A few months ago, I had the pleasure of attending “SHE: A Choreoplay” on its closing night in May at HERE Arts Center in New York City. Created, choreographed and written by Jinah Parker and produced by Kevin Powell and the Jinah Parker Project, “SHE” was advertised as being about sexual violence against women and girls, about Sandra Bland, about healing, all of it.
It was so good, I had to call my mother.
As anyone who has seen SHE will tell you, music plays a very important role in the production. It features the music of Aretha Franklin, Laura Nyro, Amy Winehouse, Pink Floyd and Mahalia Jackson, just to name a few. And it is the music of SHE, paired with Parker’s delicately powerful interpretation, that stays with you the most. Mahalia’s voice, lucid and sonorous, just rips through you. I mean, Beyonce may slay, but Mahalia still decimates.
Like black hands plunged into the rich, deep, dark soil of the African-American experience from which Parker and Powell have drawn heavily for “SHE,” Jackson’s voice paired with Parker’s movement, soars. As the stirring lyric from Duke Ellington’s famous composition, “Come Sunday,” the 1943 jazz standard sung by Jackson, goes: “Lord, dear Lord I’ve loved, God almighty, God of love, please look down and see my people through”.
The songs that accompany Jinah Parker’s scenes in particular rise and throb with the grace and elegant power of an insistent protest, as portrayed in dance. And the dancing, oh the dancing… it is so gracefully and elegiacally performed—often stoic in its defiance, but more often beautiful in its interpretive “call and response” that all will find something redeeming in SHE.
And that is precisely the point—to feel, to learn, to S-T-R-E-T-C-H. Parker’s choreography and dance transcend the human plane and allow for the arrival of “the spirit” that instantly speaks on multiple levels, in multiple languages, and transports us beyond the mental plane. SHE resides in that “meta” space, where bodies sculpt from the air shapes and moves that are ancient, exalting and primordial. And it is in that place, where SHE dwells.
In one of the most beautiful and communicative scenes by Parker—which as a non-specialist in dance I can only call “Alvin Ailey-like”—she swipes and glides to Gil Evans’ and Miles Davis’ “Time of the Barracudas.” I found myself thinking about a scene in one of Spike Lee’s first movies, “She’s Gotta Have it”—a dance sequence filmed in Fort Greene Park. For me, that scene captured so perfectly the early burgeoning arts scene that was Fort Greene in the early 1980s—a “Brooklyn Boheme” state of mind, to borrow a term from Nelson George who made a documentary of the same name, which featured among many others, Kevin Powell.
Maybe because of the jazz—maybe because of producer, Kevin Powell’s own experience as a member of that early scene as a spoken word artist and poet—Parker’s dance to “Time of the Barracudas” feels like an homage to Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s father and lifelong jazz artist—conductor of the “Natural Spiritual Orchestra,” which gave Lee’s films that soundtrack of “holiness” that is so recognizable to fans, and which gave them a texture both extraordinary and haunting. SHE captures for so many what life is like in Brooklyn, quotidian and routine at some times, glorious and refined at others—like a beautiful Brooklyn day at Prospect Park—raw, uncomplicated simple and sweet—like living art.
Again, much like Lee’s films, music is almost a 12th man (or more appropriately, 12th woman) in this ensemble—and pierces through the third wall of this production, lifting us up to that holy place. When Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “Wholy, Wholy” wails “we can rock this earth’s foundation” you realize you have just been a witness to something very special—something akin to a religious revival—and you just let it wash all over you—the giddiness, the freedom, the joy! And then, we too rejoice in the insistent and unapologetic triumph of it all—our own feelings; our own misunderstandings of what women go through and deal with. At some of the most dramatic moments of the choreoplay, in the background is a young girl flopped on a bed listening to headphones, brilliantly capturing at once both the routine and sublime elements of the interior female experience.
“How do you dance the struggle of Sandra bland? What does #BlackLivesMatter look like in dance? How do you dance the work of Alice Walker, of bell hooks, of Audre Lorde?
I suppose when you have the power to create life, your own life will be marked by peaks and valleys—intense loves and losses, all the while the life cycle continues. That is what we go through as an audience. It all spills out into a release of love that you, the players, and the rest of the audience are feeling communally. A “talk-back” held after the play gave the audience a chance to comment on what was seen, learned and processed and somehow this ends up being almost as thrilling as the choreoplay itself. (Aretha is really belting it out now) and that chill sneaks up your spine like a tonic in your brain—and you know you will cry again in the final scene “we can rock this earth’s foundation … can’t you see us , talking about love? Love, love, love, love?” and this beautiful choreoplay drops you right back off where you were picked up—except now lifted, full of love and possessing a new understanding—not just from books—but from what can only be described as “a danceable text.”
How do you dance the struggle of Sandra bland? What does #BlackLivesMatter look like in dance? How do you dance the work of Alice Walker, of bell hooks, of Audre Lorde? Somehow Parker’s singular interpretation is able to do this. Michelle Obama famously said “when they go low, we go high.” To Borrow that phrase, Parker and Co. take us low, so that we may go high—soaring over generations of womanist/feminist movements, of mothers and daughters, of politics, of black mothers and their sons—sons with names like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, and Emmett Till.
As a historian of the black experience, it made me think of the sacrifices of slave women who fed full breasts of milk to white children in their care, often with empty bellies themselves—they wet nursed white dreams and white ambitions—while perhaps in the background the cries of their own black babies went under-nourished, unattended. It reminds me of something that the famous Brooklyn-duo, Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) & Talib Kweli, talked about on their classic album, Black Star, on the track known as “Astronomy (8th Light)”. The lyric goes, “Black like the slave ship belly that brought us here. Black like the cheeks that are roadways for tears. That leave black faces well traveled with years”. And this beautiful multicultural cast knows, and this hyper diverse audience can now understand … the way a meme evokes an emotion, a sense memory that is not, and can never be yours… is suddenly felt. Is somehow—through the genius of this piece of art; from the aching pain and experience that was walked by its players. Lived-for-you-so-you-didn’t-have-to—given so generously as a gift—a gift as humble as the hands of slaves, that you know you have been utterly and forever changed… and isn’t that good art?
SHE will make you question yourself—question your priorities, your prejudices, your life, loves and ideas about gender, race, class—all of it. And in the age of Trump that just feels right somehow, and important. An age in which a man who talked openly about sexual assault is now in the white house. SHE roars back. SHE howls. A choreoplay produced and shared in the same theater in which Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues was produced (HERE Arts Center) means something right now. If nothing else, SHE will help women claim back their bodies, their lives—their power.
So much of what makes “good art” is timing—and this is the right time for SHE. It is an affirmation that the creativity that makes the things we love, comes from the creator. And the fact that the largest women’s march in history happened at the start of this auspicious year, that sexism has never been more avidly put on display and that the most important movement for the protection of black civil rights in the modern era—the Black Lives Matter movement—was founded by three black women, makes this every(wo)man’s choreoplay.
If nothing else, like me, it will make you want to call your mother, wife, sister, daughter, or aunt—and don’t you need to do that anyway?
SHE: a Choreoplay is returning this October to The New York Society for Ethical Culture for two special performances: Friday October 20th and Saturday October 21st 2017. To buy tickets for October performances of SHE please click this link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/she-a-choreoplay-tickets-35982381271a