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Review, 11-4: Skin Games
Lemon Surveys the Diaspora
By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2004 Chris Dohse
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NEW YORK -- Ralph Lemon's
"Come home Charley Patton" (seen October 28 at the Brooklyn Academy
of Music) is its own melting pot. Lemon's hybrid post-modernism
layers multiple narrative source materials, for this work including
Arna Bontemps's short story "A Summer Tragedy" and a lecture given
by James Baldwin at Berkeley in 1974, with movement traditions,
memory (the act of remembering), history (what is remembered) and
identity. Dense with ideas, images and musics, this nonlinear combination
memorializes the physical migration of a people, played in multiple
theatrical spaces around the stage. Just as he did in his last work,
"Tree," which evolved from following the route of Buddhism's evolution
in Asia, Lemon traces the route of a culture. This time, his topic
is the African-American diaspora in the United States, through the
Cotton Belt to lynching sites and the civil rights movement.
In fact, Lemon reimagines
the Atlantic Ocean as a melting pot that when stirred reveals a
cartography of ideas, from the continent of Africa to the coastal
islands of Georgia, from Harlem to the cafes of Paris, where Baldwin
and Nina Simone sit sipping eternal apertifs in Paradise. A question
of ownership runs through the work, alongside or perhaps underneath
the performance itself, like a palimpsest. Who owns the lineage
of the history of race, the wound at the core of this country?
Gravity itself often
seems burdensome, as Lemon, projected on video, balances a precarious,
frivolous teacup while climbing a submerged tree trunk on a Georgia
sea island, or tells a story with the weight of a sheet of plywood
on the back of his neck. Horseshoes, a recurring prop, become fetters,
a yoke. A basketball hoop becomes a pelvis's cage.
Bodies twist and strain,
like Billie Holliday's strange fruit, or like Robert Longo's "Men
in the Cities." Framed in Lemon's formal compositions, they hang
in midair, mid-gasp. Are they writhing in contorted agony or rapture?
Or just keeping the beat? They stutter with a rhythmic shuffling
based on buck dancing, the precursor to tap that was featured in
minstrel shows and became a staple of the bluegrass tradition. They
can be awkward; they can also soar, abandoned into free flight.
Lemon's own dancing
is the loosest. He seems to immerse himself in some kind of interior
inquiry and respond to its flow. David Thomson retains this quality
the most within the phrased material that the rest of the company
shares. At times Thomson looks like a bag of bones trampolining
away from the tether of the earth.
Okwui Okpokwasili acts
frequently as narrator, beaming as she shares reminiscences based
on things that might or might not have actually happened. Cumulatively,
the cast (which also includes Djedje Djedje Gervais, Darrell Jones
and Gesel Mason) captures a quality of nowness that transcends the
chronological now. This is a now that cannot be named, not an idea
or a memory or a concept, but elemental sincerity, essential fluid
energy. Images from Maya Deren's documentation of Vodun ceremonies
come to mind, a syncretism of African bodies channeling Catholic
gods and demons, inhabiting avatars. Anne C. de Velder's costumes
saturate the eye with color; her simple forms can hang like flour
sacks or haute couture. Songs from Verdi to the Smiths amplify the
inherent humor or sadness in certain scenes.
Even though humor is
often present, reticence enters my experience as a viewer of this
work. I fear that as an outsider, a white man, I cannot share the
pain of this struggle. Will the lens of my witnessing oversimplify
a racial heritage that isn't mine into icons of suffering and nobility?
I fear the anger in some of the material (particularly a long furious
sequence at the end of the evening); I distrust the long history
of white eyes watching the black dancing body. In the Q&A after
the show, Lemon says he thinks everything that has yet been written
about the work is incomplete. In terms of African-American history,
he feels all he, or anyone, can do is be present and honest about
how complex it is and will always be.
At one point, Okpokwasili
lipsynchs (afterwards she introduces herself as "Ralph Lemon") to
Janis Joplin's live cover of Simone's recorded cover of Rodger and
Hart's song "Little Girl Blue": A black woman playing a black man
playing a white woman covering a black woman singing a song by two
white men. Never has racial difference seemed more fluid, more theoretical,
more absurd and more like a skin.
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