Tuesday, September 19, 2017

At National Black Theatre, a "peculiar patriot," loyal to her people

Liza Jessie Peterson performs her one-woman show,
The Peculiar Patriot, at National Black Theatre
(photos: above by Garlia C. Jones-Ly;
below by Jean Chambers)

Time and time again, Betsy LaQuanda Ross spends tedious hours riding a bus to and from upstate towns, visiting family and friends like her city homegirl, Jo Jo. She takes Jo Jo hand-quilted squares bearing precious symbols that represent the incarcerated mother (an orange moon) and each of the children she desperately misses (stars). She comes laden with personal stories of life on the outside, told with verve and spice, almost ceaselessly at a breathtaking clip. Together, the women--one we see and one invisible to us yet made palpable through Betsy's love and insight--help us understand the devastating impact of America's prison industry on communities of color, particularly women.

Liza Jessie Peterson
(photo: Ani Berberian)
Below: Director Talvin Wilks
(photo: Adam Nadel)

The Peculiar Patriot--directed by Talvin Wilks and starring its extraordinary writer, Liza Jessie Peterson at Harlem's National Black Theatre--could have been 90-minutes of pure didacticism about a social ill. But it is no such thing. From the moment the pointedly-named Betsy Ross enters the space--set up like a prison's visiting room, with neat, bleak rows of industrial tables and chairs--and calls out "Hey, Boo! Look at you!" you're in her firm grasp.

Peterson, who derived her material from years counseling prisoners at Riker's Island, goes full-on Anna Deavere Smith in adopted body language, facial expressions, vocal intonations, emotional range and expert timing. Not easy to do and sustain but, let me tell you, she's brilliantly on point at every turn.

Her Betsy is hilarious, a Wanda Sykes just waiting to be discovered. But she's there at the prison on a mission to keep her friend's spirits up--as well as her own. In the meantime, we learn much about what it's like to be shut away while your kids are so far, growing up without you; what it's like to have a pal you can't lean in and whisper to and hug and cry with any time you want; how easy it is to get caught up by stringent sentencing laws that disregard your humanity.

If--when--you see this show, you might have a hard time keeping up with the mostly black-and-white slide and video projections that play throughout Peterson's monologue. You'll mostly notice some of these images with your peripheral vision, when aware of them at all, but that's going to be enough. Pay attention to that experience. Peterson holds your attention. Peterson alone, the living, breathing, ebulliently colorful person at the center of this machine. That's as it should be.

Of the many unfortunate, outrageous things The Peculiar Patriot informs us about, as it entertains us, is a new initiative restricting prisoners and their visitors from conversing in person. Some prisons--encouraged by corporate profiteers--have begun instituting visits by video only. When Betsy learns that she and Jo Jo will never again meet face to face across a table, she's shocked and heartbroken, and we immediately get it. Removing the possibility of human touch and connection, like Betsy and Jo Jo have enjoyed, represents one last, inhumane way for the prison industrial complex to control and exploit people caught up in its system. Our only partial awareness of the flat, drab visual projections has been steadily leading us, in a subliminal way, to this moment. By coming to love Betsy--and, through her, Jo Jo--we know what matters and the cost of its loss.

Set and lighting: Maruti Evans
Projections: Katherine Freer
Sound: Luqman Brown

The Peculiar Patriot runs through October 1 with performances on Thursday, Friday and Monday at 7:30pm; Saturday at 2pm and 7:30pm; Sunday at 4pm. There is no late seating. Each performance is followed by a talkback with Peterson. For information and tickets, click here.

National Black Theatre
2031 5th Avenue (at 125th Street), Manhattan

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

#PUNK it out, Africa! Nora Chipaumire at FIAF

Nora Chipaumire, above,
and below, with Shamar Watt at far right, in #PUNK
(photos by Elena Olivo)

#PUNK is the first part of a triptych titled #PUNK 100% POP*NIGGA, a live performance album that confronts and celebrates three sonic ideologies: punk, pop, and rumba, explored through the radical artists Patti Smith, Grace Jones, and Rit Nzele. -- from program notes for #PUNK

Nora Chipaumire--a Zimbabwe-born dancer with intensity to rival any other performing artist plus, I see, the ability to land herself an interview on CNN--has made her sinewy body more than the instrument of her forthright ideas. It is a force to be reckoned with and, like her incisive mind, a force that will roll up on you the second you merely think about messing with it.

