Breaching the Subject

24. February, 2010 Theater No comments

Show #20: The Breach, Cultural Odyssey, February 19.

Joanna Haigood in The Breach.

A dance-theater piece about reparations for African Americans is a description that sounds forbidding, with a lot of potential for didacticism or dreary abstraction. Fortunately we’re in good hands with The Breach, part of Cultural Odyssey’s 30th anniversary season of new works. It follows Rhodessa Jones and Idris Ackamoor’s The Love Project earlier this month and comes just before Dancing with the Clown of Love, the latest piece from Jones’s The Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women.

Conceived and performed by Jones, Ackamoor and dancer/choreographer Joanna Haigood, The Breach takes place not just in the Buriel Clay Theater but all up, down and around the African American Art & Culture Complex.

As the crowd mills around the lobby, Ackamoor enters blowing a conch with a sustained, somber lowing call. Dressed in a shimmering black and silver ensemble, he leads us up the stairs like a pied piper. We walk through a hallway and a recording studio into a severely sloping indoor driveway, where Ackamoor climbs a ladder into an alcove where he plays assorted percussion and wind instruments. A video screen plays the opening credits and shows a woman, Jones, lying face down in the rolling waves. It shows various vintage photos of African-Americans and a variety of egregiously stereotypical caricatures of black people from old greeting cards and advertising.

Haigood enters slowly in a white dress and an expression of dignified misery, her head in an elaborate harness with clanking bells on it, brutal-looking headgear that looks as if it’s meant to be a noisy deterrent to runaway slaves. She shakes and shakes while the bells clank above her. She struggles with the harness clasped around her neck. As Haigood rolls limply on her side down the concrete slope, we can hear Jones in the echoing distance singing the old-time lullaby “Go to Sleep Little Baby” with compelling power.  Jones trudges slowly up the slope dragging a bullwhip behind her, which she wraps around Haigood and pulls her around before unclasping her from the headgear.

“I don’t know where she was from,” Jones says, “but her name was Laura Nelson.” She repeats this and variants of this as images a photo is shown of a woman lynched from a bridge as a crowd stands and watches, as Haigood hangs first from her feet, then from her hands on a ladder. It’s devastatingly haunting imagery, though Jones’s text doesn’t have quite the same bite. “I don’t know where I’m going,” she says. “Abu Ghraib? Where’s my Guantanamo Bay?” There’s some mention here of a blonde child that was made to watch and speculation about whatever becomes of her, but it’s not a thread taken up again, as far as I can tell.

After Jones and then Haigood disappear down the slope, Ackamoor leads us down it, playing jazzy runs on a sax, until we end up in the theater, where the rest of the show plays out more traditionally on the stage. By now Haigood and Jones have changed into all black, with T-shirts reading “HIV is living with ME.” (A topic not otherwise touched on in the piece, but the subject of Jones’ upcoming show with the Medea Project in collaboration with the Women’s HIV Program at UC Medical Center.)  They stand silently side by side on the platform, faces grave, clutching hands together as if gathering strength and making movements–opening their mouths wide, bending over as if touching their toes–that at first look abstract but soon become clear when Jones takes on the persona of a latter-day slave auctioneer, making a few people from the audience repeat the movements while calling out to the rest in a forceful, hard-edged voice, “We’re talking cold hard cash. Let’s get paid.”

It’s a startling moment, packed with uncomfortable electricity that dissipates in the next bit, a stream-of-consciousness rumination by Jones about “artists perusing reparations in the 21st century” and a curious little song in which she sings “Is torture so different now, when I’ve got love on my mind, on my mind, on my mind,” which is pleasant enough but it’s hard to know what to make of it. Ackamoor moves from accompaniment to center stage to deliver an intriguing poetic fable with marvelous tap dancing and jazz sax, at the same time, extolling improvisation not just as artistic expression but as a survival skill. Haigood does a gorgeous dance to Ackamoor’s swarm-of-bees sax.

Jones goes through a series of job interviews that eventually turn into the most explicit commentary on slavery in the whole piece, albeit also the part that seems least rehearsed, with Jones reading statistics from a clipboard and some timing issues between her and Ackamoor as the unseen interviewer.  There’s a fun chatty dishing scene celebrating the first interview, and a snippet of Hardball about reparations with Chris Matthews bloviating that descendents of Union soldiers shouldn’t be held responsible for the sins of their Confederate brothers. Jones sings a devastating rendition of the jazz standard”This Will Make You Laugh” to a video montage of notorious political cartoons from the New Yorker cover of the Obamas as Muslim and black-power revolutionaries to the New York Post editorial cartoon of officers shooting a chimp and calling it the author of the stimulus bill. “This will make you laugh,” she sings, “but it’s not funny to me.” She also does a beautiful sing-along version of the hymn “I’ll Fly Away” (which makes two songs from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack) and a presumably original jazzy plea to an angel, represented by Haigood dangling acrobatically from a hoop suspended above.

Finally Jones takes on the “cold hard cash” persona again, this time taking bids from the audience about reparations–what it would mean, what form it could take, and once the piece is over the dialogue continues with an immediate talk-back between artists and audience about the piece itself as a work-in-progress.

It’s mostly riveting stuff, even if it’s not always clear how the bits tie together. But in the end that’s not the point.  It’s not a thesis, it’s an exploration, and as such it’s quite effective. It may not make a specific point, but it sure does make you think.

The Breach plays through February 28 at the Buriel Clay Theater, African American Art & Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., San Francisco.

Bonus links: My recent Theatre Bay Area interview with Rhodessa Jones and my 2006 San Francisco Chronicle feature on Cultural Odyssey and the Medea Project.

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