Walking into Dance Place for the world premiere of choreographer and dancer Vincent Thomas’s What’s Going On: Life, Love, and Social Justice, an homage to Marvin Gaye, the great Northeast D.C. native who became a iconic singer during the 1960s and ‘70s. But the piece is more than a bio-dance commemorating Gaye, it’s akin to a 21st century piece of agit prop. No one should leave the theater unchanged or unmoved for it’s both a celebration and lament. Dancers – barefoot and clad in white – and audience gathered in the lobby for a little warm-up trivia led by Thomas in his soothing voice. Of course, it wasn’t long before the whole crowd was dancing – a little home grown D.C. hand dancing then a full-on electric slide. We danced our way into the theater, and the grooving didn’t stop for two hours.
And yet, amid all that festivity, there was also deep introspection. What’s Going On is a look inside to reveal where we are – as individuals, as a community, as a nation and a global village.
The festive atmosphere reached a high as onlookers took their seats at Dance Place, and the dancers took to the stage with soul-pumping and heart-racing dances drawing from African roots. With choreographic assistance from Sylvia Soumah or Mama Sylvia, D.C.’s undisputed queen of African dance, the group of 17 dancers and drummers captured the essence of a celebratory communal dance, with cheers, hollers and friendly competition, shoulders rolling, hips shimmying, knees pumping, arms slicing and winding, torsos pulsating. This semicircle of dancers recalled the profound embodied language that remains an elemental part of the African-American community, from its churches to its social clubs to its unparalleled performance aesthetic to its family and communal gatherings.
This was the world Marvin Gaye was born into, deeply religious, rooted to the past, but looking to the future. The son of a Pentecostal minister, who preached at a strict House of God church, he grew up singing, encouraged by his mother. He chafed, though, under his father’s restrictions. Gaye came of age as the Motown sound was evolving and three octave vocal range and a body of unforgettable songs left an indelible mark on American popular culture.
Dancer/Choreographer Thomas was inspired by one of Gaye’s hits, What’s Going On, to look back at the singer’s life and his legacy and to delve into today’s current events, forcing viewers to pose a rejoinder – “what am I going to do about our current state of affairs. Two years in the making, how could Thomas know how timely and prescient this piece would be just four days after the most contentious election in recent memory. Continuing ideas and structures he explored in his 2014 evening-length work, Occupy confronted ripped-from-the-headlines issues including stagnating economic opportunities, disparities between haves and have-nots, and the globalization of the economy. What’s Going On treads similar territory but in a further fleshed out and meaningful manner. Here Thomas actually invites the audience to respond, interact, consider their own next steps.
A moving, heartfelt solo, danced by Thomas, who stretches and spirals his torso and lanky arms, in search of something – comfort, connection, a higher power — features a movingly sung version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” And this, like the many vignettes in the work, is preceded by a slide featuring quotes by and about Gaye.
Looking back to Gaye’s era, and the mobs of teen and adult fans who were touched and changed by his music, Thomas takes us to a typical 1960s or ‘70s house party – featuring low lights, mod furniture (in a video backdrop designed by Sujan Shrestha, couples and groups of dancers bobbing trucking, flirting and embracing. But the dance gatherings were more than a fun night out. Thomas notes, via slide, “this social dancing was their social justice.” It was a way African Americans could connect with and proudly own their cultural heritage, amid the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war era and the post-war disenchantment of the 1970s. And Gaye’s voice became their own.
On the old-school record player, spinning LPs, “Hitch Hike” blares and the dancers again turn to celebration. Here their moves echo those featured in the African segment of the show, but they’re smoother, jazzier, more showy, to allow for teasing. They dance – as everyone does — to celebrate youth, beauty, joy, love – but they also dance to connect. The eight company dancers, in pairs, small groups and as a company, show off their moves and stamina to classics like “Funny Valentine,” an achy solo full of inconsolable reaches and stretches and tremoring hands fluttering over the dancer’s heart. Then they stage a Motown revue –lip-syncing of classic numbers, recalling Al Green and The Supremes, among others — with plenty of step-ball-changes, fan kicks and jazzy moves. It’s fun unencumbered and rather slight, although the men’s trio has some high power leaps and spins.
Before intermission or a “social interlude,” as Thomas called it, placard-bearing dancers entered the audience, their signs asking: “Where are your community’s celebrations?” and “What are the concerns in your community?” Audience members were encouraged to fill mini-placards with their thoughts and and responses before What’s Going On turns to far more discordant 21st century territory. Here Thomas includes slides of historic 20th century moments and icons – Martin Luther King, Jr., Equal Rights Amendment marches of the 1970s, Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, and others. The dancers, now clad in muted taupe, no longer dance freely and joyfully. Their body language is muted and pained, filled with grasping, deep, despondent sights, and of-the-moment symbolic gestures – performed before a video of Gaye singing the national anthem in 1983. Raised “black power” fists – the dap – and wrists held together behind the back are as telling as a dancer kneeling and another, fully prostrate in a Muslim prayer-like bow.
Thomas returns to again speak to the audience, allowing them brief time and space to voice their own concerns – among them fear of a Trump presidency, clean water, classicism, rich people who don’t pay taxes, job opportunities and more. Diversity, new life, unity, freedom, respect and Dance Place were called out for celebration. Then Thomas – like his mentor, Liz Lerman, who made her name in combining dance and community activism – turned the question around, asking, “How can you turn your concerns into celebrations?”
As the company converges to dance together in a tight-knit clump, the screen projects today’s images: Syrian refugees, police shootings of black citizens, Somali refugees, poor, impoverished masses, close-ups of wounded children from various conflicts. Each photo compels us to do more than watch. What’s Going On is a necessary reminder that there is more work to be done to repair the world.
Vincent Thomas’s What’s Going On: Life, Love, and Social Justice performs November 13th, 17th, 19th and 20, 2016 at Dance Place – 3225 8th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 269-1600, or purchase them online.