We see them first as silhouettes: six dark figures bending into careful arrangement and freezing. The lights go up and Beckham Hall explodes in whoops and whistles-—with their matching vests, oversized sunglasses and jutting hips, the women onstage are a vision of sass. They smile out at the crowd, with eyes not sheathed by a performer’s unseeing passivity, but penetrating with a frank, intimate gaze. The crowd clamors lightly, their noise punctuated by a hail from the back of the room that will refrain for the rest of the show: “Okay, Ayesha! I see you Ayesha!”
The overarching tone at Friday’s “Essence of She,” a showcase “organized and performed by women of color, for women of color,” was one of openness and easy communion. Featuring a mix-up of dance, spoken word, music, and political theater, the performance, organized by ISIS, the University women of color dance troupe, was by turns stirring, raw, meditative and celebratory. Celebratory was indeed the key word in the dance pieces that bookended “Essence of She:” rousing, irreverent numbers that unfurled to a background of inter-spliced 80s hip-hop songs (including, memorably, “Hammertime”).
The first act featured performances that wove together multiple genres as they delved unhesitatingly into the themes of the show — love, identity, womanhood, and speaking. Latasha Alcindor ’10 set the tone with her buttery-voiced delivery of “Waiting for Real,” a poem that probed into questions of truth and authenticity. This meditative aspect was taken up by Promiti Islam ’08, who read a discursive, confessional piece about love and family, while moody, almost hypnotic music played in the background. Islam was accompanied by Intisar Abioto ’08, who performed a trembling and expressive dance that resembled some kind of bodily sign language. Interestingly, Abioto’s contribution was less interpretive than interactive—her dance was not so much an instrument of Islam’s expression as it was an autonomous stroke of simultaneous creation. Shattering the myth of the blind performer, Abioto assumed a steady, penetrating gaze which both allowed her to interact with Islam on an equal level, and challenged notions of the performer-audience divide. Abioto continued to defy convention in her next piece, which combined theater with dance in a frenetic, even frantic miming of womanhood. Here, Abioto not only stared back, but she talked back, interrupting the song with argumentative exclamations like: “She has a name and I don’t think she wants to remember!”
Act one was also punctuated by the emotional and stirring spoken word performances of Simone Moore ’11 and Jillian White ’08, a dance number entitled “Enough!”, and startling vocal performances by Tania DeBarros ’11. The talented DeBarros, who boasts a rich, nearly flawless alto, eased her way through “Butterflies,” a love ballad which she composed, and “The Essence of She,” a meditation on strength, change and black womanhood which combined poetry and song.
Act two delved into more political territory with Maya Odim’s ’10 “Up and Out Alrededor,” a powerful performance of traditional libations, memorializing victims of police brutality Amadou Diallo, Jesus Medilla and Sean Bell. Odim poured water for the libations as she repeated their names again and again over a background of brooding, jazzy horns. The mood was tempered by two dance numbers, as well as poetry by Arielle Knight ’11. Jay Vega ’10 took up the political mantle again with “The Subject Remained Nameless,” a poignant narrative that addressed issues of authority, language and paralysis in academic settings. The room seemed to shift in collective sigh as Vega lamented: “My mother’s last phone call can’t be used in class because it can’t be cited.” She went on, “These ’subjects’ are my friends, my family and myself.”
Isa Nakazawa ’08 and Lisa Cunningham ’08 drew the showcase to a close with their shared recitation of “A Love Poem.” As if reading a script, the two women alternated reminiscences of their last four years at the University, each addressing friends, revealing intimate memories and mulling over the strength of sisterhood. Like Odin, Nakazawa and Cunningham dedicated their piece to Sean Bell, as well as “all of the amazing women who have contributed to this show.”
Although “Essence of She” suggests by its title the revelation of some kind of singular, feminine ideal, the showcase itself demolished this notion by presenting a diversity of voices, messages and modes of expression—all of them from women of color. Still, by the end of the show, this multimedia hybrid forged a sort of unity, as crowd and performers were knit together by a netting of articulations, woven larger by every performance—a netting of names, of emotions, of realities and of words left unspoken.