Friday, December 8, 2017

Defending the Black dead: Jaamil Olawale Kosoko at Abrons

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko in Séancers,
a world premiere at Abrons Arts Center
(photo: Amanda Jensen)
(photo: Erik Carter)

Séancers has landed at Abrons Arts Center like something to gladden the hearts of Sun Ra...and Fela...and Toni Morrison. An audacious, extravagant, overstuffed masquerade enclosing--and sometimes exposing--a gentle, vulnerable core. Jaamil Olawale Kosoko starts off almost backing into the space and backing into performing, gingerly, tentatively talking his way into the thick of things with help, on the night I attended, from a brief exchange with Autumn Knight, another interdisciplinary artist. Each night, Kosoko engages a different companion and wayshower. He calls these helpers Special Guest Séancers.

He appears to meander, physically, verbally, like a warm-up, a figuring out, a taking of temperatures--the room, his own--a way to let his ancestral spirits know he's ready to be inhabited. He fumbles a little, trying to recall exact scripture from bell hooks and James Baldwin; notes that part of his opening represents an homage to Cuban-American artist Félix González-Torres; ambushes us with poet Audre Lorde's searing, furious "Power."

Abrons's Experimental Theater, from the top audience row (where composer Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste generates swoony, enveloping weather) to the far wall of the space, is splashed with all manner of glittery and quaint stuff I can't even begin to inventory--from silver-wrapped Hershey's kisses to rippling, gleaming sheets of golden Mylar and everything in between.

The tiny-fonted program notes include a long, long, long list of members of the creative and production team including a dramaturg, "performance doulas," and the "Special Guest Séancers," a statement about Séancers, a further, and longer, "STATEMENT ABOUT THE WORK" by Kosoko, and a full-paged, three-columned, footnoted, intriguing and quite comprehensive essay about the work by acclaimed dance scholar Brenda Dixon-Gottschild. All of it quite hard to get much into with typical low lighting and the pre-show chatter of people around you. Read it--carefully--at home. It is its own work of art.

This massive documentation--which, frankly, leaves me to think, "What's left to say?"--is likely strategic, a necessary shot across the bow of any presumptuous critic looking to clamp nasty, dirty paws all over an artist's bright new efforts. It says, "I'll document my work myself, thank you very much!" I sympathize--believe me, I do--but I also had to take all of this and lay it to the side.

There is also this, from promotional text for Séancers:

Setting the fugitive experience afforded Black people on fire with majesty, opulence, and agency, Séancers is a nonlinear examination of how the American racialized body uses psychic, spiritual, and theoretical strategies to shapeshift through socio-politically charged fields of loss and oppression.

... collapses lyrical poetry, psychic movement forms and strategies of discursive performance to investigate concepts of loss, resurrection and paranormal activity. Interrogating issues related to American history and coloniality, Séancers journeys into the surreal and fantastical states of the Black imagination to traverse the “fatal” axis of abstraction, illegibility and gender complexity.

So...everything. Everything. Also laid aside...to make room for me to see what I could see.

The work--this apparition, hallucination, ritual container for all of the above--is only 65 minutes. In that time, I saw a man capable of wearing sweetness and bewilderment as easily as he wore jet black fake eyelashes and exquisite costumes sending two inseparable messages--the bold and the delicate. I saw a spirit land as Kosoko's arms and writhing body swished streamers of golden Mylar. I heard him intone the words "get lost" several times like a mantra...or a directive...or, a simple plea. I heard words about trying, about getting tired. I saw the armor of oversized glasses and bespangled bodysuits. And I saw the letting go...of costumes, of coverings. The shedding and sloughing off. The retracing of steps, away from the crossroads, back up the stairway, into piercing light.

Séancers continues through Saturday, December 9 with performances at 8pm. For information and tickets, click here.

Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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