DEAN MOSS: johnbrownby Leslie Allison
Thick, white stripes are painted on the black back wall of The Kitchen’s stage—immediately evoking both the American flag and the slats of prison. Dancer Cassie Mey rises silently from her seated post and begins a transfixing, balletic solo. She wears a short linen uniform that floats up around her bourréeing legs as she backs toward the audience, her extended arms sliding up and down. With each slow développé, her leg muscles tremble like tiny awakenings in the quiet, grey light. Soon, projected footage of a verdant valley appears on the white stripes, and a soundtrack of exploding cannons and muskets fills the room. Though abstracted, Mey’s movements connote actions of early American history: she builds the frame of a house with her legs, brandishes her arms like swords, sews together great swaths of cloth with her fingers. This opening sequence of Dean Moss’s johnbrown balances pride and strength with fear and vulnerability, a balance that continues to be struck throughout the piece.
In organizing johnbrown into seven disparate segments (titled after the articles of John Brown’s Provisional Constitution of 1858), Moss explores his complicated subject matter in diverse ways, utilizing a plethora of resources: video projections, prop boxes, game-like scores, a play, a teen rock musician, youth production assistants, and of course, his dancers. Certain elements have a chillingly humorous effect (such as when Moss plays out a scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin dressed in a thong), while others (as when the cast repeatedly tosses deflated red balls into the air) feel like exercises that could have stayed in the rehearsal room.
The beating heart of johnbrown is “irregularities,” a segmentin which Moss and Kacie Chang perform duets with large rectangular boards. Reflective on one side and white on the other, the boards serve the dual purpose of mirror and screen, and allow for a crossfire of identities and meanings to flash between performers and audience. The performers deftly handle their boards, which become barres, burdens, beds, and weapons; they battle with and embrace the various identities the screens bear. Periodically the projector plays clips of old, vaguely racist cartoons, while the potent, at times hilarious, musings of 82-year-old Harold G. Moss, the choreographer’s father, provide the soundtrack. As we listen to Moss Sr.’s reflections on a lifetime’s worth of racial injustice and discrimination in America, the mirrors, depending on the angle, either show us (the audience) our own reflection or temporarily blind us.
Later, a projected comedic dialogue (by the playwright Thomas Bradshaw) between John Brown and Frederick Douglass provides historical context, as well as insight into Brown’s problematic legacy. During this video, the five teenage production assistants, who—unlike the majority of the cast—are people of color, write their reactions to this slice of history on the floor with chalk: disgust at Brown’s marriage to a 16-year-old girl, disbelief at this country’s treatment of slaves, disagreement with Brown’s enthusiasm for violence. In the following scene, the rest of the performers march through like soldiers, occasionally dropping to the floor and rolling, picking up distinct imprints of the teens’ chalk words on their dark clothes.
Powerful moments of racial tension play out between dancer Asher Woodworth and Moss in the second half of the piece. At one point, Moss firmly plasters his face in the crack of Woodworth’s bottom while Woodworth walks around the stage dragging Moss behind him: a rather literal illustration of a black man eating a white man’s shit. Later, Woodworth and Moss face off, Woodworth drum-rolling his hands on Moss’s chest repeatedly until eventually he clambers atop Moss. An unwilling but ultimately powerless mount, Moss shoulders this larger man’s full body weight in silence. These moments of indignity for Moss are difficult to watch, and pose a compelling critique of post-slavery America’s race dynamics.
The final segment of the piece, “oath,” provides a valuable period of reflection and processing. Diana Ross and the Supremes sing the West Side Story ballad “Somewhere” on a video projection on the white striped wall. Woodworth stands alone center stage, gradually aging. As his shoulders hunch, his chest heaves, and his head wobbles, the teen production assistants enter and sit in a circle on a piece of astroturf. Woodworth’s old white man persona withers to nothing and he exits. “There’s a place for us,” Diana Ross bittersweetly sings, and the teens chat amongst themselves inaudibly, with no concern for the audience. As they giggle and relax on this tiny patch of green grass, one cannot help but see hope in their youth.
LESLIE ALLISON is a writer and musician. She composes choral music for performance collaborations with Francis Weiss Rabkin, and her illustrated chapbook of poetry about Martha Stewart, MARTHA, will be released in April 2015 by Ugly Duckling Presse.