Last Friday, a mixed crowd squeezed through the doorway of the University Theatre. Students and professors, young and old, settled into their seats in the hot theater to the rhythm of the jazz band assembled in front of center stage, where an anonymous woman, seated at a desk with a typewriter, kept her back to the crowd. As the band’s final song slowly faded to silence, so did the lights and the anxious pre-performance chatter. For all its differences, the crowd now united in a singular task, interpreting and assimilating what was to unfold before us: “Grace Notes: Reflections For Now,” a mixed-media performance created by the woman on stage, photographer Carrie Mae Weems.
Weems, well-known for her photography, created the piece in response to President Obama’s rendition of “Amazing Grace,” sung during his eulogy for Emmanuel AME Church victim Reverend Clementa Pinckney. A wide range of writers, poets, actors, dancers and singers assembled to assist her. The result is a piece that defies any attempt to define it. Weems, as if aware of this difficulty, called it simply a performance, beckoning the crowd into the world of her work from a raised platform at stage right. She read much of the text included in the performance, which served to fit its disparate elements into a cohesive structure. If Grace Notes aspired to take us on a journey, she was our guide.
On a stark white stage with the geometry of a shadow box, various scenes played out, often accompanied by the band. A speaker read from a prose poem on racial injustice as a dancer dramatized his words with the movement of her body. An African-American performer ran on a treadmill, as if from the police, while the other performers questioned, “For what reason?” In keeping with Weems’ other artistic interests, the performance also featured video footage projected onto a lowered screen. One clip showed a black, airborne mass, thousands of starlings in flight. As the flock moved through the air like a cloud, it seemed to assume various vaguely anthropomorphic shapes: A hand, a leg, a black body.
The metaphors ran deep, and many of the vignettes gestured at something more subconscious than explicit. Others were more direct. In one, an African-American man wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt stood stoically at center stage with a briefcase gripped tightly in one hand, ready for his life’s journey. While he held his place, a cheerful, disembodied voice read the litany of attributes necessary to achieve success in America as a person of color. As the list grew longer, the piece’s ironic bite clamped down tighter.
Although the piece was diverse in form, it was fairly consistent in content. Weems’ social justice message came through in most scenes, and if maximizing the piece’s political and emotional impact was the artist’s only goal, these scenes succeeded superlatively. Instead, Weems seemed to have something more sprawling in mind; the performance featured as much cloudy metaphor as political sharpness. Some of the more impressionistic vignettes, in their reach for artistic transcendence, tipped too far towards the absurd. In one scene, a performer rolled around the stage in a human hamster ball, as another followed, singing a lullaby. Freed from the pretensions of the piece as a whole, such scenes may have been thought-provoking and beautiful in their own right. But framed alongside the incisive political critique of the others, these segments only served to break up the emotional continuity of the performance.
At its core, Weems’ work asked, “What is grace?” When used as the impetus for performance art, these types of questions often make me raise an eyebrow. Their generality may make them poetically pleasing to ponder, but rarely does an artist do so with the intention of actually providing an answer. In other mediums, this can be a fruitful endeavor; but then, no poet has ever had a captive audience. Grace Notes admonished me for my skepticism. About halfway through, Weems took the stage armed with a touching anecdote and an audio recording. When she first started working on the piece, Weems explained, she found herself stuck on this question. So she asked the best person she knew: her mother. Cue the audio of their telephone conversation: Grace is compassion, she said with the soft steadiness of a matriarch. It’s care for others.
In the context of the piece, the recording suggested a further question: Who in our society needs grace the most? Once again, Weems delivered an answer, this time in one of the performance’s final scenes. She and her cast took the stage, and behind them, another video rolled. “Commemorating,” the screen read, followed by the names of the scores of African-American men murdered by the police in the last few years. The cast said each name aloud, as Weems beat the rhythm: “Commemorating. Commemorating. Commemorating.”
Gradually at first, then all at once like a wave, we joined their chant.