Barbea Williams Brings Home The Beauty Of Africa
By Margaret Regan
HYPNOTIC drumming and dance conjure up the ancient African past in Barbea Williams' exuberant new dance theatre piece, Something We Lost...1230 A.C.E.
Swathed in the exquisitely colored cottons of Africa, some two dozen dancers gyrate not only to the rhythm of the drums (played by live musicians), but to a poetic spoken text drawn from African tales. Moving from the days of the Mali Empire in the 13th century to contemporary days of cultural dislocation, the loosely structured narrative delves into birth and death, battle and kingship, slavery and liberation.
The passionate work is the first Williams production in nearly five years, though the Tucson choreographer, dancer and teacher has been busy in the interim staging dances for such mainstream groups as Arizona Theatre Company and Invisible Theatre. Something We Lost is a return to Williams' heartfelt mission to revitalize African dance and music. A student of African arts and history, she's reconstructed some seven dances traditional to about a dozen clans of West Africa, and put together a text drawn from older writings. Guest artist Eno Washington, an elder statesman of black dance who retired several years ago to Tucson, contributed three more dances. And luckily for the audience, the gifted Washington also performs. At a full dress rehearsal last week, Washington raised the quality of the show, lending his supple talents to a troupe that otherwise mixes professional dancers with less experienced "community" dancers and children.
The two-act work divides fairly neatly, with the first half evoking the almost mythical African past and the second half treating the Diaspora of Africans in America and the loss of their heritage. A traditional African storyteller, or griot (Anthony Johnson), narrates the somewhat convoluted story. It begins in the year 1230 of the common era. An omen has foretold the birth of a new king, Sundiata (Washington), who will unite the 12 separate clans into the Mali Empire. There's a nicely choreographed birth scene, with his mother Sologon (Teena Scott) attended by midwives, but Sundiata emerges crippled. His disability prompts another of his father's wives to push her own son as heir. The first wife's schemes allow for some showcase dancing by her allies and her son (played by Williams' own 9-year-old son, Beyah Williams-Rasool), and a fun scene with nine witches. When Sundiata finally begins to use his legs with the help of the magical blacksmith, Washington finally gets to do some astonishing moves of his own.
The piece opens and closes with knockout ensemble dances. The first, "Twelve Clans," hints at the luscious variety of African dance, with each of 12 dancers performing different moves, and each dressed in the garments of a different clan. The ending, "Domba (Big Dance)," celebrates a renewed unity among contemporary blacks. African dance derives much of its power from its repetition of movements, alternately performed in unison by large groups, and then in stunningly athletic solos. Performed barefoot, the dances suggest a close relationship with nature: The dancers reach their arms toward the sky over and over, then bend their bodies toward the earth. Sometimes, especially in the show-stopping solos, dancers even dance on their hands or throw themselves onto the ground and leap up again. But even the slow movements are lovely. A dance suggesting the bound hands and feet of slavery--Washington curves his body backward on the floor and grasps his ankles--is especially evocative.
The narration is lyrical, studded with vivid images of yams and owls and torrential rains, but it can be difficult to follow at times. The later scenes are funny, what with their culturally unaware black stockbroker and their African-American woman lamenting her hair travails, but after the grand mythical themes of the first act, they deliver a bit of a post-modernist jolt. Williams clearly intends her ambitious work to raise the consciousness of African-American and white Americans alike. But this work's greatest success--and greatest pleasure--is in the exhilarating beauty of its music and dance.
Something We Lost...1230 A.C.E. continues this weekend at the Tucson Center for the Performing Arts, 408 S. Sixth Ave. Shows are at 8 p.m. Saturday, November 1, and at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, November 2. Advance tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for students with ID and seniors. At the door, they're $12 and $10. Children under 12 get in for $5. For advance tickets or more information, call 628-7785.
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