Prophetika: An Oratorio is a new experimental stage production by director Charlotte Brathwaite. The short of it: Prophetika is an interdisciplinary performance based meditation on freedom and liberation. It is a production that is not immediately easy to grasp and as a result, I have found it a bit difficult to write about my viewing experience. So, I created a list of elements that “worked” well and a list describing parts of the production that left me with questions. Instead of trying to package that list into a fancy narrative, I thought it best for the compilation to serve as my review of sorts. Clear, concise, and to the point. I hope.
Here’s what works:
In the Black prophetic tradition, music has been (and is) a vital component in the articulation of our freedom quests. Prophetika captures this truth completely. And what collaborators Justin Hicks, Courtney Bryan, Brandee Younger, and the dazzling Jadele McPherson have done with sound and music in this production is quite profound. It would be dangerous for me to attempt commentary on the technical aspects of Ms. Brathwaite’s soundscapes. I am not a trained vocalist or musician. However, I do know that as much as this production is rooted in the artistic legacies of Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane, it is also rooted in the musicality of say, the Black church or Missy Elliot. Despite their existences on opposite sides of the content spectrum, what I know to be true about both the Black church (religious arguments aside) and Missy’s canon is that musicality functions as a tool of myth making, as a methodology for mapping futures be them divinely oriented or not. As a production, Prophetika is also invested in that mapping process. I’m sure I caught the holy spirit more than once as I swayed and clapped along with the show’s rhythms.
Abigail DeVille makes freedom’s future look good. #allgoldeverything
DeVille’s installation rest smack dab in the middle of the set and is the focal point of the production as viewers are invited to walk along the perimeter of the installation while the live performance happens. The traditional wall between audience and performer are blurred slightly by consequence. True, we always know who has been formally cast by Brathwaite. Yet, the decision to allow movement from the audience during the show does reduce a bit of apprehensiveness ( at least it did for me) in trying to figure out a “correct” way to enter the performance. With the ability to move about freely, it was almost as if I had been invited to meet at the alter. In tandem with the cast, I could offer up my truths and concerns in hopes of receiving an ordained word. Prophetika creates space for all to be part of freedom’s future fashioning.
Here’s what didn’t quite do it for me:
Prophetika incorporates video art from acclaimed artist Cauleen Smith. In general, I enjoy Smith’s work. In this instance, screened simultaneously with the live performance, I found the video art to be a distraction. As an audience member, I was much more interested in the live elements, which although abstract, are still quite engaging. It also didn’t help that due to the set design, it was hard to actually see the video art. I had no real sense of how the video work was serving the larger production.
Here’s what I’m still thinking about:
In this production, how much of the performative experience is influenced by the audience? At different points in the evening, I could sense a wide cultural gap between the show’s content and its viewers. It is quite possible that this could have merely been a coincidence on the day I decided to see the show but this looming feeling lead me down a rabbit hole of inquiries. In such a setting, to what extent is it the responsibility of a viewer to participate? And if the call for interactiveness is not heeded, is it the artist’s fault or is the audience just lame? I want answers Sway.
Prophetika: An Oratorio runs until Sunday April 5th at the storied LaMaMa Theater in New York City. After you’ve seen it, drop me an email and let’s chat. I’d love to keep talking about it.
Jessica Lynne is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK