PROPHET: The Order of the Lyricist
October 6–8, 2022
PROPHET: The Order of the Lyricist by 7NMS, the duo made up of choreographer/dancer Marjani Forté-Saunders and composer Everett Saunders, is an invitation to an exclusive listening party of sorts. Upon the start of the show, instead of being led through the double doors that open into the theater at Abrons Arts Center, we are unexpectedly directed through the wings onto the stage. There we find a few rows of chairs set on risers at the back, facing out toward the velvet seats we, at another time, might otherwise be occupying.
In this intimate setting, Saunders begins slowly approaching the audience, meditating out loud on how one might recognize an emcee. Perhaps the ensuing performance offers an answer to this question, as the structure pays homage to nineties East Coast hip-hop albums (Saunders shouts out New York’s Wu-Tang Clan and Raekwon), replete with jazzy instrumental interludes and more serious narrative pieces punctuated by comedic skits, a fun callback to what has become more or less a relic of the genre. Saunders’s original score for the performance, created in collaboration with trumpeter Chris Ryan Williams, is also interspersed with various audio samples, a foundational practice in hip-hop. These clips range from a lecture by Black cultural theorist Fred Moten to dialogue from the 2022 multiverse film Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Thematically, PROPHET likewise draws its source material from the personal as Saunders—who notes his grandfather was a minister at the AME Church—weaves his own upbringing into the broader, more recent history of Black lyricism. When Saunders speaks, it is with the inherited legacies of a collective past; he has both the commanding voice of a preacher at his pulpit and the natural, rhythmic cadence of a trained emcee. At one point, he jogs—Forté-Saunders crawls, slowly— circles around the perimeter of the stage, acting out a scene that recalls an unidentified mentor instructing him on completing a breathwork exercise. He calls lyricism a form of study, but one that, unlike institutionalized academia, is not valued by society at large.
An early scene begins by intimating a church service, with Saunders quoting from the “book of Illmatic.” He pronounces: “My son, the star will be my resurrection,”—a line that itself references the Five-Percent Nation of Harlem, from rapper Nas’s “The World Is Yours”—“that’s Scripture.” He refers to the audience in makeshift pews as “the congregation,” beckoning us to respond to his questions, even ones asked rhetorically.
Saunders then delivers a soliloquy followed by several autobiographical skits set in his hometown of Philadelphia. In the personal turned allegory, he and Forté-Saunders playfully take turns occupying the roles of various characters Saunders encounters along Girard Ave, all of whom share religious or spiritual proclivities.
Throughout the performance, Forté-Saunders often acts as Saunders’s shadow, her background movement either offering nonverbal affirmations or subversions, alternate interpretations, to whatever is being spoken aloud. She frequently appears in fragments, donning what appears to be an eight-foot-long conical roll of chicken wire on her head or wooden tribal mask while wielding a sword. Roughly halfway through, she sits off-center in a chair, partially obscured by diagonally positioned panels, such that only her appendages are visible; we watch as her hands and feet contort. When she does express herself verbally, it is in a consistent manner of excerpts, brief theses perhaps about the work (we can’t see her saying this, but she states from off-stage, “Improvisation offers a kind of foreshadowing” without further elaborating). Instead, she allows her body to do the speaking. In contrast to her partner’s ruminations on spirituality, Forté-Saunders draws our attention to corporeality. Toward the end, she swaps places with Saunders. The two engage in an improvised pas de deux of sorts in which she takes the lead. It quickly becomes clear that she is the trained dancer, Saunders mimicking her movement, carefully eying her for guidance from behind. When they reposition so that Saunders is opposite Forté-Saunders, back-and-forth volleys of individual gestures, not quite in parallel nor exactly complimentary, reveal a tenderness and dynamic synthesis intrinsic to their personal and working relationship.
Projections across the theater reach up to the balcony, temporarily enveloping the audience and production under stars or an archway of unfurling roots or smoke. At the very end, Williams emerges for the first and only time from the double doors in the back and walks down the aisle, raising his trumpet to the sky. The light from above backlights Saunders, a bright glow outlining his outward-facing silhouette and casting a long shadow, like a man leaving his home or stepping through a new door.