The title of Ralph Lemon’s How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? poses a question that can only be answered by other questions, such as, “What do you mean by ‘anywhere’ and ‘house’?” Because Lemon and his colleagues in the evolution and performance of this profoundly upsetting and uplifting work certainly travel far—far from accepted ideas about meaning and structure and deeply, slantily, into a territory defined by love and loss. The text that Lemon reads, seated onstage at the BAM Harvey Theater for the work’s New York premiere, informs us that after completing his adventurous trilogy project—Geography (1997), Tree (2003), and Come Home Charley Patton (2004)—he “was searching for compositional formlessness—a no-style, no-dance that was, in fact, a dance.”
In 2007, when Lemon began work on How Can You, his lover, the Odissi dancer Asako Takami, had recently died of cancer, and Walter Carter—a man only two generations removed from slavery, who’d lived all his life in Little Yazoo, Mississippi, and whom Lemon thought of as a kind of mentor—was turning 100. One life heartrendingly truncated, another winding, with equanimity, down to its close. Everything in How Can You resonates obliquely with these facts. And with the presence of ghosts and the fullness that can be discerned in an emptying glass.
During “Sunshine Room,” the first half of How Can You, while Lemon reads his text, a projection (video design Jim Findlay, film editor Mike Taylor) appears on the large screen behind him. We meet Carter (then 102) and his wife, Edna, 22 years his junior, who also impersonate, in a sweetly homespun way, the lovers in one of the films that Lemon and Takami watched together during her last days: Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris, in which the dreams of its astronaut protagonist on a mind-altering planet conjure up a very tangible specter of his dead wife.
Here’s Walter suited up in silver, climbing into a small, homemade spaceship as circular as a kiddie merry-go-round, with a TV dish on top. In a clip from Solaris, the hero, Kris Kelvin, lies sleeping; his wife, Hari, appears and bends over to kiss him. Walter sleeps in his own bed in an identical shot; Edna looks at him tenderly from a chair, rises, and kisses him. Hari and Kris, embracing, float slightly above the floor; Walter and Edna lie on a sofa, their feet pointing away from each other, their heads nestled together (they look like lovers in a Chagall painting, aloft in bliss). Kris and Hari, Walter and Edna, Ralph and Asako: This is not formlessness. Although the person in a rabbit suit (often Lemon) who tussles with Walter is an enigma—both the saintly “hare in the moon” of Chinese legend, ready to offer his life as alms, and the wily Brer Rabbit of Southern folk tale.
The film cuts to a performance of Come Home Charley Patton on this same stage: the horrific last scene, in which Lemon, essaying a buck dance, is sprayed with a fire hose—like 1960s protesters against segregation—and he staggers, slips, and falls under the pressure of the water. Then all five filmed dancers wrench themselves around for three minutes. Lemon says he loved that part, although they did not.
The original performers (Djédjé Djédjé Gervais, Darrell Jones, Gesel Mason, Okwui Okpokwasili, and David Thomson) plus Omagbitse Omagbemi take that trip again onstage in How Can You. We’ve already seen a filmed rehearsal that they deliberately negotiated drunk or stoned. Any subsequent formalizing was permitted to erode. Lemon envisioned a tranced ecstasy, born of rage and struggle. What happens often looks like foreplay to oblivion. The wonderful, heroic performers lash themselves into fits of spinning, jump into the air, crash, get up, and do it again. You’re aware of elbows and knees hitting the floor, of slamming falls, collisions, and misfired somersaults. People tangle together. They laugh, grunt, curse, leave the stage, and return for more.
This seems to go on forever. I think I might start to cry and don’t understand why. Starting offstage and gradually edging on, Okpokwasili sobs and wails for so long that her grief becomes detached from her. The rabbit-man appears in a black-and-white film, projected life-size and grounded so that for a second it looks real. He’s confronting not just a placid hound, but, eventually, a whole jungle of animals. Lemon and Okpokwasili appear onstage; he keeps trying out a turn that isn’t quite a turn. Roderick Murray flattens them in the dark glare of a huge suspended lamp. The two are slow now, not fighting. He takes off a single sock and finally puts it on the other foot. She goes. He remains.