PHILADELPHIA — When choreographer Reggie Wilson debuted his work … they stood shaking while others began to shout at Danspace Project in 2018, he cited an unusual source of inspiration: a Black Shaker eldress named Rebecca Cox Jackson who led a small community of worshipers in Philadelphia in the 1850s and ’60s. Struck by the linkage between ecstatic Shaker dance, a visionary black woman preacher, and the dual identity of Danspace’s home, St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, as both an arts space and an active church, Wilson layered the ideas into his choreography.
This month, he revisited the project in Philadelphia at the invitation of Danspace in collaboration with Partners for Sacred Places and Philadelphia Contemporary. Dubbed Grounds that Shout! (and others merely shaking), the project — like the 2018 debut — put Wilson in the role of curator as well as choreographer. Over two weekends, he presented his own work alongside that of seven Philadelphia choreographers and dance companies who created performances at historic churches in response to his thematic network of spiritual histories, sacred spaces, ecstatic movement, and African diasporic experience.
The shift in location brought Wilson closer to his inspiration — Jackson and the religious context that shaped her unconventional life. (He’ll get closer still in July with a site-responsive version at Hancock Shaker Village commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow.)
Born into a free Black family in 1795, Jackson was a married seamstress when she experienced a spiritual awakening at age 35. When neither her husband nor her older brother (who was a prominent member of the recently founded African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia) supported her ambition to preach, she left and eventually joined a Shaker community in Watervliet, NY. (Along the way, she picked up a life companion, Rebecca Perot, making her a debatably queer icon avant la lettre.) Attracted to the Shakers’ emphasis on direct communion with god and race and gender equality, Jackson ultimately came to feel that the group’s abstention from direct political action was at odds with providing true support to Black believers in the age of abolitionism. She returned to Philadelphia and founded a community of Black Shakers that survived long enough for W.E.B. Du Bois to document its existence more than 30 years later.
As a site for the first of two Grounds that Shout! performances, Wilson turned to one of Philadelphia’s most socially engaged churches: Church of the Advocate. Built in 1887 (sixteen years after Jackson’s death) in a gothic revival style that evokes French cathedrals, the church is known for the large-scale paintings in its sanctuary that depict African-Americans’ struggles against white supremacy. Commissioned in the 1970s, the murals reflect a time when the church also hosted national Black Power conferences and the first ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. Today, it is active in the fight against neighborhood gentrification, which in recent years has claimed historic Black churches in other parts of the city.
The first performance featured Wilson’s … they stood shaking, performed by his Fist and Heel Performance Group, along with works by David Brick and Germaine Ingram. Rather than sidestep the murals’ magnetism, Brick began the performance by setting the audience on a silent single-file tour through the sanctuary, led by his seven-year old daughter. After a close up view of the murals, the group formed a circle where the two performed the first piece: a duet that riffed on asking for and giving consent as they requested permission from each other to move and make physical contact, beginning with the question “May I enter the space?” Their father-daughter relationship tilted the work toward interpretations related to parenthood, gender, and power, but it also resonated with our presence as a secular audience in a place of worship.
Ingram’s work, Souls a-Stirring, took up the legacy of another key female spiritual leader in Philadelphia, Jarena Lee, the first woman preacher of the A.M.E. Church and the first African-American woman to publish an autobiography in the US (in 1836). Initially refused the opportunity to preach by A.M.E. founder Richard Allen (a decade before Jackson encountered the same resistance in her husband and brother), Lee persisted for a decade until Allen relented in 1819, then traveled and preached for the church from Canada to Ohio. For Souls a-Stirring, the audience crowded around a large stone font at Church of the Advocate. Two female dancers shuffled around the circular base of the font in opposite directions, sounding out rhythms that built in intensity as Ingram joined them and sang: When temptation calls out to me / When dark clouds merge and follow me / I ask god to take my hand / Can he not? / Can she not? / Inspire a woman to teach god’s love.
The second performance, a procession on May 11th, featured works by five other artists and companies — Meg Foley, <fidget>, Lela Aisha Jones, Almanac Dance Circus Theater with Sabriaya Shipley, and Tania Isaac — staged in and around three churches in Philadelphia’s historic district, including Mother Bethel, the original, first A.M.E. Church founded in Philadelphia by Allen and others in 1794. An audience of around fifty people walked from venue to venue as performances took place in churchyards and in the streets, as well as inside the churches. Compared with the Church of the Advocate performance, the procession wasn’t helped by having so many collaborators driving concepts, or by including multiple different sites, or by the smaller audience, but its shining moments were just as intense.
At Old Pine Street Church, Jones responded to the maritime symbols hand stenciled on the church’s sanctuary walls, reinterpreting the iconography of waves, anchors, scallops and crosses as signs of African diaspora journeys and forced migration. Wearing a red dress and a white veil, she streaked up and down church aisles, climbed over pews and tangled with a net of red cords suggestive of a ship’s rigging in the most otherworldly of the performances.
Isaac’s sanctuary brought the procession to a moving close at Mother Bethel. Working with half a dozen women from the congregation’s choir and dance group, she led a fusion of spoken word, vocal performance, and movement. Her original text, read in pieces by members of the group in the aisles and from the pulpit, announced itself as a love poem to “forgotten stories waiting to be heard … histories that existed here … winding through the crevasses, set in the mortar of what we built here.” Spoken by female members of the A.M.E. congregation, the message circled back to the women, known and unknown, who have built up the foundations of Black faith and spiritual life across time.
Reggie Wilson: Grounds That Shout! (And Others Merely Shaking) took place at Church of the Advocate (1801 W. Diamond Street, Philadelphia) on May 2, 3, and 4, and at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (313 Pine Street, Philadelphia), Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church (412 Pine Street, Philadelphia) and Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church (419 S. 6th Street, Philadelphia) on May 11.