On Saying No, from Nia Benjamin

On October 11th, 2017, I said my first big no. This was no small feat for me. I had backed out of doing This Is The Week That Is, and as a result, Tyler Melchior, 1812’s Marketing Manager Extraordinaire, asked me to write a blog post about why.

In all honesty, I’ve written this article about 12 times, give or take, and nothing has quite felt right. I guess it’s because I have a lot to say, and I’m not quite sure how to say it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about who we tell ourselves we have to be, and the sacrifices we make to ensure that we become that person (this idealized self). For me, this person is larger than life, overly-optimistic, selfless, and she doesn’t say no. I think I’ve been doing a lot of presenting of myself. Painting a pretty picture of okayness [sic]. Well, in many respects…I’m not doing okay. I don’t think many of us are.

This year has been dark, for me (us). A lot of my (our) deepest fears have actualized themselves in grotesque technicolor. I’m not surprised, I’m just utterly disappointed. As a young, black woman, I understand the human capacity for bigotry and prejudice. The hunger for power and the need to put down anyone that comes in your way. These things I understand: I’ve seen them, felt them, been subjected to them. It’s tiring.

But there seems to be a larger, cosmic shift taking place. It all seems a bit like chaos. We know there’s always order in chaos. Underlying systems, loops, patterns. The universe favors disorder. Ultimately, I know that chaos is energy, and energy can be controlled, and old systems and ideas will die, and new systems will emerge. But I’m getting a bit impatient. I’m a bit exhausted. I’m ready for things to change. For better. For good.

Since the closing of last year’s edition of This Is The Week That Is, it feels as though America has been pulling a joke on us. Murphy’s Law states that anything that can go wrong, will, and it has. 2017 has been one big circle jerk of tragedy and farce and nonsense. And I’ve been trying to find a way to rationalize it all. Be okay with it, mostly for the purposes of moving forward. My answer, up until October 11th, 2017 was to work. To take this show and that job and this teaching position and that workshop. I worked and worked and worked and worked. Sectioned myself off into a thousand tiny, little pieces, dropping the pieces of myself on the ground like breadcrumbs hoping I would find my way back. But I didn’t, for there was nothing left for me on the other end. I was doing things: working. But I felt so far from myself.

I had spent almost two years bouncing from audition to audition, from job to internship to summer job. I had told myself that I needed to work harder, faster, and better than I ever had before. So I put on a brave face, and I suffered through, and everyone I spoke to couldn’t help but tell me how proud they were of me. And they would always say, “you’re doing so well, you must be so happy,” when in reality, I was feeling anxious. I was fearful. I was hopeless.

When it came time to toss around schedules for This Is The Week, and get ready to start rehearsals, I was feeling empty. I didn’t want to dance, or sing, or smile, or laugh. Nothing quite felt funny.

I didn’t want to lie. I didn’t want to lie to Jen and the cast. I didn’t want to lie to the audience. And mostly, I didn’t want to lie to myself. This world around us can wear you down to a pulp. And I had forgotten how to build myself back up. Time alone was spent reading news headlines, and watching my heart break into thousands of little pieces all around the world. I was coming to crisis: both internal and external.

What I realized when I was so close to the breaking point, is I had forgotten all the things that made me feel good and safe inside of myself. I didn’t know how to look inside myself, to assess where things were feeling wrong. I was sad and crying a lot. I was harsh with  myself and others I know and cared about. I was suffering from devastating headaches and I had forgotten how to relax. I was afraid that one morning I would wake up and everything I love and care about would’ve been disappeared, and all I would have had to show for it was another credit on my resume. I couldn’t think two minutes in front of me, and I had no clear vision of what/who/where I wanted to be me. I had forgotten myself.

Saying no, for me, was an act of self-preserving selfishness. A revolutionary act. To choose my needs over others. To return to that wonderful safe place that we all have access to, but so often run away from. To return to the self. This journey for me is not just saying no to “one job,” it’s saying no to the person I told myself I needed to be, for others, and start saying yes to the person I need to be. For me.

Nia Benjamin, photo by John Flak

Nia Benjamin, photo by John Flak