It was in January of this year when I was directing Craig Wright’s Mistakes Were Made in Houston that Erik Ehn contacted me through email and asked me to read his play SHAPE. I was looped in as an observer/outside eye on his project Soulographie – a cycle of 17 of Erik’s plays revolving around genocide and reconciliation – when the company of artists came for a retreat in Washington, D.C. back in December.
Over a cup of coffee and breakfast at a Houston nook, I read this play and to say the least, I was captivated by its beauty, its images, its language and ultimately, its clawing at the roof of our collected memories. I gladly signed up to explore this play with my company, force/collision which will gets its world premiere in Washington, D.C. at Atlas Performing Arts Center before moving to join the other 16 plays in New York City in a performance cycle at La MaMa ETC.
SHAPE, which begins in 1900 Ambrose Park, Brooklyn on the grounds of Black America – a vast spectacle of 500 African-American performers – loosely biographies vaudevillians Billy and Cordelia McClain. Black America was a historically-based event that saw African-Americans performing a commercially interested illusion of the Southern plantation as a way of introducing a life largely unseen by their Northern counterpart.
Exploited for their collected songs and dances by Black America producers for financial gain, they performed not as a document of the horrors and inhumanity of domestic slavery but as an 1895 New York Times article dictates, “the happy, careless life” and the “simplicity of their former life.” (May 25, 1895 copyright The New York Times).
Erik moves about the body of his work Soulographie by writing a language for the collective traumas of the genocidal events in Rwanda, Uganda, Central America and domestically with the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Shape’s larger context points to the Tulsa Race Riot by an exploration of the sociopsychology of African-American culture and racial identity through the lens of the reappropriation of Black performers in the early 20th century. For Erik, Tulsa is genocide ideology on domestic soil.
The challenge of presenting such work does not go unfelt by both myself and the company. How does one perform a cultural history that carries the weight of burden and sensitivity? As week two of rehearsal comes to a close this weekend, we continue to research by digging further into an almost bottomless archive to get to the roots of this mass migration of Black performance. At the core, SHAPE is a love story – a love story of two performers who suffered humanity, condensed by the same audiences who gave them applause.
“If dreams were told the way recipes were, and one were forced to dream only the repeated, edited, and cleaned-up versions, one would go mad.” (Cordelia, Shape).
SHAPE plays in New York City from November 10-18, 2012 at La Mama ETC – 74 East 4th Street, in New York, NY.