‘’Bov Water’ aims to celebrate personal histories of Black women
Written by Celeste Jennings ’18, the play follows the story of three Black women attempting to write their own narratives amid a lack of information about their families.
This article is featured in the 2023 Winter Carnival special issue.
“’Bov Water” is a story about embracing identity, even if there are gaps in your family history. The small cast of the play, written by Celeste Jennings ’18, includes “Somebody’s Mama” played by Kelly Renee Anderson, “Another Daughter” played by Erin Margaret Pettigrew and “Sister Girl” played by Bobbi Johnson. The story follows the fragmented memories of four generations of Black women from the Antebellum period to modern-day America as they attempt to piece together their own personal and familial narratives.
“’Bov Water” received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support Northern Stage and The Ensemble Theatre’s development of this world premiere production. Based in Houston, The Ensemble Theatre is a company that strives to preserve African American artistic expression, according to the show’s promotional materials. This partnership allows for “’Bov Water” to be performed and filmed in the Byrne Theater in White River Junction and streamed for the The Ensemble Theatre. Both The Ensemble Theatre and Northern Stage are members of the BOLD Women’s Theater Leadership Cohort — an initiative led by Dartmouth senior lecturer and Northern Stage artistic director Carol Dunne that is committed to bridging the gendered gaps women face in the theater industry.
Alexandria Piton ’24, who is currently participating in the Experiential Learning “E-term” collaboration between the Dartmouth theater department and Northern Stage, is also working as the understudy for all roles in “’Bov Water.” Piton described “’Bov Water” as a piece about exploring relationships while searching for family history amid secrets.
“[‘’Bov Water’] explores familial relationships, while also exploring what it means to be a Black woman in America — especially as a descendent from slavery — rather than knowing exactly who you are,” Piton said.
The fragments of stories, consistent time jumps and weaving in and out of characters in the plot of “’Bov Water” are intentional. The artistic choices are inspired by the theme of not knowing your entire family history — and therefore having many gaps in your past. According to Jennings, some characters are present for all four generations whereas others only appear once or twice. Jennings wanted to embrace having incomplete personal histories, while recognizing that not all hope for knowledge is lost.
“Instead of feeling like something is missing, or like you don’t have the full story, I’m just trying to write something to honor how important these gaps in history are,” Jennings said. “[The gaps] recognize resistance, rebellion and survival opposed to something we don’t get to know and won’t ever know.”
Jennings said she was inspired to write “’Bov Water” because of the lack of context she has for her own family history. Even when attempting to follow up with her family and open up these past narratives, she said they did not want to provide her with any more details.
“It brought so much frustration to me,” Jennings said. “In that little instance of feeling entitled to history, I realized I was unintentionally abusing it by trying to ask my family members to recount traumatic memories or situations that they quite intentionally have forgotten.”
Jennings, who graduated in 2018, began working on “’Bov Water” when she was just 20 years old — though inconsistently. According to director abigail jean-baptiste, the poetry and non-linear structure at the core of the piece is what makes it special. For example, the play is not broken up into scenes, but is rather a continuous 90-minute experience.
“There’s definitely more flexibility and adaptability that is needed for a play like this,” jean-baptiste said. “Northern Stage was super receptive to that, and we were really blessed to have an incredible team of Black women.”
According to jean-baptiste, the entire production team, from designers to stage managers to choreographers, is composed of Black women. The team’s goal was to center Black women in the production process, rather than just putting Black women on the stage.
The pre-production process for “’Bov Water” deliberately involved the production team in every aspect of the show. jean-baptiste said the production team never felt restricted in their thinking and creativity. Additionally, a large portion of the set was made from recycled materials — for example, the lichen was made from shredded scripts and the physical structure of the set was built by hand with lumber which was used in a previous Northern Stage production.
Laundry is a prominent part of the show — both as an aspect of the set as well as the action of washing and hanging the laundry to dry itself. Laundry is utilized as a symbol of the generations seen in the play, as laundry is passed down through each new generation. In the show, laundry is hung on a tree to dry; drawing upon this imagery, nature also became very important to the production staff.
“Showing the way that we relate to nature and how trees have roots and live many years was important to us,” jean-baptiste said. “You may have the same tree in your backyard that your great grandmother had when she lived in that house. We really wanted to reconnect generations and bring the outside in for this play.”
jean-baptiste said that she is excited for audience members to feel the wide range of emotions present throughout the play.
“I think that there is really something for mine and everyone’s identity and family story that will come up in different ways depending on how you relate to this family,” jean-baptiste said.
Jennings said that she hopes that audience members resonate with and feel proud of the history that they have, while having the courage to move forward and not look at the questions or gaps as missing information.
“Especially after writing this piece and having so many conversations with the entire team, I feel so proud of every single bit of information that I don’t know just as much as the pieces that I do know,” Jennings said.
“’Bov Water” will be playing until Feb. 12 in the Byrne Theater at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction.