MEMORY IS A BODY OF WATER
nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
This weekend, hundreds of thousands of
Americans of African descent will converge on our nation’s capital to
demand reparation payments for the centuries of enslavement, economic
deprivation, and socially sanctioned terrorism imposed upon black people
in this country. Three Washington D.C.–area African American women have
made an opposite journey, to New York, to present their dance/theatre
piece Memory Is a Body of Water, an at-times eloquently
passionate excavation of the history underlying this issue. Interweaving
events from different eras, the play is an attempt to trace the roots of
the present crisis in minority-dominated inner cities to the
blood-soaked ground of America’s racist culture. If the urgency and
complexity of the message at times overwhelms the work’s artistry or
resources, that’s not so much a criticism as it is a testament to these
women’s obvious deep commitment to saying something meaningful despite
August 15, 2002
A different woman assumes the focus for each of the play’s three sections: Rita Jean Kelly Burns dances the role of a slave ship prisoner; Tanisha Brady Christie plays a servant girl in early twentieth century Maryland who stabs her white employer; and, most notably, Lisa Biggs acts two women at the center of a shooting in the present-day District of Columbia—one is the graffiti-artist sister of the slain man, the other the woman, Ivy, who shoots him in an act of self-defense. Or is it black-on-black racist paranoia? The play and Biggs’ performance leaves that question uncomfortably open, implying others: How much culpability do we have for our actions when society, history and culture seem to force our hand? How do we, black and white, escape from the racialized stereotypes that poison our views of ourselves, as well as others?
Unfortunately, Kristin Horton’s directorial efforts to exhume the big questions imbedded in the play often just end up throwing mud on the proceedings. Too many moments are emotionally "pushed," and the segues between sections often clumsily handled. Plus there are more characters than two actors can reasonably handle—requiring Biggs to play the final confrontation by herself verges on the ludicrous.
At one point she reenacts the day Ivy began menstruating and, then her later forced initiation into performing oral sex. It’s a model of electron-speed transformations and subtle pantomime and by far the best acting work I’ve seen yet in the festival. One wishes her a future production of this worthy play to match her glorious talent.