“If we understood ourselves better, we would damage ourselves less,” James Baldwin wrote in his essay on “The Creative Process.”
That observation was a guiding precept for Laurie Carlos, a fearless actor, director, dancer, poet and teacher who died Dec. 29 at 67 of colon cancer. Her legacy cannot be measured only by her much celebrated work.
True, Carlos left her mark onstage as a performer, director and choreographer. She won an Obie Award for originating the role of “Lady in Blue” in Ntozake Shange’s landmark choreopoem, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” — a rite-of-passage work for legions of young people finding their voices.
Carlos also earned two Bessies, the dance world’s highest honor. Her first was in 1989 for her fierce performance in “Heat,” a collaboration between the New York troupe Urban Bush Women and Carlos’ performance ensemble Thought Music. She earned another in 1993 for “White Chocolate for My Father,” a piece about historical distortions and disfiguring stereotypes.
Those honors solidified her position in New York’s downtown avant-garde scene, making her a major-domo on the margins. But her biggest legacy is as mentor, guide and spiritual sage to artists across the country — including the Twin Cities, where she lived for many years — creating space for their experimentation and exploration, for their fervent disruption and beautiful messes.
A ‘fierce’ commitment
Carlos directed shows by the likes of Sharon Bridgforth, Carl Hancock Rux, Luis Alfaro and Daniel Alexander Jones. Introducing new works, new voices and new ways of creating pieces was at the heart of the role she played in companies such as Movin’ Spirits Dance Theater, which she served as co-artistic director alongside “Rent” choreographer Marlies Yearby.
She brought her approach and aesthetic to a number of Twin Cities venues, including Penumbra Theatre, Pillsbury House Theatre, Walker Art Center and Intermedia Arts.
Her final role was as the narrator in “Queen,” presented last fall at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in Minneapolis. A Black Lives Matter-themed piece, it centered on a woman grieving the loss of her grandson to gun violence. Even as her own death drew near, Carlos was determined to perform in it.
“She was a badass artist who uplifted so many people and was so fiercely committed to her work,” said “Queen” co-writer and performer Junauda Petrus. “As we got deeper into rehearsals, everyone knew she wasn’t feeling well. She went to the hospital and the nurses were like, ‘You should be staying here,’ but she was like, ‘I’ve got a show to open.’ Come opening night, she sang her grandmother’s songs, and gave everyone goose bumps.”
Petrus said Carlos brought a spiritual authenticity to the stage: “She was not an actor or performer but a healer, or high priestess, who was invoking the spirit through the work.”
“Rent” choreographer Yearby first danced with Carlos in 1986, when they performed with Urban Bush Women.
“When I think of Laurie, I think of the ways that she found form and broke it,” said Yearby. “Don’t get me wrong: She had fierce craft. But she was always about finding the right form, or no form, for what she had to say. And that approach as a committed artist was lived onstage and off, to the way she cooked a meal or made her bed.”
New York childhood
Growing up in an artistic household on New York’s Lower East Side, Carlos was impelled to become an artist by the absences she noted in movies, plays and culture — the people and stories she knew were not represented. Like Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin and August Wilson, she set out to change that.
But hers was not a solipsistic mission of self-aggrandizement. Her pursuit of art was an act of love, imbued with a desire to widen the world and become bigger from it. She spoke Yiddish and Spanish and easily moved in the flavorful stew of America. She also sought out truth and, in her work, foregrounded things as they are, and as she dreamed them. It was as if she wanted to take the broken places and things in the world and gather them up in her arms as a healing ritual.
Thus, her loss was felt in a personal way by her many admirers, for whom she long had cultivated a safe space. On social media — a venue often rife with hyperbole — the outpouring of affection was touching in its depth and sincerity.
Calling her “an angel on earth,” Heidi Batz Rogers, who worked with Carlos at Pillsbury House, addressed her directly: “You were mother to all of us. You fed our bodies and our souls, filled us up with courage and hope, and your energy will live on through the growing seed planted in all who knew you.”
Playwright and educator Daniel Alexander Jones remembered her as a kinetic force, someone who was always in motion.
“She charged the air around her,” Jones said. “When she left a room, there was a wake, a tremble, like the sky, milliseconds after a flock of birds have flown across it.”