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The Unseen

Catherine Pancake and Jai Brooks Capture a Slice of Black Baltimore Lesbian Life in Jay Dreams

Jai Brooks (left) hangs on the stoop for some storytelling.

By Jess Harvell | Posted 11/5/2008

"Black lesbians in general you don't see much of in film or television or what have you," local writer Jai Brooks says. Even in the age of the Logo network and the almost mainstream gay sitcom, it's still hard to find representations of queer people of color. Which makes Jay Dreams, a collaboration between Brooks and local filmmaker Catherine Pancake, something of an event. Training the camera on Baltimore's African-American "dom-femme" queer scene, a local adjunct of the better-known butch-femme culture, Brooks describes the movie during a recent phone interview as a comedy that's also "a slice of black Baltimore lesbian life." Capturing domestic moments in aphoristic bursts, Jay Dreams explores the tangle of issues relating to gender roles, love, and sex in the lives of several members of the community.

"Explores" might be too strident a word for the movie's intention, actually. While the complex cultural dynamics of gender are its engine, the movie is far more personal than didactic. There's no three-part narrative arc to the lapidary Jay Dreams, and though it flirts with the form, there are no nuts-and-bolts interviews or most of the other trappings associated with a documentary. But like Pancake's 2006 documentary Black Diamonds, a harrowing look at mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia, you walk away from the sweetly funny Jay Dreams having dipped into real lives sadly seen too infrequently in mainstream media.

A longtime Baltimore resident, Brooks met local multidisciplinary dynamo Pancake during the early days of the Charm City Kitty Club, the long-running Baltimore queer performance collective. According to Pancake, Brooks has been instrumental in the CCKC's ongoing attempts to unite what Pancake describes as "a pretty segregated community in Baltimore."

"He was a real bridge between the communities because he was able to bring his audience to places like the Creative Alliance, into this majority white queer scene," Pancake says. "He also just had a lot of really humorous, ironic, and self-reflective ways of thinking about race and how the [queer] communities here do or don't work together."

With Pancake taken by Brooks' poetry, which poked at the intricacies of dom-femme life through senyru, a twist on the highly condensed form of haiku, the two began to envision a film adaptation of Brooks' work that eventually became Jay Dreams. Pancake shot footage of Brooks, his partner Monique Meadows, and various associates as they moved through quotidian activities at work, at home, and around the city. "Everything in black and white was totally improvised," Pancake says of these scenes. "All of that is just off the top of people's heads, which is pretty crazy." Washed in low-key gray tones, Brooks and pals discuss Baltimore's infatuation with dirt bikes on a ride to work, the potential pitfalls of polyamorous relationships over breakfast, and online dating while chilling in a park; these brief, off-the-cuff peeks into someone else's world feel like somewhere between a nearly plotless short story and particularly fortuitous cinéma vérité.

The sweetness and warmth of these slice-of-life scenes is brought into sharper relief by the color-saturated, almost dreamlike sequences Pancake uses to illustrate recitations of Brooks' cutting verse. "We wanted real people that really cared about each other and for that energy to come across," Brooks says of the mix of locals and friends drafted to appear in these scenes. The results are polished but retain that spark of real life that can result from non-traditional performers stepping in front of the camera.

The results are also very witty. After Brooks frets about potential awkwardness when attending the upcoming wedding of an ex, Pancake cuts to a stripper doing her lascivious best to get the attention of the lone audience member. As the lap dance's recipient tries hard to look unaffected by the stripper's moves, Brooks offers a rule that's useful whether you're straight or gay: "Beware of the ex who cries on your shoulder while sitting on your lap."

The sequence is a little bit sardonic, a little bit titillating, and a little bit playfully silly. Like the rest of Jay Dreams, these two scenes capture the hopes, worries, and desires of stereotype-busting individuals navigating interpersonal relationships, while sparking a jumble of emotional responses recognizable to just about all grown human beings. Who wouldn't feel a little uncomfortable at their ex's wedding? Even as the movie explores idiosyncratic expressions of sexuality and culture within the fluid and under-documented world of Baltimore's African-American queer community, it's also affecting because audiences from wholly different backgrounds will likely see scenes from their own lives reflected in these small moments. "I'm excited about the idea of African-American women in Baltimore seeing themselves," Brooks says about the movie's upcoming debut. "But eventually I would like for everyone to see it, because I want them to see us."

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