Jennifer Cover recites poems so dramatically they become scenes of a play. The "play" chronicles freedom so emotionally that it speaks for everyone, not just the slave and her alienated great-granddaughter who whisper and shout their yearnings in "Still I Rise." Performed Saturday at the Kennedy Center, this one-woman dramatization of 14 poems whispered and shouted its message--to find freedom, and love it fiercely.
"It is a sense of freedom rather than a freedom that someone gives you," explains the 33-year-old native Washingtonian and former associate professor of theater at the University of Vermont. "It is a freedom that comes from knowing one's self."
Cover lived with some of the poems for years--"they have grown in depth of meaning as I have grown"--and she loves them with a fierceness that gives them life.
In her show, Cover gaily struts onstage as a good-natured "slavewoman" while her piano-playing husband, Wardell Payne, sings "I wish that I knew how it feels to be free." She chats happily about pigs' feet and chitlins, exclaiming, "We just had one scrumptious time."
The "slavewoman" bounces her "brown baby with sparkling eyes," then later bids the child farewell when he goes to war. In a heavy voice, she groans, "I hugged him and I kissed him and I begged him not to go. But he told me that his conscience was calling to him so . . . they laid him somewhere way down south to rest . . ."
The "slavewoman" exits and a modern woman "with all the history inside her" returns, asking, "Did you want to see me broken, bowed head and lowered eyes? . . . You may shoot me with your eyes, you may kill me with your hatefulness, but still like air I rise."
The modern woman shuns the religion so important to the "slavewoman." She recalls eagerly awaiting Jesus at a local revival, then explains in pained disillusionment that Jesus stood her up.
Eventually accepting religion, she exclaims, "I found God in myself, and I loved her. I loved her fiercely."
The modern woman, who has found freedom, confidently says, "Take the black-eyed peas and the grits . . . I been civil righted enough, uptighted enough, I want high on the hog."
The show, which includes poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Maya Angelou, Ntozake Shange and Langston Hughes, ends with a renunciation of slave ways. "The modern woman dismisses the pigs' feet and chitlins" that the slavewoman had talked happily about, says Cover. "She won't accept the leavings of the master. She wants anything that anyone else in society can have."
This progression of freedom is "a circular thing," explains Cover, who read about 300 poems while creating her show. "The modern woman has to have all that the slave had in order for her to be free."
Cover got a thunderous standing ovation for her performance, which benefited the Sisters of the Holy Family, a religious order of black nuns founded in 1842 by Henriette Delille, a free, educated woman of African descent.
The nuns taught religion to slaves, opened a home for the aged in New Orleans and set a tradition of service that has continued for 140 years.
"I thought in so many ways," said Cover, "that the Sisters of the Holy Family made a strong statement like the statement of my show."