romantic way to dance, so that in a — with a light touch you could suggest these were real people, who actually had a passionate relationship, and we're going to do it uncompromising in the way we dance. You know that kind of hunching way that he's holding her? Can you imagine in the 19th Century a man, a dignified man, hunching? Well, they had a sexual relationship. We can say that now. We can say-
BILL MOYERS: But we couldn't for a long time, right?
BILL T. JONES: Well, yeah. We can — well, I'm not even sure in this society even now. There are some people who don't.
BILL MOYERS: Oh, yeah. And I guess it's almost naive to say it. But, you know, I don't — I've never thought of Lincoln as a 24-year-old man in the prime of his youth until I watched this. I mean, I think of him, you know, as Mount Rushmore or the Monument or as the figure at Ford Theater, the tragic man. And it's hard to get past-
BILL T. JONES: Oh Bill, is that true? Knowing how well read you are. You know, the scholarship now about Lincoln's sexuality, and-
BILL MOYERS: Well, being well-read is not the same thing as imagining what Lincoln- I can know he was 24-years-old. I can know he was a young man. I mean, I now read — we all now read that when he was single, he visited houses of ill-repute.
BILL MOYERS: He actually said to one of his friends, "Where can I get some?"
BILL MOYERS: And he feared for awhile that he might have syphilis. You would never think of Abraham Lincoln in those regards unless the artist takes you back as you did-
BILL MOYERS: -to a very young Lincoln, right?
BILL T. JONES: But what I was trying to do was not so much to see Lincoln in Paul's body, but to say that Lincoln was one of a community of people that was moving. And I don't care. He — Paul is blond. Paul is a handsome young guy. Lincoln was, as we all know, gaunt and tall and dark. I just want to say that the personal biography, of which we have many, is not what's at work here. How does that figure who we vaguely think could be Lincoln — how is he handled in that world? There is a moment wherein he is carried by the group. And we make what we call a tableau. And we put our two gorgeous black dancers Lamichael and Shayla, and I said, "Now, put your hand on their head and look boldly into the face of the audience." Are you seeing a young white man touching two black people? Are you seeing Abraham Lincoln, a picture in his time? Or are you seeing a composition that suggests something formal. That's what's going on there because the section following all of this biography then becomes more about policy, the debates. Stephen Douglas. The people shouting. But in the center of it is the man that I was asked to reference. And this is one thing about him. We want to — I don't want to call Mary crazy. I don't want to do anything like that. I want to say that they were in love like you and me.
NARRATOR: Mary was born on Dec 13, 1818. She does not know physical labor. Her slave-owning family is rich. At age 17 she announces that she is going to be the wife of a president someday. She falls in love and marries a tall, lanky, joke-cracking lawyer. They have four sons but only one of them lives to become an adult. Against considerable odds her husband becomes the 16th president. And immediately the country is embroiled in the bloodiest conflict it has ever known. To this day people are still analyzing and taking sides about her. A former freed slave and dressmaker becomes her closest confidante. She has an obsessive need to shop, often buying things she doesn't need for which many people hate her. Still she is a cultivated woman who encourages her husband's most progressive ideas. Shortly after an intense but successful reelection campaign, she goes to the Ford's Theater with her husband to see a light comedy. A disgruntled, southern sympathizer, Shakespearean actor, shoots him in the head. April 15, 1865 7:22am, he dies, he dies, he dies. Always high strung, Mary never recovers from her loss. Sometimes pitied, sometimes ridiculed, she wanders aimlessly for the rest of her life. She sleeps on the same side of the bed, convinced that he will return.
BILL MOYERS: That is not the dowdy, matronly woman that comes through us through the popular history of the last 100 years.
BILL T. JONES: But she was a passionate woman, you know? She had — they had four children? She could speak French. She loved beautiful things, you know. She was feisty. She was, you know, who can say, you know? Who can say? That is not even the point. You know, it's interesting, Bill, that you have gone for the heart of the most emotional things in the piece. And I appreciate that. But those things have to be offset by things which are not so tasty. Things that are a disjunction. The contemporary people. That was just two biographies — one, his biography, the great man, and his wife. But there are other biographies. Other biographies that are less glamorous. No, they are not Mount Rushmore. They are a young guy who's been to Iraq or Afghanistan.
