Sometimes a theatrical experience can be a stumbling in the dark, searching for a light, rolling on a night’s restless sea, grabbing onto inchoate mumblings to become moored. Such is the work, Shape, of Erik Ehn as performed by force/collision.
From the first moment, images come at you as you enter the black box space at the Atlas Theatre. Shredded paper, piled in sand drifts, defines a rectangle playing space. Birdhouses, lit up like a miniature Christmas “village,” float on long pulleys up and down in space. A big sail cloth at one end of the rectangle, tied askew with dangling white ropes will become a cloud, a ship’s sail, and a shadow-play backdrop all in one. An old fashioned trunk plunked down from out of which appears a man who has (perhaps or perhaps not) sent himself as a slave across borders to seek freedom.
Director John Moletress and Scene and Costume Designer Collin Ranney have built together a fascinating staged refraction of the “Fairy World” at the turn of the 19th century’s Black minstrelsy, where, as “fairies,” Black troupes would set up and perform in the dead of night then slip away by morning. The work tries to conjure Billy and Cordelia McClain as the husband-wife team, an historic example of southern Blacks who migrated to the north to scratch out and define a new writing and performance style in the margins of society. Most of the work of these artists and almost all their names are lost.
There were hangings and burnings of these people and their temporary “camps” (or bird/fairy houses), but the real genocide, according to playwright Ehn, was “not in the killing” but in “the enforcement of historical obscurity or the forbidding of people to constitute themselves in a sustainable memory.”
It is a pleasure and a privilege to see committed, passionate work by a theatrical ensemble, and the force/collisions’ process is assembling nicely. The sheer visual theatricality of the young company is impressive, and for this alone I was willing to pick through the many shards that make up Shape. As force/collision works much as a collective, it may be hard to credit accurately, but the performers must be given more than the usual nod for their inventiveness and physical expressiveness.
As Billy, Frank Britton is part clown, part wife-beating monster, and he makes us feel at moments for this tormented fellow, who’s never quite up to being in step with his mercurial, much more brilliant wife-and-partner. There’s one sequence, “Dimples,” where Frank reconstitutes in live performance some rare film footage of a whole scene from this period that captured Billy’s work. He plays almost a dozen characters with exaggerated rhythms and pitches at top speed, flinging himself onto chairs and popping up again. It’s both hysterical and a little horrifying to see the maniacal life Billy McClain led just to scratch out an existence as an artist.
Wife Cordelia is played by Dane Figueroa Edidi, whose work with their company impressed me so last spring. Born Nigerian, and having studied as both a dancer and singer of many forms and cultures (including Cuban and Native American,) he is able to access and combine forms of expression to make them truly his own. His cross-gender incarnation of Cordelia reminds me of some of the great trance dancer traditions I have seen around the world. Edidi’s loveliest work in this project is when he works with a specific image to flesh it out directly and fully, as when (symbolically) he transforms himself into a mother bird feeding and protecting her precarious “chicks” at the edge of a cliff or beach.
Other members of the ensemble work well to support the stumbling utterances, interrupted images, and most especially delicious burst of song by the characters where music swells up like spontaneous combustion, sometimes wordless, unaccompanied but for the occasional washboard, hand drums, and triangle. S. Lewis Feemster and Manu H. Kumasi make strong physical but also vocal contributions on stage, bringing alive African-American church harmonies and dance rhythms. Luci Murphy is also arresting physically and a charming chanteuse of French song.
I didn’t get enough moments of dramatic, relational grounding, which I’d argue would strengthen the work and give greater access for most audiences. There are a couple of scenes between Billy and Cordelia that showed me not only their marital and professional strife and tension but their lifelong connection even when living apart. There’s a little scene when they pull themselves back together to go off on tour, side by side but mouths set grimly, unforgiving but stalwart, they pick up their suitcases only to totter a few steps and put them down again. The simple routine is repeated and makes us feel all the weary miles, the couple’s displacement, and the betrayals and pain they’ve caused each other.
In another scene, Cordelia has to deal with a French interviewer in her dressing room abroad. Cordelia must answer questions and court the culturally clueless journalist (we’ve all been there) while knowing her husband has taken this moment to philander, and get dressed to go on stage all at once. Edidi is partnered well here by Karin Rosnizeck who, in this cameo conveys both the arrogance and awkwardness she feels as Cordelia undresses and reveals her racial and gender identity. It is indeed a movement of theatrical and emotional revelation. Moments like these help lift the evening out of its sometimes precariously obtuse, performance-art edge on the spectrum of music-theatre.
And so many words. There are two character-narrators (Poet/Survivor and Journalist) who must get through the evening mostly speaking lines of nouns and lists. I found myself getting tired of the verbal barrage and tuning out. The company shows its strength in mining the work through visual/movement, such as the use of shadow play or strobe to create the flickering ghosts of minstrelsy caught on early black-and-white film.
Closes October 6, 2012
Atlas Center for Performing Arts
1333 H Street NE
1 hour, 5 minutes with no intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
It’s odd that Ehn wants to bring to light this history, bringing it in under the larger theme of genocide (this is one of 17 plays he’s created on the theme), but insists on not speaking more directly and immediately to audiences across divides of race, class, north and south, then and now.
Shape intentionally raises many questions, perhaps more questions than it answers about its company members. Who are they making the work for? If the message is so important then, in the words of actor Bill Hurt, “Why does it have to be so hard?” Are these company members performing pioneers scouting for new means of expression and possibly a new audience? And, if so, then can we gain access to this world only through academics from Princeton and Brown Universities (as we had in a talk back session) to tell us what it all means? Or are they really interested in mining their own imaginative mindscapes for themselves?
I am always less interested in whether a piece is authentic historically and culturally than whether it works theatrically on stage. (We have too much of that “authentic” language used as a weapon on all sides, such as the debacles over the recent Porgy and Bess and The Scotsboro Boys.) If for me this wasn’t a totally satisfying emotional experience in theatre, the work provoked thought and delivered some stunning images and performance moments.
I leave it to you, audience members, if Shape’s shape will hold for the many people who should know about this history. This is a work that doesn’t exactly invite so much as challenges you to enter it. Come and meet them in the moonlight if you dare.
Shape by Erik Ehn, directed by John Moletress, Dane Figueroa Edidi, Frank Britton, Dexter Hamlett, Joshua Sticklin, Karin Rosnizeck, Manu H. Kumasi, S. Lewis Feemster, Courtney Ferguson, Julia Smith, Alex Witherow, Luci Murphy. Set/Costume Design, Collin Ranney. Lighting Design, Ariel Benjamin. Sound Design, Derek Knoderer. Choreography, Ilana Silverstein/Dane Figueroa Edidi, Original Songs, Dane Figueroa Edidi, Production Stage Manager, Brian Sekinger. Produced by Force/Collision in Partnership with Soulographie. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.