Reclaiming Joy: A Prescription for Now

Gabrielle Civil

What is the urgency of our invention?

Like everyone else at this profoundly sad and unsettling moment, I’ve been reconsidering my habits of life, work, time management, human connection, and creativity. Yeah, I’m calling my old-timers more. Taking FaceTime calls from my sister in Africa. And doing my best to balance opposing urges to speed up and slow down. As a black feminist performance artist and teacher, I’ve been trying to balance the magnitude of this pandemic, its global loss and sorrow, with the preservation of my own spirit. This hasn’t been easy. To help, I’ve returned to a fundamental cornerstone of my personal, spiritual, critical, and creative practice: joy.


How can we undefine the defined?

Right now, in the thick of COVID-19, what does joy even mean?


What comes to mind when you think of joy? What comes into your body?

At such a grim time, is it offensive even to mention such a word?


What is irresistible to us?

Black feminist joy is uplifting survival and possibility.

Black feminist joy is transformation.

Black feminist joy is not a feeling but a practice.


How can we engage in collective imagining?

In 2014, I collaborated with six other black women performers on a Call, a collective prompt for artistic action. Together, Duriel E. Harris, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Rosamond S. King, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Miré Regulus, Awilda Rodríguez Lora, and myself, Gabrielle Civil, generated many questions. We arrived with different relationships to the words “black,” “woman,” and “performance” and with different black diasporic experiences. With the gift of social proximity, we debated, laughed, played, and brainstormed together. We asked ourselves what we wanted to make, how we wanted to be in the world. The result was a Call for Experiments in Joy.


How can we move through or without fear?

In our Call, we name five steps for how to conduct an Experiment in Joy.


1. Tell the Truth

2. Make Something New

3. Invite Someone In

4. Document

5. Repeat


In this moment, these steps can guide personal and creative projects including: pandemic journal entries; group text conversations; virtual happy hours; pitches for new plays; cabin fever pop-up performances; dream recipes (for much needed napping); personal and community check-ins; and so much more.


How does our work change when we create from a place of freedom?

In the past few weeks, I have felt amazement, fear, panic, frustration, sorrow, bewilderment, boredom, restlessness, anxiety, isolation, gratitude, hope, and relief each day that my loved ones and I stay well. I struggle with confinement, feel captive to anxiety and melancholy cabin fever. When I reclaim joy, I feel fortified and renewed in my approach to this unsettling world. Joy becomes urgent aspiration and creative possibility.


How can we claim joy?

Social Distance with Joy? / Remote Work with Joy? / Self-Quarantine with Joy? / Shelter-in-Place with Joy? / On-Line-Webinar-FaceTime-Zoom with Joy? / Live Alone and Refrain from All Human Touch With Joy? / Text with Joy / Call with Joy / Call & Response with Joy / Call & Respond to Your Community with Joy / Call & Respond to Yourself With Joy / Rest with Joy / Ask for Help with Joy / Pray-Cry- Laugh with Joy / Eat Frozen Dinner With Joy / Use Toilet Paper (but not too much) with Joy / Take a Walk with Joy / Dream with Joy / Stream Stupid TV with Joy / Forget it’s all happening for a while with Joy / Check the News with Joy / Scheme New Plots with Joy / Dream new Characters with Joy / Create a new Character Named Joy and Take This Character for a Spin.

About the author

Gabrielle Civil

Gabrielle Civil was a Many Voices Fellow at the Playwrights’ Center and is the author of Experiments in Joy, a performance memoir, currently on the Long List for The Believer Book Prize in Nonfiction and a Finalist for the Big Other Nonfiction Book Prize. She was the lead contributor to Experiments in Joy: A Workbook. She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. The aim of her work is to open up space.