IMPRESSIONS: DELIRIOUS Dances “Action Songs/Protest Dances” at Kupferberg Center for the Arts, Queens College

IMPRESSIONS: DELIRIOUS Dances “Action Songs/Protest Dances” at Kupferberg Center for the Arts, Queens College
Sarah Cecilia Bukowski

By Sarah Cecilia Bukowski
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Published on November 19, 2022
Noni Byrd Gibbs & unidentified dancer; Photo: Julen Photo

Director & Choreographer: Edisa Weeks in collaboration with the performers

Composers: Taína Asili, Spirit Paris McIntyre, Martha Redbone

Dancers: Noni Byrd-Gibbs, Steven Jeltsch, Johnnie Cruise Mercer, Devin Oshiro, Brittany Stewart

Queens College students: Daniella Alexis Hernandez, Kailani Sahirah Estrada, Teneil Meyer

Musicians: Taína Asili (vocals), Dylan Blanchard (percussion), Gabby Canzeri (bass, vocals), Asali Ruth (vocals), Spirit Paris McIntyre (vocals), Josette Newsam (vocals), Martha Redbone (vocals), Gaetano Vaccaro (guitar), Paula Winter (percussion)

Project Manager: Marýa Wethers //Stage Manager: Mars Garcia

Production Assistant: Katherine De La Cruz // Publicity: Michelle Tabnick

Graphic Design: Nneka Bennett // T-Shirt Design: Kathreena Bunch

Photographer: Tony Turner // Videographer: Dah’Vielle Lucas

Kupferberg Center for the Arts Team: Jamie Benson, David Burkard, Shawn Choi, Julia del Palacio, Yasoda-Devi Debidayal, Ed DiSpaltro, Jake Goldbas, Theresa Lenz, Craig Platt, Jeffrey Rosenstock, Kenneth Talberth, Margaret Victor, Jon Yanofsky

Art and activism merged to resounding effect in “Action Songs/Protest Dances” a powerful celebration of music and movement grounded in collaboration, community, and social justice. The culmination of a two-year residency facilitated by the first-ever Kupferberg Arts Incubator, the project brought together Queens College faculty, students, and alumni with outside collaborators in a process of research and development focused on supporting artists of color. Led by Edisa Weeks, who serves as an Associate Professor of Dance at Queens College and as director of DELIRIOUS Dances, the creation process spanned from early in the pandemic through—and likely beyond—this performance series.

Edissa Weeks, a light skinned Black woman with greying curly hair tied up in a bun, smiles beautifully, in her halter sun dress with an African print of yellow and orange. She leans against a grey wall.
Edissa Weeks: Photo: Mirembe

It is this “beyond” that lingers most after witnessing and sharing in the passion and generosity of the performers: their call to action brings with it an intention to reach beyond the stage to touch communities and effect systemic change. It’s notable that the Incubator process began in the summer of 2020 amid a climate of racial and social unrest and deep global uncertainty. These charged and generative subjects the artists tackle remain relevant and necessary today. Their message is also rooted in history, with inspiration from the writings and speeches of Civil Rights activist James Forman, whose personal papers are archived at the Queens College Rosenthal Library. Forman played an active role in the Freedom Rides and Civil Rights marches of the 1960s as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. His “Black Manifesto” issued calls for reparations and economic empowerment for Black people that, while deemed radical in their day, continue to reverberate in the Movement for Black Lives today.

the colorful orange, yellow, purple and blue poster for the World Premiere of Action and Protest Songs..
Poster for the Show: Courtesy of the Production

The evening led off with a short film by Dah’Vielle Lucas that delved into Forman’s upbringing in segregated Mississippi and Chicago. and It traced his education and cultivation of a commanding voice he would go on to use to full effect in fiery speeches. The closing line, “If we can’t sit at the table, let’s knock the f—king legs off it,” hung in the air as the artists took the stage.

photo of a light brown skinned woman composer Taina Asili staring at us. She wears large hoop earrings a bright yellow shirt and blue jeans topped off by a loose fitting black jacket decorated with gold images of Frida Kahlo.
Taina Asili; Photo: Mike Morgan

The five action songs and protest dances that followed each drew from Forman’s work and legacy to varying degrees. All but one of the songs were performed live, with musicians and dancers given equal footing and mutual empowerment on the intimate stage. Composers Taína Asili, Spirit Paris McIntyre, and Martha Redbone introduced their compositions in turn, raising their voices alongside an ensemble of supporting vocalists, guitar, bass, and percussion.

