Dean Moss’ “johnbrown” is not entertaining.
Actually, I should say Dean Moss’ “johnbrown” is not just entertaining. Minus the opening ballet solo, which drags on for far too long, “johnbrown” is quite entertaining. But more than just a night at the theater, Moss, with his powerful work inspired by white abolitionist, John Brown, forces the audience to think, to reflect … to question.
In “johnbrown” there are very few literals, as the audience is forced to interpret much of the performance, which in itself is genius as, like much great art, interpretations vary. Thankfully, during a recent performance at the Walker Art Center, inside the William and Nadine McGuire Theater, I had a companion with me. I say thankfully, because had I gone alone I would have been forced to wrestle with my interpretations by myself.
I’ll admit, I was more than a bit skeptical as to how a “dancer” would deliver a work based on such an enigmatic character and deal with the now unfortunately taboo subject of American slavery. But through “johnbrown” it’s evident Moss isn’t a dancer, but an intellectual of great depth who displays his intellect through the medium of dance. Moss holds a mirror (literally) to society and asks, “Do you really like what you see?”
To say Moss’ scene with performers using double-sided mirror/projector screen boards displaying images from prerecorded nudes of Moss and performer Kacie Chang synced with live movement along with on-the-spot video shot by members of the cast (who in this case were Twin Cities-based), was visually stunning would be quite the understatement. Yes, I needed all those words to describe the brilliantly choreographed scene that was as powerful as it was entertaining. “johnbrown” is worth seeing for that scene alone.
However, the most poignant scene is one of intense interaction between Moss and performer, Asher Woodworth. Moss, who is African-American and Woodworth, who is white, have a highly emotional, nonverbal exchange that can be described as genius in its conception and powerful in its execution. During the scene, Woodworth, a much larger man than Moss, climbs the back of Moss in a symbol of white Americans achieving success on the backs of African slaves. To witness Moss’ strength in holding Woodworth, for me, showed the strength of African-Americans enduring all the pressures heaped upon us. Later in the scene, Woodward rhythmically beats on the chest of Moss, only to have Moss turn and be again confronted by Woodworth and the beatings commence again. As I said, much of “johnbrown” is open for interpretation, but to me the scene was a clear representation of the “turn the other cheek” philosophy adopted by many during the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Somehow by scene’s end, we see the humanity of both and are given hope for reconciliation.
During most performances, following a scene, there is a round of audience applause. Sometimes it’s out of appreciation, sometimes it’s out of courtesy. Not one time during “johnbrown” did the audience cheer. It wasn’t because the audience didn’t appreciate what it just saw, it was because the audience was still taking in what it just saw. “johnbrown” is as mentally exhausting to the audience as it is physically exhausting on the performers. “johnbrown” is a thinking person’s performance.
Oftentimes, when works come to town I’m offered or asked to interview a writer, director or cast member prior to a show’s performance. I’m glad that didn’t happen in this instance. I wouldn’t have done the performance justice. I wouldn’t have had the proper context. Some things must be experienced firsthand before one can speak upon them. This is one of those things.