So my friends at Freedomtrain Productions kicked off their Fire! New Play festival last week with Sharon Bridgforth’s delta dandi.
This was an evocative, poetic performance piece presented by four voices in a spoken-word style. The content of the piece is derived, as the title suggests, from the Southern delta—the lives, struggles, and joys of the folk in that culture. It is rich material to draw from, but what sets this piece apart from others, in my opinion, is how the playwright’s mastery of structure enables an exemplary dramatic experience. It was as if the audience was immersed in a jazz quartet’s jam session, with riff’s, harmonies, dissonance, and overlapping rhythm…
But this was not your typical spoken-word poetry night. delta dandi doesn’t tread heavily in explosive outbursts and the all-too-familiar critiques of capitalism, stolen homelands, racial tension, etc. delta dandi operates on a different wavelength. Subdued, layered and multivocal, delta dandi is in conversation with a literary aesthetic that refuses absolutes in favor of atmosphere.
delta dandi is very much an idiom, where the meaning cannot be apprehended in the direct approach to the text. The grammar of the work is where I locate its beauty; this piece jazzes the sentence. The musicality of the work, expressed by four very talented performers, invites the audience to experience sound, beats, shared expression. Substantively, it is a conjure—a personal and communal invocation of the past—a calling up and confrontation of memory, through word.
…And it is beautiful.
Days later as I write this response, a question lingers in my mind. This invocation works through the collective pain that people of color in the delta have endured. Through its many facets, this piece confronts a general trauma (with specific instances) that gives the experience its pathos and roots it firmly in the African-American experience. This is all well and good, but I want to know what we, as audiences in the 21st Century, do with this sort of dramatic experience.
It is all too easy to participate in the experience as history, as blood memory, as something that is no longer material. The conjure, after all, is temporary, and the pain invoked relies on a sort of communal understanding of a historicized world. This scene is clearly removed from the present; the conjuring act is a bridge. But I wonder about the distancing side-effect. What happens when we locate the trauma of the drama in a mythological, remembered history? Does delta dandi enable a severance from the clearly distressing circumstances of many people of color in the south today? I don’t know.
On one hand, the audience is rewarded by taking part, by sharing and working through this experience. But on the other hand, the world itself seems very much frozen in a moment of ago with no clearly articulated pathway to today. The conjure finishes, the dream/memory vanishes, and we are left more aware and troubled by a pain (and joy) that once was. This becomes a pain we cannot do anything about but remember and reflect upon, an experience I encounter as a history of somewhere else. Not as present. Not here.
I just wish there were some way to conjure a world like this without letting the audience get away in the end. It would be interesting to see the conjure overtake our present, the living moment. The memory could leap out from its assigned place in history and make trouble in the now of it. But that, really, would be a different piece.
In the end, delta dandi succeeds because its elements work in synergy. Blues/jazz conventions color and inform the content...the experience is breathtakingly evocative, with a melody I look forward to experiencing again.