Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler talk about heartbreak

Collaborators Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler talk about heartbreak in conjunction with their American Realness premiere



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Did you reconnect with him?
In fact I did! Randomly, I saw him at a wedding in September, and I hadn’t seen him since we were 17 or whatever. I was really excited to see him, and of course he thinks I’m crazy, which you can’t blame him. We had a really, really fun night; again, if I could have told my eight-year-old self about how wonderful… Anyway, I was Facebook friends with his wife, and I did a version of the piece at Catch just to test the waters a little bit. I was writing about it on Facebook, and the next day: de-friend. Fine. I understand. I was also in a relationship with someone for about ten years. A real relationship, the thing that is clearly, tremendously painful. Contacting him is always disturbing for both of us, but I sent him some of the songs that initiate, not just those feelings, but that complication, to have him write his memories of me. Then I would make a score based on that and maybe use the sound. But of course, a lot of what he wrote was about him. I never even sent him mine, and the score didn’t happen, but one of the things he wrote about was how he also wasn’t able to listen to those songs. He sent me another song and was like, “Let’s use this one instead.” I was like, “No. Pick one of these.” There’s some kind of self-abhorrence and also self-abuse in our work; I wanted to try and find this to be a less literal, but real re-engaging of trying to figure things out. I did in a way, but it wasn’t directly used in the work.
Houston-Jones: For me, it’s really interesting. I’ve been seeing a lot of work that I have no idea what it’s about. I think I’m pretty smart. [Laughs] I said, “Let’s make a piece that’s obvious.” There’s depth and layers, but it’s basically what the title is: It’s a playlist.
Wexler: I don’t think the work itself is necessarily confusing; I think the intention that it comes from is confusing. It’s the nature of what is love? And I love that it’s a duet between the two of us but we only touch in one piece. A lot of it is our parallel experiences. But then this heart attack [happened] and healing and all the directions that have needed to come to reach that—I don’t know if it’s actually reached, but we are kind of doing it together. And also the actual beautiful love that is happening the whole time as you’re seeking the one. The real things that are happening all along.
Houston-Jones: We never address the obvious differences between us.
Wexler: Which are obvious to other people, but not to us!
Houston-Jones: Race, age. We have the same taste in music, which is really weird. There’s a 30-year difference between us, and it’s like, Hmm. We listen to the same things.
Wexler: And our intensity. A lot of other people that love Ish were cooking for us every night. I had two Google Calendars to try and figure out who was going to cook each night. They all wanted to. That was everybody’s expression: Can I cook for you? But also every night we had a different guest. We heard stories. I called it “Judson every night.”
Houston-Jones: It was beautiful.

What a horrible thing to have happened, but how remarkable too.
Yeah. It turned out really well. Physically, I’m better than I was before. Before I was doing Miguel Gutierrez’s piece, and I had that solo at the beginning; I said, I should be getting stronger—we’re doing it over and over. I was getting weaker. We performed the piece again in September, and I realized, I’m not dying at the end of this dance any more. I feel much, much better than before and my stamina’s better.
Wexler: Clearly, both of us have a way of understanding grief. I don’t want to discount what was actually happening. You were out. You were sleeping, but it sucked. There’s a way—especially when things are the most severe—to be funny as hell, but it sucked. And there was clearly a sea of loving people that wanted to be available to help Ish and me, and they did in different ways, but it was pretty awful. Healing’s a real thing. Every day, Ish was required to walk a certain amount of steps.
Houston-Jones: And it had to increase every day.
Wexler: I got walkers. Everyone wanted to help and I was like, they need tasks. Also, there could only be a certain amount of time that people could come. You can’t heal. So another thing I was able to organize was a block of time: Please come and do this and then go away. I was on spring break conveniently when Ish got sick. I commute to Philly two days a week to teach. Once that week ended, I had to make sure someone was there.
Houston-Jones: The babysitters.
Wexler: The walking started in early March. We couldn’t even make it out of the courtyard really. As it got warmer, Ish was walking farther so by the end it was a lovely spring day. Didn’t you go up the Williamsburg Bridge?
Houston-Jones: I went up the ramp.
Wexler: That was big. I did a lot of reading to you.
Houston-Jones: And Vallejo has a lot of Bach.
Wexler: We listened to a lot of Bach. Oh, we should use Bach. That became the soundtrack to that moment in time.

This new piece is risky, right? 
It’s definitely risky. That’s the kind of risk we’re taking. Instead of the self-abuse, it’s, Hey, everyone, we’re gonna do this! But it’s not literal, it’s just obvious. Also, the content is obvious and maybe that’s okay. I don’t know.
Houston-Jones: We’ll find out.
Wexler: I’m okay if people laugh at me.
Houston-Jones: Some of it is really funny.
Wexler: A lot of it is. But I’m okay if people laugh at the sincerity.

Did you choose to have it in the Underground Theater at Abrons?
It was a mutual decision between Ben [Pryor] and me. I sort of like the rawness and ugliness of the Underground. The bunker. We’re also using all of these flowery songs; I like the contrast.

Let’s talk about your journal writing. Did you both start very young?
Mine not so early—maybe high school. College. We did find out a difference. I wrote, but I didn’t think anybody would ever read them. It was the hidden thing.
Wexler: I’m very poetic.
Houston-Jones: Mine are very prose.
Wexler: I actually wanted to be a poet. I still kind of do.
Houston-Jones: Well you are.
Wexler: There’s clearly an arc of sophistication because I started writing poetry very young. There is a sweetness there that is so heartbreaking. A desire not necessarily for me to be loved—that’s in there too. There’s this hope that’s in a lot of the writing.
Houston-Jones: Mine are much more recent from the e-mail age, from the time of AOL. A lot of my thoughts are really bitter. Disappointment.
Wexler: Mine now are a lot more compositionally complicated than when I was younger, but there’s a lot of sorrow and less bitterness. I think a lot of it is an artistic structure. It’s more of a working notebook, rather than a journal. I think I talk a lot about my thoughts and feelings; I get it out that way, so it’s not a confessional. It is like a composition in writing.
Houston-Jones: The one thing I’m thinking of reading is loving. It’s pretty recent—it’s from four or five years ago.
Wexler: Actually, what we’re reading to one another is within that time period. 2009 was a big year for both of us. That’s when I left my boyfriend of ten years.
Houston-Jones: And I had the 69 Love Songs breakup.
Wexler: 2009, we just can’t let go.
Houston-Jones: Maybe we will. Finally.

Has working on this transformed your feelings about heartbreak at all?
For me, it’s just looking at it and seeing patterns. That’s what I do, as opposed to focusing on the other person, saying, Oh, I have repeatedly done this. It’s been very good to see that for me.
Wexler: Revisiting the actual—as opposed to my fantastical experiences in extremes—the devastation or the heightened whatever, it’s been revisiting these people and honestly realizing that I wasn’t shit. Like I thought I was. I believed I was, and I thought that’s what they thought of me. But no—this guy saved all my letters.

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