Raising the Ghosts

by Martha Sherman

Any child knows that when the overhead lights begin to flicker, the ghosts are about to manifest. In Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s “Séancers,” that was only one small sign, because the ghosts were everywhere. The degrees and ways in which people of color have been smashed and smeared have been endless, and it was breathtaking and heartbreaking to watch and listen as Kosoko conjured their spirits. It required from him both the softest of voices and a howl; stillness and wild writhing; and visual clichés that were made almost majestic by virtue of their scope.

Under bright lights, the Experimental Theater at Abrons Arts was festooned with a mass of troubling, evocative images. White nightgowns, like disembodied innocence, hung from the ceiling. On a small central table, a pair of teacups and a kettle were set, ready for civilized guests, or perhaps Miss Havisham. A large pool of white tulle filled center stage, with doll parts embedded in it, and paper cut-outs half-hidden in the folds, like an homage to Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls, the violated and tortured cutouts peopling his “In the Realms of the Unreal.” These images weren’t designed for subtlety, nor was this show.

Kosoko had things to tell us. As the audience settled in the lit theater, he wandered among the seats, dressed in a sleek brown body suit and diaphanous robe, his face sparkling with glitter and eyes wide and long-lashed. He was distributing silver-wrapped candy buds, gently asking “Would you like a kiss?” We all accepted, unwrapped and ate our sweets, as he murmured how blackness is packaged and consumed, in “symbolic, sexualized cannibalism.” And that was only our first kiss.

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko in “Séancers.” © Kailey Prior.

Autumn Knight (credited as the evening’s “guest Séancer,”) sat in the audience and posed questions to Kosoko about blackness and loss. As he responded, a rumbling echo of his voice growled (the soundscape a marvel by Kosoko’s collaborator Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste,) and Kosoko recited “Power,” a haunting poem by Audre Lorde, filled with images of violence (“trying to make power out of hatred and destruction.”) The ghosts he raised may have started with his own (his 2016 work “#negrophobia,” also at Abrons Arts, focused on the death of his brother), but the breadth of violence against African-Americans in this country is a wide canvas. In his singular way, he spoke (and danced) for more than his particular pain.

Kosoko reveled in extended imagery. After the lights went down, he emerged from the dark, rustling under a mass of ribbon, in waves of glittering gold that he swirled over and around himself. In a slow parade around the stage, his writhing became increasingly rhythmic and agitated, then he thrust his arms high in enormous shimmering angel wings. He collapsed into one of the chairs, heaving, and poured himself a cup of tea. The steam rising from the cup might have been the heat from his own body. His companion, a black Barbie doll – just a child’s toy – made us cringe.

Later, emerging in a gold lamé and a huge Afro wig, Kosoko sang with a phallic microphone and stand, wriggling his buttocks toward his audience of voyeurs. Pulling a blonde wig over the Afro with a stretched white face drawn on the underpinning, his own face was distorted under the mask. No calling up other spirits here; the dancer himself was haunted, lost in a history of despair.

As taped voices of famous movie characters echoed “I’m free, white, and 21,” Kosoko wrapped himself in the detritus on the floor: plastic legs and faces, a seething mass, more dead images trapped in the tulle. He was suffocating in them.

Ascending the steps of the theater, Kosoko began to blow a condom-shaped black balloon larger and larger until finally – it popped (“what happens to a dream deferred?”) As he took his final bow, he angled the Barbie to bow with him. In this mass of clichés, shadowed images, and frantic movement, what we were still left with was his remarkable dignity, his quiet voice, and the roar of voices rising from the dead.

Copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman

“Séancers” – Jaamil Olawale Kosoko
Abrons Arts Center, New York, NY
December 7, 2017

Cover: Jaamil Olawale Kosoko in “Séancers.” © Kailey Prior.

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