Gomela/to Return: Movement of Our Mother Tongue, presented by Junebug Productions is one of the most innovative performances of the season. Combining spoken word, movement, dance, photography and videography, Gomela is a mesmerizing tapestry of creative forces that conveys the breadth of African-American history while emphasizing the resilience of black people.
Director Stephanie McKee, producer Kiyoko McCrae and poet Sunni Patterson studied under John O'Neal and Doris Derby, co-founders of Free Southern Theater, which became a major influence on the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s. Junebug Productions carries on Free Southern Theater's mission to use the arts in support of civil rights, and Gomela touches on slavery, racial profiling, poverty, lack of opportunity, Hurricane Katrina and negative societal messages relating to the black community.
The stark, contemporary setting of Ashe Power House allows the audience to become completely engrossed in the action. Patterson appears out of the darkness, dressed in golden garments, personifying an Orisha, a spirit in the Yoruba religion of southwestern Nigeria who resembles a godlike being. Startling costumes designed by Ja'nese Brooks-Galathe and Dana Leon Lima of Aya Designs suggest a traditional Orisha manifesting in ordinary people.
With little linear plot, performers artistically express how it feels to be black in America. Photographs and images projected on floor-to-ceiling scrims allow for broader interpretations of Patterson's words as Jawara Simon beats traditional West African rhythms on a djembe. A haunting video showing Sandra Bland's 2015 arrest in Texas for failing to signal a lane change elicits feelings of despair. She died in jail three days later. Evocative choreography by Jeremy Guyton, Kai Knight and Kesha McKey employs modern, African and second-line dance movements, and it is emotional, frightening and powerful. In one scene, Guyton franticly evades police.
Recorded music by trumpeter Troy Sawyer and singer Janet "Sula Spirit" Evans of Zion Trinity add to the mystique.
Patterson addresses the horrors of the transatlantic passage on slave ships, the agony of slave auction blocks and separation of family members, but she also is determined to instill pride in African heritage. The poem Black Back reads: "said we wanna bring back black / we wanna bring black back ... who can move mountains / who can make music that makes motions / that move us forward / to bring us back."
In the words of McKee, "Gomela is the artistic vehicle of which we acknowledge our history and lineage, remember the past and present struggles, and see the beauty reflected back to us."
Gomela is a unique performance work that should not be missed.