On ViewBlack Lady Theater
November 9 – November 11, 2017
In 1562 the first slave ship sailed from Europe to America. The name of the ship was “Jesus of Lubeck,” but over time it came to be known as “the Good Ship Jesus.” Roughly three and half centuries later Marcus Garvey founded a shipping company—the Black Star Line—that was meant to empower black people and, eventually, provide passage back to Africa. Where the slave trade was all too successful, Garvey’s company—sabotaged by the American government—folded in a mere three years, and when it closed the investments of black families who had entrusted Garvey with their savings were gone, and the families were left penniless.
The title of Tracey Rose’s performance sets these two ships against one another, as if one might expect a boxing match, which would not be out of character for an artist who has used boxing as a structural form in earlier performances. But there was no fighting and the ships made no appearances. What they did instead was provide a conceptual point of departure for the artist and her collaborators to be in touch with the ideas that created and perpetuated the ships’ reasons for being in the first place. For as much cruelty as the Good Ship Jesus represents, the Black Star Line calls up a mixture of hope and sadness. To hurt one thing—or one person—is often to protect another; and so when the messages of Rose’s performance sank in, the question that rolled around in my mind was, what do I value enough to protect? What threat could create enough fear to merit hurting someone?
The venue for Rose’s performance was a smart match. The Black Lady Theater is a venue dedicated to celebrating black women, especially mothers who, as the website describes, “are revered as the backbone of the Black family.” Rose is a mother, and at times I felt she embodied the very archetype that the building was made to cherish. The walls of the box office are adorned with murals that picture black women in positions of grace and power. I only encountered black women running the venue, which is also known as “Slave II.”
Rose’s performance—her first in New York in over a decade—spanned three days. Each night a show was put on and each afternoon the venue was open for visitors to stop in and observe Rose and her collaborators as they rehearsed lines, went over ideas, made phone calls, took selfies, did stretching exercises; in other words went about the banalities of a typical afternoon. These two aspects of Rose’s artwork—the daytime “play,” and the evening’s “show”—were consciously delineated. The show was entertainment; the play was not, and was not meant to be.
The play portion of the performance was easy going. Laughter and chatter filled the space. A little heater warmed the chilly room. Fragments of monologue occurred randomly as performers practiced their lines. Different music was tested; various gestures and movements were rehearsed. The play took the form of a thing in formation, constantly transforming, meandering, unfussy and generally interactive. Those of us in the audience sat around chatting, a dog caught a performer’s attention and earned his affection, tea was shared. It never felt more serious than it needed to be.
The show was a different experience altogether. Whereas the play was lengthy and casual, the show was feisty and brief, lasting only an hour. It took place mostly on the floor, below the theater’s actual stage, which allowed for the show to take place on two tiers. The only person on the stage—the upper tier—was the artist, who spent most of the performance seated, wearing a wonderfully floppy elephant mask, casting red cords from her groin to the edge of the stage. The cords attached to her pants, and she would reel them back in once they were cast out. If they were metaphorical umbilical cords, there were no babies at the other end. Fertility wasn’t a significant theme, but notions of ancestry certainly were and there is no ancestry without fertility.
The show was structured as a constellation of scenes and monologues free of any overarching narrative threads. The props were simple and sparse, nothing that couldn’t be made cheap and quick. The costumes were similar, though they were more interesting and surprising. The mixing engineer wore a black jumpsuit with the word “money” running down the center. The person running the music was dressed in black with a flowing leopard print cape and huge diva-style red leather boots. Two “white bitches” appeared in full-body nylons, the color of cream. If this had been straight-ahead theater, these characters might have been named in a program. But it wasn’t a work of theater and there were no explanations for anything.
The heart of the show was the “shipbuilder,” dressed in a grey jumpsuit. The shipbuilder was a contemplative presence. In a sonorous tone he would wander the stage asking open-ended questions, as if pondering aloud, “How many years in captivity? No voice, no soul… Africans in America and African Americans, what’s the difference? How many are ready to come back home?” Punctuating these inquisitive lines, the Shipbuilder would stand before a large canvas and sketch the shapes of the boats; first one, then another. Towards the end of the show, when he stood back to consider his work, I recognized the shape created by the two ships—stacked one on top of the other—resembled an open coffin.
A highlight of the show came midway through, when one of the performers ambled down from the audience to deliver a poetic monologue that spun around ideas of ancestry and colonialism. Wearing a t-shirt that read “Majesty,” he delivered cleverly crafted lines: “We are a peaceful people / peaceful admits evil.” “When you see through native eyes / you see through the lies.” “Do your research / learn who you are.” When he finished, the audience burst into applause.
The metaphorical role of the ship was brought home at the end of the show when the Shipbuilder faced the audience and proclaimed, “We all need to build a ship to take us somewhere that is not here. What do you think?” It’s not just that we need to find a ship (or any vehicle, really) to allow us to move freely—we need to build it. In building our own vessels we become creators, and ownership rests in our own hands. Throughout a performance and show that functioned through partnership and collaboration, this concluding proposition shifted the focus to an even more foundational element—personal responsibility.