“See What You See”

Linear Notes by Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, Associate Professor, African and African Diaspora Studies, University of Texas at Austin.


Rivers hold a special place in the traditions of African Americans—the site for baptismal rituals and concealed lynchings, the entry to the promise of freedom, the soothing azure green of Romare Bearden, the sultry undulation of Osun’s waters, the ancient dusky souls from Langston Hughes, and Tracy Chapman’s readiness to be washed over. It is hard to imagine an image more complex or potent in the African American psyche.

Rivers are liminal spaces—not here, not there but both at the same time. Spaces of transformation and possibility.

See the River
wind and flood,
ebb and trickle,
crest and heal.

The young girl See is heading North, part of the first Great Migration of African Americans after WWI who created bluesy Black meccas in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles in the West.

See is guided by her elders who teach lessons just by living their juicy lives. Mostly they show her the many ways of loving, the power of the erotic and the comedic, the blend of him/shes, the possibility of an eros yet to be named. To say no to Love is miss your date with the Divine.

River See is an exploration in theatrical jazz, a distinctive artform with multiple manifestations. Imagine theatre as a prayer, as a raunchy healing gutbucket number carrying all of us to our best selves. What truth will you finally tell tonight, and who do you need to support you in the telling?

The language choir, the moving spirits, the whispering neighbors—you—are here to make the jazz circle vibrate, to lift See to her next truth assuring her that “Love will carry you/Love will carry you/Love wants to carry you/Love.”

Theatrical jazz borrows many elements from the musical world of jazz—a respect for truth in the present moment, improvisation, process over product, ensemble synthesis, solo virtuosity, simultaneity, collaboration, audience  engagement— and disrupts the traditional conventions of Western theatre, including a single narrative with a throughline and causal relationships that rely on psychological coherence, individual characters performed singly by performers, and identifiable places and spaces. A jazz aesthetic is just the right dwelling place for raucous elders and ephemeral spirits to get down, because here, time and space are fluid. Now, and then, and will be coexist. There and here and never was is. A theatrical jazz aesthetic uses gestural language as counterpoint to the verbal text. This gestural language is a blend of modern dance, contemporary dance, popular idioms, ceremonial movements, everyday physical references, and West African aesthetics—angularity, movements that pull to the earth, unpredictable punctuation.

The Blues, a primary antecedent to jazz, thrives in liminal spaces and with liminal people—in juke joints, honky tonk dives, rail roads, rivers, boarding houses—sites that suggest movement between worlds, sites that are unfixed and fluid.

And who do we find there but social transgressors—the folk who cannot easily find homeplace in socially sanctioned locations with socially constricting rules, but instead make community in the rolling of the river, on the speeding rail lines, in the transience of boarding houses and in the intoxicating world of the juke joint.

The juke joint lets just about everybody in, if they are willing to follow the ebb and flow of its heat. Because here, transformation is the understood norm and heat is a requirement. Because here, ritual is enacted with just the right recipe—the forces of nature (water in the sweat, fire in the alcohol, earth in the rugged floor boards, and air in the smoke and scent), pulsing rhythms, hypnotic dance, invocation in the lyrics, community healing—pushing the adherents into spirit realms. The juke joint is the secular cousin to the pulpit, the sacred grove, the holy temple, and it makes its magic with the same tools as its spiritual kin.

While River See is rooted in the directness, repetition and grittiness of blues sensibilities, it is shaped by a jazz aesthetic. Such work challenges audiences to attend more closely than they would with conventional performance. Writer/Conductor Sharon Bridgforth believes that this close attention transforms the audience into “witness/participants” who work with the performers to make the work live. The jazz aesthetic encourages audiences to bring the kind of presentness and honesty to their experience that the performers, director, writer, technicians and designers must bring to theirs.

Theatrical jazz aesthetics began to form in the early 1970s alongside the Black Arts Movement in the Sounds in Motion Harlem dance studio under the tutelage of Dianne McIntyre. Sounds in Motion became the artistic workshop for a host of legendary performance artists including Laurie Carlos, Ntozake Shange, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Marlies Yearby and musicians Cecil Taylor, Craig Harris, Sekou Sundiata, and Olu Dara. This work fused music/sound, dance/movement and the spoken word, was primarily initiated and perpetuated by women, relied on breath as the spiritual fire of the work, and set no limits on Blackness. Playwright Aishah Rahman is credited with coining the phrase “theatrical jazz” in  discussing the structure and intent of her work.

Although we can identify a specific contemporary lineage traced from the 1970s, theatrical jazz has foundations in the traditional spiritual rituals of West African peoples that moved throughout the African diaspora during the international enslavement of Africans that had its peak during the 19th Century.Ritual sequencing, invocations, drum, dance, endurance, animal sacrifice, prayer, communal accountability were required ingredients for shifting spiritual energy. Theatrical jazz grows out of these ingredients to develop a specific technology for the spiritual transformation that is theatre—the polyrhythms of multiple truths, the community building of participation, the insistence upon focus that simultaneity demands, and the mesmerizing stupor induced by  movement and music.

Theatrical jazz is incorporative; it borrows, includes, stirs many elements into the roux. Cab Calloway’s inclusion of Yiddish instrumentation, Don Byron’s jazz sensibilities woven through Klezmer music allow jazz to reach in many directions. Similarly, River See pulls in artists from each city where it is performed, thus ensuring that each iteration of the work will be unique and each will be steeped in the specific flavors of its locations.

A theatrical jazz aesthetic is as visual as it is oral. Productions are as much about painting the space with bodies as they are about filling the air with words. The bodies have their own stories to tell, and the performers’ visceral negotiations between their physical selves and the physical realities of the various characters enacted becomes a vital component of the experience. As suggested by such negotiation, this work is about process. It is about the humility involved in apprenticeship as one painstakingly acquires one’s own aesthetic character through the guidance of masters. It is about the performers finding their way, bringing their distinctive gifts to the work and letting those gifts ring forward through the characters, and through the breath of the company. As Bessie Award-winning director/writer/performer Laurie Carlos is fond of saying, “Everything is already in the room.”

The maturation of little Black girls holds a special place for Bridgforth, and a young character named Gurl appears again and again in her work. Gurl is often working through childhood trauma in order to achieve an adult peace. In blood pudding, Gre Gre Gurl is exploring her father’s lineage to find her place as a leader in her community; in con flama, Gurl is resolving the mysteries in her mother’s lineage and specific tensions with her mother; in love/conjure blues Isadora Africa, Jr., who the elders call Our Gurl, finds homeplace in a Queer community touched by music and the Divine forces of nature; and in delta dandi The Gurl survives family trauma to declare her self definitions. River See marks an expansion as Gurl has evolved into See—no longer a child, but a self-sufficient visionary gifted with insight that will guide and fortify her.

As you share in this theatrical jazz experiment, feel what you feel. For you, this might be a free jazz composition full of dissonance and unpredictability. Let it wash over you, latching on to what you can. It might be the rowdy toe-tapping of swing, or the cool crisp speed of Be Bop. Let it move you to snap or laugh or courageously wink at the stranger next to you. No one is likely to have the same experience as the work strives to honor individuality in the comfort of community. Your personal vision is shaped by where you are sitting, what you brought with you to the space, and what your dreams for your world might be.

Tonight, see what you can see.

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