In #PUNKcompany nora chipaumire's new piece for Crossing the Line 2017 at French Institute/Alliance Française, she's joined by Shamar Watt, native of Jamaica, who danced in her sensational and controversial trio, portrait of myself as my father, for BAM's Next Wave 2016. His participation in this new work makes it a duet, a fact that does not appear in the press release that I was issued, just as his bio does not appear in the program (although his name, as performer with Chipaumire, does). I don't know what all this means but, just like the unusual set-up of space and audience for the show, the presence of this killer dancer turned out to be an exciting surprise.

So, they're doing punk now...but with an African twist because Black. And because punk energy is pure joy and indomitability, and that's how Chipaumire sees today's Africa and, likely, the world's future.

The space evoked a humid, airless dive with just a few chairs for folks who needed them--regrettably, nobody advised me about this--and, otherwise, just standing room in front of the performers' territory and above it in a low balcony (where I hung out). Notable faces in the crowd signaled this as that show that everyone in contemporary dance knows they've got to be at (if not in Brooklyn at Bausch).

We had to be on our feet, most of us, because Chipaumire and Watt were all about turning this evening into a rave-up with fans clapping and whooping. "Come up! It's a motherfucking party!" cried Chipaumire as some of us took a second too long to step up to the balcony. We then hastened to comply just as we would all go on to comply with everything the two exhorted us to do.

The performance itself amused me for the way it relentlessly lashed together typical moments of lift-off and climax in rock music performance without delivering anything in between. Chipaumire and Watt always seemed to be startin' somethin' and goin' nowhere in particular, but givin' it all they got. Repeatedly calling out New York! Are you ready??? Counting up 1, 2, 3, 4!!! Or Uno, dos, tres, quatro!!! Literally reminding us, now and again, that they're introducing introductions. Declaring "I am a world-class African nigger" (Chipaumire) or goose-stepping (Watt) to rev up (or scandalize) the crowd.

In #PUNK, Chipaumire riffed on Patti Smith's iconic lyric "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" from "Gloria." She changed the "somebody's" to "your," which makes perfect in-you-face political sense in #PUNK's context, and she kept threatening to go back to Africa and telling us what she'd do when she got there.  "Watch me!" she cried, and I kept hearing James Brown's yowl.

"Watch me! I'm in Africa now!" And, yes, she seemed to have flung every cell of her body home in an altered state. You don't want to cross this woman.

Or Watt. Both dancers were in full command of their lunging, twisting bodies and voices despite the extreme demands of the work (particularly on those strained voices) over the hour or so. I could hardly believe that Chipaumire had anything left for the (lengthy) post-performance conversation moderated by choreographer Ralph Lemon and joined by Congolese dancer Faustin Linyekula, who has three premiere works featured in Crossing the Line.

Two choice moments from that conversation:


"I'm a particular kind of Black body. I'm an African body. We hold things differently. I'm acting out against everything but more about having love, joy, having the freedom to act out, having the time to act out."

"The joy. People know how to live. They're there [Zimbabwe] partying all night, and there's a lesson in that. Life is short. You could die tomorrow. It should be worth it."


"Maybe joy is another way of acting out your rage. I'm here to stay. Maybe this body will be crushed, but there will be other bodies."

"[Euro-centered thinkers] will have to wake up and realize that the world has moved on. We are creating our own world on our own terms. Africans are experts in precarity and re-inventing ourselves."

#PUNK has closed. For information on other Crossing the Line events--now through October 15--click here.

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Harry Dean Stanton, 91

Harry Dean Stanton, Character Actor Who Became a Star, Dies at 91
by Anita Gates, The New York Times, September 15, 2017

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Maria Bauman sweats truths of life, rest, dying, freedom

Cast of Maria Bauman's dying and dying and dying
l-r: Bauman, Audrey Hailes, Valerie Ifill and Courtney Cook
not shown: Alicia Raquel
(photo: Scott Shaw)

At the close of dying and dying and dying--the new work by Maria Bauman (MBDance), just opened at Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center--my guest, another Black woman, turned and asked me to verify the words of a particular line of text. Was it, she wanted to know, I have the right to die a natural death? How interesting that she should pick up on that particular line.

