Doxology Ring Shout: A Praise Dance for the Doxy
Doxology Ring Shout: A Praise Dance for the Doxy, a collaboration between playwright Paul Carter Harrison, composer Dwight Andrews, media artist Philip Mallory Jones, and choreographer Dianne McIntyre, commissioned by the National Black Arts Festival, premiered at the Baldwin Burroughs Theater at Spelman College in Atlanta the weekend of September 13, 2014. The multi-disciplinary work involving theater, dance, video and media projections, and music was a provocative contribution to conversations about race, spirituality, gender, sexuality, and politics. Especially in light of recent events sparked by the Ferguson, MO situation, it is difficult not to read this powerful performance as a critical engagement of our current condition and a looking forward to the future through a reconsideration of the past.
The performance was a collision and enmeshing of mediums and stories. The voices of Bernardine Mitchell, Yewande Austin, and Julie Dexter narrating live onstage with spoken and sung word mixed with the live instrumentation of Dan Baraszu on guitar, Ralph Miles Jones on winds, Tyrone Jackson on keyboards, Kevin Smith on bass, and Henry Conerway on percussion. The movement of dancers Johari Mayfield, T. Lang, T. Lang Dance (Indya Childs, Deborah Hughes, Sharel Johnson, and Raina Mitchell), and Spelman College dancers (Gabrielle Campbell, Ciara Jones, Josee Muldrew, and Najla Simms) activated the projections by Philip Mallory Jones. This is a theatrical world of the surplus, that which is in excess.
We first find Doxy (played/danced by Mayfield) standing around in what appears as a parking lot waiting for her man who never arrives. She soon is encircled by the Daughters in Silence (played/danced by members of T. Lang Dance and Spelman College dancers) led by Yami (played/dance by T. Lang), “an earthly figuration of the Vodum orisha, MaMa Wada,” 1 who call her name. However, Doxy ultimately rejects their initial pleas, stating that “The last thing a Foxy Lady of the Boulevard needs is a fruit in her seed.” These Daughters transform their costume skirts into pants and become brothers/sons fighting in a decrepit urban environment. The words “can’t bring love to a brother” accompany this scene. In a transformation back into the Daughters, they all partake in a circular dance that approaches the ritualistic, which causes Doxy to cry that “an intoxicating light set my soul on fire.” But then, she bemoans “Spare me the misery of bearing fruit with no groom.”
The next scenes take us through multiple environments of religion. Doxy takes a bath accompanied by Sister Grace and is admonished for involving herself with the rituals associated with Saraphia, the Mother God, who is said to be darkness. The chorus dancers appear on stage with ball-gags in their mouth; a provocative image of both constraint and perverse sexuality. Then, the Law of the Father appears; Father De Priest enters the stage in studded leather gloves and a white mask. He describes the Archbishop Thomas, who is called Uncle, Uncle Thomas – a blatant critique of the conversion of African slaves to Christianity. From here, we experience the ministry of the absurd and possibly a scene of sexual harassment/assault on the part of Archbishop Thomas. Doxy, in the rhetoric of Catholicism, is called a lamb, which she rejects while undressing: “A lamb is not my pedigree, I am the Lady of the Boulevard.”
She is beckoned to enter the Light of the Mother and exit the House of the Father: Yami states “It is our destiny as women to enter the dance of genesis.” Yami, Doxy, and the Daughters dance the ecstatic, moving in a circle, the video behind them shows a naked body, facing away from us. This dance, the ring shout, first practiced by African slave in the West Indies and the US, is a religious ritual dance that seeks survival through the transcendent. 2
This “holy dance” that combined song and dance is said to be an origin point for numerous musical styles. It is still present in some churches and also among the Gullah people of the Sea Islands, a community which Julie Dash works through in her seminal 1991 film Daughters of the Dust.
