Ausettua Amor Amenkum performs in Beneath the Strata at A Studio in the Woods. On a sunlit levee in the country about a half hour from the C.B.D., six women perform graceful dance movements as they chant. The women seem to exist in different dimensions: the group towards the top of the levee (two white and one black) wear white robes, as though spirits or symbolic creatures. The group lower down, all black, wear white skirt-suits and high heels. They seem real.
There are two groups of gawkers looking on -- 60 or so Crescent City-zens on the road beneath the levee and a half dozen Chinese sailors on the aft of a freighter anchored on the river.
What they're watching is the first scene of Beneath the Strata/Disappearing, a "performance installation" directed by Kathy Randels and designed by Asante Salaam. Clearly, we're not dealing with your run-of-the-mill theatrical presentation. Everything about the piece is odd, even the theater -- which is not a theater at all, but the levee and a series of clearings on the grounds of A Studio in the Woods.
A Studio in the Woods is the brainchild of Lucianne and Joe Carmichael, both of whom are visual artists, though Lucianne also is fondly remembered as the principal of McDonough 15 in the French Quarter. A Studio offers residencies to artists and writers. Randels and company spent three weeks there last spring, scoping out the land for a performance, and returned this fall to put the show together. One of the goals of A Studio is "the preserving of endangered bottomland hardwood forest," and that may explain both the show's subtitle "disappearing" and the show's advertised catch phrase "inspired by the loss of southeast Louisiana's land and cultures." But, if land loss was a major concern of the show, I missed it.
Anyway, the gawkers (except for the Chinese sailors) are approached by the businesslike young black women, who are, as it turns out, realtors intent on showing us the grounds in the hope of a sale. A dozen or so of us follow each of the realtors down a pathway. We stop at a series of clearings. These are presided over by the oneiric, robed figures, who either address our guide or us or both. It's a kind of psychic journey, like Dante's or Alice's.
The first spirit is what you might call African Womanhood. She's digging away at the roots of a fallen tree with a stick. She sets the dominant tone of the journey by attacking the realtor for having lost touch with the deep, sustaining traditions of her ancestors. Now, there is, no doubt, some truth -- but also some irony as well -- when a woman who digs at roots with a stick lords it over a modern, educated woman, albeit submerged in commerce. But this theme of the need to return to ancient African traditions is a -- perhaps the -- major issue of the piece. Furthermore, the modern young women do not seem able to muster even the faintest defense for their way of life or any criticism of the old ways or of the place of women in Third World societies. No sooner have we left the Spirit of African Womanhood, than the realtor's cell phone rings and she has to deal with a contractor who's fixing her hurricane-damaged roof. Typical trifling, shallow concerns!
Well, okay, I'm being flippant. In fact, the show is enjoyable. The actresses (Ausettua Amor Amenkum, Dominique Townsend, Herreast Harrison, Stephanie McKee, Kathy Randels, Lisa Shattuck, Beverly Trask, Gabrielle Turner and first grader Aja Becker) do a good job. They generally carry the abstract material with charm and conviction. Although I must confess that, for me, the performance art style of combining speech and action in expressive, but illogical patterns often makes the speaker seem somewhat demented. In terms of issues, we get spiels about feminine achievements, like women boat captains and the glories of Newcomb Pottery. The cast, it should be noted, is also credited with writing and "creating" the piece.
There was one male actor, a white man (Nick Slie), who plays Loup Garou. He is filthy and totally insane (intended, not my perceptual problem). He wants to tear the little girl to shreds. Fortunately, he gets tied to a tree by the women, who then celebrate with a calinda dance to the music of a drummer, fiddler and guitarist. And so ends a walk in the woods and an outdoor performance art piece.
Curiously enough, although you pass pastures full of cows and such like country sights on your way to A Studio in the Woods, it's actually within the New Orleans city limits. The place is easy to get to and Beneath the Strata/Disappearing is worth a trip.