Dallas — On April 7 and 8, the South Dallas Cultural Center hosted New Orleans based theatre company Junebug Productions and their touring production, Gomela/to Return: Movement of Our Mother Tongue., co-presented with Ignite/Arts Dallas. The tour de force work combining spoken word, movement, dance, photography, and videography features how Gomela adds to the growing definition of dance theatre.
Dance theatre is commonly defined as a work that combines dance and theatrical methods of stage performances to create a new and unique dance form that references reality. Roland Langer in Dance Magazine expands that definition by saying that with a piece of dance theatre there usually is “no narrative plot; instead, specific situations, fears, and human conflicts are presented. Audiences are stimulated to follow a train of thought or to reflect on what the [dance theatre] piece express.”
Thinking about those characteristics, Gomela, written by poet/playwright/actor Sunni Patterson and directed by Junebug Executive Director Stephanie McKee, fits into developing history of dance theatre while continuing to expand the scope of the reach that the arts can have. The mission of Junebug Productions is to continue the Free Southern Theater’s mission to use the arts in support of civil rights, and with Gomela, they are bringing forward issues of slavery, racial profiling, lack of resources and opportunities, Hurricane Katrina, and numerous negative societal messages relating to the African-American community and the black experience in America.
The piece started even before the audience entered the theatre with actor Jeremy Guyton in a narrator/trickster role coming into the lobby, circling the crowd, sending them chilling yet inquisitive looks. With a series of slow-moving circles and sly smirks, he wrangled the audience into a straight line, leaded them into the theatre and into the world of Gomela. Gomela is a Bantu word meaning “to return,” and the show returns to the beginning of African and African- American history. Patterson appears, dressed in golden garments and pucca shells, personifying Orisha, a spirit in the Yoruba religion of southwestern Nigeria who reflects a godlike being. Elements of Orisha’s ornaments reappear throughout the show (costumes by Ja’nese Brooks-Galathe and Dana Leon Lima), suggesting that her power manifests throughout generations.
She introduces the colonization of Africa, the horrors of the transatlantic passage on slave ships, the agony of slave auctions, and how it feels to be black in contemporary America. Gomela is journey through time and space making evident the connection between Africa, Haiti, and New Orleans. And while the plot was nearly non-linear, the stories, or vignettes, were clearly enunciated and cleverly punctuated with percussive movements choreographed by performers Guyton, Kia Knight, and Kesha McKey. The choreography directly referenced West African dance, Afro-Caribbean dance, modern dance, contemporary dance, jazz, and hip-hop and set to live music by Jawara Simon.
The narrative was assisted by photographs, videos, and lighting projected on the three floor-to-ceiling scrims, that were also used as screens to project larger-than-life shadows. In one scene, a haunting video showed Sandra Bland’s 2015 arrest in Texas for failing to signal a lane change elicits feelings of despair. In another scene, Guyton, Knight, and McKey employ second-line dance movements in front of a projection of a parade in New Orleans. In another, Guyton performs a physically demanding solo that depicts him frantically evading the police, while the room was filled with swirling red and blue lights. The effect of the choreography was one that evoked an emotional response that was both frightening and powerful.
It was this power that allowed Gomela to present a brutal history while also instilling a sense of hope. Patterson’s eloquent script instill pride in African heritage, while the performers’ choreography presented illustrations of experiences and collective historical memories, creating a space for the audience to witness their stories and reflect on what the work expressed. In the words of Patterson, “…but come, come children rally round and maybe together we can make a sound that’ll shake the trees and rattle the ground.”