A few weeks ago, Bauman's Open Studio preview made me think about the history of Black death in the Americas, so much of it anything but natural. A history of dying dominated by brutal violence or illness due to poverty, due to lack of healthcare access or access to malignant care. A history of final moments that could have been solemn, sacred, even exalted, but where many Black bodies suffered hard deaths, in some cases, experienced profound dishonoring that should be no one's fate. These are endings of lives lived in the zone of an undeclared war.

I also flashed back to the title of Melvin Van Peebles's 1970s musical, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, and Audre Lorde's line from her poem "Litany for Survival": "So it is better to speak/remembering/We were never meant to survive."

In this context, the assertion, "I have the right to die a natural death," takes on power and poignancy. And the same can be said for Bauman's expressive ensemble piece.  More than a few times, she and Courtney Cook, Valerie Ifill and Audrey Hailes, all circling an assemblage of ancestral memorabilia with warm, graceful, exuberant movement and vocal work, drop to the floor and lie still long enough for us to wonder what just happened. These sudden, decisive breaks in the flow evoke yoga's Savasana pose (corpse pose), a cessation of motion that allows bodymind time to absorb and integrate the energies of its previous actions.

Bauman aims to reorder what we value in life, to give space and time to rest, to surrender, to lying fallow, now and again, like a patch of good, growing earth, as we regenerate energy needed for the future. In her view, key to the purposefulness of that humble rest is the space and time to listen for and take in what our ancestors have to offer us. And that is why this piece--her "performance-ritual" and "earnest offering" with spoken word performances by Alicia Raquel--continually takes its strength from all of those treasured artifacts and photos of departed loved ones in the center of the space.

Try to imagine a viable way to introduce the notion of "death as the opposite of capitalism," a task Bauman sets for herself in dying and dying and dying. Video work and some mechanistic movement and aggression between Bauman and Cook do evoke the capitalism part, showing the women as having fallen prey to toxic, destructive values. But I'm still not completely convinced that death as a metaphor for needed rest will work for many people outside of a yoga class. It's a tricky conceptual leap for most. (When Death turns up in Tarot layouts, readers like me do quite a bit of verbal tap dancing to allay most querents' immediate fear.) But I do think dying and dying and dying succeeds in its accessible humanity and especially when dancers draw in, embody and ferociously release the personalities and energies of those whose bodies are now permanently still, at peace.

Bauman is Gibney Dance’s 2017 Community Action Artist in Residence and has also received Gibney Dance’s Beth Silverman-Yam Social Action Award. Go a little early, and you can enjoy Bauman and Cook's gallery memorial, To Rest, while you wait for the theater to open. The exhibition will be up through September 22.

dying and dying and dying continues tonight and Saturday at 8pm. For information and tickets, click here.

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

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Grant Hart, 56

Grant Hart, Hüsker Dü Drummer and Singer, Dies at 56
by Jonah Engel Bromwich, The New York Times, September 14, 2017

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New Yanira Castro trilogy spans three spaces and boroughs

Left to right, Luke Miller, Darrin Wright and Kyle Bukhari,
three dancers among a revolving cast for Yanira Castro's new CAST,
running now at The Chocolate Factory Theater
(photo: Brian Rogers)

This month, choreographer Yanira Castro and her a canary torsi (name anagram) operation are making their mark, simultaneously, on three New York City boroughs--Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. Claiming lots of physical and conceptual space and institutional support is, in my eyes, a terrific thing for a woman to do, a woman of color in particular and, even more so, a woman of dance. Go. Get. It.

The three institutions hosting the world premiere of Castro's ambitious trilogy, CAST, STAGE, AUTHOR, are:

  • The Invisible Dog Art Center--where, each afternoon, AUTHOR invites visitors, one at a time, to wind their way inside an installation to a little room, remove their shoes, close the door, sit down at a laptop and...that's as far as it makes sense for me to go, because your experience of what Castro has set up and what it means will be unique to you. On view through Sunday, September 17, weekdays and Saturday, 1pm to 7pm; Sunday, 1pm to 5pm. Free admission. For information and directions, click here.
  • The Chocolate Factory Theater--home to CAST, now through Saturday, September 23, which I attended last evening and will discuss in a little bit. Information and tickets here.
  • Abrons Arts Center--hosting STAGE in the Playhouse, tonight through Saturday, September 23. Information and tickets here.

