One of the beautiful voices of our CEZNJA:BORN LONGING quartet, writer and performer KARMA MAYET JOHNSON shares her thoughts on the project.

Find out more about Karma at

A few of my Reflections on Ceznja…

I have several new Croation Aunties in Astoria; one of them made me promise after our performance together at the Kitchen to return to church and sing again. For me, it started on the G train–to the 7 to the N, on a gorgeous summer Sunday. In the church basement cafeteria we sang Happy Birthday to Mirjam, and tasted the layered cake prepared by a friend.

Stories of taking refuge on an island, or on the sea, or in song, abounded in the lyrics we learned. A people of water, I felt I could hear the Croation islanders’ relationship to the swish in their consonant-laden tongue, as I focused on letting melody help me elide syllables. Translating lines of Croatian poetry into English led me to access what I recall of my own legacies of water.

To watch and participate as Abena and Kristina directed this multifaceted collaboration was inspiring and instructive; each offered a deeply grounded sense of how community is created. And it actually happened. I was fortified and lifted by the contribution of each writer/storyteller/remember-

er/audience member/artist, and felt my gifts were received by the collective as well–as well working a definition of community as any I’ve heard.

I was reminded that the perspectives of African American artists on the history of migrations (forced and voluntary) to this hemisphere are a crucial ingredient to any discussion of what it means to become American. I learned of the Croats’ history of being subsumed in their homeland by a succession of tribal wars, conquering empires and wayward republics.

And I ate lots of cake and cookies. And met a number of amazing artists. And feel renewed in the clarity and number of purposes served by historically based art: making metaphor to document the unspeakable, making documentary work to detail the unbelievable… Thank you Cezjna project.

-Karma Mayet Johnson


Share a moment with educator, writer, theater director, artist and mother Kate Quarfordt as she reflects on her experiences with CEZNJA: BORN LONGING (tales and songs from croatia):


Here are a couple of memories I take with me:

 * Hanging out with Dara, Elana and Karma in the upstairs office at The Kitchen and watching the form of the piece evolve right before our eyes as Abena and Kristina hashed through ideas while physically rearranging cardboard box tops labeled with working titles and descriptions of each segment. What a great reminder of the fluid, organic nature of creative collaboration!
* Singing with the feisty, graceful, luminous Miriam in the back room at the Rudar Club in Queens with Abena, Elana, Dara, Zeljka and Kristina–all of them feisty, graceful and luminous in their own right!–and feeling immense gratitude for the privilege of getting to make music with such a powerful group of women. I was so moved by the range of ages, cultures and experiences represented at that table… and yet, how easy our interactions felt! Amazing.
* Realizing that for each of the main Croatian participants–Miriam, Nori, Marcella, and Ivica–there is no separation between art and life… and that calling yourself an artist is in no way a prerequisite for making art. Miriam “has ideas” and misses her island, and she writes poems. Nori crosses the ocean on a tiny boat and writes a book… AND paints! Marcella tells her story and recites poetry with the soul of a born performer, in three languages no less. And then there’s Ivica, whose lyrics have been hitting me out of nowhere and making me cry while I’m standing at the sink doing dishes these last few days. I mention all of this because, as a working mother of two, I sometimes struggle and worry about how to “be” an artist. What I’ve learned, witnessing these incredible folks–is that this mental struggle is really pretty pointless when you remember that on any given day you can simply choose to open your mouth and sing… or write a poem… or make a painting… or compose a song about a child’s story. Makes the phrase “creative life” feel kind of redundant. 🙂
* Sitting next to Ivica’s daughter during the second half of the performance. Out of the corner of my eye I could see tears sliding down her cheeks as she watched her brother translating. I was flooded with adrenaline at that moment, wanting to make sure I got the words and the notes right. As a non-Croatian I felt in some ways like an outsider, afraid I might dishonor the music by not embodying its message the way a Croatian singer would be able to; yet at the very same time, I felt completely welcomed and trusted. Out of the tension of that paradox, a simple but startling thought occurred to me: the idea that–while our stories and family histories may be very different–we are all, by virtue of our humanness, “born longing”–yearning for something deep and true inside ourselves that so often feels obscured, cut off from us, just barely out of our reach. I decided then to sing from that place of longing in me, and once I felt connected to that, all my anxiety about getting the words right dissolved and I sang with my whole heart.
With gratitude,


Over the next few days, we will be featuring the reflections of our participants. Today we feature collaborator Caits Meissner as she shares her experience with CEZNJA:BORN LONGING.


