On Thursday, I went to The Goat Farm, a visually sumptuous arts center in Atlanta, to take in the premier of my friend T. Lang’s latest work Mother/Mutha. I had the great privilege of seeing her dance company working through some of the movements during an early rehearsal of the show and I was eager to see the realization of her vision. I had never been to The Goat Farm but I imagined it would be a rather intimate, urban spot in some part of the city where I had never been. So I was taken aback when I saw that The Goat Farm was an explicit reference. I sent my husband the above picture with a message that said: “There are real, live goats here!” Instead of the cold, dead, industrial space that I imagined being lit up by this performance, I started considering the fact of black women dancers in this bucolic scene and it immediately put me in mind of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (I know, everything does), particularly the Clearing, where “Baby Suggs had danced in sunlight.” Morrison describes Baby Suggs’s Clearing as “a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of a party known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place.” The Goat Farm has an industrial past. It was first a site that manufactured cotton gins before making artillery during World War II. During the 1970s, it was used by an industrial engineer who also leased space to artists; apparently, the goats were brought in to eat the kudzu. The interplay of the industrial and the pastoral suited a performance that engaged black women’s violent, bodily interactions with history and their narratives of recovery.
Unpaved roads lead to Goodson Yard, the warehouse seen in the above photograph. It was a beautiful evening to take in an event in the semi-outdoors. My phone told me that it was 79 degrees just before the start of the show. There was a wonderful breeze that would occasion past that added to the insistence to remain present to this experience. As I waited for the show to begin, I thought about Baby Suggs’s speech in the Clearing, her message of recovering, of laying it down, resounding in this setting. Through Baby Suggs, Morrison offers what has got to be the greatest speech written in the last fifty years. It is worth quoting at length:
“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavens instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life holding womb and you life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”
And then she dances.
The five part composition that T. Lang choreographed was deeply rooted in sound: the sound of an auction barker; of a whip; of Bessie Smith; of Louis Armstrong; of crying; of wailing; of panting; of words; of silence. The visual range was stunning. The dancers were of varying shades of brown and carried that off through bodies of varying, refreshing frames. The masterful blending of the visual and the acoustic oftentimes through new technologies excited time. Every moment of the show felt urgent.
It must be an artist’s challenge to render ugliness beautifully. T. Lang’s choreography renders some of this through citing other artists, like Kara Walker, who have captured the crudity that black women have met in American life. As Lang’s work shows, for black women, crudity resounds like an anthem. But it was striking to me how hopeful the work felt. There was one narrative sequence where one dancer was moved like the stone that Sisyphus rolls. Each time she would be set in place, she would move and have to be reset. The dancer doing Sisyphus’s work kept an impassive face and I was reminded of Camus:
“The struggle (…) itself is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
I saw Mother/Mutha as an incredibly hopeful work. I saw the dancers always searching, questing for beauty despite the crudity that loops and repeats interminably. In the work of dancing, through art, the show seems to suggest, black women reflect the “flesh” work that Baby Suggs describes wherein a “you” recovers its own worth–finds its own “model by which to live” –and can be happy.