Spectacular Black Death at Fort Gorges
how many deaths?
and were they all so spectacular?
At dusk on July 14, 2016 a crowd of 40 gathered in a grassy clearing inside Fort Gorges, an abandoned structure in Casco Bay, Maine. They were there to witness Spectacular Black Death, a performance by knightworks dance theater. Part of the series “A Long Wait,” curated by Erin Colleen Johnson, it was the second of three site-specific artworks commissioned to use performance, sound, and social practice to activate this space. This citadel was initially conceived to bolster coastal defense following the War of 1812, but funding and construction delayed its completion until 1858. Now a public park, the fort rests in obsolescence off the coast of Portland as an unused ruin – eroded by the time of the natural world but never witness to human use.
The paradox of the site’s history and its stunning form provides an intriguing platform for creative inquiry. Three stories of stone blocks emerge impassively from the water, capped by a roof of lush plants, as if the entire structure had pushed up an island from below. What can rise with life while it crumbles under the forces of decay? This question animated knightworks’ approach to their performance, which drew on the connective power and horrific memory of the origins of the African Diaspora. Spectacular Black Death was conceived as both a conjuring of past lives and a ritual to honor Yemayá, the Yoruban orisha and goddess of the sea. It asked: can the water of the Black Atlantic, that dark substance which drowned so many black lives, also work to lift us up? Contemplating the threshold of sea and land, and of the energetic exchange between dancer and viewer, the piece asked what it means to make dance—and more broadly, to make art—at the end of the world.
Performers Jessi Knight (Choreographer) and Christina Knight (Director), sisters based in North Carolina and Maine, respectively, emerged from the fort’s crumbling arcades to solemnly light votives before initiating an invocation, or a calling up of the dead – the first of the work’s five movements. “I. dances of refusal” began with these spoken words:
her sadness as script
her picture, his face
her death, his trace
our starting place
Standing side-by-side, palm-on-palm, the dancers remained still while on the soundtrack, Jessi’s voice narrated the heartbreaking commandments from “A mother’s rules for being young, black, and male.” Written in 2014 by Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, it includes a litany of bodily movements, gestures, and behaviors deemed safe or unsafe for a black male.
As the rules were spoken, the dancers began walking counterclockwise, then running, then walking, in parallel circular paths, she on the inside track lagging slightly behind she on the outside, until the circle’s halfway point when their positions would be reversed, the outside on the inside and vice versa. Abruptly, one would stop, look defensively over her shoulder, refusing the other’s inertia in a way that felt humbling yet protective. The circle dance is commonplace in West African dance, the counterclockwise movement meant to invoke ancestors.
At the performance’s midpoint, “III. S P E C T A C U L A R B L A C K D E A T H,” Jessi performed an alchemical dance of and with the sea, in rhythm with an aqueous soundscape. Her fluid movements and audible gasping for air conjured a new relationship with the sea, beginning with what appeared to be a struggle against its rhythms, and ending with an uplifting synchronization.
Lastly, an epilogue. While the dancers cut the offerings of fruit for Yemayá and before they invited the audience to partake in them, a soundtrack played the spoken words of the Knight sisters and other women of color whose thoughts about the end of the world were at times inspiring, at others chilling. One particularly resonant passage came from Jasmine Johnson, a young professor:
My student told me that most days she feels like she is dying with eyes wide open. “Being interrupted by dizzying images of your folk slivered, shredded up, swallowed whole, isn’t it hard to study black life every single day as your job?” she asks me, after a particularly soul-vindicating class. I am a lover of black folk, a teacher of black women’s studies, my mom’s black girl baby, and new world for me is in the here-now. My dreamy future is so much of the past. For example, there is no future I am interested in if my ancestors aren’t coming along with me. For me, black death is an anchor, a sail, and the kite.
In an era marked by the spectacle of black death, manifested as the vision of lifeless black bodies in the media, knightworks made clear that its rite was not carved out of fear. Rather, it was a calling upon a source of strength and security—in this case, Yemayá —in order to identify a way to move into the future. The sacrosanct silence of the fort, attained only by crossing water, bound the audience with an embodied knowledge that resonated with that of the dancers.
The term “resonance” came up numerous times in the post-performance discussion. Fort Gorges was a fitting physical and metaphorical echo chamber for the history invoked by the performance; a flock of birds even alighted en masse at the conclusion of a particularly poetic moment in the discussion, making the ritual feel magical. To speculate about the end of the world is to recognize the possibility of an end. That possibility, which has felt ever closer in the present, demands what Christina Knight described as a kind of “practical magic.” Whether or not one believes in magic, this ritual permits and invites people to feel something collectively—all the more important at the end times.