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Sunday, May 16, 2010


What should I do? The 20th-century is replete with examples of white people, like me, defining, evaluating, and stealing the cultural works of Africans and African Americans. Yet I saw a decidedly Afrocentric show last night in St. Paul, put on by five black women, that I feel compelled to write about for three reasons. One is for a practical reason — what if no one else writes about this? — and the second is because I am a writer and I write about what moves me. The third reason is because art work coming from this and similar perspectives is once again under attack in portions of the U.S. Arizona is attempting to water down or get rid of its ethnic studies classes. I guess they want one ethnicity at the center of study: white. Maybe all of us need to celebrate non-white art before we are all impoverished by losing it.

All that being said, what should I do? I don't want to be some authoritarian critic "explaining" or "interpreting" the work.

Perhaps, I will write questions to hold that voice at bay.

Some background first: The piece was written and produced by Mankwe Ndosi, a singular talent from Minneapolis who is of Tanzanian & Midwestern descent. She has performed internationally, and works in the media of theater, dance, music, spoken word and improvisation. Go here to see an example of her work. Here is an example of her singing with Nicole Mitchell's her band in Italy.

At the show they used instruments built by Douglas Ewart, who has had some of his pieces purchased by major museums. They were made out of, I kid you not, plastic cartons, skiis, racquetball racquets, crutches with bells attached, rolling pins, and so on. The quality and sound of this seeming detritus is amazing. When you see and hear them, you realize why museums would want to purchase them. See some of his instruments here.

"As the Rhythm Changes" was based on interviews with 20 Minnesotans conducted by Mankwe. Most dwelled in the Twin Cities, and a few lived on a farm that had been in the family for generations. She asked the same questions of all of them: 1. What shapes our everyday routines? 2. How do you keep your spirit nourished? 3. What about the changes, either by your own will, or because life changes? 4. How do you see humanity in relationship with the natural world?
The four different pieces performed last night were all inspired by an interview with a single person. The performance itself was funny, joyous, at times scary and angry. There was some talking, a lot of singing, some dancing, some improv.

Question 1: What is the relationship between art and the everyday? How do Ewart, with his musical skiis and rolling pins and Ndosi, with her interviews and musicality and dance, approach this relationship? similarities, differences?

2. Mankwe during the performance said that the percussion and singing (the art) provided a bed for the people's stories to float on. Does this entail that art can coax out and offer portions of the everyday to the audience? How is the everyday changed by being held up by such a bed? To what extent does it matter?

3. In a related question, could Mankwe be anything but gentle in her way of characterizing these interviews (i.e. she doesn't say that she "wrested the essence from the interview and boiled it down to its crucial points")?

4. Could the everyday be a construction made by the art? In a crutch with bells on it, does Ewart see himself as pulling the musical possibilities out of the crutch, realizing its latent possibilities, projecting an imaginative construction on it, or something else I am not thinking of?

5. This I am sure about: in some of Ewart's instruments there is a hidden gentleness. After the show a performer, Aimee K. Bryant, kindly showed me two of Ewart's shaken percussive instruments that, even after the sound falls away, the body of the performer can continue to feel the vibrations. Is there something sly about this "hidden" conversation from the instrument to the body? We obviously think about the body's impact on instruments all the time, but what about vice versa?

6. Mankwe asked her interviewees "What shapes our everyday routines?" To what extent does art do this? To what extent is a dinner table, set up with care, itself a work of art? It is art - ifice. To what extent, then, is Mankwe remaking art of art, thereby helping us to appreciate it all the more?

7. "We are the world we live in." Is the world art? Is the world art - ifice? Do we want to make a distinction?

8. Here is probably the most important question, given Mankwe's stated activist concerns: How can what I have written help us to better life?

I am going to try to answer this question. It will be based on something Alan Golding wrote a number of years ago in a book entitled From Outlaw to Classic. What I have written is read by people interested in the vanguard of fiction, poetry and jazz. They are culturally involved people and cultural workers who feel that more "mainstream" venues do not allow them to explore and express what they must. For the most part they are white, but not exclusively.

Since they focus on art more for the sake of their vision or compulsion, it is more likely to be tied to the nerve endings and radical fissures in the culture. To use an overly simple opposition, their culture is wedded to exploration; the other culture is wedded to the market. This piece I have written is one small part of the culture of exploration. It helps to build on it, to push, to trouble it, to wonder. Obviously, it won't have as great an impact as a Mankwe's play or a Toni Morrison novel, but that's not the point, is it?

This vanguard culture is hardly going to create any sort of revolution. What it does is attract people in college towns and big cities into groups of like-minded people who can support each others' values, work, and ideas. In that way everyday lives can be affected, and electoral politics can even be changed on a small scale. It is possible for left-wing candidates to be elected from neighborhoods where such people live. And, given what's happening in Arizona, we need all of those types we can get.

Well, this wandered a bit but I think you get the idea. Let me end by listing the other people in the show: Libby Turner-Opanga, Sarah Greer, Aimee K. Bryant, and Kenna Sarge.

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