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Flash Review 2, 8-25: On the Fringe
A Hip-Hop Dirge for the Big Easy
Copyright 2006 Gus Solomons jr
NEW YORK -- For two weeks each August, downtown New York erupts in an orgy of dance and theater performances: FringeNYC. An early offering this year was Twilight Repertory Company's "ReQuiem for New Orleans," a eulogy for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, seen at its opening performance on August 14. The racially diverse company is based at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and despite a laudable concept and a few talented youngsters, the inexperience of creators and cast is abundantly apparent.
Written and directed by James Vesce and choreographed by Donell Stines, the hour-long montage of music, dance, and video, modeled on a traditional requiem mass, uses hip-hop movement for its ensemble routines. Eleven variously skilled performers sing and dance sections corresponding to the sections of the mass, which are announced by projections on the white back cloth of the venerable but miniscule Actors' Playhouse in Greenwich Village: Prelude, Introit, Kyrie, Dies Irae, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, In Paradisium, and Postlude.
A tall, tail-coated emcee with his face painted half white, half black narrates the introductory Prelude and anticlimactic Postlude. He's visually imposing but lacks the vocal authority, physical grace, and gravitas to pull off his role convincingly; Ben Johnson's rudimentary lighting also makes it difficult to see his face clearly.
Section names as well as explanatory text about the funeral traditions of New Orleans, hurricane statistics, and video news images of the Katrina fiasco -- compiled and edited effectively by video designer Jay Morong -- alternate with the live singing and dancing, which is liberally peppered with political protestation and racial rage. But the staging is theatrically pretty un-savvy and the transitions awkward.
The Sanctus section features break dance choreography by three guys and three gals (the latter including a lanky fellow in drag); the six surround a male soloist, who does hard-core, virtuosic head-spinning and hand-standing tricks. DJ Flood (Robert Glahn) adds a live scratch track to the pulsing rock music. Oddly, the featured dancer's performance demeanor is so withdrawn he looks either scared stiff or embarrassed to be onstage. Even as he's whipping his body through dare-devilish acrobatics his reticence robs the impressive strength and control of the exhilaration such physicality should arouse.
In the most emotionally stirring passage, a female rapper rants about the infamous ineffectiveness of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) during the disaster, while one of the men dances pugnaciously, punching the air with his fists. Between verses, the dancers freeze, while news footage of Katrina victims mourning their losses of homes and loved ones plays behind them. The emotional frustration and hopeless grief expressed by hurricane survivors in these searing video images makes them genuinely moving.
Angelic and earthy singing by a crystalline soprano and a full-bodied gospel singer, respectively, (who unfortunately aren't singled out in the program) could benefit by amplification even in this intimate theater, because they have to compete with the amped up recorded accompaniment. "ReQuiem" (no explanation given for the unusual spelling) climaxes in the penultimate section with a soulful rendition of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," sung by Madame Gospel-singer, as the others rock quietly to and fro.
But the finale founders, as tentative staging makes the actual ending of the piece unclear. Besides the DJ, the energetic ensemble includes Nicole Aronson, Caroline Clifton, Donald Colson, Jonathan Gross, Joseph Kotay, Krystal Pegram, Jennifer Roberts, Boris Rogers, Harvey Speller III, and Darrly White.