Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision imagines a more just and beautiful world

The performance installation, running August 13–17 in Pittsfield, offers hope that a better world is possible, that equity and inclusion are not only conceivable, but imminent.

PITTSFIELD — Pooja Prema’s vision — to create a house of healing, resilience, and belonging that celebrates the lives of women of color — has finally come to fruition. Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision is nothing short of symbolic. The live installation — featuring 1 house, 21 rooms, 65 women, 5 days, and 10 live performances — will open at the Whitney Center for the Arts on Friday, Aug. 13.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime happening,” the Berkshire-based artist and founder of the Rites of Passage program told The Edge. As the installation inches toward opening, Prema underscores a fundamental truth: “This is part of an evolving project that is meant to mushroom into a grassroots movement — one that creates a template to enable women around the country and around the globe to create their own rites of passage installations. But it will not happen again here, in the Berkshires, with me [at the helm],” Prema explained of the all-Women-of-Color house representing different diasporas through myriad community collaborations.

Rites of Passage founder Pooja Prema.

Rites of Passage, at its core, is a movement to reclaim and celebrate women’s initiations — moments that mark important transitional periods in a woman’s life including birth, puberty, marriage, childbirth, and death. In May, Prema launched a crowdfunding campaign in support of the August live performance, a collaborative multimedia project celebrating the histories, rites of passage, and visionary futures of Black, Indigenous, and Immigrant (cis and trans) Women of Color in America. At that time, Prema called Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision, “a reparations project … that is using the arts to amplify the voices and stories and experiences of Black, Indigenous, and Immigrant Women of Color past, present, and hopefully future.

The venue, an historic Pittsfield mansion (the former Women’s Club of the Berkshires) is symbolic: each room is a living embodiment of a “rite of passage” in women’s lives and a reclamation of ancestral resilience and power, all under one roof. With the long-anticipated event (originally scheduled for August 2020 and postponed due to COVID) on the horizon, energy and anticipation are high.

“This is a rare opportunity,” Prema emphasized, of the extraordinary reality of bringing so many amazing women of color — from artists and doulas to activists, educators, and others — here to the Berkshires, “to be building community, interfacing with our local community, to be sharing their visions for a more just and beautiful world.”

The Whitney Center for the Arts in Pittsfield. Photo courtesy The Whit

This is not a typical theater experience. It is not seated, rather it’s a moving performance in which the audience is semi-guided from room to room — following a specific route — in groups of up to nine people, every five minutes. “We strongly encourage people to buy tickets [in advance], as we cannot guarantee there will be spaces for such a limited experience,” Prema said. There are two performance slots each day: afternoon from 2-5 p.m. (last entry at 3:20 p.m.) and evening from 6-9 p.m. (last entry at 7:20 p.m.). The experience, one Prema calls “a continuous walk through,” takes more than 90 minutes to complete.

Individuals who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) are invited to attend the opening afternoon performance on Friday, Aug. 13 from 2-3:20 p.m. “We wanted to offer a very special experience where People of Color could witness Women of Color — without having white folks around — to create a unique and vital container for our healing process,” Prema explained. Following the inaugural performance, admission is open to all by following this ticket link. In addition to hundreds of tickets that were given away to local BIPOC individuals, there is a sliding scale for tickets that begins at $1.

“Because it’s a sliding scale, and not a usual ticketed performance, there can only be one ticket bought at a time,” Prema said, citing the ease of going back into the Eventbrite system to purchase subsequent tickets. It is a drawback, for which Prema is apologetic, but the only way around having a set ticket fee (which remained a top priority for organizers throughout the process). “Instead, people are invited to choose what they are able to give, whether it’s $1, $50, or $100, we want people to have that choice.” (All Massachusetts COVID protocols will be followed in an attempt to create a safe and enjoyable experience for all.)

Evening talk-backs, beginning at roughly 9 p.m., will take place with Rites of Passage artists and local community leaders outdoors at the Whitney Center each evening. “I think it’s a great opportunity for people to come; even if they did not attend the performance that day, they can come back [to participate in the talkbacks].” Each talk-back has a different theme: Visions of Liberation (Aug. 13); Honoring our Ancestors (Aug. 14); Embodied Truth (Aug. 15); Reclaiming Sustenance (Aug. 16); and Emergent Futures/Future Generations (Aug. 17).

“We need each other to exist,” Prema emphasized, calling Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision an opportunity — a venue — to “give [everyone] hope that a better world is possible, that equity and inclusion are not only possible, but imminent. They are happening; women leading, changing the tide of how society has operated for the last several hundreds of years is happening [now], and people need to see it, to feel that hope.”