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Some choreographers call any work with a tinge of drama “dance theater”; others use the term to alert customers to the presence of the spoken word. Jane Comfort works occasionally, and intrepidly, with new or existing plays, mobilizing movement to crack them open. Her brilliant Faith Healing of 1993 developed a rich subtext for Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, and her new, still-developing Asphalt entails a collaboration with poet and playwright Carl Hancock Rux and dramaturge Morgan Jenness. Asphalt, whose first act premiered at the American Dance Festival in 2000, appeared in two-act form at Jacob’s Pillow last month and will be part of the Altogether Different festival at the Joyce in January. At the Pillow there were a few dangling ends to be tied up, including two underdeveloped characters, but it’s a fascinating and gripping work.
Asphalt‘s disc-jockey hero, Racine (pronounced Ray-seen and performed with touching tough innocence by Manchild), is on an odyssey he doesn’t fully understand. Couchette (the sumptuously gifted Aleta Hayes) plays a witty and sexy Virgil to his Dante, leading him into a squat peopled with what turn out to be ghosts and urging him to confront long-suppressed memories. Comfort is expert at musicalizing language through movement and vocal patterns, and she receives vibrant help from DJ Spooky, who composed most of the instrumental score, and Toshi Reagon, whose chants also throbbed through Comfort’s 1998 Underground River. As words spill from Racine, he spins unseen platters with his hands, and that action becomes transformed and enlarged into dance. While soft voices seep out of the walls, Couchette’s movements silently enchant him into erotic entanglement. The whole piece throbs with rhythms—sung, spoken, danced. Flashlights in darkness deepen the enigmas.
For most of the first act, we don’t know who these people are; they often appear, isolated, from the shadows, and interracial casting masks their blood relationships. There’s the Woman in the Flaming Dress (Cynthia Bueschel); the majestic Emma (Irene Datcher), who floats through, chanting; Couchette’s father (Stephen Nunley), a jazz composer who committed suicide in the house; the flamboyant preacher Eddie (played with impressive vocal power by Julius Hollingsworth); and Eddie’s pregnant and frightened young niece, Geneva (Karma Mayet Johnson). The fragments amass meaning. Girlish Lilly (Elizabeth Haselwood), who sings sweetly of her childhood in Virginia, is the mother of Eddie and Emma. Geneva is Emma’s child, and the infant she delivers in pain and shame is Racine. Generations divided in time coexist in space.
The second act gathers more strands, drawing Manchild into a twisted tale of incest and arson, of love and pride and murder. A terrifying rant by Eddie—showing off his war medals, shouting, “Men supposed to be men at all times,” to justify his crimes—propels Asphalt toward its climax. Racine finally embraces his history. Words, music, and movement seethe together; united, their rhythms whirl the morsels of meaning into life stories.