Zaccho Dance Theatre presents Between me & the other world
By Wanda Sabir
|Raissa Simpson in Between me. . . |
Photo credit for all images Piro Patton
That we are still having this conversation in 2013 is very disturbing. Is it a result of the homogenized American persona shipped and marketed worldwide yet indigestible at home or is the fact that there remains an intolerance for blackness at the start of the new millennium that corners black boys on deserted streets eating Skittles, at service stations pumping gas and at convenience stores whistling, and kills them both literally and emotionally, psychologically and spiritually? 58 years after Emmett Till was dragged from the river, his body mangled and mutilated beyond recognition, black boys are still lynched by educators who equate intelligence with hair styles and clothing choices, diction and zip codes.
|Jetta Martin & Rashidi Omari|
I was armed when I entered the darkened studio room on Yosemite in San Francisco’s Bayview District where Zaccho Dance Theatre resides. When I opened the black curtain and stepped into the darkened room, I stood still for a moment to let my eyes adjust and noticed chairs where a few patrons sat. I decided to wander through the huge open space, at its center screened partitions which reminded me of gallery sets, meditation rooms or moments in history colliding as the transparency offered no real separation acoustically or visibly.
David Szlasa, media artist responsible for the lighting design coupled with Sean Riley’s set against a musical landscape only someone of Anthony Brown’s compositional understanding of the material –as lived experience could explore, guests stood and reflected as our eyes adjusted to the room. At any time there were projections –video and still, on the screens which were moved by the four performers to form flat and open spaces which they then occupied. “Raissa Simpson, Matthew Wickett, Rashidi Omari, Jetta Martin, according to Haigood, are “all fantastic performers who are investigating these issues in their work beyond this one.” All of them have been seen in other work, most notably, Simpson and Wickett in Haigood’s “The Monkey and the Devil” and Martin, Simpson and Wickett in “Sailing Away.”
|Jetta Martin; Matthew Wickett & Raissa Simpson|
Is this a subtle hint at our greatness as a people? Is it a sign of greatness to be the brunt every atrocity invented and then some? Maybe greatness is not all it is chalked up to be? Our collective racial psychosis connected to blackness points to the difficulty and burden of this “greatness.”
|High to low: R. Omari, M. Wickett, J. Martin, R. Simpson|
Collapsing and opening space, turning lights on and off. Risers stacked and unstacked, bodies loaded, emptied and trapped via incarceration in black skin, bound, unable to move. The vision of a black man running stayed with me. . . . It is the image on the movie poster for Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave. It is the image of my nephew Obataiya Tamirr Lewis Edwards shot by Oakland police, like Kenneth Harding whose cinéma vérité execution is included in the work, along with the security camera video of Trayvon Martin making his final purchase (in this life).
The video is not always clear, but the interpretive choreography where worlds shrink and disappear as the Negro is erased and his or her persona is made unacceptable within the narrow confines of definitions and recast assignations. Haigood’s work and manipulated public spaces no longer accommodate our collective presence since our usefulness is past. “How does it feel to be a problem?” we are asked.
The shifting energy which opens the work— ebullient, light, filled with laughter as the dancer (alternating Raissa Simpson/Matthew Wickett) enjoys the sensuousness of her body moving alone and with her man. Oblivious to the shrinking universe, all of a sudden she looks up and her world is not as open –the stars have disappeared. What was initially welcoming and inviting is gone—to her credit she keeps dancing, Duke Ellington’s “Mount Harissa” arranged and performed by Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra, a literal soundtrack.
|R. Omari, M. Wickett, J. Martin, R. Simpson|
What happened? One can see the dancer puzzling as the walls continue to cut her off from the rest of her social network until she is all alone, trapped with no place to go. “I AM” shifts into “AM I.”
Where there is no reinforcement does one cease to exist? Diane Taylor calls this "'percepticide’ in her study of the US backed 14 year military dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983) (Lorenz, Watkins). When a situation is repressive, that is “people perceive atrocities and injustices, often they must actually renounce their own perception to avoid danger to themselves. . . . This renunciation, according to Taylor, ‘turns the violence on oneself. Percepticide blinds, maims, kills through the senses’” (Taylor, 1997, p 124). “When whole populations are forced to not-know what is going on around them, when the media chooses to not-name injustice, watching-without-seeing becomes ‘the most dehumanizing of acts.’ This renunciation establishes a split within the self, where certain kind of knowings are exiled, and unavailable for negotiation of one’s life” (Lorenz, Watkins).
If one is a part of an institution where one’s presence is not validated, that is, no one says, I see you. Does that make one question one’s validity and try to become like the other so that one’s credibility is then reinforced? Here is where “Double Consciousness” develops to Brown’s original score by the same title.