NARRATOR: He has no time for people complaining about what was done to them in the past. Life is tough for everybody. He knows things about death. He has seen buddies in his unit blown to pieces. He drives on city streets now, but keeps waiting for bombs to explode on the side of the road.
BILL T. JONES: They are a woman born in 1939, who is no fan of our contemporary President.
NARRATOR: Of course slavery was wrong. But she misses the time when things were clear and all the world made sense. Nowadays, anything goes. If this new President makes a big mess of things, don't blame her. She didn't vote for him. She can feel age set into her bones like plaster hardening in a mold. She dreams of being young again and wishes she had the whole thing to do over.
BILL MOYERS: What did you want these voices that you put in here from the contemporary world, the soldier from Iraq, the woman from South Carolina. What did you want?
BILL T. JONES: Well, what I was shooting for was, I was saying this piece, ultimately, is not a biopic. I think Hollywood does it — I've heard they're going to make a film and I hope they do. It is supposed to be, "How can we use Lincoln and his time as a mirror through which we look darkly at ourselves?" In other words, the voices that still disagree. There's a young man danced by Lamichael, which is part of his biography, who is saying that he — that people are not all guaranteed to love. You've just seen this. He is a young black man, who says that he's heard of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. But he's not sure that government's for him. You know, you've got to listen closely, and you can hear that, you said, "Abe's looking over our shoulder now to see how we're doing." Well, Abe, we're not doing so well. You know? If you thought that there was going to be an end to the racial problems. If you thought we were going to have a true democracy that would have a civil discourse. No, I don't think we're doing so well. Those biographies, which are fictional to a point, are supposed to suggest a much bigger picture. Should it have been 200 of them? Well, you know, you do that film maybe or documentary but you don't do it on stage.
BILL MOYERS: You know, Carl Sandburg in those volumes he did about Lincoln was widely criticized for being historically irresponsible. But poetically, he was — it was rhapsody. And a lot of people awoke to Lincoln as a spirit, as you say. As himself a poet. As, in some respects, he was, that might have been inspired, or would have been inspired, by the literal story. By the facts of Lincoln, as important as they are.
BILL T. JONES: Yeah. And I think that Carl Sandburg's era was, as great as it was, it was even less challenged than we are now. There are so many sources of information. And there's so much distraction. Any one person, you Google, anybody, particularly an Abraham Lincoln, you could spend probably the next — rest of your life trying to find out the real story. So, poets do us a service in that regard. And all artists, artists like myself, when you take on a historical subject, you owe it first and foremost to yourself. What is my location in this staggering field of information? How do I feel about it?
BILL MOYERS: You wrestle with — I mean, I don't know anybody who's caught the poignant opposites in Lincoln's life. Here was a man who was leading the remnant of the nation in its civil war with trying to hold the Union together, who was also struggling with the loss — he had four sons — the loss of three of those sons with a wife who was, you know, tragically embittered and inconsolable. And you catch that, you catch that in this incredible scene of Lincoln and Mary and their four sons. Let's take a look at that.
BILL T. JONES: Oh nice.
NARRATOR: He falls in love with Mary Todd, a pretty, rich, ambitious girl from Kentucky and marries her three years later. Some people say that Mary was the best thing that ever happened to him. Others say something else. Stop. They have fours sons and though he and she struggle with each other, they love their boys. But only one of them lived to become an adult. Stop.
BILL MOYERS: We think of the pressures on the President. But here was a president who was — the body politic was torn apart, and his own family was dying off around him.
BILL T. JONES: Can you imagine one in eleven of every men of age in this country was killed in that war? And because — and be placed — because he did not compromise with the South. Can you imagine that guilt? Here I'm thinking of Mr. Lincoln, folded over with anxiety in his night shirt, you know? At the news from, was it Gettysburg or what have you. Oh, it happens. And that is a remarkable life, safely now on Mount Rushmore. But that is being happen — is happening every day. And particularly if you dare believe in something and you get people through charisma, through force of intellect, to follow you. Be careful. You will pay. But that seems to be the way it works.
BILL MOYERS: I was surprised when I read that you were taking this on. When they came to you, it wasn't — you didn't come up with the idea. They came to you, and wanted a commission. That is-
BILL T. JONES: Yes, they did.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you say yes?
BILL T. JONES: I said, yes, because, first of all, Welz Kauffman is incredibly charming through his enthusiasm and his integrity, but when he gave me Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, and I read it.
