Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Dat Black Mermaid Man Lady / The Show
Also see Arthur's review of Equivocation
The performance offers a fascinating mixture of African and African-American musical and storytelling traditions. With its impressionistic poetic language and its water imagery, the piece evokes a phrase from Derek Walcott's poem, "The Prodigal: 10": making "a tangled music out of silence."
The work developed from a "Bake-Off," in which writers are given set "ingredients" for a play, and a very limited time (in this case, 48 hours) to write. Bridgforth's ingredients included ducks, mermaids and gangsters. Many revisions later, the product is, according to the play's website, "a performance processional that celebrates multiple ways of embodying gender." Dramaturg Alexis Pauline Gumbs calls it a work about "infinite love and a great big healing that includes your child self, your old people, and the ancestral light you are steadily becoming."
The performance includes the audience from the beginningin a sense, before the beginning). In the theater lobby, those attending are encouraged to write a note of love to their ancestors. Performers then come through the lobby singing jazz a cappella in a ritualistic "procession." At the performance, the seating is surrounding the actors; the spectators have a sense of sitting around a fire, hearing the community's foundation stories. The performance presents a collection of distinct voices, fascinating characters who reappear, employing a mixture of musical and narrative genres: allegory folktale and epic. The program describes the style as "the Theatrical Jazz tradition."
Christopher Heilman has created a set on which thick, long ribbons of green, blue and purple hang from the ceiling, combining with pink and yellow lights to create an underwater, oceanic feel. One comes away from Dat Mermaid Man Lady feeling comforted and at least a little sea-changed. However, the sea in this work is not always a space of healing; it holds dangers and painful memories. At turns, different characters are seized by a dream of falling to the bottom of the sea where they encounter "Dat Black Mermaid Man Lady"a horrific gothic entity embodying the terror of history and the pain of loss. There they see "all the people who got killed. They down there." Those dragged down are frightened, changed but ultimately healed by the vision.
The energy and intimacy that director Ebony Noelle Golden creates is transporting. It is as though the players have invited you into their garden to listen while they tell stories of ghosts and unforgotten dreams and remembered nights and old friends. Old desires commingle with curses and exorcisms and healing ancestral chants; there are tales of old alienations and divisions and reunifications. The circular narratives of cycles, evoking centuries of love and anger, life and death and life again, give the play an epic feel.
The actors, Aimee K. Bryant, Florinda Bryant, PaviElle French, and Kenyai O'Neal, play a variety of roles. Collectively they give the most astoundingly intimate and open and engaging and inviting performances I have seen in years. The play combines chanting, communal prayers, ritualistic movement, and gorgeously layered vocal compositions by Mankwe Ndosi, combining musical traditions ranging from traditional African music to gospel to jazz to hip hop. All the voices are lovely, but French's is particularly creamy and full-bodied and, at times, achingly beautiful. Near the beginning of the performance, she stands near the back of the house, chanting: "You are not alone. You are loved," in a call-and-response to the performer on stage. The back and forth rhythm creates a sense of enchantment that persists through the duration of the play. French sings about loving and being loved by her ancestors, and you get the sense at moments that they are singing through her.
The most artful and stirring performance is that of Aimee Bryant. She tilts her neck and her shoulders forward as if weighed down by the ages. She manages to be funny and tragic at the same time. Bryant has a spellbinding vulnerability and openness, reminiscent of Giulietta Masina in Fellini's classic films. Bryant is a master at embodying feelings and ideas.
All the elements combine and re-combine in a way that feels organic and startlingly theatrical. This is an enchanting and healing work which should not be missed.
Dat Black Mermaid Man Lady / The Show, through June 24, 2018, at Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Ave, Minneapolis MN. For information and tickets, visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.
By Sharon Bridgforth