Friday, November 4, 2011

Two women. And two women.

I've been reading David Margolick's Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock (Yale University, 2011), most likely the saddest true story I have ever held in my hands. I read it fairly quickly, over a few days, since I simply fell into its compelling, engrossing narrative, one that--no surprise, hence no spoiler--does not end well. And yet, while it is a book that I hope many will read, it is one that offers only a sliver of hope, certainly nothing of the feel-good-now, forget-it-all-later moment of absolution and uplift that many white Americans require when it comes to the issue of race relations. Quite the opposite.

If you have never heard of Elizabeth Eckford or Hazel Bryan Massery, follow this link to a 2007 Vanity Fair article by Margolick--"Through A Lens, Darkly." It's Margolick's original account of the story behind the famous 1957 Will Counts photo that shows Eckford, a young Black student, quietly making her way towards Little Rock, Arkansas' Central High School, suffering verbal taunts and threats from white segregationists. Eckford was the most visible and, at that instant, most vulnerable member of the Little Rock Nine, a pioneer and a target, inadequately protected as she sought to enroll in the all-white school. Counts' historic image captures one young white student, Hazel Bryan, mouth agape in a vicious moment that she has lived to regret every day of her life.

I hope you will read, and endure, this book, because it is necessary for more Americans to reflect on the complex and durable trauma that racism can inflict, that--far from being an abstraction or something easily wished away with good intentions or a sense that we are now beyond all that--it is a killer, exacting a severe toll on the human psyche. It imprisons both victim and victimizer, even when, as in the case of these two interesting women, time and maturity bring a desire to attempt to heal wounds and connect as friends.

Margolick, who got to know both women well and care about them, hung in with his project over many years, gaining insight into the tight weave of racism and psyche, the complication of racism with individual personality and individual pain and vulnerability. Eckford and Massery both cooperated with him for the book and approved its final draft--a remarkable testament, considering how revealing and unsparing, if ultimately compassionate, this book is.

Margolick suggests that Elizabeth and Hazel's story, begun on a terrible day in 1957, is not yet over. Time will tell. But one story that persists is the one we live every day in which racism bears consequences for real people in real time. Whether we have even a shred of the courage of these two women, flawed and stubborn though they may be, is the question each one of us needs to address.

***

Two other women are very much making their mark this weekend at The Kitchen--Maria Hassabi and Hristoula Harakas, dancing the world premiere of Hassabi's SHOW, which continues through Saturday evening.
Both the audience and the performers are implicated in the work as they share the changing sequence of what unfolds and is thus shown. It is within the time and space of this particular shared experience--its shifting bodies and facial gestures, its subtle fluxes and halted poses--that a truly plastic theater of contemporary live performance gains its images, fleeing to memory as the doors of the theater close. (from the press release for SHOW)
Opening night proved to be a magnet for the usual "downtown" corps of white arts intelligentsia, a few people of color sprinkled among them. (Shush! Don't talk about how New York's various cultural communities largely keep to themselves and to their specific vision of what dance should be....) In the lobby, we gave up our coats so that we'd be comfortable for the hour in a raw space reduced by half, stripped of its seating (all hidden behind a curtain, as we'd be shown at the end) and partly endowed with hot lights clustered on one side of the floor. Once inside, the audience could sit on the floor or stand and could move around for better viewing positions. A practical strategy, if nothing new.
The large audience formed semicircular rows, growing quiet as lights illuminated us as if we were performers. This went on for what seemed to be a long time. People appeared to grow uncertain and uncomfortable, looking at one another, wondering when the real dancers would appear or if, perhaps, they were sneakily already somewhere in the room. In fact, I found it a treat to glance around, checking out the known and the unknown, what each person was wearing and how he or she carried his or her self. They all looked rather beautiful in Joe Levasseur's light.

Eventually Hassabi and Harakas came through the front doors, dressed in lightweight, light-gray jeans and tops and wearing identical metallic teal-green nail polish on their fingers and toes. Slender in an edgy way, almost the same height, the two women carefully picked their way through the rings of seated watchers and came to a spot they would inhabit for a very long passage. They planted themselves, face to face and close together, each standing with one hip sharply jutted out as their bodies slowly melted towards the floor in a glacial shift.

Harakas faced in my direction. I could see her sensitive, wide-set eyes and dark bangs. Hassabi, her hair swept up in a knot, was turned away from me. I could only sense the force of her gaze on Harakas though watching Harakas' face and the subtle blinks and shifts in her own gaze. They would maintain this locked gaze through much of SHOW, with a few notable variations, alterations, or unlockings. Think of the staring Marina Abramović liberated from her table, free to move in space, and marry that image to the old party game Twister slowed way, way down (see Wikipedia, if the name Twister means nothing to you because who plays this sort of thing anymore?), and you'll get a sense of what went on at The Kitchen last night.

Yes, as in Twister, "players will often be required to put themselves in unlikely or precarious positions," but, in this case, there's a dead serious atmosphere, no elimination of players, and the benefit of the players being the very watchable Harakas and Hassabi with her heavy-lidded eyes and intense, Mediterranean- sculpted facial structure. With tension straining their arms, shoulders, necks and legs, they made incremental changes in level, direction, closeness, and there was endurance, beauty, drama and command in all of this.

Videographers (and, as far as I could tell, just regular folks in the crowd with smartphones) documented the event. Now and then, people on the very edge of the action scattered away as the dancers spilled or sprawled closer to their feet. Audience members also freely moved about. It was all we could do in a space that felt sealed off, airless and increasingly warm. You'd glance up to see one or another audience member had removed one or another item of clothing.

Near the end of the hour, I suddenly lost sight of both Harakas and Hassabi. The crowd, everyone on their feet, had closed around. In short time, the actual end came--an anticlimax in which the pair stood, vaguely, somewhere near the doors, as if they had simply blended in with the standing audience. Someone at the other side of the space drew back the black curtain to reveal the other half of The Kitchen's space with its chairs neatly stacked, and someone started the applause, and we were free to go.

SHOW with sound by Alex Waterman, lighting by Joe Levasseur, set by Hassabi in collaboration with Scott Lyall and dramaturgy by Lyall and Marcos Rosales

Tonight at 8pm and 10pm and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8pm

For further information and ticketing, click here or call 212-255-5793 x 11. 

The Kitchen
512 West 19th Street (between 10th and 11th Avenues), Manhattan
(directions)

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