BILL MOYERS: A "Team of Rivals."
BILL T. JONES: A "Team of Rivals". And I thought that I — "Oh, I know what that's about." And I'm a little — like a lot of us who became disaffected in the '60s — I'm suspicious of this great man, who we black folks were taught to think of as the redeemer. We were taught to think that he was here to save us. He wasn't. It was all about politics. It was all about economics. You know, that was kind of a bitterness that came out of the '60s and '70s. And when I started reading it again and tracking his development. And, need I say that the election that we were going into when I started this. And the hope-
BILL MOYERS: Obama 2008-
BILL T. JONES: Yes. And, you know, I don't want to label Mr. Obama with any more expectations, but at that time, in the back of my mind, I said, "Oh my God, maybe it could happen in your lifetime." Lincoln was very controversial. He came in on a platform. People didn't — he had to — literally, he came in and one of the bloodiest battles ever in the history of the country happened under his watch. And he behaved exemplary. But in a man who started with white supremacist ideas, and ended up with Frederick Douglas saying, "Mr. President that was a sacred effort." Wow. Oh, transformation. Ah, that is an eternal value. And it's something I'm looking for in myself and in the world. Call it hope. It's like — it's almost a brand now, isn't it? Hope. But I thought there's a reason why — you've worked with some heavy duty politicians. Why do they all, at some point, clear their throat and make a modest connection between themselves and great Abe? Oh, Abe's, what do you call it? His stock his high. It's high in the political world. I thought, "Why is that?" Well, we make figures. We give them worth over time, you know? I — that's what was going on for me, at this moment, when I was making the piece. Thinking, "Oh, maybe it could happen again now." And that's when I became really interested in him again. And I began to love him again.
BILL MOYERS: Love him again? Were you allowed to love him when you were growing up?
BILL T. JONES: Oh. Please, I mean, like every other school child. I mean, learning the Gettysburg Address. But more importantly, in my home, he was the only white man I was allowed to love unconditionally. I guess John F. Kennedy would have been a close second. "Did any of them really deserve it?" says my black radical friends. Did any of them really deserve it? Well-
BILL MOYERS: Deserve your love?
BILL T. JONES: Deserve that kind of love-
BILL MOYERS: And reverence.
BILL T. JONES: Yes, he was a savior. A redeemer. The redeemer. Well, I have now decided that he does deserve it. He does deserve that trust that my five-year-old heart gave to him. He does deserve it.
BILL MOYERS: You know, as you talk, I remember you saying somewhere that, where you were grow — in that house where you grew up, there were four pictures on the wall. Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy.
BILL T. JONES: All painted on velvet. On one picture.
BILL MOYERS: And all assassinated.
BILL T. JONES: Interesting. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Have you thought about that? Every one of your heroes assassinated?
BILL T. JONES: Yeah. It seemed to be the job description, doesn't it?
BILL MOYERS: How do you cope with that? That sense of tragedy?
BILL T. JONES: Now, I feel like I could weep right now. The way I, just sitting here with you, Bill Moyers. And that is something, as my mother would say, you've got to take it to Jesus, which means when something is so big that you will never understand it. I mean, I'm not a Christian in that way. But that — when she said, "You've got to take it to Jesus," which means you've got to sort of absorb it somehow or other into the stuff of your life. And if you're an artist like myself, it leaches out over a life. Sometimes its belligerence. Sometimes it's tragedy. Sometimes it's just wild hopefulness. Dance after 9/11. That kind of thing.
BILL MOYERS: Some people may remember that after 9/11, I asked you to come on my show. And I — and I said, "What do you do after a tragedy like this?" Do you remember what you told me?
BILL T. JONES: You have to dance.
BILL MOYERS: Is that the way you deal with grief? You've had a lot of grief in your life, a lot of anger, a lot of loss.
BILL T. JONES: Well, I — it becomes harder. You know, I'll tell you something. I was at Berkeley about — just after Arnie had died.
BILL MOYERS: Arnie Zane-
BILL MOYERS: -your partner and cofounder of the company.
