Performance

An Abolitionist’s Work, in Present Tense

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Dean Moss’s ‘johnbrown’ at The Kitchen (all photos by Paula Court)

John Brown was a white American abolitionist whose work was rooted in the belief that armed revolt was the most effective means to combat slavery. After an unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, he was captured and sentenced to death by hanging. Brown was a controversial figure who resorted to violent acts while attempting to maintain pure intentions. These intentions were teased, subverted, tested, and displayed in johnbrown, an interdisciplinary performance directed by Dean Moss that recently had a two-week run at The Kitchen. Each section of this episodic work was titled under selected sections of Brown’s Provisional Constitution of 1858: “Vacancies,” “Treaties of Peace,” “All Must Labor,” “Irregularities,” “Crimes,” “Voluntaries,” and “Oath.”

The performer Cassie Mey greeted onlookers with a quiet, deliberate focus as the audience entered the space. Her opening solo was a peaceful introduction to a world that had the potential to be raucous, violent, and entirely disturbing. As she traces the movement of a slow motion ballet, exquisitely calm and controlled — especially when hovering over one leg — a mountainous landscape engulfs her as video backdrop. This serene and simple introduction to the work struck me as more epilogue than prologue, idealizing a world not-yet-realized.

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“Treaties of Peace” and “All Must Labor” introduce Moss with the spritely Julia Cumming, a featured teenage performer. Cumming and Moss, as Eva and Uncle Tom, plainly recite a few lines from George L. Aiken’s 1858 play adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s an interpretation within an interpretation: Moss, donning black thong and nothing else, reads more like a statuesque Apollo; Cumming reminds me more of a mischievous Peter Pan than an innocent Eva. Their dialogue was offset by Sari Noordman and Asher Woodworth, whose heavy, grounded movement marked them as the blue-collar laborers of this narrative. Noordman and Woodworth’s movement was sweeping yet clunky, a paradoxical offset to Moss and Cumming’s pristine delivery.

In one of the most captivating sections, Moss and longtime collaborator Kacie Chang use a large Mylar panel as their dance partner, weaving in and out of its traces with ease. Both are wonderfully lanky and buoyant as they swivel, pivot, and leap over these panels in perfect synchronicity. A simultaneous recorded interview between Moss and his father, Harold G. Moss, added a potent layer of meaning against the dancers’ lively geometry. Moss’s father is noted as the first black mayor of Tacoma, Washington and a figure for civil rights who, in addition to John Brown, provided the material for this work. It seemed such an oddity to hear their booming voices and harsh dialogue  (“What the hell makes you Columbus, you ain’t done a goddamn thing for this country besides being white … ”) alongside a pared down, simply composed choreography. The power in this work rests not in its explanation or intersection of ideas, but contradiction of those things.

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Moss and his collaborators have an inspired way of layering instances and interactions without giving in to the density of what they represent. That is to say, this could have been a far more critical statement on race relations and civil rights in America. In fact, at the point it treads closest to confronting controversy, I am unsure as to whether I am in on the joke or not. A series of tightly filmed sequences of a fictional John Brown, Frederick Douglass and his white wife, Helen Pitts (played on screen by Pete Simpson, Okwui Okpokwasili in drag, and Tymberly Canale respectively), humorously play out childish arguments between Douglass and Brown, and emphasize their creepy preoccupation with young girls. These are funny at moments but I wonder if that zeal for comedic relief is shying away from the larger issues — race relations, misogyny, black and white power dynamics, to name a few — that could have been more thoroughly confronted.  Though the piece is partially concerned with specific historical events, Moss seems to have greater concern with artfully capturing the ideas surrounding them rather than making polarized statements.

It is a testament to Moss’s handle on the worlds he creates — complex, multilayered, fantastical, and intimate — that he is able to have the memory of renegade abolitionist John Brown loom over the entire piece. However, we are all aware it is Moss’s John Brown we are seeing. His is a lowercase, no spaces, one-word “John Brown”; johnbrown is a euphemism, a reference, and an ever-evolving metaphor. Brown is so much more than historical matter or biographical trope in Moss’s world; he is an ideological framework, able to produce a compelling, albeit densely layered, performance work.

Dean Moss: johnbrown ran at The Kitchen (512 W 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) October 16–25.

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