"May my child outlive me."
These words, intoned as a prayer by Yoruba parents at the birth of a child, express the fervent desire of parents in any culture or nation. However, as writer and actor Rebecca Rice made chillingly clear in her performance piece "Everlasting Arms" at Dance Place on Saturday, it is a sentiment that no Yoruba descendants raising sons in the United States can take for granted.
"Everlasting Arms" is a searing indictment of a society hostile to the sons of African American women, and of a world that offers them death as a viable "career choice." Set in the neighborhoods of Washington, the work brings home the fact that a death impersonally encapsulated in a newspaper item represents the end of a mother's dream.
With unbearable poignancy, collaborative performers Ayo Handy-Clary and Malaya offer their own stories of loss as witness to the pain underlying the statistics. Ako Handy challenges the stereotypes of African American youth that make it impossible for him to even go for a walk without the realization that he is seen as a threat or that he himself could be a target.
Rice, a powerful performer whose intense monologues threaten to blow audience members out of their seats, portrays a woman who knows that her son could be next. A Helen Hayes Award-winning actress and member of the Penumbra Theater Company, Rice is known as a socially active writer, director, teacher and performer who has brought theater to, among other places, juvenile institutions and shelters for battered and homeless women.
In this work, Rice continues in the tradition of performance in the service of social change. While the piece is at times didactic and stagy, its stories and the urgency of its message make for powerful theater nonetheless.
Rice shared this "Moving Black Artists" program with New York-based composer and performer Tiye Giraud, whose superb "Sugar Tit" also focused on the travails of black women. Giraud's impressive credentials as former lead vocalist for Women of the Calabash, a founding member of Lady Gourd Sangoma and a stint as musical director of Urban Bush Women rightfully suggested that her musicianship would be as superb. However, Giraud's writing and performance skills proved equally as innovative, versatile and stirring. Playing the harmonica, clay pot and vocal gourd -- as well as singing blues, hollers, calls, chants, scats and ditties -- Giraud wove a musical tapestry tracing a history of oppression.
The title of the work refers to African American women who served as wet nurses for their masters' children while forced to pacify their own babies with sugar cubes. A metaphor for the sacrifices of black women, "Sugar Tit" invokes celluloid images such as Hattie McDaniel offering herself up to Vivien Leigh; affirmative action and open enrollment as "substitutes for the real thing"; South African women dislocated by well-meaning environmentalists; Giraud's own mother, who as a young child worked in servitude to a white family in Mobile, Ala.; the bodies of black women, which have served as the locus of white criticism and fantasy.
Directed and choreographed by Anita Gonzalez (and listed as a work-in-progress), "Sugar Tit" presents its harsh truths with the irony, sass, intimacy and grace that render them haunting to the spirit and indelible in the imagination. CAPTION: Rebecca Rice indicts a society hostile to young black men.