To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Minneapolis-based theater artist Theo Langason shares his perspective on johnbrown by Dean Moss. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
johnbrown, a dance/multimedia performance by Dean Moss, is a meditation on the white abolitionist John Brown that uses the historical figure to examine the contradictions past, present, future and their interconnectedness.
John Brown: white man, abolitionist, trigger-happy. He believed that the only way to end slavery would be through an armed insurrection. Many scholars disagree on whether he is a hero or a terrorist. Either way, John Brown was right about the need for a bloody end to the ownership of black flesh. After the failed raid of an armory, Brown was captured and later hanged. His death is considered to have played a significant role in the start of the Civil War. For more context read this piece written by Emma Barber, it’s informative and she’s dope.
The stage is set, a white square on the ground: a canvas to be painted upon with bodies and chalk and foam board and deflated kick balls. A large wall with thick horizontal black and white stripes, slightly askew, looms in the background. In silence the piece begins as a single white dancer dressed in white does a slow and mesmerizing balletic balancing act. Flowing and slightly contorted, the dancer moves across the stage conjuring a sense of landscape. “Now.” A young woman of color runs out to assist with the balance, then disappears as quickly she appeared. “Now.” Another young woman of color, another assist. “Now.” Again. “Now.” A reminder that America was built on the backs of black, brown, yellow, and red people. A reminder that history is held up by those who come after, the younger generations.
Moss, a black man, enters (un)dressed as Uncle Tom/Jesus. Casting Uncle Tom as a savior is a hard pill to swallow. John Brown, as white savior and benevolent catalyst that sparked the Civil War, is a hard pill to swallow. But that’s the paradoxical “yes…and” history that Moss is investigating. Yes, John Brown was a prominent instigator of the Civil War and gave his life to the cause of ending slavery. And, he was a mad man with poor judgment and a too-young wife. Yes, ‘Uncle Tom’ is an insult hurled at black people too concerned with the whims of whiteness. And, the popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel was instrumental in the humanization of blackness in the eyes of many white people. Yes…and. Hard pills.
Recordings of Moss’ father Harold G. Moss play. He speaks with a wit and frankness that are common of older black folk who have lived and survived Jim Crow. His voice is familiar and warm. He speaks of interaction with white folk. His words ache with the wisdom of a life lived with purpose. The audience begins to understand some of Dean Moss’ personal history and what’s shaped the lens(es) through which he looks back at historical figures and forward to future generations.
John Brown strikes a distinctly different figure than the subversive-clandestine-cloak-and-dagger-underground-railroad abolitionist that is most prevalent in middle school textbooks. Moss highlights the tendency in society’s collective memory to boil down historical figures to their actions and ideas: He lived here, did a thing, thought thoughts and died. Historical figures were living and breathing people with neuroses and eccentricities. Video of fictional conversations between John Brown and Fredrick Douglass illuminates their differing opinions on the best tactics to bring about an end to slavery and also Brown’s taste for too-young women. The two are projected as massive shirtless busts. They bicker, their voices are distorted slightly and they’re funny. Hilarious actually, like a sketch from Key and Peele, and it makes both of them feel more like real people.
Throughout most of the piece the young women of color from the beginning interact with the mostly white ensemble of dancers in a multitude of ways. Observing, supporting, framing, and interrupting the action. The role of younger (darker) generations in the telling and examining of history is on display: the power to manipulate, the desire to witness and ultimately the ability to disregard it. They transition seamlessly from being stagehands to cheering on a live performance of a song, reminiscent of vintage Cat Power deep cuts. They use live-streaming video to show the audience their take on the performance then quickly turn the camera to themselves for selfies, complete with duck-faces. The final image of the piece is the young woman in a circle talking as John Brown ‘hangs’ over them. The young women are uninterested, unfazed or unaware of his presence as they chat and titter about things of little consequence. Brown fades away and the audience watches the young women as the lights dim, witnessing the future.
johnbrown is the past, present, and future simultaneously. All at once a paradox: chaotic and precise, patient and hurried, historical and futuristic, connected and disparate. Dean Moss has created an exciting, varied work that is greater than the sum of its paradoxical parts.