In “What Lies Within,” which opened Friday night at Bethlehem's Ice House, DanceLink and Basement Poetry have collaborated to create an affecting and artful production that addresses issues of racial identity and injustice.
This original work was devised by the entire ensemble. It marries poetic speech and movement to describe bits of personal experience, moments of vulnerability and oppression, and emotions that lie under the skin of this diverse cast.
The pairing is effective, as the (mostly) modern dance gives another dimension to the spoken word.
Dance bridges the poems beautifully, so that one number flows into the next, while giving the audience respite to absorb them.
The poetry is accessible almost without exception, and well articulated. The seventeen poems range from monologue to full-ensemble numbers, with a duet and a sort of Greek-chorus quartet to vary the mix.
Musicians Vernon Mobley on keyboard and Moe Jerant on percussion provide pleasing accompaniment. Against an appropriately gritty background, the exposed brick walls downstairs at The Ice House, Deirdre S. Johnson begins the performance with “Racism is.”
As dancers move in isolation, come together and push each other away, yearning but tense, Johnson describes the fallout of racism: “Division, denial, fear, uncertainty . . . / Creating a wall . . .”
What are the markers of these identities? It begins with skin, Sarah Carlson notes in her poem of the same name: “It speaks volumes before we even open our mouths…”
Then the full-cast ensemble piece, “I Am – Stereotyped” suggests (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) that almost no one can escape the assumptions of others.
Later comes a section of poems about incidents of oppression.
Particularly touching, the “Coming into Awareness Chorus” interweaves the personal stories of four in the cast – Reinys Beriguete Flores, Chiedu Mbonu, William Tucker, and Chloe Cole-Wilson. Moments of painful realization come alive:
Mbonu rides a bike to the beach while being black, and is accused of casing houses to break into. Flores is “too loud,” too attention-seeking, branded a “crazy latina . . . swinging her hips side to side . . .” Cole-Wilson learns at five that her easily tangled hair is off-bounds to others. Tucker realizes he is bi-racial when his mother's skin “looks nothing like mine” and people ask if he was adopted.
While dance accompanies most of the poems, it comes front and center in “Ballet Blanc,” written and performed by Julie Wright, herself a ballet teacher. While moving with balletic grace, Wright (in voice-over) describes the aesthetics of ballet, with its history of white swans, white sylphs, white snowflakes, and the advantage of her own white skin. Then Chiedu Mbonu steps in to partner her, a handsome contrast, ebony and ivory. She is poised, en pointe, her words recognizing the “black choreographers and performers who have paved the way for dancers [of color]” and her preference for a diverse cast. With a graceful lift, Mbonu carries her off.
Race is not just how others perceive us, we are reminded, it's how we see ourselves. And it's not just skin, it's other things too. Like hair. In Chloe Cole-Wilson's impassioned “Brown Beauty,” it's kinks, it's wool, it's naps, it's wild and too thick, it's hot combs and straightened hair, it's shame for assimilating. Until, at last, tired of trying to change everything, she takes ownership of her own “fierce blessed beauty.”
Another show-stopper is Brooke Whitmire's compelling prose poem of white privilege and delayed awareness, “I Apologize.” She starts with a heartbreaking summation (“I am sorry for everything that we have stolen from you. For taking your husbands, your wives, your cousins, your children. . . I'm sorry that it is 400 years later and we still haven't curbed this impossible hunger. . .”) She gains traction by beginning almost every line with her apology, increasing the intensity as she goes, and combining seemingly frivolous detail with chilling accusation: “I'm sorry I didn't believe it until we went to the makeup counter and they didn't have your shade, until we put all your products in the ethnic aisle, until we called you a terrorist in the cafeteria.”
There are more fine poems in “What Lies Within” than there is room here to describe – work by Anita Bondi, Rachel Halkias, and Kara Bender. Together the hour of poetry and dancing make good theatre. And as the emotional arc turns visionary and more hopeful toward the end, the dancers come together, bending, thrusting, stepping in unison.
Talkbacks: In line with the intention of the show, to encourage conversation, and particularly sensitive listening, around racial identity and injustice, Kara Bender of Crossroads Antiracism Organizing & Training, and Kristina Haynes facilitated a talkback after the performance.
"What Lies Within" was created under the artistic direction of Sarah Carlson and Chloe Cole-Wilson for presentation as part of the Ice House Tonight series. The production is also part of the Valley-wide arts series,"Voices of Conscience: Toward Racial Understanding" for 2016-17. This series features an array of different events designed "to foster a climate that features the production of socially-conscious art and engages the Lehigh Valley community in relevant conversation."
About DanceLink: Founded by Sarah Carlson of Allentown, DanceLink seeks to bridge people, ideas and understanding through the power of movement.
About Basement Poetry: Basement Poetry is a Lehigh Valley based company that has been performing since January 2015.
What Lies Within continues Saturday, February 11, 8pm at the Ice House, 56 River Rd., Bethlehem. Tickets: $20, adults/ $15, students.