Lena Waithe on Her Must-See Installation at Refinery29's 29Rooms

Lena Waithe

29Rooms — an art exhibition organized by Refinery29  — has many thought-provoking "rooms" on display in its latest iteration.

The media company, which caters to young women, invited sources as varied as Kesha, the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles, and the emergency contraceptive Plan B to create artistic spaces across a showroom at the Reef in downtown L.A. 

These exhibits amaze and provoke the guests who pass through them. They range from the inspirational (the artist Cocovan lets visitors write a "Love Letter to the World") to the activist-driven (the American Civil Liberties Union plays a mock game show called Know! Your! Rights!) to the entertaining (House of Yes's "Inner Beauty Ball" hosts an inspirational dance party), to the promotional (Anita Procedure and a troupe of drag performers lip-synched around an extravagant Smirnoff display on opening night).

But the best and most moving room is appropriately the last: "Oh Say Can You See," which was created in collaboration with the out producer Lena Waithe.

The 29th room in the series allows only a small group inside at a time. After walking down a dark hall, visitors find themselves in a room surrounded by four screens, which display scenes of violence and triumph experienced by the African-American community, from the civil rights movement to the presidency of Barack Obama.

The film begins with James Baldwin delivering a speech on what it means to be black in America and transitions to Whitney Houston singing the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. This song then movingly overlays images of protest, persecution, and progress.

"To be Black and to be American has often meant being trapped between America's founding promises (of freedom for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) and the propensity for violence," the room's description explains. "This 4-part video installation follows decades of American history that have brought on waves of persecution and disenfranchisement and continue to be met by Black protest, Black heroes, Black art and Black excellence."

"The ability to keep going, a tie that binds generations of Black Americans, is not a reflection of Black pain or Black trauma but a testament to Black life," it concludes.

"It’s more of just a statement about what it means to be black in America and all the contradictions that come along with that. And I think that people really get what I’m going for after they’ve experienced it," Waithe herself said on the red carpet Tuesday at 29Rooms.

Waithe — the creator of Showtime's The Chi who won an Emmy last year for her writing on Master of None — said she almost didn't create the room due to her packed schedule. In the past year alone, Waithe has appeared in Netflix's Dear White People and Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One, in addition to her activist work supporting groups like Time's Up and various charitable organizations.

Yet, when Refinery29 offered to do the "heavy lifting" on the project, Waithe reconsidered. She had visited 29Rooms the previous year and "really enjoyed" the room created by Janelle Monae. And Waithe had her own idea for an exhibit.

"I was like well, if that’s the case, I have been kind of ruminating on something, and it came into this sort of video experience," Waithe said. "And you get to experience what it means to be black in America in like three minutes. It’s kind of cool."

After explaining her concept to the team at Refinery29, Waithe was able to work toward realizing her vision through a series of emails regarding the selection of the video clips and their placement in the reel.

"I just went with my gut in terms of what clips to use and where to place them and what eras to tackle, and they were just really great," she said. "Our editor and our sound people just did a wonderful job of taking things out, putting things back in, pacing it out. I’m so happy with the final product."

As important as the statement made by "Oh Say Can You See" is, however, Waithe said her favorite room is in her own home. "My living room, with my couch and my dog and my fiancée [Alana Mayo] and my television and ginger beer and my laptop. That’s like the best room in the house," she said.

29Rooms runs through Sunday at the Reef in downtown Los Angeles. Learn more at 29Rooms.com.

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