The musician Spirit McIntyre's portrait against a window. We see green in the background as the artist a brown skinned woman with black cats eye glasses looks down meditavely her hands draped across her instrument which is bass.
Spirit McIntyre; Photo: Taylor DeClue

McIntyre’s “Pattern Map” drew from a sonic grounding in heartbeat and breath. Layered with rhythmic chanting and repeated melodies, it addressed the problematics of individual charismatic leadership and the need for an “ancestral map” to actualize collective liberation. Dancer Johnnie Cruise Mercer’s gestural language dug deep into a recognition of suffering and the shedding of burdens through a communal ethos of shared struggle and a shared future.

The artist Johnnie Cruise Mercer's head shot. They, a black male appearing person with a mustache and beard peers sideways as if someone called his name. He wears a black baseball cap turned backwards on their head and they appear to be wearing a red and black checked flannel shirt
Johnnie Cruise Mercer; Photo:Torian Ugworji

Redbone’s “Body on the Line” likewise highlighted the power of the collective in Forman’s concept of “lateral leadership.” Noni Byrd-Gibbs’ clearly embodied this idea with her movement vernacular, amplified by dancers chanting and wielding picket signs calling for racial, economic, and gender justice.

The ensemble showcased its power to engage directly with the audience in McIntyre’s “Manifest and Demand,” with the call of “freedom is in our hands” accompanied by the dancers’ fists raised first in the bondage then in defiant liberation. Their undulating open palms simultaneously beckoned and transmitted power to grow their community’s capacity for imagination and action.

a portrait of the composer Martha Redbone. a brown skinned woman wearing a top hat decorated by a beaded band..her long brown curls cascade down her shoulder as she stares at us with her chin resting in crossed hands. she wears a black short sleeve shirt with ruffles, that is highlighted with white lace and appears to be wearing a flouncy cream colored skirt. She is sitting on grey steps.
Martha Redbone; Photo: Fabrice Trombert

The striking Devin Oshiro led a softer turn in Redbone’s “I Got Gold.” Marrying body and soul to bring light to her every action, she carved the space with clarity and assurance, calling to fellow dancers and audience alike: “Who will lend a hand? We will.”

Devin Oshiro, and Asian Woman with long black hair wearing an outfit of all black poses against an all white back ground. She gazes to one side with one arm bent towards her hair and the other arm extended out to where she is looking, but in an angle. her red lipstick pops.
Devin Oshiro; Photo: Allison Harp

The closing number, Taína Asili’s “Reparations,” brought home three of the evening’s key themes: liberation, creation, and collaboration in revolutionary action. Brittany Stewart’s finely shaped hands and expressive spine articulated these messages with utmost care. The song’s chorus connected culture, memory, legacy, health, education, wealth, and destiny, repeatedly calling “it’s ours.” The air filled with the joyful riches of music, movement, and a breathtaking commitment to the message of empowerment and change.

a black and white portrait of dancer Brittany Stewart. Her torso curves to the right, as she looks out at us through spread fingers that cover the side of her face. Her hair is braided with a braided bun, like a crown at the top of her head with the rest of the braids cascading down her back. She is wearing an off the shoulder leotard  with one large ruffle at its top
Brittany Stewart; Photo: Julen Photo

Throughout the evening, tools rooted in African and African diasporic traditions were foregrounded: drumming, call and response, gestural symbology, and rhythmic clapping generated communal connections and charged the energy in the auditorium. This multigenerational group of resplendent artists engaged in a holistic act of generosity by activating their audience and inviting us to participate in their ancestral awakening and freedom making. I can only hope that this project will continue to ignite future grassroots activism, art making, and community-building efforts. Ashe!

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