BILL T. JONES: And I'm, you know, pontificating to a room of young dance students. And I'm saying, "I challenge you." You know? "I want you in 20 years to go and look in a mirror and look for the lines around your mouth. Are they going to be smile lines or are they going to be here? Are they — are you going to be crushed — is your face going to tell the story of a person who has become embittered and weighted down or will that spirit that you all have shown me today," and I was feeling my own oats, right? And I said, "I challenge you in 20 years." There are days when I can't look in the mirror, because I'm afraid I'm going to have failed. Because my heart is heavy. You know? I think it's part of the — it's part of aging and so on. But that person that said dance like that? I have to work for that person to be there. I think it's an honest work.
BILL MOYERS: This physicality in this play is remarkable. Not surprising to anyone who knows about you and your own long obsession with the body, and your own effort to discover all aspects of the body. There is, in the beginning of the dance, a marvelous solo that begins with Whitman's language from "I Sing the Body Electric." And who's the dancer?
BILL T. JONES: Shayla-Vie Jenkins.
BILL MOYERS: Here she is.
NARRATOR: Head, neck, hair, ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eye-brows,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth...
BILL T. JONES: What's going on here in this piece about Abraham Lincoln? Walt Whitman is cataloguing the body, from his position, somewhere in the 1850s.
NARRATOR: ...Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition
Cheeks, temples...
BILL T. JONES: And here you're looking at a particular body. Is she a universal body? Look how gorgeous she is. The way she moves. She doesn't move like a normal person. Is she a body in the 19th Century? Or is she a body now? The work is saying put all that aside. Connect the idea of the body to a real body. That for me is what dance really is.
NARRATOR: ...Arm-sinews, arm-bones,
Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, fore-finger, finger-balls, finger-joints, finger-nails,
Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,
Ribs, belly, back-bone
Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, man-balls, man-root,
Strong set of thighs,
Leg fibers...
BILL MOYERS: Could anyone less sensual than Walt Whitman have written those words? Nouns in procession. Could anyone less sensual than a Bill T. Jones have choreographed them? I'm serious, I mean, this is a very sensual moment in a play about Lincoln.
BILL T. JONES: Well, I don't know if they could or not, but there's a great book by Daniel Mark Epstein about Walt Whitman and Lincoln, and he claims that Lincoln literally had to almost pull "Leaves of Grass" out of the fire because Mary Todd, like many people felt it was pornography. But he supposedly did read it and after Cooper Union, according to Epstein-
BILL MOYERS: The speech that Lincoln made here?
BILL T. JONES: Yes, yeah. It began this sensuality in his writing, the poetic leaps, he argues we're informed by Walt Whitman's — this wild man, his take on the body politic of America. And Lincoln obviously was not thrown off by the fact that Walt Whitman was pan-sexual. Walt Whitman was quoting eastern mysticism. Walt Whitman saw the slave as a person and talked about the personhood. Tried to talk about sexuality, men and women. I think Lincoln was quite moved. Therefore, sensuality is something that was a gift given to American letters by Walt Whitman.
BILL MOYERS: But when I watch this, Bill, it was the first time it was really driven home to me that slavery was about physicality. It was about the body. There were these strong men who were purchased because of their strength, and these beautiful black women who were purchased because of their beauty. It was all about the body. And you bring that home. Were you aware of doing that? Is that what you were trying-
BILL T. JONES: That's another thing I didn't want to do. We all know slavery. So, to do slavery is a cliché. Or — it's — you'll get bogged down. How can you get to the core of the thing without doing the familiar? So how do we do a piece about the Civil War and not show a slave auction? Well, we tried to do it in a postmodern way.
NARRATOR: Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen, let us begin!
Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eye-brows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids, mouth...
BILL T. JONES: The same movement that he is doing in that scene is what we saw beautiful Shayla-Vie Jenkins doing at the top in an almost a clinical way, talking about the body, but now it's inflected theatrically.
NARRATOR: ...Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue,
Strong shoulders, do you hear me, strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula,
Ladies and gentlemen, do I hear hind-shoulders and the ample side-round of the chest,
Upper-arm, arm-pit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones,
Wrist and wrist-joints,
Yes sir, wrist and wrist joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, fore-finger, finger-balls, finger-joints, finger-nails,
Yes sir, Broad breast-front, do you hear me? Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,
Ribs, belly, back-bone, joints of the back-bone
Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round, man-balls, man-root,
Who wants a strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above,
Leg fibers, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under-leg,
Do you hear me? Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel,
Going, going, going, sold!
