For the past two weeks, the Frear Ensemble Theater has undergone curious transformations. The seemingly ordinary black box theater became a vehicle hurtling through time and space, transporting audiences to sugar cane fields, cotton fields, and communes; to mystical destinations of unreality; and finally, to the furthest corners of being.
The transcendental journey consists of two performances: Thomas DeFrantz’s CANE and Ni’Ja Whitson’s A Meditation on Tongues. DeFrantz is a Professor of dance, African and African American studies, theater studies, and women’s studies at Duke University. They and their company have put up various performances of CANE since April 2013. Whitson is an artist from New York City who uses diverse media, including dance, poetry, and theater, in their work. Together with their co-performer Kirsten Flores-Davis, they also direct The NWA Project, which creates performances at different sites in collaboration with guest artists.
Along with workshops and discussions with DeFrantz and Whitson, CANE and Meditation define the two-week program titled “The Black Magic of Living,” an apt opener for Black History Month.
“We keep going and making work, and it’s magical. We keep rising up,” DeFrantz said. To them, the real black magic lies in the ongoing resistance of black communities against oppressive structures. In their art, DeFrantz captures the rich collective history of black people through exploring the lingering ramifications of colonialism, apartheid, and slavery.
CANE is a response to its namesake– Jean Toomer’s 1923 novel, “Cane”, about the lives of black Americans during the Harlem Renaissance. Similar to Toomer’s novel, CANE presents a series of vignettes, from cotton-picking to domestic living, interspersed with more abstract episodes that unravel the external environment and internal landscape of black people living in the post-Reconstruction era.
CANE begins with a brief introduction from DeFrantz about their vision and creative process for the piece. DeFrantz also gave the audience a warning about how intense the piece was. Behind them was the set: four translucent panels made of tall hollow rods, on which were projected scenes of a sugar cane field. As the performance began, the dancers moved across the stage, weaving gracefully amongst the panels. Their silhouettes appeared and disappeared in a hypnotic interplay of light and shadow, which blended seamlessly with the rhythmic folk music.
DeFrantz’s cautionary remark soon became apparent as dissonance invaded the music and the dancers’ movements escalated to a frenzy— a far cry from the idyllic opening. Throughout the hour-long piece, scenes of violence, toil, and confusion were interspersed with those of harmony and serenity to depict the complex tale of black Americans who suffered, loved, and lived. The changing scenery projected onto the panels, along with the transitions in music and sound, created a continuous narrative of communal and personal history.
Like DeFrantz, Whitson interweaves collective experiences with their own stories when creating art. Besides considering specific events and time periods in black history, Whitson also aims to explore black identity as a crucial component of the larger universe. They are fascinated by dark matter— the mysterious substance that astrophysicists theorize about— and view it as a “cosmological extension of blackness” analogous to the historical, spiritual, and emotional breadth of black identity.
Born from these ruminations, Meditation is a bold, experimental piece resulting from active collaboration between Whitson and Flores-Davis as part of The NWA Project. Meditation invites the audience to embark on an intimate journey about the trials and tribulations of LGBTQ black people. Based on “Tongues Untied”, Marlon Riggs’ 1989 film, Meditation is both catharsis and apotheosis– it unleashes raw emotion that elevates personal strife to a spiritual plane of existence.
Whereas CANE began on stage, Meditation starts off in the theater’s foyer with a lively dance from Leggoh LaBejia, New York musician and Vogue dancer. LaBejia guided the audience down corridors lined with little white LED lights, where Whitson and Flores-Davis performed a short duet and some spoken word poetry. After traversing the corridors, the audience finally filed into the theater. They passed a shrine honouring queer black icons, many of whom lost their lives during the 1980s AIDS epidemic.
Inside the theater, the audience sat on chairs arranged around the performance space. As Whitson and Flores-Davis traversed the space, traditional notions of stage and audience became irrelevant; there was just one large, liminal space. In this unconventional dimension, Whitson and Flores-Davis swept their viewers into a torrent of powerful emotions– anger, fear, grief, lust, yearning, camaraderie— to capture the complicated reality faced by LGBTQ black people, a historically marginalized community
Their movement and vocalization were incredibly varied; sometimes the steps seemed carefully choreographed, their voices confident and articulate in reciting their poetry; but other times their bodies appeared animalistic and primal, their throats only capable of uttering indistinct sounds. Clips from “Tongues Untied” were screened occasionally, and at the end of the performance, served as a stark reminder of the real people from whom Whitson and Flores-Davis seek inspiration.
As Meditation draws to a close, so does the official program for “The Black Magic of Living.” However, for Whitson and DeFrantz, the true “Black Magic” never ends because they view artistic endeavour as an ongoing and malleable process.
“If I know a thing, it’s not done. I try not to speak in absolutes,” Whitson said.
“Black life is improvisation because tomorrow is not promised,” DeFrantz said. They likened their work in improvisational dance to the daily routine of black people, and indeed, the true “Black Magic” does not end with CANE or Meditation. Every day, innumerable people create “Black Magic” in their conversations, laughter, labor, and much more. Despite the end of the official program for “The Black Magic of Living”, the captivating qualities of “Black Magic” live on in the audience’s minds, reminding them of the wonders of leading a seemingly ordinary life.
Editor’s Note: On February 15, 2018 Meditation was described as a piece co-created by Whitson and Flores-Davis. This description has been amended to portray Whitson and Flores-Davis’ creative process more accurately.