"As long as we dance together, we have no time to hate," Chuck Davis stirringly proclaimed at Saturday's performance of his African American Dance Ensemble at the Publick Playhouse. Billed as a concert, the event was actually more of a love-in. But this was no mellow, psychedelic affair. It was a communal outpouring of ecstatic energy inspired by the cultures of Africa.
Chuck Davis's genius is his ambassadorship of cultural goodwill. Davis can get just about anyone to forget urbane sophistication in order to get down and take part in public ritual. He involves the members of the audience from the beginning -- when he asks them to introduce themselves to five other people -- to the very end -- when he requests that all hold hands and hug. The wonder of it all is that audience complies unselfconsciously.
Davis is a gargantuan figure. When he dances, he flings his endless arms into the flies, and he threatens to move the earth with his shimmying legs. This towering frame confers on him immense presence and authority, warmed by the benevolence of his personality. In performance Davis functions as a kind of priest bestowing benediction on all present.
Sprinkled throughout the evening were "griots," interludes in which Davis explained the cultural and spiritual significance of his ceremonies. Reciting poetry, leading the audience in call-response chanting, preaching the message of peace and love, Davis welcomes all into a celebration of life through song and dance.
Davis and his Durham, N.C.-based company have performed in this area before, and the audience clearly was primed for the event. They cheered the dancers and drummers through the gradual development in intensity of the African rites that made up the second half of the program. This excitement culminated in "Peace Rally," the spiritual heart of the program, which served also as a convocation of the local African American dance community. As the audience chanted accompaniment, about 30 members of the audience were invited to the "dancing ground," where Davis singled out local community leaders Melvin Deal, Assane Konte, Abou Kounta and Paul Kengmo to "oversee" the rally.
The evening did seem more ceremonial than performative, so it seems curmudgeonly to dissect it, but there were problems. The first half of the program in particular was pallid. "Simple Prayer," a hybrid Africanized modern dance, and "Turnjumpnrut," inspired by contemporary urban popular culture, were both wan copies of their sources. And stylistically, the dancing throughout was something of a muddle in its amalgam of West African forms. These quibbles are almost beside the point, however. Davis's mission is clearly spiritual, and this he accomplishes with magnificence.