Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2021 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Milton by Kaylin Horgan, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo and guest panelists Jason Baldinger and Gigi Gatewood. Read their bios at the end of the review, and read our preview of the performance here.
By David Bernabo
The task of encapsulating someone’s life is a daunting one, especially when you have about an hour to present it. Which moments from their life do you deem critical? How do you tie the story together without lengthy passages of exposition? With Milton, choreographer and dancer Kaylin Horgan effectively dives into lawyer and now minister Milton Raiford’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in a layered production that veers between dance and musical theater, directness and abstraction, and desire and reality.
The timeline of the show veers from in-focus vignettes (where a young Milton wins a spelling bee, a teenage Milton navigates an interracial relationship, and an adult Milton takes on a court case) to more abstract, impressionistic events that move the story forward while leaving a feeling or vibe that doesn’t quite exist in the more literal scenes. This vibe, created by different layers of sound, image, and movement, is quite intoxicating. It is mysterious and invites the audience to fill in some of the blanks.
After a young Milton (wonderfully performed by Daijaun Marshman) spells “antidisestablishmentarianism” and “obese” to win the spelling bee, the production shifts into layers that cut across time and place. Young Milton is in celebration mode while his mother Cora (Selena Williams) is located in a different part of the stage singing, “give him a better chance to be the man I know he can be.” She laments the conditions of her life and hopes that Milton can find a better path. Jump cut to Milton falling through time. Now he is a teenager trying to avoid being trampled on after being swept up into a crowd of video-projected inverted outlines of people.
These early scenes are important, because they inform the audience of the language of the performance. This story is told in layers — multiple voices and visual presentations are able to collapse time. In a given sequence, movement and onstage conversations convey the inner thoughts of characters, a song from Cora reveals both her thoughts and the generalized thoughts of the previous generation, and a projected news clipping positions the stage action within a larger societal context.
There’s an additional layer in Treble NLS and Brittney Chantele’s soundscore. While the music maintains a laid-back, chilled-out vibe, the lyrics and vocal delivery provide insight into the characters mindsets. It’s not always a 1:1 relationship between lyric and character — sometimes the lyrics work more generally, addressing multiple characters, like when Chantele is repeating, “please don’t go, I’ve been tired of being alone” while teenage Milton (LaTrea Derome) and his girlfriend Randy (Cecilia Benitez) grow apart.
This layering is not always smooth. There are the occasional clunky bits of exposition, and the relationship between teenage Milton and Randy may take up an outsized portion of the performance even though the sequence has many enjoyable moments.
Milton and Randy’s courtship is relatively quick and while the decay of their union is quite long, there are interesting nodes interspersed throughout their break-up. There’s the juxtaposition of Randy pleading, “ways of our parents, can we please not mind it?” with Cora’s “you have a lot of people counting on your success. You don’t have time for hanging out with that white girl.” There’s Milton and Randy’s clash over their individual responses to the 1968 riots that evolved in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Randy wants to jump to the front lines, while Milton wants to focus on himself to find a way into the system in order to change it. The movement of their break-up includes a confrontational section filled with bold, full-bodied gestures as if Milton and Randy are throwing movement at one another as well as a quieter section of complex weight-sharing and lifts.
The interdisciplinary approach is admirable as it pays off much more than it falls short, and in the court case scene, the whole production really grooves.
Milton (still played by LaTrea Derome) is now a well-known lawyer, often representing those accused of homicide, gang activity, and drug dealing. In a fictionalized case, Milton meets with a client (Brenden Peifer) to discuss the case. The rhythm of this sequence is powerful. Through movement, Derome is enacting the words that a pre-recorded Treble NLS is spitting, while Peifer answers “onstage.” The section reminds one of the Kendrick Lamar/Don Cheadle exchange in the “DNA.” music video in its energy and flow — well, maybe paired down a bit. The pair reconstruct the events of the homicide with Milton iteratively tweaking his client’s statement, playing with the facts to get his client off free. “Listen to me, I run the system, I turn the system,” Milton says via Treble NLS, ego in full effect, mimicking the words with his movements.
By this point, the audience is accustomed to the impressionistic structure of the performance, so Cora’s interjections into this section slide into the groove. She’s running classes, teaching women to be independent. Milton is partially funding these endeavors, and while Cora is accepting the money, she is concerned where the money is coming from. Cora pushed Milton out of this system — gangs and drugs — but now Milton is benefiting from that system, although approaching it in a very different way.
