Afro House is a Baltimore-based, music-driven performance art house. I had the pleasure of witnessing a portion of the Afro Punk Ballet during one of their concert series this past summer. I was really excited to see what they had been up to and how the project has progressed.
Act 1 of Afro Punk Ballet, a portion of a three-part aria, was presented at the always inviting Peale Museum. It is an eclectic mix of characters, music and dance. At the start of the ballet, sisters Jakub (Alicia Williams) and Corfasia (Jocelyn Hunt) are in conflict. Father Levi (Jarrod Lee) then kills himself, along the bend of a river. We don’t know why, but he dies beautifully. Jakub senses the disturbance in the natural world and tries to follow Levi into the spirit world. She is halted by a Spirit-Legba (Elise Christina Jenkins) who as an observer, helps Jakub grieve by allowing her to view her Father’s ghost from afar. At the same time Corfasia has taken the political reins in her Father’s absence leading to a revolt, much to the chagrin of a power hungry general Bem (Shannon Steed). Levi’s wife and mother to his daughters Makeeba (Adrienne Ivey) finds Levi dead near where the mighty river used to be and laments his passing. End of Act. I think I got the synopsis right. It’s my interpretation of what the story was about at least.
The show began with actors entering the space in simple costumes, black or white base clothing with colorful printed fabric draped across them. But what struck me the most were the helmets. They were black with a honeycomb design, speckled with gold paint. They were beautiful. Actors removed them when performing in the scene and returned to wearing them when off stage or as a member of the chorus. Helmet designer A.W. Nadine Grant did an impeccable job of immediately immersing the audience into the world with the simple, yet elegant visual element.
The stage was bare except for a keyboard and speakers, a few tracked lights and a lovely fire lit candelabra. Just people, voices and instruments. Afro Punk Ballet had limited production value (welcome to the Baltimore theater scene), but that’s okay. I dug it. The 1st Act is still in development and the grandiose vision of Afro House Artistic Director/composer Scott Patterson and his collaborators has not been fully realized in this showing. But you can see where it’s headed. In a way the sparseness of the set made you focus on what you heard.
And what I heard was otherworldly. Eerie keyboard tones (Scott Patterson), a bass guitar (Corey Emerson) and a killer beatboxer (Max Bent) made up the musical accompaniment. The vibe of the music was dope af; 70s funk, mixed with futuristic, space-like sound effects. The music sounded full even with this simple trio. The incorporation of beatboxing as the percussion added to the cool factor. And that bass was kicking! I would have preferred it turned down a bit because it was hard to hear the singers when their backs were turned, but that could have been because I was sitting a few feet from the amp. Or maybe I’m getting old and my hearing is going. The composition of the piece was rich, powerful and well-articulated. Harmonies were beautifully arranged and ebbed and flowed seamlessly into the layers of music. This piece stuck with me from beginning to end.
The lyrics were easy to understand for an opera. I’d call this Opera for beginners. It had all the dramatic aspects of an opera without all the pretentiousness, yet it was cool as shit. The story was complex but universal. However, this is the kind of show where you have to pay attention and remain an active audience member. The story is not placed on the table in a perfect box with a ribbon. There aren’t always answers to your questions. You have to make the connections, be a little confused and let the story wash over you slowly in waves. Nobody likes a lazy audience member. Thank you Eric T. Styles, Preston Andrew Patterson and Scott Patterson for developing and writing this unique tale filled with unanswered questions.
Of note, the acting space was tight. Actors were so close in the intimate space it was unnerving. I felt like I was part of the action. The musicians filled in sometimes as soldiers, village folk or the chorus. It was a little awkward, but the concept of incorporating them was a bold choice. The inclusion of daughter Jakub (Alicia Williams), who uses movement as a form of communication with the other characters, was a striking choice as well. Alicia Williams did a wonderful job of emoting through dance and using intensity to communicate, especially in scenes where she tries to get closer to her dead father. I later learned during the talk back (bonus talk back at all three shows) that Ballet’s origins date back to early opera when a particular scene called for dancers to participate as a part of the performance. The choreographer Preston Andrew Patterson strived to include the dancer as an integral part of the story and not just a side piece. Well done. This idea of different disciplines blending together on stage was intriguing.
In addition to the dancing, music and costumes, the true stand out of this piece were the singers. Every actor held their own and meshed well in their harmonies, but I had three favorites.
Jarrod Lee as Levi was breathtaking. I’m a fairweather opera fan, but Jarrod Lee’s voice will make even the opera hater stand up and take notice. His smooth, warm and intense voice vibrated and resonated in the intimate space. I could see it bounce off the wall and enter my ears. He dramatized with his whole body and I could feel his pain and anguish.
Elise Christina Jenkins as Spirit-Legba, never looks directly at anyone and hovers around the stage as if detached from the action. This was a character choice to always remain the observer and it worked. Her Mezzo-Soprano voice had an ethereal quality that was moving.
Makeeba, played by Adrienne Ivey, had a stand out performance. Her enchanting operatic voice was powerful yet delicate, an impossible balance that worked extremely well in this role. What I love about opera is that moment when an actor hits a note during an intense emotional scene and it just sings down into your soul. The song she sang after discovering her dead husband captivated me and hit me in that place with a level of heartbreaking emotion. She blended the emotions of loss, love, betrayal, anger and forgiveness seamlessly with her voice and characterizations all in just a few short minutes. Adrienne Ivey made me feel what she was saying. At one point she was so close to me that I could both hear and feel the vibrato in her voice. It was awesome! She was stunning.
Afro Punk Ballet was somewhat disjointed at times. The transitions between scenes were loose and I would have benefitted from more moments of silence. Edits, character building and nipping and tucking will smooth out the rough edges over time. The simplicity in the set, costumes, music and choreography will likely build over time as well. The concept is tight, but the artistic elements require a little more focus.
Overall, Afro Punk Ballet is massively interesting, captivating and engaging. So much talent and creativity. This is experimental. This is DIY theater. This is Baltimore. Also crabcakes and football, but mostly creative theater. Afro house’s mission statement is “Art can disrupt and transform the human imagination, providing fresh eyes to view both past and present, challenging artist and audience to create a better future”. Whoa. That is a mouthful. But Afro Punk Ballet met and exceeded this lofty ambition. I like a play that leaves you with more questions than answers. It only makes you want more.
I can not wait to see the evolution of this piece.
Should I stay in should I go? Hurry up and go now! There are only 2 more shows left. See this play in its early stages before it becomes a big deal and the tickets cost hundreds of dollars. This was an epic story about futuristic black people, written, directed and choreographed by Black people. Opera fans will like it. Afro Punk enthusiast will like it. It blends different art genres together and makes something painfully unique. Support local creatives! (Z)
Now through Oct 6th at The Peale Museum. Running time is 1 hour with no intermission. Stay for the talkback after each performance.