Theater archives

Striving for Grace


I think of Bill T. Jones’s theater work of the last decade in part as a search for grace—in the sense of understanding, acceptance, and a kind of spiritual ease. Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Artificial Nigger,” the basis of his magnificent new Reading, Mercy, and the Artificial Nigger, provides Jones with a resolution in which an upright and prejudiced old white man and his 10-year-old grandson are reconciled by the curious sight of a disintegrating hitching post—the “nigger” of the title—in an Atlanta neighborhood, and the man experiences a vision of sin and redemption. The bonding of the two in awe is as mysterious as their falling out. (“Mr. Head,” wishing on this day trip to teach little Nelson about the perils of the city, temporarily deserts the boy and then, frightened, pretends not to know him when the panicky child collides with a woman, knocks her down, and there is talk of calling the police.)

We hear O’Connor’s succinctly poetic words, condensed by Jones, read onstage (on opening night by Jones and Susan Sarandon), but the choreography is only glancingly literal—suggesting events through the interplay of surge and density, quiet and simplicity, the timing and placement of dancers. Reclining in two ranks, they suggest a train aisle; symmetrically clumped, they become a weighing machine. Jones brilliantly uses formal devices to distance and intensify the narrative and provide a counterpoint to Mr. Head’s ingrained racism. Now a black man, Malcolm Low, stands for Head, and a Turkish woman, Asli Bulbul, for Nelson. Now tall, blonde Leah Cox plays the old man, and African American Ayo Janeen Jackson the grandchild. Four pairs may move at the same time. When Head points out the first black man Nelson has ever seen, a white man with cornrows (Denis Boroditski) strides majestically down the aisle of the segregated train car.

Robert Wierzel’s lighting and Bjorn Amelan’s stage design (involving a growing and shrinking moon, spare filmed images of city and country, and falling leaves) beautifully set off the dancing—as does Daniel Bernard Roumain’s score for piano trio, played live. Once, when the text mentions a 60-second pause, Jones provides such a pause; it seems an eternity. He can be florid, prodigal with movement, but in this piece, his style is as lean as O’Connor’s prose—fluent yet taut, imaginative yet everyday—and it makes lustrous the enigmatic crevices in her story.

Jones and his late partner, Arnie Zane, came of age in dance during the radical ’60s and early ’70s, and Jones remains fascinated with “Look at this; now look at it backward; now experience it with words.” His long new solo, Chaconne—accompanied some of the time by Bach’s D minor partita for solo violin, masterfully played by Hillary Hahn—intercuts personal memories with words about his mother, Estella, who died last year (and who appears later in a filmed sequence from Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land, singing spirituals while her son dances questioningly). The poses that he labels “penalty shot,” “the dwarf of ignorance,” “Trisha,” etc., become fodder for fluent dancing. The words come and go. Jones isn’t a kid anymore, but his power is undiminished—that uncanny blend of precision and sinuousness, that plushy muscularity, near excess molded by form. Here he dances in counterpoint with an appearing and vanishing gauzy white image of himself (by Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar) that looks like his renegade guardian spirit.

Jones’s company has spawned choreographers. Lawrence Goldhuber is carving out a career in solo performance. In The Life and Times of Barry Goldhubris (written with David Brooks), he uses his own family pictures and his friends disguised as talking heads to spin a tale of his seriously flawed hero’s rise from an immigrant family through flamboyant entrepreneurial success (bowling alleys and linked diners) to corporate greed and political chicanery, and finally to dementia. “Only in America,” says a voice.

Brooks’s films (along with astutely chosen pieces of music) skillfully enrich the story, provide locales, and emphasize points, beginning with the camera’s heroic entry from outer space into the family that spawned this garden-variety moral monster. Goldhuber appears live in only a few vignettes: his bulky form nearly nude in a storm of glittering leaves; his light-footed dance as a janitor romancing a mop (Barry’s granddad?); his bellowed speech about how to get rich and be loved; and his final terrifying sequence in a straitjacket. As he dances maniacally or struggles to get loose, on surrounding screens the heads of three giant alter egos argue in rapid-fire sallies and interruptions that build a suffocating rhythm. By the end there are nine heads, and some of the voices aren’t Goldhuber’s; in the mélange of rants, we recognize our own Goldhubrian officeholders.

In a way, I wanted to see Goldhuber live at more stages of his persona’s career instead of grinning and waving on-screen, but the length and horrid intensity of the “how to succeed” speech and the psychotic struggle with his inner selves made their points in ways no shorter sequences could.