JACK: A Performance Chronicle
By the end of technical rehearsals, book sculptures and seating cubes dotted JACK's wood floor, roughly delineating the playing space. Across these, the cast formed and reformed as the directors cycled through pieces and a handful of lighting cues—a warm daylight effect, darkness, and two bold washes, one purple one green. Reflected against the tin-foiled crinkle of JACK's walls (its most uncompromising feature), the green and purple elicited an endless formless horizon of dynamic, saturated color. The whiter lights cast against the walls returned an intense glare while a truly empty darkness remained elusive; the metallic walls amplified any ambient light into a glow strong enough to illuminate the outlines throughout the room.
The dark skinned intellectual reads a book that never ends. Photography by Kelly Stuart. During my absence, the formless dancer of #31 had been given a some form, a dark clad performer now traverses the stage in languid turns, twirls, and swirls. Her appearances at odd intervals punctuated the performance with a visual reminder of the freely radical nature of Everyday Afroplay and the central figure of our consideration: the limitless black body.
Throughout the process, props, costume elements, and other wield-able materials had been limited by design and the often spare nature of the micro-plays. The few objects that survived this austerity out of dramatic necessity now found themselves ultimately replaced with books. Most of these books were deployed around the space unaltered but a few were tailored to serve a particular function in a particular micro-play. One book was hallowed out and then filled again with bits of paper, becoming the vessel and molasses capitol for the action and imagery in #36. Another smattering of books had their pages covered in green and purple splotches, scoring for the loosed arrows of Unnamed Superhero Woman, #24. The most significant change during my absence was a personnel shake up. We lost the actor originally set to play Dandy, more attrition from the economic realities of (self) producing theater Off-Off Broadway. One of the other ensemble members, Waliek Crandall, was asked to step into this crucial role at the very last minute and courageously accepted; the given time frame guaranteed that Crandall could not master all the material. However, under the direction of Daaimah Mubashshir and Raja Feather Kelly, Crandall quickly came to a reinterpretation of his role—once Dandy had acted as a sort of hectoring and competitive younger brother to Naj, where now he stood transformed into a concerned but disapproving father figure—that provided him strong, intuitive guidelines for characterizing Dandy throughout his performance without having complete command of the text.
Leaving this last piece of the production puzzle to congeal as long as possible, it was time finally to exhibit this undertaking to an audience beyond merely each other. Everyday Afroplay would be performed four times at JACK, nightly from April 27th to April 30th, I attended only once.
The show was sold out. I ended up sitting in a chair poached from the box office set off to the side of the performance floor. The audience had packed in as tightly as possible. Even though the air hung heavy with a strong humidity from the day's springtime spike in temperature, there was a palpable current of excitement coursing through the usual audience pre-show chatter. People seemed receptive, at the outset, to a meditation on the black body in all its varied forms, a topic again fallen under the intense combined gaze of the public and media, which no doubt was driving some of the excitement. It would be difficult indeed not to situate this production in the present, visible outrage over the continued degradation and devaluation of black bodies—the ideas they formulate, the work they undertake, the art they produce, the very lives with which they have been cosmically imbued—in all spheres of American existence.
Finally, in darkness, the cast took the stage. From the hands of J Molière, a flashlight appeared and pierced the heavy blackout with its characteristic solitary beam. First probing the space and audience with this selective illumination, she soon revealed the rest of the cast, sprinkled about the be-booked landscape. Standing, sitting, or lying across the stage beside her were Gabby Beans, Timothy Edward Craig, Waliek Crandall, Cornelius Davidson, Anton Floyd, Angelica Gregory, Melissa Mickens, Iliana Paris, Alexandra Phipps, Kyra Riley, Mouna R'miki, Nicolette Templier, and Victoria Wallace (click here to read the full program). With this short rumination on lightness, blackness, and the human position midst the sublime scale of the universe, otherwise known as Everyday Afroplay #65, serving as our interlude and introduction, the cast splintered into a sequence of duos, trios, and larger subsets, rattling off monologues and dialogue in every direction on every subject. But first, out of this informal chorus stepped our protagonists Naj and Dandy (Gregory and Crandall), their interplay designated as our narrative anchor, their journey our arc.
Matching the audience's pre-show exuberance, the actors leaned hard into their performances, playing fast, loud, and bold. Although the many challenges to realizing this production—some of them fundamental—had left it with rough-hewn edges, those same qualities—eclectic forms, mass participation, broad strokes of comedy, fantasy, philosophy, and history—dissolved the boundary between audience and actor and destabilized the expectations for performativity; from a play, it became as well a celebration, of the ideas and artists, shapes and colors, lightness and darkness, on stage and at the heart of Everyday Afroplay.