What Lies at the Edge of Beauty?
‘Sunsum is Spirit’ is a potent, kaleidoscopic ride through sound, movement, and image
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 Sunsum is Spirit by Samuel Boateng, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo and guest panelists Jason Baldinger and Vanessa Reseland. Read their bios at the end of the review.
By David Bernabo
With Sunsum is Spirit, Samuel Boateng crafts a kaleidoscopic interdisciplinary work that is in constant movement. The eye follows colorful visual patterns from the painted floor to the beautifully-patterned costumes to the tightly-mapped projections. Dancers draw journeys on the stage, constantly unfolding different configurations while working within traditional and contemporary movement languages, responding to the warm sounds of the band, itself deeply entrenched in polyrhythmic play. The plot, complete with a few twists, is the connective tissue for these set pieces. Balancing abstraction and concreteness, an argument for a more equitable world (or at least, village) unfolds. It’s an idea that is mirrored in the execution of the performance. With so many elements, there is risk of competition, that certain actions would be wasted or overshadowed by other concurrent elements, but Boateng and his team ensure that there is no hierarchy between music, movement, story, and visuals. All these elements work in harmony.
Director Kelsey Robinson, also playing the role of our guide Nframa — the wind of tales— twirls out from the wings to introduce the performance. We are entering the story on a day of celebration, a celebration of past events and a celebration of three of the village’s forbearers. Robinson’s presence is immediately inviting, warm, and reassuring despite the placement of this story in 1700s West Africa as the slave trade is expanding.
We travel back a few centuries and in quick fashion are introduced to most of the characters. Nana Kwame Otimi (Wali Jamal) is the king of this village, a once-thriving place that has recently seen problems — losses of land, lower crop yields, and disappearances. Rumors pointing to the king’s involvement in these issues are growing. He tasks Kwabena Énti-Nna (Richard McBride), Afia Anotew (Melessie Clark), and Kwadwo Adoé (Ira Cambric) with tracking down a healer who can resolve the problems in the village. The travelers venture into the wilderness, continually get lost, navigate positive and negative signs and symbols emerging from the natural world, and hesitantly begin to question the nature of their task.
After coming upon an abandoned village, the travelers meet a child (or is it an ancestor?) who shows them that their task is a ruse created by their corrupted king to sell them into slavery. They devise a scheme to ensnare a spy that has been following them. With the spy in hand, the travelers return to their village to provide proof of the king’s deceit. At the end of the piece, the king is dethroned and the three travelers are made co-leaders. A celebration erupts.
In addition to Robinson’s occasional exposition, music guides us through this journey. There’s rolling hand-percussion, sweet bass runs, and deep piano chords. There’s uplifting highlife guitar lines and horn jabs with rhythms that you need to catch in your body. Developments in jazz in the late 60s — the loosening of forms, the integration with gospel, soul, and funk, the heavy spiritualism — are very present in much of the score. Fans of Idris Muhammad, Roy Ayers, Kelan Phil Cochran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, or Mwandishi will certainly feel at home with this performance.
Music introduces each scene. It accompanies the preparations for the journey as the travelers sing out their strengths and qualifications. “If you want fresh meat, I will give you three. I’ll be real, real strong. I don’t fear no one.” Music accompanies dream and nightmare sequences — sometimes giving the band a place to stretch out with solos, other times opting for something more abstract.
The passages with the spy (Simon Philips) are especially effective. Early in the piece, Philips weightlessly slides across surfaces on the vast stage, perfectly evoking an unsaid threat to the travelers while saxophonist Roger Romero reaches for the high register of the horn. Elsewhere, Boateng dives headfirst into electro-acoustic composition, accompanying dances by a nighttime presence and an antelope with a level of detail shared by both sound and movement. These sections are wonderful compositions on their own, but also aid the larger piece by contrasting the groove of the ensemble sections with a freer rhythm and more unnatural, otherworldly sound sources.
Even though musicians are never seen performing — the score was pre-recorded — the music still feels alive.
Choreographer Chrisala Brown and dancers Sheryland Neal, Ebony Zanuwa, Philips, and Robinson create movement that can be felt. It feels less about precision — which isn’t to say that the choreography wasn’t executed tightly and grooved with the beat — but more about carrying an energy and an individuality. You couldn’t envision the choreographer and dancers in rehearsal; the movement felt like it originated on the stage, in this village.
One major factor that went unnoticed in the best of ways is the filming of the piece. In these times of pandemic, it’s understandable that performers have had a rocky time transferring staged performances to videos. Dance rarely translates as well to video unless it is specifically made for video. But the technical team behind Sunsum is Spirit is largely transparent, unobtrusively following the dancers with slow pans and zooms, while retaining detail and a sense of time and place. The review panel often forgot that we were watching a constructed video of a performance.
To be quite blunt, the panel liked this piece a lot. If we are looking for faults, occasionally, Sunsum is Spirit has an easier time abstracting concrete concepts versus concretizing abstract concepts. There was some haziness on what was happening in a few of the dream sequences — rather appropriate, I suppose — and while it seemed very procedural, the panel was a little lost on how the travelers caught the spy or why the spy allowed themself to be caught.
We also found the use of tension to be interesting. The plot, while on paper a very tense situation, didn’t elicit tension. Any tension caused by the planned kidnapping is diffused in the introduction, leaving most of the tension to be generated by fluctuations between realism and abstraction. There are points, like when the king is being dethroned and cast out, that the acting feels like a reenactment of an event, as if we are drawn back to present-day to witness a retelling. At other times, the travelers are in the moment, in their respective time, on the cusp of making their next decision.
While set in Ghana, a few centuries ago, Sunsum is Spirit is highly relevant to life today. In our preview interview, Boateng discusses how many of the themes in the work relate to Ghanaian’s concerns today. Now, it’s a bit self-centered to view the work as it relates to the current-day United States, but the fact that there are so many parallels speaks to the universality of oppression and the over-abundance of oppressors. Immigration-related detentions, the prison industrial complex, and illegal killings and extradition into black sites provide imperfect parallels to Sunsum is Spirit’s disappearances of villagers. The king selling off public land for private gain sums up much of the Republican platform since Reagan. And the unseating of the proletariat in order to consolidate wealth for those in power is unfortunately an evergreen trend. Sunsum is Spirit’s power — aside from the visually intoxicating performance — resides in flipping these narratives and reclaiming and repurposing a story for empowerment.
There are a few lines from the performance that stuck with us. “Let calamity go, we come with no ill intent.” Removed of oppressors, a collective body can grow and thrive.
In the Q&A, Boateng asked something that maybe this performance answers, “What lies at the edge of beauty?”
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.
Vanessa Reseland is an actor and vocalist, who has performed all over the US and in the UK. After growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, Vanessa spent 12 years in New York City and three years in Los Angeles, working predominately in musical theatre as well as film and television, cabaret, and on new theatre works. She is a founding member of MOD Theatre Company in NYC/LA and has had her original music/artpop project, WIFEY, since 2012. She is currently very happy to be back in Pittsburgh.