BILL T. JONES: I thought, "Slavery is almost reactionary." To go back to slavery seems beside the point. But I think there was something formally in what you said about it being about the body. About the body is the thing that, it connects us, the body is bought and sold, and the body is definitely the thing that will divide us. And slavery is the most horrible example of it. And it's simply abstraction. Start with abstract movement. And how — that's why I defend the way in which I've used text because you see a person doing one thing, and you hear something and once again, this notion of association, you will make a connection. Now, we push it a little bit with sound effects and so on and Janet Wong's projection of a 19th Century gathering of men and women and the dancing man. But it is nothing more than an abstract gesture, heated up in the crucible of our association. It's useful for people to do that exercise. See something horrible through a formal lens. It's almost like the Greeks used to say that you had to wear a mask to talk about something tragic. Because if the mask allowed you to talk about the most horrible things back here. And because the naked face, they said, everyone could see themselves too easily. But the mask, which was the form of the play, and in this respect the abstraction, will allow you to go even deeper in what it could possibly mean.
BILL MOYERS: What it said to me, that flash and that lash and that noise in the background of the crowd and the "going, going, gone" — you've taken Walt Whitman's poem and turned it into the actual selling of a human body, a literal auction.
BILL T. JONES: Which Whitman would've understood. He would certainly have understood. Yes, he even wrote about — I wish I could quote it. But he says I identify with the slave seller and the slave. Now, that might irritate some people, but he said he could see both of them. And that, I think was an important thing for the American psyche.
BILL MOYERS: And Lincoln, reportedly as a younger man, went down the Mississippi and saw slaves being auctioned and was deeply moved?
BILL T. JONES: Well, we assume he was. Now, did he ever write about it? No. We don't — we just — judging by what he has said, you know, that we have seen that he was moved by it. And that's the problem with history, isn't it? We want history to tell us what — to validate what we think.
BILL MOYERS: And the artist fills in some of the blanks, as you have been doing and -
BILL T. JONES: Yeah. Or goes counter-intuitive.
BILL MOYERS: What do you-
BILL T. JONES: Goes count — well, that — let's say that — he — that's what you mentioned earlier that Lincoln was, in some people's mind, always Honest Abe on a pedestal, but Lincoln had a sexuality. Lincoln was a politician. In the debates, Lincoln is the one that said to Douglas that, no, I would never marry a black woman. But I don't — just because I don't want a black woman for a wife doesn't mean I must have her for a slave. And he even said, I'm not sure if all — if blacks and whites are equal, you know. But he said, people have the right to certain liberties. They have certain rights because they are in America. He was a man of his era. I mean, I think that that I'm not trying to paint hagiographic portrait of him. I'm not. I'm trying to make him human.
BILL MOYERS: So what of the few moments in there when we see this figure that — on the projection screen behind — jauntily, almost merrily dancing. I mean, were you chiding Lincoln for being, sort of, indifferent for a while to slaves?
BILL T. JONES: Well, I'm talking about us. I'm talking about us. I mean, I speak "us" generously. That was Lamichael dressed in the frock coat and a top hat and dancing as he would if he were an entertainer in 1861. Or it could be Lincoln tap-dancing. We don't know. But we did instruct him to just dance jauntily as a, quote, black man, would in 1861. It's a favorite old saw of mine — it is we love certain black folks because of their natural athleticism, their natural sense of sensuality, and they're natural performers. And it's still the question of how do you want your minorities. Like, let's talk about gay people right now. You know what I mean? Like every channel, they have gay people all over it, but I often say they're gay clowns, you know. You can have a gay character, but he's got to be a little ditzy, he's got to probably not be in a relationship, they've got to be, you know, somebody who is good for comic relief, you know. We've been through that with all minorities; the Italians, the Irish, the Jews — it's all of them. And I think that that is what's going on there, just the gentle reminder of something asking the question, are we past this? Because I actually love the way he dances, I mean-
BILL T. JONES: -in the 19th century, you know. I love — it's much — it's not intellectual, you know. It is about performing for me. It makes me feel good. Believe me, in my own career, I'm the own who's joked and said, you know, for me, I've learned the fine art of when to take my shirt off, you know. You know, it sounds-
BILL MOYERS: How do you learn that?
BILL T. JONES: Oh you — how do you learn anything that has to do with getting over or seduction? That's how it's done. Do you like yourself for doing it? Maybe not. Does it work? Sometimes. What happens when you're too old to do it? You have to find another way to, quote, get over. And that's what I call the discourse. Can you find a way, can you find a language, your language, and put it on the table with everyone else's language so that you can actually talk?
