The drummers face each other on the beach, playing an African beat before an upright coffin emblazoned with the searing image of a slave ship. The coffin-ship recalls the middle passage: Many did not survive, and those who did had a lifetime of atrocities awaiting them.
Enter “The Devil,” who with his broom delineates a slave-ship-shaped performance space. Now “House Head” emerges in whiteface and a straight hair wig, sporting a tricolor cane, his head topped by a White House. The House Head usually wears a plantation house hat. Jodie has updated the plantation house to the White House (which is currently a kind of plantation house).
A troupe of costumed dancers march up the beach: “Wild Indian” menaces with his bow and arrow; “Pitchy-Patchy” is armed with a whip to delineate the boundaries of the performance space. Jack(ie) in the Green plants a branch in the sand before walking away, twirling their green and yellow flag toward the sea.
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I was at the beach in Asbury Park, witnessing a performance of “Junkanooacome.” The main character, “House Head” is portrayed by the extraordinary Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, who is supported by an all-Black cast comprising local teens and drummers from the town’s West Side.
“Junkanooacome” (meaning “Junkanoo is coming” in Jamaican patois) is Lyn-Kee-Chow’s adaptation of Junkanoo, a pan-Caribbean celebration that culminates with a parade of masked dancers. Junkanoo was created by enslaved Africans for an audience of enslaved Africans. It honors John Canoe, a major trader, chief of the Ahanta, and commander of a private army in 18th-century Ghana. Allied with Brandenburg-Prussia, Canoe and his men resisted the Dutch and British for seven years from the redoubt at Fredericksburg.
According to Edward Long, an 18th-century Jamaican slave owner, the Akans (another word for Ghanian peoples) who supported John Canoe were enslaved when Fort Fredericksburg fell. Junkanoo characters are sometimes associated with Ashanti warriors: the swordsman became “Horned-Headed Man”; the commander became “Pitchy- Patchy”; Canoe himself became “House Head,” incarnated here by Lyn-Kee-Chow.
The legend of John Canoe spread throughout the Caribbean and to the United States. The largest celebration occurs in Barbados. Junkanoo was also celebrated in North Carolina and Virginia under the name of John Kuners until 1900. Bahamian immigrants brought Junkanoo to Florida in the 19th century, where it is still celebrated annually in Key West and Miami.
Junkanoo was celebrated during the Christmas holidays since that was the only time for celebration accorded to enslaved Africans. The holiday also coincided with the New Yam festival, which 19th-century colonists in Ghana called “Black Christmas.” The exalting of an African who fought against Europeans, combined with a tradition from the African homeland, brought enslaved Africans from different diasporic cultures together to create something for themselves: a reconstruction of collective memories of the African continent. Enslaved Africans were able to follow their own calendar and create their own sense of time and space that was not controlled, or even fully comprehended, by their masters.
Junkanoo historically functioned as a form of resistance through art. The use of mimicry, parody, and implicit criticism of British dress, manners, and institutions turned the gaze onto the slave masters — an African gaze — resulting in a newfound subjectivity in the West.
Indeed, art as resistance can be found throughout the Americas: the cakewalk in the United States, colonial theater in Peru, and the Black Indians of Mardi Gras. The cakewalk in the United States parodied the dress and manners of slaves’ masters. The difference is that the cakewalk was performed for the white gaze, eventually devolving into the minstrel show. Colonial theater in Peru was used to protest colonialism and call for revolution. The Mardi Gras Black Indians originally performed in predominantly Black spaces. The connection to the African ancestors is apparent in the drums, call-and-response vocals, and elaborate masks.
The Asbury Park venue gave “Junkanooacome” a feeling of geographical resistance as a Black performance in a White space given that Asbury Park comprises a predominately White beachfront East Side and a predominately Black West Side, which is home to generations of people struggling to feel the economic and social benefits of their East Side counterparts.
Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, as House Head, knocks on the lid of the coffin-ship. The Horned-Headed Man, wearing a horse skull, steps out of the coffin to join the other performers. One of the drummers, Sister Isis, sings “Wade in the Water” as Lyn-Kee-Chow pulls on the coffin’s chain, transforming it into a stylized slave ship. She drags the coffin-ship across the sand and into the surf, leaving it to disintegrate in the Atlantic.
Junkanoo has endured as an example and inspiration for art as resistance. I remember a talk that Zanele Muholi gave at the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago in which she discussed art as activism. Its mere existence is an act of resistance. The ability to disarm the target by masking a rallying cry with festivity and play has allowed these traditions to endure in oppressive environments. The mostly White audience on the sand at Asbury Park, enjoying the colorful costumes, the beat of the drum, vocals, dancing, and props viewed the performances primarily as art and entertainment . The seed was planted though. The audience lingered asking questions in casual conversation with the performers. It seems like people are finally ready to join in the discussion — an invitation to which was extended centuries ago.
“Junkanooacome” (2019) was part of the Siren Arts’ series, Into the Mystic, held in Asbury Park during July and August 2019 and curated by Victoria Reis. The series also featured performances by Kunj (DC), Jane Carver (Philadelphia), Maps Glover (DC), Ayana Evans (NYC), Tsedaye Makonnen (DC), and Andrew Demirjian (Newark).