In a discussion (outside of and unrelated to this performance) about urban renewal, Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, professor at The New School, talks about hammer blows that are targeted at certain neighborhoods. These attacks, based in white supremacist thinking, create a clear line of intent from segregation to redlining to disinvestment to urban renewal to gentrification to ensure white power stays in power, accounting for changing definitions of whiteness over the decades. Homewood, where Milton mostly takes place, is one of those Pittsburgh neighborhoods along with East Liberty, the Hill District, and the North Side where these policies have been applied. Massive job loss from Pittsburgh’s deindustrialization paired with a systemic widening of racial inequities contributed to an emerging market for drugs. The production doesn’t go too deep into Milton’s motivations for protecting those accused of crimes, but it plays with the conflict between profiting from a questionable market and protecting peers that have been pushed into this questionable market due to “legal” systemic violence from the city and state.
A TV interview projection lays out the real-life Milton’s approach to law. (Remember, there is a degree of fictionalizing happening in this performance.) During the court case, Milton coolly lays out his client’s argument, but the client falters when evidence of a Tahitian Treat purchase crushes his defense that he never entered the store and never bought a bottle of Tahitian Treat.
Milton is disbarred, his client gets 35 years in prison, and a fire takes his mom’s life. Filled with pressures, some of his own creation and some outside his control, Milton has a nightmare, wakes up, breaks down, and questions God’s role in his own downfall. Through a series of flashbacks and visions of a sort — Cora and Randy return with messages of support — Milton turns to religion, soon becoming a minister. The visual and sound layers of this section drive home the tension that Milton must have been facing. It feels claustrophobic and out of control.
Throughout the production, Horgan and the team of collaborators wield a consistent tone and pacing with a good number of “wow” moments. Derome’s dancing is elegant, often smoothly hiding the complexity of Horgan’s choreography. Selena Williams’s singing is a constant high-point, bringing emotional peaks to the smooth but potent soundtrack that Treble NLS and Brittney Chantele provide. Michael Cooper’s projections help segment the stage into multiple locations and blend seamlessly (if not otherworldly, at times) with the costuming (Suz Pisano), lighting (Harbour Edney), and set design (Tucker Toppel).
Most divisive are the pre-show and post-show interview sequences. It’s misleading to label these segments as pre- or post- as they are definitely part of the show, but these sections are stylistically different than the core of the show. Shot on what looks like a handheld smart phone, Horgan and the real-life Milton discuss how they met and the dance duet that they developed together for a fundraiser at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. Towards the end of the last interview segment, an evangelistic tone is apparent, but without the nuance and context of how religion is presented within the core of the work. The review panel thought that these interview segments weren’t necessarily needed, although they were helpful in understanding why Horgan was authoring and presenting this story of Milton’s life.
After years of writing these reviews and looking at how artists utilize the CSA platform, I think it’s fair to say that we have a bias towards artists that like to experiment. Horgan elevates this selective biography beyond a straightforward narrative by using different layers of media — soundtrack, live dialogue, song, projection, dance, design. The world that is created contains enough abstraction to insert your own experiences into the story while also detailing some of the triumphs and follies that Milton has experienced throughout his life. It’s a rewarding formula that can absorb a longer runtime in future iterations or even exist in sections as a dance miniatures, and it’s definitely worth another watch.
Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at jasonbaldinger.bandcamp.com as well as on a recently released cassette by the band Theremonster.
David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Watererer, Host Skull and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.
Gigi Gatewood is an artist born in Buffalo and based in the Hudson Valley, NY. After receiving an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (2009), she spent a year in Trinidad and Tobago (2011) as a William J. Fulbright Fellow researching and photographing the islands’ complex spiritual landscape. Her work has been included in exhibitions at Invisible Exports, Aperture Gallery, and the Chelsea Art Museum in NYC; Carrol and Sons in Boston, MA; David Cunningham Projects, Krowswork Gallery and Femina Potens Gallery in San Francisco; the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo; and the Katherine E. Nash Gallery in Minneapolis. Gatewood participated in artist collaborative video and performance projects at the 2009 Venice Biennale and the 2003 Havana Biennial. Gatewood currently teaches at Siena College.