Sunday, February 23, 2014

Chris Berry and Maija Garcia's "Legend of Yauna"

Chris Berry,
writer/composer, The Legend of Yauna
(photo by Jamie Soja)
Maija Garcia, 
director/choreographer, The Legend of Yauna 
(photo courtesy of the artist)
The Legend of Yauna, which ran for two nights this weekend at BAM Fisher, is a sprawling work of storytelling through theater, dance, music and visual art. Its collaborators--Grammy-winning world music artist Chris Berry and director/choreographer Maija Garcia, best known for her work with Bill T. Jones's FELA! on Broadway--aim to teach the kind of curiosity and unstoppable courage people need in order to heal their lives and communities. It's a noble mission that I wish I could fully support. Unfortunately, the work is undermined by uneven casting and overall quality as well as issues of cultural appropriation.

Produced by Berry's Banakuma organization, this work draws from the musician's attraction to an eclectic range of philosophies, symbols and ritual practices, primarily his experience of the ways of the Shona of Zimbabwe. A white American born in California, the musician believes that a vision and subsequent synchronicities led him to discover a profound spiritual connection to the mbira (thumb piano) and drums of southern Africa. Inspired by his exploration, he has devised an intricate metaphysical system related to the four elements of Air, Water, Fire and Earth. (Watch Berry's tutorial on Vimeo. See also World music artist Chris Berry goes digital, Quibian Salazar-Moreno, Boulder Weekly.)

Visualizing Chris Berry's Black Panther Queen (above)
and hero Yauna (below)
(artwork by Leif Wold)

Leif Wold's fantasy-style illustrations of Berry's mythic characters add visual gravitas and charm to Legend's production, but their intricate collaging of symbols from African, Hindu, Northwest indigenous and perhaps other traditions too strongly evokes a New Agey cherry-picking tendency. Everything--from traditional stories to ritual dance styles--gets tossed into Berry and Garcia's post-racial, colorblind blender. The appearance of Zap Mama herself--vocalist Marie Daulne portraying the Black Panther Queen dressed in Catwoman-style getup--is a missed opportunity. Daulne's much-heralded participation is what made me take a chance on Legend, but Daulne appears for one song (with poor sound quality) and a quick dispatch up a flight of stairs past the audience and out of sight.

Legend is a classic Hero's Journey, where the hero's disobedience to his wife ("Don't open the forbidden door!") leads to loss, disorientation, failure, tragedy and...well, you know. At two hours, including an intermission, it could stand judicious trimming, and elements of its staging--especially its frequent use of balcony scenes that are hard to see or properly hear--can be awkward and frustrating. But the live music often has warmth and, among the many cast members, Benjamin Sands (Yauna), Oscar Trujillo (Great White Eagle), Laurie M. Taylor (Sula and Gurthusula) and Naoko Arimura (Sah-i-Sah) bring distinction to their performances.

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