ImageI. Rehearsal 

Water. It is the thread that runs through the show that Sarah and I have the honor to be apart of, our collaboration of poem and dance. Water- a passage to a new land. Water- sustenance. Water- a place to cool the skin and renew. Water- what makes the thought of a long ago island so pungent in memory. Miriam, the eighty year old woman whom we based our piece on, sits next to me in rehearsal. I have just read my poem illustrating all of the stories she so generously poured into us at her kitchen table in Astoria two weeks ago.

Sarah rocks back and forth in dance, water. Sarah waves her body, water.

Miriam puts her hands over her face when she is overcome. She jokes to break the tension. I hand her my poem and she folds it up small and places it to her lips. She sings along to all the songs she grew up with on her tiny island. Water. “You people,” she says, “are really something.” Is that good or bad, I ask? “Good,” she days definitively, and then admires my ring. I tell her my birthday was yesterday. Her husband’s was the day before mine, her father’s today. This small realization brings me a tiny thrill of pleasure. The flame of connection.

II. Opening Night

The night of the show I look at Miriam when I say, “stir the polenta,” I am performing to the audience, but I am performing, mostly, for her. I speak maybe too quickly for each word to be grasped, but I see her light up at her stories translated, the recognition of herself in these young New York women. Connection. I know water is not the only thing we drink. When she reads her poem after ours, there is a different kind of emotion that arrives to the surface- sustenance. There is life. Life earned from living. 

Water. Home. Family. Leaving. Heartache. Water. Connection. This show was an experience in humanity, in the magic of being alive with a beating heart and a  ticking brain, with a bodies that will all fade, taking our stories with them. This experience with Miriam, a deep reminder that our stories are all the same stories, they just appear in different colors. 



A Beautiful Success


Our presentation on Thursday was a huge success! The theater was filled to capacity. (Unfortunately, we even had to turn people away.) It was a beautiful collaboration between our participants and our audience. Special thanks to Hettie Barnhill, Elana Bell, Zelka Blaksic (aka Gita Blak), Marcella Bonich, Miriam Busanich, Sarah Dahnke, Ivica Gasparic, Karma Mayet Johnson, Adam Matta, Syreeta McFadden, Caits Meissner, Lynne Procope, Kate Quarfordt, Allison Schlegel, Margaret Zgombic, Nori Boni Zorovich for sharing their incredible stories and collaborations with our audience!

We’d also like to thank One Big City/CEC Artslink and The Kitchen for hosting our collaboration.

Stayed tune for more events here in the New York area and beyond.

CEZNJA: BORN LONGING (tales and songs from croatia) is part of One Big City, a series of collaborative residencies and events produced by CEC ArtsLink in partnership with leading cultural venues to engage New York City’s diaspora communities through international arts initiatives.  One Big City is funded by The Rockefeller Foundation’s NYC Cultural Innovation Fund and the Trust for Mutual Understanding.

Join Us! July 5th, 7pm @ The Kitchen!








(tales and songs from croatia)

A multimedia oral history project by Abena Koomson (US) and Kristina Leko (Croatia)



Thursday July 5th at 7:00 pm

512 West 19th Street, NYC
Free event followed by a reception


Čežnja: Born Longing features members of the Croatian community from Astoria, Queens and throughout New York City, as well as a diverse assembly of New York-based artists. These artists react and interpret stories and songs contributed by the members of the Croatian community. More information about the show and the artists here

One Big City is funded by The Rockefeller Foundation’s NYC Cultural Innovation Fund
and the Trust for Mutual Understanding.