BILL MOYERS: If there is a message to this artistic work, it seems to me it comes in that sequence of the debates. And let's look at it and then we'll talk about it.
CLARISSA: Speaker 3.
PAUL: As a citizen I am guaranteed protection of fundamental rights — such as the right of access to the courts, the right to freedom of movement, the right to bodily integrity.
CLARISSA: Speaker 4.
SHAYLA: Oh please. The body is strong and resilient and can withstand a lot. We'll even have a doctor at hand.
JAMYL: Doctor at hand! What are you planning to do? That's outrageous!
PAUL: Let me finish. I own my body. I have the right to have a family and direct the upbringing of my children. And yes I can marry any Body.
SHAYLA: Hold on not every Body is equal.
PAUL: Yes, I agree not every Body is equal. But still, just because I don't want a negro woman for a slave doesn't mean I must necessarily want her for a wife. I can just leave her alone.
CLARISSA: Speaker 5.
JEROME: Not every one can be a citizen. I don't care if he was born here or came over the border. Some people are simply inferior and incapable of self-government and should never be allowed to vote. It is best to keep them separate from us.
CLARISSA: Speaker 6.
LAMICHAEL: And where do you suppose we should keep these people?
JEROME: Send them to some other country where they'll be happy, or just keep them in the back.
LAMICHAEL: Think what you will. We aren't going anywhere. Our minds are made up to live here if we can, or die here if we must; so every attempt to remove us will be, as it ought to be, labor lost. Here we are, and here we shall remain. It's clear. We're here. Get used to it.
ALL: It's clear. We're here. Get used to it. It's clear. We're here. Get used to it.
JEROME: I'd rather die first.
ALL: It's clear. We're here. Get used to it.
JEROME: I'd rather die first.
ALL: It's clear. We're here. Get used to it.
JEROME: We'd rather die first!
BILL MOYERS: Wow, that's all one can say about it. "It's clear. We're here. Get used to it." And then the voice comes back, "I'd rather die first!"
BILL T. JONES: I'd rather die first!
BILL MOYERS: I mean, that could be anybody past or present. It could be immigrants, "We're here to stay." It could be-
BILL T. JONES: It's actually a quote from the gay liberation movement. "We're here. We're queer, get used to it" is what — that's what we actually were quoting there. And we just tweaked it a little bit. "It's clear, we're here, get used to it."
BILL MOYERS: And then there's the call back, "I'd rather-"
BILL T. JONES: "I'd rather die first."
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about this.
BILL T. JONES: Well, I don't know it — I mean, I've been criticized. Some people said, well, it was — he chose very obvious things from now and he imposed it on the Lincoln/Douglas debates and somehow that was cheating or something. Or somehow that was too clear. It was too clear somehow that that's what we were doing here. I mean, there — when she's saying the government — there will be a doctor at hand.
BILL T. JONES: We all know that that was the question about torture in Guantanamo Bay — this whole congressional record about how you justify what torture is. What is torture? What is it, failure of bodily organs or something? So we were making something that was going to be like, take all of the issues then and now in the nasty debate, the discourse, which has never left us and we'd certainly have Mr. Lincoln shaking his head now. And we have, like, combined them in a way. Well, look how people are dancing. And we're not pretending to be rotund Senator Douglas or tall Lincoln. It is about these people having different movements. Now these movements — turn off the sound, the movement is still exciting and interesting. Now put next to it words, some that you agree with and some that you don't. There's a disjunction about that romantic expression — which we call modern dance -at being at the service of some hate speech or being at the service of a position we don't approve of. Well, isn't that a bit like the democratic system? Isn't that, you know, we — e're supposed to be allowing everybody to have their say, but people have horrible things to say. And there are stupid people in positions of power who have the bully pulpit. What do you do with it, you know? Speaker one, speaker two, and that's what I said I think the true meaning of Lincoln's legacy is. Not about the man. I mean, it's a beautiful story and all. But he believed in that and was he naïve, but he believed in — oh, I keep botching it, the government of the people, for the people, and by the people. Was he naïve? Or as they said in the — quaint, you know, when they talked about Geneva Convention, the torture memos, it had become quaint. Or is that a quaint sentiment? Do you really believe that people can govern themselves? It's being fought around the world right now.
