TOO OFTEN THESE days we're reminded of what we've lost. How we choose to respond to, and in turn survive, our losses is the question choreographer Ron Brown explores in Dirt Road (Morticia Supreme's Revue), an evening-length emotional journey filled with hard-driving dance, provocative texts, stirring sounds, and an especially personable drag queen to guide the audience through it all.
Performed by his New York-based company Evidence, Brown's work is both cathartic celebration and visceral meditation, fueled by the type of honesty and spirituality which has made the choreographer, at age 29, a justifiably hot item in the national dance community.
Dirt Road is essentially a story about an African American family coping with a loss, while exploring the broader social realities and injustices that impact their lives. Brown is particularly gifted in his ability to combine relevant issues with a savvy hybrid of choreography, parlaying his dance-making into a fresh form of dramatic storytelling. Drawing upon such sources as African, club-inspired, and formal modern dance, as well as some catwalk moves, Brown gives his dancers a pastiche of influences which seem, in this context, to belong together. Further fueling the super-charged atmosphere is the soundtrack, a collage of gospel, funk, soul, house, and text by the late Essex Hemphill and Donald Walker, as well as Brown himself.
"I met Essex and Donald back in 1985. Then I witnessed what their work was about," says Brown of his choice to include these texts. "They were creating their own history, writing about politics, about being African, about being gay. This propelled me to do the kind of work that I do. It made sense to use their words; their work added this whole new resonance. These men were living the story."
Brown notes that the central loss in Dirt Road relates to AIDS, and the writings he has chosen are chillingly relevant. Hemphill's When My Brother Fell, for example, roars that "our loss is greater than all the space we fill with prayers and praise." Walker's Waiting is an edgy rumination on things beyond our control--including a cure.
Dirt Road opens in a cocktail lounge, where a singer laments love and a crowd of revelers pass each other in the night. "The opening represents a universal world where African American people don't really speak to each other," Brown explains. Enter Morticia Supreme, portrayed with sublime smoothness by one Harmonica Supreme, a drag queen possessed of singular poise. She's there "to keep it light," says Brown, adding, "the metaphor in drag life is illusion. Everything is fine, it's pretend."
Once the party has dissolved, the family takes the stage. "Initially I constructed a larger family with a father, mother, two young daughters, and a son with a lover," says Brown. After coming to terms with the father figure (Niles Ford), the choreographer focused upon the mother and one sister, a situation mirroring his own life. "The women are the consistent strength in guiding the young man, and that is really the story," Brown concludes.
These women (Renee Redding-Jones and Cynthia Oliver) are both dancers and stationary figures, at times draped in funeral shrouds, providing an especially evocative background to a sensually charged duet for the son (Brown) and his lover (Earl Mosley). The dancing at the core of Dirt Road is an amalgamation of many ideas. "For each section I wrote down themes or the movement sensibility," explains Brown. "In the mid-section, which is all about aspiration and getting ahead, there's a whole movement like a treadmill. There's also a set of gestures we call 'the obedient slave'... there's a historical and contemporary context." Many of the gestures are about accepting the detachment from one another that characterizes the universal world; some, he notes, echo "the weight that comes down on the heart" in the face of loss.
It's been written that there are several stages in the acceptance of loss, specifically death, ranging from initial denial, through anger and on to acceptance. At many points in our lives we must take these steps; works like Dirt Road help provide a healing process and comfortable coexistence with destiny. At one point in the soundtrack, a voice joyfully exclaims, "When I die, honey child, my angels will all be tall black drag queens!" Imagine what your heaven could be. CP
Dirt Road will be performed November 16-19 at Studio 6A, Hennepin Center for the Arts, 528 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 375-7622.