Sometimes on a Sunday, in the morning hours when the grass is still wet, and the city street is mostly quiet, people rise and dress, and gather in a church to sing, to dance, and to clap their hands. Sometimes the hymns are sung low and throbbing like an earth tremor and sometimes they emerge strained and agonized, screeching and searching. Sometimes an organ marks the path to ecstasy, or a drum circle, or a fully electrified band, or just a group of singers coordinated in matching outfits and choreographed formation. In any case, you find yourself here among song and embraced by deep, strenuous feeling and you know you are in a black church and that it is indeed Sunday morning, and that the people around you are petitioning their god to be hear them to come inhabit the place where they are. But then into this trunk of devout feeling graft a carnival replete with children marching and singing, dancers dressed in elaborate costumes whirling and undulating, with curtains of strips of vividly varicolored mylar. What is this thing? At the end I know it to be a hybrid of confession, supplication, confrontation, and celebration. Who knew that one could jam pack these disparate experiences into 90 minutes and have it feel like a blessing.
Nick Cave evokes all this with his performance “The Let Go”— jubilation washed with spectacle and an undertow of anguish. At the start a group of trained, disciplined singers march in with their hands in the hands-up-don’t-shoot configuration as if they are targets — because they are mostly young people of color, it is clear that they are. Anyone of them might knock on a stranger’s door to ask for directions and be shot for that simple plea for help. They march in singing and someone says “Walk in hope.” It’s an imperative, a call looking for a response. The performers ask us to find the hope for ourselves. At the same time, they acknowledge the limitations (so it doesn’t descend into the relentless positivity of a sales pitch). At one point one of the main singers calls out: “Are you afraid?” The answer comes back: “I am.” Given the powerful resurgence of white supremacy that is tacitly and explicitly supported by the executive branch of the US government, so am I.
But responses to the show are complex — mine and others who saw it with me. One artist who I run into after the performance says that it rides the line between authenticity and spectacle. I agree. Another friend says she wasn’t initially comfortable with sharing all this churchy movement of the spirit with the white folks in the audience. These rituals of petition, of confession and succor for her feel violated when they are melded with forms of public entertainment. But for me, the ethos of making a way out of no way must be shared, must be made public for it to have a life beyond the Park Avenue Armory run of the show.
I’m reminded of the character Sixo from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Sixo is a slave who walks 30 miles to see woman, stealing and eating a pig along the way. He is tied to a stake and burned for the theft and he laughs as he dies, singing out “Seven-O!” because he has fathered a child with the 30-mile woman. In “The Let Go” there is that despair turned on its head because the performers have given us something to nurture and grow, some kind of hope. We are asked to celebrate having a voice, being able to sing out, raise arms to the rafters, sing and sweat and inhabit this place with some feeling, ambition that is larger than the self.
Nick Cave’s “The Let Go” was performed at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, the Upper East Side , Manhattan) from June 7–July 1.