While Raissa and Matthew dance, another man stands outside. Jetta is on the other side of the screen facing him. Suddenly there is only one dancer—one man following his inner light. His space shrinks. It feesl suddenly claustrophobic. He is trapped, caged. His woman on the other side of a wall.
He joins her and others at the stake, on the auction block.
DuBois writes in the program (smile) “This sense is [one] of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. . . . [These] two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
The choreography here is stunning as the four dancers stand in a linear tower ending with the two men –perhaps because of their vulnerability or visibility, they are taken first. I thought as Jetta comforts the dead man, how black women continue to shed too many tears.
AM I—shadows, reflections-dehumanized, sold robbed of soul. The four dancers stand on risers, shadowing each other’s gestures—supplication, genuflecting—hands outstretched, wiping forehead, wiping off contamination, breaking bonds, the movement from pride to despair-they choke on something bitter, then try to pull it out of their mouths. Is it a word? Are they trying to speak something into reality only to see it dissipate?
The men look at their skin as if they have never seen such before. “Bid em in bid em in”—red light. The space shrinks. I hear cymbals—abstract discordant sound
THE VEIL—Jetta solos—a black man dies The other dancer takes off his shirt and runs. An image of a black man is projected on the screen in front, behind him. It embraces his energy as he runs. A black man running. Why are black men always being hunted—shot? Can’t out run a bullet.
Jetta screams. There is a historic link to the present. Rashidi is hunted; he’s trapped by time, by history. Is it karma that he ends up in a cage, body riddled with bullets?
I recall this moment once again as I reflect on the program at Allen Temple, Healing through Community Change, Families Taking Action, Nov. 18, 2013, which featured Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, Adam and Jeralynn Blueford, mother and father of Alan Dwayne Blueford, with special guests, representatives of the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation from Chicago, mother and daughter team, Airickca Gordon Taylor, Executive Director and Ollie Gordon, Social Justice Coordinator who spoke about their cousin Emmett Till and his maverick mom, Mrs. Till-Mobley. Also featured were forum organizer Marcell Jones, U.C. Berkeley, Black Student Union, Union Leader Clarence Thomas, Civil Rights Attorney Walter Riley, Dr. Steven Pitts, UC Berkeley Labor Center, Min. Keith Muhammad who laid out the strategy used to galvanize citizens, clergy and politicians around the Oscar Grant murder case. Jack Bryson was co-emcee with Rev. Daniel A. Buford.
In Between me. . . families are separated on the canvas. A black man (Omari) remains caged and cut off, until another black man (Wickett) frees him. The links between the present where such inheritance nests beneath and beyond psychological reach are addressed in part 3, “THE VEIL.”
Haigood’s ability to visually and tactilely express such a complex philosophical and political concept DuBois poses is brilliant. Even if one is unable to immediately articulate what she experienced in “Between me & the other world,” one would be moved wordlessly into some conscious or unconscious act of defiance or resistance, especially those self-identified, connected to or perhaps disconnected from the black bodies on stage.
The visceral impact of the work up to its finale, SORROW SONG grew steadily more intense. I stayed for two and half cycles and could not stay for a fourth. Perhaps because I knew the joy experienced in the opening dance scene was short-lived. Perhaps because I knew the running man would get caught. Perhaps because I knew the police responsible for Harding’s death would not be charged or arrested. Perhaps because I already knew the collective historic and present outcome, I could not stand to see the reigns tightened around the dancer’s neck until he was immobile.
Raissa dances in the shadows. Split or disassociated, each member of the community finds him and herself alone, yet, not always forgotten as in the case with Rashidi. Perhaps each man reflects the duality of this split, each woman the same, a state easier to maintain if one stays away from his or her mirrored or externalized self.
It’s too bad there were no conversations built into such a powerful work. It isn’t safe to lift the veil on a consciousness asleep for so long without a cautionary breathalyzer test (smile). My favorite musical moments besides the opening “I AM” with Duke Ellington, is THE VEIL with an original score and the voices of the Baka or People of the Forest in Central Africa. I was pleasantly reminded of a talk with Malonga Casquelorde when Alonzo King’s Forest People opened in San Francisco. He told me about their traditions and explained some of the choreography I witnessed on stage that evening. Funny, how in the midst of losing consciousness or awareness of self, I remembered myself (smile).
In a pre-show interview, Joanna Haigood, a recent Bessie awardee, graciously answered a few questions, two are highlighted here.
Wanda Sabir: Your body of work speaks to what it means to be a product of this nation. Race is a concept one cannot skirt or escape here, so that you would once again tackle this theme is not a surprise. How did your evolution thematically land here right now with The Souls of Black Folk? I read that the work actually started 17 years ago, but as it lay in the cuts as it were baking or on simmer, why now?