I remember the first time I ever set foot in Barking Legs Theater. It was several years ago and a local modern/interpretive dance troupe, Contrapasso, was just beginning to make a name for itself. At the time, I wasn’t really into dance performances. To be honest, the only reason I was going was because someone I knew, Melinda Brown, was performing some of her poetry as part of the event. When I found my way to the little building with its many akimbo legs, I knew two things: 1) This was a strange and unique place. 2) I was in for a strange and unique evening.
The performance that night was incredible. To this day I can remember the choreography I watched and certain songs, like David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid Of Americans,” are forever associated with the innovative and stunning performances of that night. From then on, I went well out of my way to make it to any Contrapasso performances and became a semi-regular patron of Barking Legs Theater. I saw one-man plays and the occasional concert, Dance performances and poetry shows. I knew that Barking Legs was a home for creativity and adventurous artistry that was unlikely to be found in other venues in the city. From the works I saw played out on that broad black stage, I knew that artists felt free there in ways they did not anywhere else in Chattanooga.
But I did not understand the full importance of what Barking Legs Theater is until only about three years ago. Angela Sweet had started a monthly open event for performing artists called Wide Open Floor. Some of my friends had been attending and encouraged me to come check it out. Little did I know that what I would find there would change my life. There on the stage I watched poets reach for new rhythms. I saw dancers stretching the limits of imagination and body. I saw storytellers hammering out myths from the red hot iron of their hearts. I saw musicians dancing free of the constraints of bars and chords, and I saw the barest beginnings of an eclectic creative family. I had to be a part of it. As a spoken-word artist, I appreciated that I was not censored by Angela and that there were other artists in the space with whom I could compare notes and discuss work and upcoming events with. Every month that I could make it felt like coming home.
When Angela asked me to take over the hosting and organizing duties in April 2012, I was surprised. I almost turned her down in the moment. Then several of the regular attendees—Derek Williams, Ann Law, and the members of The Undoctored Originals—all encouraged me to accept the offer and told me that they would help me along since this was my first time hosting and organizing a full show. They believed in me. How could I say no to them? These were all people who I respected greatly as artists and had come to love as friends.
Since then, my relationship with Barking Legs theater has been a crazy ride filled with discovery and fulfillment. I have had the privilege of working with many talented and incredible artists through the Wide Open Floor events, which has taught me how to handle chaos with as much grace as I can muster and to always keep my eye on the goal of providing for artists. I have performed in several shows with artists I have met through the theater, from comedy shows to the one-of-a-kind Kitchen Dances. Barking Legs Theater has opened doors and opportunities for me as an artist and organizer of events that nowhere else would have ever afforded me. When I was being told that my political poetry was too aggressive, the people of Barking Legs told me to dig in. When I was being told that my honest writing about my own personal life was too controversial for most Chattanoogans because I’m gay, Barking Legs told me to sing my heart out. When I was being told to tone it down, censor it, temper it and mask it, Barking Legs Theater told me to cut loose and let the fire fly.
I learned first hand how important that kind of encouragement is for an artist. Criticism can be found everywhere. Constructive support is rare most places, but it springs in abundance at Barking Legs Theater. My experiences with that space have formed how I approach all of my creative work, how I work with and support other artists, and how I engage every aspect of my life. The lessons I’ve learned at Barking Legs have taught me to be fearless and compassionate. That boxes are props to be played with and not places to live in. Barking Legs Theater has shown me that to truly pull the most from life, art, and the world we live in; we have to let go of everything except for each other.”
My name is Erika Blackmon and I am a poet, a writer, a lover of all that is created talent. I am always encouraging others to tap into the creative side of life and enjoy it. I have performed in several places—churches, schools, block parties and auditoriums—but I have never felt more at home or at ease as I felt the first time I walked onto the floor of the Barking Legs Theater. ”Out of the darkness of bland phrases comes….poetry.”
It was in October of 2013 that I was asked by Marcus Ellsworth to join he and a group of dancers and poets for a show called “Come On Into My Kitchen.” I was so exited and a little nervous at the same time because just the mention of being in his talented company along with Christian Collier and Jannelle Jackson, all of whom I knew poetically, was an honor. I had heard them all at one time or another and stood in awe of their talent, wondering did I, Erika Blackmon, even belong in their league. I came out to a rehearsal as my piece needed to be in connection with what the dancers were doing. I felt that my words needed to mirror with an echo the sentiments of the dancers talented movements. Based on what was told before I witnessed the practice, I wrote a great piece, but when I saw the movements of Angela Sweets and Monica Ellison and the others, I became possessed and began to write a brand new piece one that I was unaware of its presence in my head. It sprang forth from a place of serious creativity. I gave birth to a poem that introduced me to the ears of the free from judging audience that is Barking Legs. I am a better person because of that meeting of talents. The show lasted for three nights and I was so excited and overwhelmed with shock from the response from the audience. They received my individuality with the enthusiasm of a drinker taking a shot of Honey Jack Daniels. They needed no chaser or apology—they just wanted creativity, no matter the form. They accepted me. I accepted them. As I ended the first night of the show, my Facebook page became host to respectful accolades of night well received. Phenomenal responses from people that I did not know, people that had heard me—me, they heard me, .a mohawk-wearing, 41-year-old, poetry-spewing black woman—they witnessed my words, heard my voice as I tried to fill every impossible corner of the microphone. I wanted to be heard—and they heard me. Wow!
Black floor representing the openness of creativity
The mirrors representing self awareness and realness ;
A welcoming audience that refuses to judge
“This is Barking Legs.”
I suppose that if I had to pick the one that’s most important to me personally, it would be my four-night run of my experimental theatre piece, “Rebecca Furiosa.”
Dancers: Mary Sartain, Cayce Gearin; Director: Blake Harris; Videographer: Megan Hollenbeck; Composer/author: Tim Hinck; Musicians: Tim Hinck, Eddie McCrary, Nikolasa Tejero, Daniel Lee, Tyler Shepherd”
Dates: Feb 25-28, 2012
Attendance: 250 total audience over 4 nights; age range: mostly 16-50
This was my first experimental-theatre and fully “intermedia” composition. The overwhelming support I received from both Barking Legs and the Chattanooga audience has given me the inspiration and energy to go on to create so many more of these types of experimental performance works. HUGELY important for my career and work! Thank you, BLT!