Now, to my experience of CAST at The Chocolate Factory Theater. From publicity materials about the performance:
CAST brings together a rotating cast of four performers, different each night, who negotiate a new script at each performance in front of a live audience. A computer generates a unique script culling from transcripts of over 100 hours of conversation with CAST’s 15 performers regarding casting, performing and the complexities of representation. It is a concentrated study of what constitutes a cast. 
Last evening's opening night performance set the audience up in a couple of rows of folding chairs on risers arranged in a kind of horseshoe shape around a constricted performance space. The fourth end of the theater was reserved for seating for the evening's quartet of dancers--devynn emory, Luke Miller, Sai Somboon and Darrin Wright, out of an available roster of fifteen performers--and a printer and a table laden with props.

As audience members gradually filled all available seats, Miller sat at another table within the performance area, his hand clasping a stubby pencil poised over a sheet of paper. His steady gaze implied a thinking process and, from time to time, he circled the pencil point just above the paper, all of this provoking a curious frustration in the viewer (well, this viewer).  To the left of him, a laptop screen greeted us with a stark HELLO in white letters and a fast-disappearing list of the evening's performers. The other cast members sat quietly reading scripts with randomly-assigned material they were seeing for the first time. At 7pm on the nose, the noisy audience members suddenly hushed as it became clear that something was starting to happen.

A computer-generated voice identified the script as #67, 404 (I believe, unless it was #67, 040--a number I think I heard later) and proceeded to cyber-stutter its way through the cast's names. It told us the source of the material (conversations at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) and the length of the performance (45 minutes, which would be accurately and usefully announced at its completion).

Wright rose, pulled Miller's table and chair out of the way, re-positioned two speakers and stretched out on the carpeted floor with a microphone. Not quite comfy, though. The script tasked him with a long monologue and the apparent pressure to read it quickly, forcefully and as if, by the time he reached the end of sentences, his throat was squeezed, struggling for the breath to continue. Among other things, allusions to race would surface, float off and disappear in the flood of verbiage and, after a while, a listener (well, this listener) surrendered to the possibility, the likelihood, that none of these words mattered. Whether they do or not, whether dance is about transcending or resisting words, addressing or skating around specific issues and should be or shouldn't be, it was just too much to deal with. The voice was strangulated. The man was gasping to speak and, finally, crumpling the script pages and tossing them aside.

Words on race slipped through later verbal material and complicated activity--the dancers taping paper, cardboard, Mylar and cloth around Miller's head and torso. "this white racist thing gender history seventies noise sorry like Athena body fascist line that identifieds you phallic queer body brain labor...." A misshapen monster, a captive, he struggled to rise and move around the space with all that had been stuck onto him, eventually ripping it off him--an action that looked satisfying to observers (well, this observer). The printer whirred to life and birthed new sheets.

devynn held up the first page, and the others followed suit, posing together and beginning to musically chant a series of scripts for solo or interwoven choral voices ("Ailey, when I was at the Ailey," "I considered Trisha feminine," "When we auditioned, I had really brown eyes" and the rapturous, amusing, repeated intonation of a single seductive name--"Bausch").

So, at this point, I want to stop describing all that went on from there--especially since a lot of it involved rapid, relentless and arbitrary introduction and rearrangement of props, movement and dancers' proximity to a vulnerable audience, a flow of thingy things, none of which we could or would be intended to worry over or hold onto.  Instead, I want to share a thought that popped into my mind as first I gazed at Miller and then at Wright.

Over the years, I'd seen each of these two guys dance in so many works by some of our most accomplished choreographers. Their bodies contain so much and such diverse information, so much imprinting and history, from disparate sources. And--I began to realize--so much wisdom. I began to see these two men as our knights and sages, and I know I don't live in a society that thinks of dancers as sages. But these guys are, and we have a wealth of more like them in our dance community, knights and sages of all genders and gender non-conforming.

I was also aware, towards the end of the 45 minutes, of a feeling of sacredness. I pulled back from this, a little bit, because it began to seem, even to me, a bit hokey. But I really started to think of the space as church. And I am not a church-goer.

Am I going too far with this? I don't know. I don't even know if Castro would care. But when the 45 minutes was dutifully (and cybernetically) announced, it truly felt as if the Mass was ended, and we could go in peace.

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