|Scenes from johnbrown by Dean Moss, seen above|
(photos by Mark Simpson)
The title of this interesting new work is rendered, in a teasingly familiar way, as one word in lowercase letters. All it would need, to be completely up to the minute, would be a Twitter hashtag. Not slapping that hashtag on looks a bit like something has been held back, and I think johnbrown's creator, Dean Moss, does hold something in reserve for the group of teenagers he employs here as "production assistants" to rearrange the set and work the media equipment.
johnbrown, presented this weekend and the next at The Kitchen, is a work made by a 60-year-old Black man and includes a (marvelous and often funny) recording of that man's 85-year-old dad, a civil rights activist and former mayor (first Black mayor) of Tacoma, WA. It's also haunted by the shade of white militant abolitionist John Brown--memorably embodied by dancer Asher Woodworth as a man given to stupefaction and sputtering impulses--as well as by sounds of combat and sounds of sentimental hope. That's a lot of time, a lot of history, a lot of feeling pressing around and complicating the present moment.
Moss establishes johnbrown as nonlinear complication from the first, sending dancer Cassie Mey out in silence to the foreground of a display of oblique, tightly interlocked black and white bands. There she appears to hover and float with extravagant effort. When that stark, abstract backdrop shifts to a distant expanse of generic bucolic landscape--and, later, a soundscape erupts with the turbulence of battle--it is as if a resolute, unchanging angel has spiraled down to Earth to pull back the veil on something we'd rather not witness. We're not really all that close to it--Moss avoids being direct in that way--but close enough to recognize it for the mess it is and that it is ours.
The imagery throughout johnbrown seems to reference disorienting illusion of all kinds--the almost-comic fake hair on Okwui Okpokwasili, a woman dancer who, here, speaks the role of Frederick Douglass in the work's video; deflated balls that fail to bounce and people who flail and fail to connect; the extended play of reflective panels held aloft, flipped, tilted and twirled by Kacie Chang and Moss with the manner of desultory, if still spellbinding, stage magicians. Projections of stereotypical cartoon images make me think back to Kyle Abraham's recent season at New York Live Arts. Abraham, too, worked with stereotypes in a nonlinear, multi-layered approach to the narrative of race relations and social activism in America.
Moss brings it all around to quiet conversation, a perfect, inescapably moving ending...and a perfect beginning.
Live performances: Kacie Chang, Julia Cumming, Cassie Mey, Sari Nordman, Asher Woodworth and Dean Moss
Video performances (original script commissioned from Thomas Bradshaw): Tymberly Canale, Aaron Hodges, Okwui Okpokwasili and Pete Simpson
Sound/music: Stephen Vitiello
Original song: Julia Cumming
Lighting: Vincent Vigilante
johnbrown continues through Saturday and again October 23-25 with performances at 8pm. For details and tickets, click here.
512 West 19th Street (between 10th and 11th Avenues), Manhattan