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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Reflection & Poem: Violence & Joy Showing of 'Lost In The Woods' March 25, 2023, Oakland, CA

A Secret Show: Violence and Joy presents Lost in the Woods March 25, 7:00 p.m. The invitation comes via text, the location undisclosed. Trespassing and fence climbing are part of the deal. The sender’s name is familiar, that of Bay Area-based dancer and multi-disciplinary artist Patrick Barnes. Game for an adventure, I accept.

Several days before the outing, a location is shared, a dot on a map. “Meet at the Commons....I will be performing where Cob used to be,” the enigmatic message states. A Google-search shows that the meeting place, the Wood Street Commons, is what remains of a once much larger community of unhoused individuals. Until recently approximately 300 residents lived communally under the freeway in West Oakland. Their approach of providing mutual aid and using a harm reduction model to support each other was seemingly effective. Caltrans removed the vast majority of the people and their belongings in the fall of 2022. Cob on Wood was the community center with medical clinic, free store, and kitchen buildings, whose structures are now piled haphazardly in a corner of the small remaining camp, which sits on city property.

I arrive dressed warmly against the howling winds. The Commons are quiet. As I linger near a free commissary, I see proof of the sharing of resources in a crate of apples and shelves of fresh bread.

Barnes leads us over some K-rail and through a fence into a vast open space under the MacArthur maze. The vaulting freeway abutments catch the setting sunlight. A solitary rust-colored chain with fist-sized links, hangs in the space where the encampment once stood.

Avoiding the pretention of performance-art, Barnes tells us what to expect: a short story, some dancing and another longer story.

Standing tall, his muscled body relaxed, Barnes recounts an incident from his early boyhood, when he was separated from his mother at a grocery store. Taking matters in his own hands he walks with determination the many blocks to their home in search of her. Discovering only a drunken father there, the boy returns to the store to find his frantic mother having called the police. The story lays bare the connection between Barnes as a boy and the man before us today, purposeful, brave and haunted by familial relationships.

In silence he crouches, performing a ritualistic repetitive motion, his hands circling each other, washing or wrapping his wrists. He cycles thoughtfully through a series of motions, using one arm to stop the other from an act of violence or self-harm, rubbing his heart, tearing at the side of his mouth, or assuming a martial art pose. He pauses, resets himself and begins anew, an internal struggle drives him.

Approaching us, Barnes tells us a fairytale about a boy lost in the woods. The boy meets a dragon who takes him on a journey to visit the ghosts of his father past and future. The son watches his father fight the demons of poverty, abuse, mental illness, and drug addiction. Without help, despite his earnest battles, the father dies a lonely death. While striving to do to better, the son must also fight these generational traumas. No matter the hurdles. the boy, now a man, keeps going.

Barnes climbs the chain, placing his toes inside the large links to gain purchase. Dangling from his wrist, he tells us his father’s last words were that he was scared, to which Barnes responded with the lie that everything was going to be alright. A triangle forms as he wraps his feet in the chain, arching his back, his free arm bent to place a knuckle between his teeth. The contrast between the freedom of soaring and the inescapable force of gravity are an apt metaphor for the opposing powers of truth, pain and beauty Barnes has laid bare.

Lost in the Woods is meant to bring performance to “abandoned people in abandoned places.” On this night, we were but a few viewers. I am told many attended last summer’s work-in-progress showing in the midst of the thriving Woods Community. It is easy to guess why attendance is low. The displaced community members’ lives are again consumed by the day-to-day struggle for solitary survival. It may be emotionally difficult to return to the desolate land of their once vital village. The possibility of discipline looms should we be caught trespassing. Sadly, the ability to prioritize performance attendance, even free shows by a friend, performed down the block, continues to be a privilege of the housed and employed. Fortunately, filmmakers were in attendance on this and previous evenings, so this impactful work will have a life beyond the ephemeral moments of fleeting light on a winter’s eve.

Reflection by Jen Norris, posted March 28, 2023

A Poem in Response to Patrick’s LOST IN THE WOODS by Jen Norris

Who does one help? Who does one heal?

In the face of a humanitarian crises the scale of mass homelessness

In a city as impoverished as one’s family of origin

Each low on resources, exhausted and addicted

Societal contracts failing, as bureaucratic webs hinder

How does one help? How does one heal?

An artist, trained in elite practices

A man of great strength

Full of grace, achingly vulnerable

Surrounded by need, willing, wishing, wanting to help

Communal compacts burgeoning

Mutual aid and generosity of spirit in place

Alive with the knowledge of the power of performance

Opening a world of wonder by returning to the word

Shedding the pretense, welcoming the collective

Sharing one’s demons, by word and by gesture

Passing through the woods to get to the clearing

The thrill of performance

The high of completion

The relief of being seen

The healing incremental but visible


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