Waves swirl and crash hypnotically, projected on crisscrossing widths of fabric along the back wall. In front, a large circle sweeps across the floor; at its zenith, a clear bowl of water rests on a short pillar flanked by two curved benches. Sparse instrumental music ripples the air. From the moment the audience enters the theater for A Chorus Within Her, it is clear we are in a time and space set aside for something important, urgent, and necessary.
While so much in our culture right now implores us to move on from the last 18 months, A Chorus Within Her, a choreopoem now at Theater Alliance through November 14, 2021, creates a much-needed pause. Combining poetry, dance, and music, the 75-minute piece centers women’s experiences before and during our current pandemics: COVID, racism, and sexism. Told through poems by Gabrielle Brant Freeman, Glenis Redmond, Christine Sloan Stoddard, and Carmin Wong, as well as the six-performer Ensemble, the performance is both a container for this period’s pain and loss and a meditation on what persists and resists. Directed by Alina Collins Maldonado and choreographed by Tiffany Quinn, the piece adeptly fulfills its description of “part ritual, part airing of difficult truths.”
Developed in the early 1970s by the poet-choreographer Ntozake Shange, a choreopoem is an alternative to European-centric dramatic forms, crafted out of African dance and feminist performance traditions. Shange’s 1975 classic for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf exemplifies the form and is set for a Broadway production in 2022.
Given its structure, A Chorus Within Her is freed from the avenues of meaning-making, which critics — the majority of whom have historically been, like me, white and male — first enshrined and then wielded against more experimental work: a linear plot, psychologically defined and consistent characters, and a tidy, however perfunctory, moral. Instead, A Chorus Within Her encompasses multiple ways of knowing and sharing: communal, embodied, rhythmic, circuitous, accrued, and juxtaposed, to name a few. Its mixture of poetry, movement, and song highlights the limits of each medium while also creating a whole greater than its parts. Where words struggle, movement uplifts. Where dance abstracts, words concretize.
The poems vary widely in tone, length, and subject matter, showcasing the versatility of the diverse six-person Ensemble: Kathleen Akerley, Jasmine Brooks, Ezinne Elele, Siani Nicole, Anna Shafer, and Elizabeth Ung.
They delight in Carmin Wong’s “Coming of Age,” which accumulates a series of verbs and adjectives to delineate the experiences of growing up female, told in the second person. Each finds multiple resonances in repeated phrases like “You run, you wait, you breathe, you twenty, you here.”
Brooks brings a spot-on mixture of comedy and tragedy to her own “Monotony Slayer,” a look at the creeping pace and stultifying routines of pandemic days while waiting for what comes next. Moments later, she and Siana Nicole, who brings an eloquent precision to text and dance alike, perform “Policing” by Glenis Redmond. The two alternate, like the poem’s stanzas, between a white cop and a Black woman defending her right to dignity and life. The cop indignantly asks, “Why do you want to affirm yourself? Why do you say ‘Black Lives Matter’? Why do you want to breathe?”
The production excels at emotional and physical shifts, often abruptly. In addition to the performers’ expressive flexibilities, Sarah Tundermann’s lights, Nitsan Scharf’s projections, and Sarah O’Halloran’s sound design deftly move us between emotional and spiritual states. The effect beautifully shows how borderless emotions and experiences can be: pain next to laugher, hope inside sorrow, suffering turned into resilience. Jessica Alexandra Cancino’s cool-toned set hallows the space. The costumes, a mixture of form-fitting and loose garments in earthy jewel tones by Moyenda Kulemeka, continue the visuals of grace and flow and strength.
A Chorus Within Her is also a reminder that for many people, particularly female-identifying and people of the global majority, the last 18 months have only heightened existing and historic indignities, oppressions, and traumas. Economic instability has been a fact of life for many. Feelings of dislocation, displacement, and isolation, as well as xenophobia, are not new. Violence has always visited the vulnerable. Women have always been aware of personal space for their own safety and security.
These moments contrast with those of hope and connection, found in the memory of a parent’s touch, a grandparent’s language, an ancestor’s perseverance, and, perhaps most of all, in community. The show’s first and final moments perfectly encapsulate the journey between them. Everyone contains a chorus, and everyone is also a part of one.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
A Chorus Within Her plays through November 14, 2021, presented by Theater Alliance performing at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($35 general, $25 senior/student/military) online.
COVID SAFETY: Anacostia Playhouse, where Theater Alliance performs, requires proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken 48 hours before performance start time. Masks will be required for audience members except when eating or drinking. For details, click here.
Directed by Alina Collins Moldonado
The Ensemble: Kathleen Akerley, Jasmine Brooks, Ezinne Elele, Siani Nicole, Anna Shafer, Elizabeth Ung
Choreographed by Tiffany Quinn
Scenic Design by Jessica Alexandra Cancino
Lighting Design by Sarah Tundermann
Sound Design by Sarah O’Halloran
Costume Design by Moyenda Kulemeka
Projections Design by Nitsan Scharf
Assistant Director: Raven Lorraine
Assistant Choreographer: Siani Nicole
Associate Technical Director: Dori Lichter
Projections Engineer: Kelly Colburn
Sound Engineer: Devon Swiger
Assistant Costume Design: Bebe LaMonica
Scenic Charge: Amy Kellett
Rehearsal Stage Manager: Neah Banks
Assistant Stage Manager: Stephanie Smith
Developmental Poets: Gabrielle Brant Freeman, Glenis Redmond, Christine Sloan Stoddard, Carmin Wong
Developmental Choreographers: Unissa Cruse, Siani Nicole, Tiffany Quinn
Technical Direction by Jonathan Dahm Robertson
Master Electrician: Kat Darnell
Stage Management by Genny Ceperley
Production Management by Dominique Douglas Hendricks
Produced by Raymond O. Caldwell, Jennifer Clements