The commentary on the House of the Father in this work is potent. This work is a call to return to the First Mother. The author’s notes describe how these women assemble for “a fertility rite that petitions the generative, spiritual power of Saraphia – a Mother God configured from Sophia, the mythic, First Mother archetype of Gnostic texts – to empower themselves with the sensation of procreation, an affirmation of their fecundating potential to restore harmony in a decaying world in the absence of black men in their lives (sons, fathers, lover) lost in the turbulence of social disharmony (drugs, prison, premature death) in a universe known as Chaos. In the face of a social landscape that threatens the extinction of their community, the procreative invocation of these women promises the revivification of hope that sustains communal optimism.” Maternity as the ultimate solution.
This is a complicated claim. What does it mean to return to the mother, to privilege the maternal? Especially in light of the discourse surrounding black female motherhood? Hortense Spiller’s 1987 essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” dissolves the notion of black female maternity. In a complex tracing of the Moynihan Report’s claims of dysfunctional black matriarchy back to the Middle Passage and the colonialism of the New World, she shows us the ways in which the feminine was denied the female slave, though then forced upon her by the Master. She concludes that the figure of the matriarch, the figure of the maternal, is a fallacy. Spiller writes, “Even though we are not talking about any of the matriarchal features of social production/reproduction – matrifocality, matrilinearity, matriarchy – when we speak of the enslaved person, we perceive that the dominant culture, in a fatal misunderstanding, assigns a matriarchist value where it does not belong; actually misnames the power of the female regarding the enslaved community. Such naming is false because the female could not, in fact, claim her child, and false, once again, because “motherhood” is not perceived in the prevailing social climate as a legitimate procedure of cultural inheritance.” 3
This seems to be one of the cruxes of Doxology Ring Shout: the almost aporetic phenomenon of black maternity. Doxy is encouraged to consider her seed without a man. She is taken from the House of the Father, a keystone figure in partilinearity and patriarchy. The dancers display a fluidity of gender, the feminine is reconfigured.
Fred Moten’s work on blackness and his elucidation of Nathaniel Mackey’s concept of the “sexual cut” adds another layer to the reading of this performance work. His book In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition critically examines the work that sound, more specifically jazz, does and the maternity of black performance. He states that “enslavement – and the resistance to enslavement that is the performative essence of blackness (or, perhaps less controversially, the essence of black performance) is a being maternal that is indistinguishable from a being material. But it is also to say something more. And here, the issue of reproduction (the “natural” production of natural children) emerges right on time as it has to do not only with the question concerning slavery, blackness, performance, and the ensemble of their ontologies but also with a contradiction at the heart of the question of value in its relation to personhood that could be said to come into clearer focus against the backdrop of the ensemble of motherhood, blackness, and the bridge between slavery and freedom.” 4
In the narration of Frederick Douglass’ primal scene, Aunt Hester’s scream with the lashing, Moten locates the primal scene of music: “Where shriek turns speech turns song – remoted from the impossible comfort of origin – lies the trace of our descent” (22). Moten locates the “sexual cut,” the emergence of sexual differentiation, in the break, the musical break: “it speaks of a beginning whose origin is never fully recoverable, never operative as the end of any imagined return, and moves in the almost impossible demand of an embrace of the bridge’s double figuration as both connection and disconnection” (73). The reader encounters the cracked voice of Billie Holiday; the cut in which sexual division emerges.
All this is to say that this work, Doxology Ring Shout: A Praise Dance for the Doxy, provokes so many questions and thoughts concerning our contemporary condition of the politics of race and gender. The performance seeks for alternatives to what we have today. In this case, the solutions are to be found in a new configuring of the black feminine and maternal. What should give us further pause is the discrepancy of the landscape. In the ecstatic, the viewer encounters a mystical scene of flowing rivers and lush greenery. All the rest is a stark confrontation of the urban and the decaying. Where are we supposed to go? What landscape can support this kind of future that Doxology Ring Shout calls for?
All images by Alan Kimara Dixon
- Author’s Notes ↩
- Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., “Ring Shout! Literary Studies, Historical Studies, and Black Music Inquiry,” Black Music Research Journal, vol. 11, no. 2 (Autumn 1991): 265-287. ↩
- Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2 (Summer 1987), 80. ↩
- Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 16. ↩