Out of Africa…With a Frenzy

Early in Saturday night's American premiere of a work by the South African choreographer Robyn Orlin, the dancers of the all-male Senegalese troupe Jant-Bi begin to advance steadfastly toward and then literally into the audience--standing on the backs and armrests of occupied seats and striking a pose of invincible, unyielding bravado. At that point, who could guess that this pinwheeling, sometimes perplexing, affair at Montclair State's Kasser Theater would culminate in a flood of joy uniting audience and performers?

Everything about this memorable work is unorthodox, beginning with its runaway train of a title:

At the same time we were pointing a finger at you, we realized we were pointing three at ourselves…

That’s right, no caps, and open at the end. Where does that ellipsis lead?

As with almost every show in Montclair State’s freewheeling and aptly named Peak Performances series, it leads to interesting, challenging and rewarding places.

The show continues through February 1. See peakperfs.org.

Pointing a Finger, as I’ll call it, comes at you with an intriguing frenzy. It is full of unpredictable episodes, from stately and solemn to menacing and manic. From peacock parading to lunatic physical comedy that would turn the Three Stooges green with envy.

Except that Larry, Moe and Curly have nothing to do with it. What Pointing a Finger points to are purely African and Senegalese frames of reference. What Orlin has done, near as I can make out, is create a contemporary version of an ancient African coming-of-age rite that the program notes refer to as the "faux-lion" ceremony.

One of the things that makes it contemporary are the iPhones the dancers hold, shining its flashlight at each other or the audience, streaming video of the performance from within the scrum of the action onto a screen hung above the stage. Another is the costumes, basically colorful, lightweight athletic togs with logos like Puma and Slazenger. And plastic beach flip-flops, which become percussion instruments. 

There is no plot or dialogue or music–if by music you mean musical instruments. But there is chanting and shouting and hooting, an intrinsically musical form of what might predate the African-American ritual of doing the dozens.

The performers encourage the audience to clap. But to me (and, by the sound of it, to others) it was an invitation to clap not just the usual dorky rote, but to make music with the performers. Through clapping, yes, but with the vivacity of real rhythm. Talking through rhythm, not strictly call and response, but a flood of response driven by the intensity of listening and watching and engaging the work on its own terms. Syncopation, triplets, emphatic accents, till my hands were stinging.

There is actual singing, including one exquisitely lovely ballad sung by one of the dancers as he steps into and out of an array of colorfully patterned plastic buckets.

These buckets begin the show stacked on top of each other, forming three columns about 10 feet high.

They look massive and architectural at first. You are shocked when they come crashing down and tumble and bounce all over the stage and become part of the action in a host of ways, some warlike, some farcical, others suggesting a village at work–washing clothes, sowing seeds, mashing foodstuffs.

I’m told by Jed Wheeler, the impresario of Peak Performances, that these seemingly indestructible, pastel-patterned plastic buckets sell for 50 cents each in Senegal. Wheeler wryly suggested that some shrewd importer could make a killing bringing these decorative yet functional objects to the U.S. Are you listening, Martha Stewart, oh departed daughter of Nutley?

There is musicality in the burbling rhythms of French the dancers speak and sing (along with bits of English here and there). Senegal was a French colony, and you feel a disturbing friction, history’s long-armed reach, hearing the conqueror’s tongue spoken by the sons of the sons of the sons of the conquered.

Another disturbing element, complicated and hard to unwind, is the dancers’ insistent flaunting of the power and prowess of their bodies. My friend a couple seats to the right of me bristled as one dancer, in that beginning invasion of the audience, bent over him and loudly insisted he slap the outside of his, the dancer’s, bricklike forearm, near the elbow, to demonstrate how solid and strong it was.

With my friend declining to do so, the dancer began smacking the wall of bone and muscle himself, loudly and rapidly. At the same time, other dancers, crouched or standing amidst other seated audience members, were doing similar things, and most people seemed to go along with it in good humor.

If it were me, I would have bought into the spirit of the thing and gotten slap happy. But the image of the man demanding that his physical power be acknowledged struck me as sad. Like, why is that such a big deal? Isn’t the strength and power obvious. mWhat drives someone to clamber into the audience to demand that kind of recognition? Is there a void that must be filled? Has history and the clash of cultures and skin colors created that void?

For my part I was enthralled by the physicality of the dancers. I am in awe of virtually all great dancers, male and female, amateur and professional, classical and modern. The body as instrument! It is the most elemental and irreducible and everpresent of instruments, limited and silent yet inexhaustible in expression.

And the Jant-Bi dancers had great bodies. One or two of the eight men were bulky-built, like running backs, but the rest were tall and lean with stunningly etched musculature that could move at speed, spin, dive, leap, twist, snake, shake and slither. Some sinuous sinews there. And damn stomping proud of it.

But that’s also a downer, I’m afraid, in a sad, guilty, American way. The associations with slavery are unavoidable. What did the slave-owners prize but the physical prowess of the peoples they ripped from the bosom of their homelands?

Confusion and contention roils the air even now as to what Black manhood in America is, should be, has a right to be. The mind and the body need to be joined, need to nourish each other. That’s what I take from all theater, dance and performance. I may be projecting my American discomfort onto a canvas that is not as conflicted. Or has its own conflicts, while free to let boisterous boyishness burst the bonds of manhood without embarrassment.

But boys-will-be-boys and assertions of manliness got scary when an audience member in the front row was coaxed onto the stage.

The symbolism of what followed is a bit murky, if both playful and political. The audience member, a tall man in jeans and a collared shirt, mid-30s perhaps, was placed on the back of a dancer on all fours, like a bull rider.

All sorts of business commenced around him. Then suddenly a paper shopping bag was slipped over his head. On the front of the bag was a painting of the face of Christopher Columbus. The dancer who was leading this sudden kangaroo court seemed to then ask the audience, loudly and repeatedly, whether they should let the man go. (Their English was hard to make out.) Meanwhile, the blurry, jerky close-up video of the proceedings is all too familiar and lodged in our minds with horror.

One doesn’t know where the dancers and the creator of the piece, Orlin, are coming from on this. For me, it was the ISIS on the cake, and it left a foul taste.

In any event, the audience responded loudly and the bag was finally removed. Then another bag was slipped over the man’s head, bearing…the face of Mickey Mouse. Laughs, cheers, the same rigmarole.

At last the man was lifted onto the shoulders of two dancers. He rode triumphantly back to his seat. He was, in fact, the group’s manager, who lives in Paris. It feels strange, pointing out that the man was white, as if color shouldn’t matter. But part of the message of this show seems to be that color not only matters, it is the vessel and the canvas of African culture. In the remaining performances, I’m told, the audience member will be an actual audience member.

When you think about it, the show’s ungainly title does make sense. When you point your index finger, your other fingers do point back at yourself. (The thumb either abstains or joins the prosecution.)

So whether you are onstage or in the audience, Pointing a Finger brings you an evening of discovery, of the other and, even more, of the self.

 

 

 

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