Saturday, March 21, 2015

In the name of freedom: Charlotte Brathwaite's "Prophetika: An Oratorio"

Prophetika: An Oratorio
Below, Jadele McPherson in the focal acting/singing role
(photos: Hao Bai)

So, it looks bad for the world. The only things left are shabby-glamorous or just shabby. The whole thing's hanging by a thread, and that thread is fraying fast.

If you're of the African diaspora, you might have a better grasp on what to do with what's left, making your way out of no way, in time-honored fashion, while making sure there's still some shine and style. Something that speaks of who you are, who you remain. Here and there, you scavenge the discards. Half-shredded tarp. Broken electronics. Dead branches pile outside a nest you will inhabit alone. You make a Buckminsterfullerene shelter. You cover yourself in shards of mirrors and face paint. You've still got that harp, miraculously intact, wondrously carved from warm-colored wood. At times, in the midst of your gasps and clicks and wordless cries, your body remembers old songs. And you remember charging rhythms and how it feels to be on the march. You remember ancestors. Malcolm X. Sun Ra. Harriet Tubman. Fanny Lou Hamer. You consider: How to get from here to there? You make of yourself a spaceship in violent vibration, aiming to clear the atmosphere.

Charlotte Brathwaite describes her new multidisciplinary piece, Prophetika: An Oratorio, as "part theatrical event, part visual art installation, part ritual ceremony," all of which says that it reawakens primal human urges and strategies. The Club at La MaMa serves as sacred ground for this conjuring of spirits by singer Jadele McPherson with musical support by composer-pianist Courtney Bryan, harpist Brandee Younger and sound designer Justin Hicks. The visual environment shaped by Abigail DeVille (installation, costumes), Kent Barrett (lighting) and Cauleen Smith (video art) suggests the obsessively repetitive, vaguely menacing dreamscape of what's left of the American dream--I question America. I question America. Who will play with Jane?--where, if you take a minute to focus more closely on things, you might see that they are both more ordinary than you imagined and more impossible than you'd feared. Or you might just rev up, break the seal and fly outta there.

Prophetika finds strength when music takes the foreground--strongest when McPherson stakes claim to the recently contested Take My Hand, Precious Lord and the familiar, maybe too familiar Four Women, lucid moments lucidly willed into a heavy, airless dream. One of Brathwaite's guiding "divine spirits," composer Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, described sacred music as a transcendent healer. Brathwaite and her collaborators clearly want to make that kind of offering with Prophetika but, sitting among last night's audience at La MaMa, I was uncertain about how it was being received, and I'm still unsure. Can this work, as a whole, move audiences to not merely sit back and gaze at the phenomena?

Prophetika: An Oratorio continues through Sunday, April 5 with Friday and Saturday performances at 10pm, Sundays at 6pm. For tickets, click here.

Post-performance conversations on Sundays:
The collaborators of Prophetika invite experts in the humanities and the arts, to participate in one of two informal conversations on core themes in this work including: Afro-futurism, spirituality, politics, activism, science, representation and the arts. The duration of all conversations will be 50 minutes.
March 22: “Transcendence” Discussion topics: Spirituality, Politics, and the Arts speakers: Kara Lynch, Dr. Matthew Morrison, Dr. Imani Perry, Imani Uzuri. Moderator:  Dr. Courtney Bryan
March 29: “Dark Matter” Discussion topics: Science, Technology, and the Arts speakers: Greg Tate, Didier Sylvain, Abigail DeVille. Moderator:  Charlotte Brathwaite
La MaMa The Club
74A East 4th Street, (between Bowery and Second Avenue), Manhattan

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