Inheritance: A Litany

Janis Brenner

How do we define ourselves in relation to our biology, DNA, history, and our aging? "Inheritance: A Litany" is a journey into the myriad ways a daughter has "become" her late parents. She inherited "her father's wavy hair, her mother's singing voice, her father's sarcasm, her mother's fragile bones"...but also a lifetime of their objects, belongings, their thoughts and ways of being in the world that all seem to reveal moments of a family's story and a daughter's path. A poetic narrative, a dance, a non-linear play, an opera, a comic drama.

I began the initial gestalt for this work two years ago, after the death of my mother. Having lost both parents, I began making personal lists (litanies) of their lives, accomplishments, influences in the world and on me. This began to reveal the profound notion that I had become them in a myriad of ways I had not understood before, and caused me to begin revisiting the biological, psychological, physical and emotional traits that have formed who I am, as I age, in relation to them. To this end, I worked in the studio by writing a “script” of non-linear litanies, played with movement integration and this text, recorded my singing voice as a layer over Jerome Begin’s initial music pieces, and sang “live” versions on top of recorded material. 

There are only two existing family cassette tapes that contain my parent’s voices –one a 1970 family Chanukah gathering (when my sisters and I were 12, 14 and 16), and the other a detailed, linear record of my father telling of his World War II experiences, from boot camp through the Battle of the Bulge, to the end of the war. I worked with these two recorded texts to begin editing specific lines/quotes from the family gathering, and specific stories from the WWII tapes that relate to a scene in the work I call “He Said/She Said.”

Research included a 2013 article by The New Yorker writer/critic James Woods “Becoming Them”, Lydia Davis’ story/poem “How Shall I Mourn Them?” and most recently The War After by Anne Karpf. I am currently researching specific TED Talks having to do with heredity and genetics, including Gregor Mendel's "Classic Genetics" (researched between 1856-66) which looked at genetic inheritance from plants to human beings through sexually reproducing organisms.

I very much intend for this work to speak to multiple generations. Being at an age where I am watching my peers go through similar life-changing situations regarding the care-giving and then the deaths of their parents, I am also cognizant of younger generations who have gone through this process at too young an age.

At a recent rehearsal of the new material, I invited a young Juilliard graduate who I had mentored in his 2015 choreographic project to come in to watch and give reaction. The three statements he made were, “This makes me want to know more.” “It feels necessary.” “I’m now considering my own familial path.” 

In the last ten years, my work has taken a more narrative turn within the company’s projects. After more than thirty years of making work, including numerous solos, "Inheritance: A Litany" is actually the first full-length solo project I have created for myself. As a mature interdisciplinary artist/performer, this is the right moment for me to venture into explicitly personal-narrative territory, to take the risk of performing a “one-woman show”, and to share the subject matter. The full work will premiere on October 4, 2018 at the United Solo Festival Off-Broadway in NYC.

Rehearsal video of the Opening section and possible Closing section of "Inheritance: A Litany" created and performed by Janis Brenner, based on original "lists" Ms. Brenner began constructing after the passing of both her parents (2013, and 2016). Work-in-progress is an interdisciplinary movement, text, voice, music, non-linear "play" based on personal narratives. The 40-minute solo is scheduled to premiere in October, 2018.


Scene #3: He Said-She Said text

(Dance takes place between two chairs facing one another, on diagonal.)

He said: Don’t be such a Sarah Bernhardt.

She said: You need to practice your violin because it doesn’t come easy. Someday you’ll understand why.

He said: It’s not that I don’t trust You—I just don’t trust the situation.

She said: Starting tonight, we’ll be reading from the encyclopedia at the end of each dinner.

They said: YOU can't smoke pot. You have to set a good example for your sisters.

She said: Save the wrapping paper!

He said: What do you mean you can't walk? I though dancing was supposed to keep you in shape!

She said: You know when you all walk around in a circle at the end of the Schubert piece, you’re looking out and everyone else is looking in to the circle.

He said: Sandy, don’t tell her that!

He said: Nobody your age should have to be going to so many funerals.

I said: But You’re the one who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and watched all your buddies... (tape...father’s voice: war story)...
and you were 19!

He wrote: I think all 3 of my daughters are nuts.

She said: You know, I think your father is crazy.

He said: Your mother is out of her mind.

He said: If I say the sky is blue, she’ll say "No, it’s green."

He said: Your mother is one of the world’s great talkers.

I said: If the 2 of you don’t stop fighting, you’ll have to leave this apartment and not come back.

She said: I need to go walk on the beach.

He said: I’m so glad you’re going back to get your degree—I’ve always thought you hadn’t lived up to your intellectual capacity.

He said: Sandy, don’t shuffle—pick up your feet when you walk.

He said: I’m reading all the books you give me, but I still don’t really understand what Mindfulness is.

He said: Hey, in only a few more years, you’ll be able to come to Elder Hostels with us!

She said: Don’t tell your father that I fell last night.

He said: If I had known how much money we had saved, I would’ve bought a red sports car convertible— and traveled to Israel.

She said: I can’t live in this apartment – you can see the parking lot from here.

He said: I don’t really miss the house – I miss going places whenever I want.

He said: Well, it’s very nice here. But everyone here is going to die.

I said: So are we all.

He said: Not me!

He said: If I ever get like that, you have to promise to push me out a window.

She said: Did Mel die?

I said: Who told you that?

She said: You did.

She: Is there going to be an end for Mel?

I said: Yes, don’t worry Mom.

She said: Dear, who’s picture is that?

said: That’s your grandson, Daniel.

She said: And who’s this?

said: Those were your parents.

I said: Hello? Mom? Are you still in there?

She said: (her expression, from opening scene)

Final Scene (Litany of inherited Objects)

Janis wheels suitcase Downstage R, stops, opens it, sits down.
She takes each item from suitcase as each is sung, places them around herself and the suitcase. Jerome Begin’s music plays underneath vocals. Janis sings on top of the recorded vocals.

I Inherited:

My father’s wallet
My mother’s music box
And his jacket
And her blouse
And his walking stick
And his carvings
And her diamond ring
And her stock options
And her savings books
And her saving everything
And his Buddhas
And his journals
And their photo albums
And their letters from me
And our crumbling anti-war posters
And his tennis racket
And her boots
And their wedding photos
And his World War II medal
And her birding book
And her embroidered handkerchiefs
And the Israeli vase I brought for them
And his wallet, his wallet, his wallet
And her diamond ring
And his suitcase
And her saving everything, her saving everything, I’m saving everything...

Janis wheels suitcase off, as she says final text on top of recorded voice.