BILL MOYERS: Well this is something you haven't resolved in your own life, I know, because we've talked about the capsule biographies in the dance of Lincoln and Mary Todd and the fictional account of the Iraqi soldier and the woman born in 1939. But there's also a capsule biography of Bill T. Jones-
BILL T. JONES: There is.
BILL MOYERS: -inserted in here.
NARRATOR: His great grandmother, he thinks, was born as a slave on a plantation somewhere in Georgia. Slavery is the distant past; something he cannot remember, but somehow cannot forget. He barely remembers when he first realized there was such a thing as a president, although as a five year old, he loved this man on the copper penny or the five-dollar bill as if he was a member of the family, Jesus Christ or Santa Claus. Stop. He never fought in any war. He grows old distrusting politicians and patriots. Stop. The destruction of that war as seen in old photographs seems quaint, even romantic compared to what he has seen since. For him, wars are never declared anymore and no one ever surrenders. Assassinations are no longer reserved for the powerful. He lives the rest of his life waiting for another calamity and is never disappointed. Live performances are unpredictable. Bullets are real. He has his doubts about a government of the people, by the people, for the people but he is still surprised that he never stops believing in great men, though he keeps it to himself.
BILL T. JONES: Well, obviously, I've been outted here, now haven't I? Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Why have you kept it to yourself?
BILL T. JONES: Well, like I say, there's a climate that I came out of in the '60s and '70s, you know. It was a radicalized climate. My generation, Bob Dylan says, "Don't follow leaders and watch the parking meters." There was a cynicism that came in with the cool. Don't believe any of them. Don't believe them. And to believe in great men and great women, as we saw in the last election when everybody came out saying, "Yes, we can," you know, you go at your own risk, you know. You may be disappointed. But what's the alternative?
BILL MOYERS: But is it because we fear they will fail us or is because we know we might fail them?
BILL T. JONES: Oh, very well put, Bill. I think it's a bit of both, isn't it? Then we know they're not gods and goddesses. But you know, there is something to believe what Mr. Lincoln believed about the "us."
BILL MOYERS: The "We the People" in the preamble. You know, he-
BILL T. JONES: "We the people." Who speaks about "we" anymore other than the people who are trying to sell us something? You know? We understand "I." But what does it mean to say "we"? That's something I'm wrestling with right now. The best I can do is my little microcosm of a company. That I can believe in the way it works. The bigger ones, I'm just waiting for that calamity, that scandal, the curtain to be pulled back.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think art changes anything? Can it rest — help us restore the social contract?
BILL T. JONES: Well, let me put it this way, I hope it's not too esoteric but after seeing this work, my, a family member, who is — sister-in-law came to me and she said she's practicing mindfulness because it's come to her belief that we can't expect peace in the world if we don't have peace in our mind. Is that new age? Well, yeah, but she was saying that after seeing this work. You know, you can't expect peace in the world unless you have peace in the mind. Now, art does have the ability to lull. It does have the ability to suggest hope. It does have the ability to do many things. So can art — that's your question — can art make a difference? Let's work on the micro level for now. Let's work on the micro level. That's what I'm saying to myself. Get the people in the theater. Get them something that's handsome, that's well-made, that's generous and maybe they'll leave the theatre with a little bit more freedom in their bodies, not so afraid of their bodies and afraid of other bodies, but also, ah, possibilities of how I might live. I don't dare assume that's going to happen. That is my faith.
BILL MOYERS: But I have to say that your art is laced with that underlying current of tragedy and reality.
BILL T. JONES: And hopefully, as I have been saying, that I want to make work that was encouraging to people. Now, with the tragedy, we acknowledge the tragedy. But do I believe, I hold out a hope, as Lincoln did, that ultimately providence would have its way and that we would be able to see our way. And it never stops the struggle. That's what that ghost train is — chik, chik, chik, chik, in "Fondly." That's the process, the democratic process. It seems to be in the toilet right now. It's being controlled by special interest, small-mindedness, divisiveness but it's the one we have. And that is almost the way I feel about art, you know. Stay on the train. Stay on the train. You know, it doesn't- maybe there is no destination. Maybe it is only the going. But this is the one I want to ride on.
BILL MOYERS: Bill T. Jones, thank you very much for being with me.
BILL T. JONES: Thank you, Bill. It is amazing, a wonderful pleasure to be here.
NARRATOR: I was born in 2009.
