'Holding It Down' at PIFA: Drama of the words and dreams of war vets

Dreams are the bridge between our subconscious and our reality; they also can become a bridge between us.

On Friday at the Perelman Theater, the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts hosts the Philadelphia premiere of Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dream Project, created by Grammy-nominated pianist-composer Vijay Iyer and poet Mike Ladd. A multidisciplinary show featuring music, poetry, and video monologues created from the dreams of veterans, the project premiered at Harlem Stage in 2012 and was made into a 2013 album. Its focus is on veterans of color who served in the last decade's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's the third installment of a trilogy. Before Holding It Down, there were the award-winning In What Language? and Still Life With Commentator. But Iyer says they kept feeling something was yet to be addressed, that "we kept talking about war without really talking about war."

Over three years, Ladd interviewed veterans and turned their stories into lyrics, some joyous and some jarring. "I knocked on the door of the subconscious in every interview," Ladd says, "and these people were brave enough to let me in."

In that space, they found a wide range of experiences and perspectives. Poetry proved an ideal medium. "In the same way that the dreamscape seems like a more flexible place," Ladd says, "there's a lot of maneuverability to poetry to approach the concrete and the surreal with efficacy."

When we hear from the veteran community, Iyer says, we rarely hear from people of color. "Freedom and whiteness are equated in the American imagination," he said. "Meanwhile, a lot of the actual dirty work is being done by black and brown people."

One of those interviewed, Michael Miller, 41, was in therapy at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center when he heard about the project. He admits that at first he was hesitant. "I felt weird prior to walking into the building," he says. "I thought, 'It's going to be a room of white people. What should I say and what shouldn't I say?' "

Miller, owner of Open Mike's Cafe in Chester, is one of three local veterans who will perform in Friday's Holding It Down; the other two are Chantelle Bateman and Alonzo McCoy, both of Philadelphia. Miller says he often performed spoken-word poetry, but never about his experience in the military: "I never get a chance to share it, because I know they won't understand or they'll look at me like I'm crazy. The last thing you want people to do is judge you when you're sharing a part of yourself."

Miller lives with the post-traumatic stress disorder he developed while in Afghanistan, after his truck hit an improvised explosive device while on a mission. He returned Stateside in 2012. His patience and tolerance, he says, aren't what they used to be. A slamming door can sometimes trigger an immediate and involuntary reaction.

"I stopped going out and being around a lot of people," he says. "For me, living with PTSD is like losing who you were. You're sharing your body with somebody."

Veterans with combat experience often live with these memories, dreams, and thoughts for the rest of their lives.

"We still have this huge population of people who have gone through these experiences," Ladd says. "We all need to find a way to dialogue with each other and find ways to ease this pain."

Iyer describes Holding It Down as "the project that never ends."

"I got a new perspective of what art is and what art can be," Iyer says. "I learned more about the artistic process. It's about being courageous and telling the truth."

For Miller, truth is what he hopes the audience gets from the performance - especially considering the stereotypes surrounding veterans with PTSD that he sees in movies and other popular culture.

He hopes his dreams will open the eyes and ears of others to his reality. "It's going to be a little weird or uncomfortable to hear certain things, but I hope people get a better understanding of what it's like to live with it," Miller says. "They get to walk away, but I wake up with it every day. With the project, people get an opportunity to look at you differently, even if it's one person."