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Flash 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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