I've lived a hundred years.
We too fall in love, kill each other.
And like you we sometimes violently disagree.
For us, as for you, Lincoln is a story we tell ourselves.
We think about that man born 300 years ago, his times and his big questions.
We still dedicate, we still consecrate ourselves, to his unfinished work,
but for us, you are our big question...
The world I live in you would not recognize.
However some things never change, like waiting, disappointment and still believing...
In great men....
and great women.
BILL MOYERS: Bill T. Jones and his company spent nearly two years making this remarkable work of Dance Theater. Throughout that time, our colleagues at the PBS series "American Masters" were on the scene documenting the entire process with their cameras. Their film about the creation of "Fondly Do We Hope, Fervently Do We Pray" will premiere on "American Masters" in early 2011. The dance itself is currently on a national tour. If you go to our website at and click on "Bill Moyers Journal," you can find out if it's coming to a town near you. That's all at And that's it for the Journal. We'll be off the air next week, but we'll see you again next year. I'm Bill Moyers.
Bill Moyers Journal (2007-2010)
Episode Number
Bill T. Jones
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Public Affairs Television & Doctoroff Media Group (New York, New York)
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Episode Description
BILL MOYERS JOURNAL takes a unique look at our nation's 16th President - through the eyes of critically acclaimed choreographer Bill T. Jones. In a groundbreaking work of choreography, FONDLY DO WE HOPE...FERVENTLY DO WE PRAY. Jones reimagines a young Lincoln in his formative years through dance. Bill Moyers speaks with Jones about his creative process, his insights into Lincoln, and how dance can give us fresh perspective on America's most-studied president. "This piece, ultimately, is not a biopic. It is supposed to ask, 'How can we use Lincoln and his time as a mirror through which we look darkly at ourselves?'" says Jones.
Series Description
BILL MOYERS JOURNAL -- Award-winning public affairs journalist Bill Moyers hosts this weekly series filled with fresh and original voices. Each hour-long broadcast features analysis of current issues and interviews with prominent figures from the worlds of arts and entertainment, religion, science, politics and the media.
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Credits: Producers: Gail Ablow, William Brangham, Peter Meryash, Betsy Rate, Candace White, Jessica Wang; Writers: Bill Moyers, Michael Winship; Editorial Producer: Rebecca Wharton; Interview Development Producer: Ana Cohen Bickford, Lisa Kalikow; Editors: Kathi Black, Eric Davies, Lewis Erskine, Rob Kuhns, Paul Desjarlais; Creative Director: Dale Robbins; Graphic Design: Liz DeLuna; Director: Ken Diego , Wayne Palmer; Coordinating Producer: Ismael Gonzalez; Associate Producers: Julia Conley, Katia Maguire, Justine Simonson, Megan Whitney, Anthony Volastro, Diane Chang, Margot Ahlquist; Production Coordinators: Matthew Kertman, Helen Silfven; Production Assistants: Dreux Dougall, Alexis Pancrazi, Kamaly Pierre; Executive Editor: Judith Davidson Moyers; Executive Producers: Sally Roy, Judy Doctoroff O’Neill
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Additional credits: Producer: Dominique Lasseur, Cathrine Tatge, Stephen Talbot, Sheila Kaplan, Lexy Lovell, Michael Uys, Megan Cogswell, Andrew Fredericks, Peter Bull, Alex Gibney, Chris Matonti, Roger Weisberg, Sherry Jones, Jilann Spitzmiller, Heather Courtney; Associate Producer: Carey Murphy; Editors: Dan Davis, David Kreger, Joel Katz, Andrew M.I. Lee, Sikay Tang, Lars Woodruffe, Penny Trams, Foster Wiley, Sandra Christie, Christopher White; Correspondents: Lynn Sherr, Frank Sesno, Deborah Amos
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Chicago: “Bill Moyers Journal (2007-2010); 1336; Bill T. Jones,” 2009-12-25, Public Affairs Television & Doctoroff Media Group, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 20, 2024,
MLA: “Bill Moyers Journal (2007-2010); 1336; Bill T. Jones.” 2009-12-25. Public Affairs Television & Doctoroff Media Group, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. July 20, 2024. <>.
APA: Bill Moyers Journal (2007-2010); 1336; Bill T. Jones. Boston, MA: Public Affairs Television & Doctoroff Media Group, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from
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