Thursday, September 24, 2015

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko: #negrophobia in brief

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko
(photo: Scott Shaw)

I like the odd little Studio A at Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center. You know, that room, right off the Gibney lobby, that you mostly ignore as you sign in with the guard and climb the stairs. It's 15 x 30 (got that off the Gibney Web site), suitable for, say, a sleepover with a small bunch of girlfriends. It's also the space of choice for Nigerian-American performance artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, presenting his new work, #negrophobia as part of Gibney's Fall 2015 Making Space season.

The experience of being physically drawn inside a work of art, and one that's alive with change, cannot be called new. But there are times when it seems particularly apropos. #negrophobia qualifies.

Studio A, transformed by Kosoko, looks like a Pinterest board. Prints of photos snake along the floor. Looking around, I recognize, for instance, James Baldwin, Forest Whitaker, an arrested Tiger Woods. Iconic books like The Bluest Eye and PUSH take talismanic places of honor. Mounds of tangled celluloid stand in, I suspect, for the murky history of Hollywood's relationship to the Black body and Black talent. On one table rests a memorial card for Kosoko's deceased brother. (There's a story there, which I don't know, but Kosoko will later show us "my dead brother's shoes" and we will hear clink of chains running through his hands.) A lithe, incredibly model-slender dancer (Kentrell/IMMA MESS), wearing only a cloth mask, blonde wig and tomato-red thong, slinks and slithers around taking selfies and live video, sometimes interacting closely with the bling-spangled Kosoko. One wall features video projections, and music pumps through the space. Kosoko is a little bit Olivia Newton-John ("Magic") and a little bit Seal ("Crazy").

The audience can sit on slick white floor runners, stand on the sidelines or, within considerable limits, move around to view things from different angles. What we cannot do is leave.

There's one door, and it's largely--I sense, deliberately--obstructed by Kosoko's stool and microphone and Afrofuturistically golden being. Tiny Studio A becomes all about airless confinement, blockage and, through the Kosoko's text, the toxic detritus of other people's sick thinking about the Black body, specifically Black masculinity.
God, I wanted a Cosby Show life, and you gave me a reality show life.

You ain't shit...You ain't even gonna be shit.... From the moment you're out of your mama's womb, you are being told [this]. What does this do to childhood? How do you build your dream? I'm obsessed with this question.... How do you push against this to realize yourself?
Kosoko points and picks at the source of this devastation, although I do not think he disrupts it much in #negrophobia. That may be impossible, and fruitlessness might be the point. But as I looked around the room, I wondered if even the young white people in attendance--clued-in at least enough to go to something called #negrophobia--found anything here unfamiliar enough to be urgent, eye-opening news.

One interesting feature is the ending that isn't. Kosoko gets to a point where it looks as if he has completely lost it and wants to throw in the towel. Over and over, he seems to dismiss us: "It's over. You can go now." He insists, wearily and somewhat testily. "You can go home to your Manhattan apartments. You don't have to watch it anymore."

Not a single person moves, because you can't really, and you can see this is just the exhaustion talking. The exhaustion of breathing in decades of toxic fumes and struggling to stand. Besides, there's some more costume foolery up ahead to watch and now--possibly forever--a perky KKK song to listen to. As Yogi Berra would have said, "It ain't over 'til it's over." And it ain't.

Nightly through Saturday, September 26, at 7:30pm* with limited ticketing. Friday night's performance will be followed by a discussion with George Sanchez. For information and tickets, click here.

*UPDATE: A show has been added for Saturday at 5pm, but hurry!

Learn more about Jaamil Olawale Kosoko|anonymous bodies here.

Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center
280 Broadway (entrance: 53A Chambers Street), Manhattan

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