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Flash Review 2, 4-20: Just Chatting
Gumbo a la Rousseve

By Karinne Keithley
Copyright 2001 Karinne Keithley

David Rousseve is splendid. And I bet his Grandma was too. Both of them figure in his tender, powerful, elevating solo, "The Ten Year Chat," running this weekend at P.S. 122 and seen last night. I was thoroughly willing to love him right from the beginning when, in his Grandma's voice, he appears on a video screen and lets us in on some secrets of life. "Kick some ass, shake some ass, and then fly yo' ass off to heaven." A map of the show.

There's something distinctly Southern about the whole vibe of this show, and vibe is indeed the word. Allowed out of our silent-observer-in-darkened-auditorium role, the audience is early on entreated to join Rousseve in a Black church moment, as he preaches and we give him our 'Amen!'s and 'Hallelujah's. (One lucky person even gets a tambourine to bang.) This coaxing-out is a major tool for Rousseve, bringing us right in to his world, creating a warmth and noise he can later orchestrate into silence to poignant effect. Even though it's clear that he's in full control, there's nothing confrontational or even manipulative about his relationship to us. The invitation is genuine. This encapsulates much about the show: It's tightly controlled, impeccably crafted, and yet you feel somehow privy to a late-night confidence in the kitchen. You look down, surprised to see your program where there should be a bowl of gumbo.

Let me spend a paragraph with some details. Rousseve moves between monologues and movement, in each mode working both in direct address and in portrayal. Often recounting childhood stories at a microphone downstage, his mode is generally that of a story teller, but is occasionally broken by theatrical device -- mostly the weaving in of physical/visual motifs that will take on an emotional resonance as the evening progresses. He tells stories about a rat he had as a child ("I loved him because he was 'flicted"), about integrated school districts in Houston and role models ("Since I was knee high to a duck I've wanted to be a large black woman who sings gospel"). He tells his grandmother's stories then, preaches Aretha Franklin's Dr. Feelgood, and divulges his show business beginnings in ludicrous soap operas. Content ranges from AIDS to aloneness to race to the need for a father's love. But each end of the scale reaches towards joy. I loved the dance which follows the preaching section, which used (as he indicated it would before starting) a downtowny releasy vocabulary, but looked mostly like the simple pleasure of dancing. Couched in the spirit of the show, dancing is restored to a part of its nature which is often dried up by formalism and by passive audiences in darkened rooms.

"The Ten Year Chat" is a testament both to the consistency of a single artist's mind, and also the extent to which performance is malleable, wide in its possible meanings and correlates. The piece is, to a certain extent, a ten-year chat, an interweaving of ten years' worth of material pulled from several projects. Reading through the press release after the show, I learned that I had essentially seen a retrospective of Rousseve's work -- The Creole Series (1990-1992), The Dream Series (1993-1995), The Love Series (1996-1999) and his upcoming Jazz Project. What's unusual is that "The Ten-Year Chat" in fact possesses a remarkable unity. The arc of the evening is beautifully constructed. The movement sections are somehow absorbent, becoming the text, with its various situations and implications, binding the text, and then freeing us from it. The consistency lies in the way in which each episode contains something very basic about a life reaching towards an endpoint which is a freeing: a line of flight.

The show is lit beautifully by David Ferri, who's never let a floor go without knowing it could possess a rising glow. He can change a visually cluttered space into the most elegant of things. Rousseve benefits from Ferri's lush architectural clarity. A fine pair of Davids.

Applauding at the show's end, I realized that the performance had actually generated in me, outside of all convention, the genuine impulse to clap -- to raise some noise in appreciation, an involuntary physical response.

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