Exciting dancing and anti-oppression storytelling in ‘ISM II’ at Atlas

This enjoyable production by Visionaries of the Creative Arts centered Deaf and Hard of Hearing actors while voice actors to the side gave verbal interpretations.

There is nothing more exhilarating to me than watching a group of people as they discover and celebrate their inherent creative impulses and then harness that creativity to claim their place and agency in the world. That’s what I experienced while watching ISM II, a production of Visionaries of the Creative Arts (VOCA), an organization that, according to its mission statement, “aims to be a global leader in providing equitable access and opportunities for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (HoH) BIPOC artists in the creative and performing arts arena.”

The cast of ‘ISM II.’ Publicity photo courtesy of Visionaries of the Creative Arts (VOCA).

Earlier this year VOCA mounted a production of A Raisin in the Sun with a mixed Deaf and hearing cast. That was followed by the first iteration of ISM. With ISM II, VOCA has demonstrated that they intend to make a strong contribution to both the DC theater scene and the larger arts scene with work that maintains high artistic standards and is unapologetically anti-oppression. The members of VOCA are “uniquely trained BIPOC, Deaf and HoH and hearing actors.” In this production, Deaf or HoH actors inhabited the central performing space while hearing voice actors stationed to the side gave verbal interpretations. This was consistently effective, more effective than super/subtitles, and a technique not without precedent: Some kabuki forms have used it as well as some silent films during their heyday.

TOP LEFT: Tee Carter, Ameena Dayo, Jordan Island, Domi Middlebrook; TOP RIGHT: Jordan Island, Domi Middlebrook, Harmony Baniaga, Kaye Fernandez, Ameena Dayo, Tee Carter; ABOVE LEFT: Domi Middlebrook, Ameena Dayo, Harmony Baniaga, Tee Carter, Jordan Island, Kaye Fernandez; ABOVE RIGHT: Ameena Dayo, Harmony Baniaga, Jordan Island, Kaye Fernandez, in ‘ISM II.’ Photos by Andrew Robertson.

This production mixed live and video elements. Informative videos on The History of Hip Hop & DC’s Go-Go and demonstrations by Keith “Sho’ Roc” Brown and Warren “WaWa” Snipe were featured. The projections (Andrea Vigil) were very well thought out and impressively executed: a seamless and integral part of the live action and not an afterthought. Hip Hop and Go-Go music (it’s the 50th anniversary of Hip Hop) were at the center of this production.

In a series of vignettes, cast members shared their experience of being targeted by intersecting oppressions including racism, ageism, and ableism (ISMs), and how they resisted and overcame (or are still working to overcome) the limits this targeting imposed on their lives. The work is stuffed with dancing, forcefully and brilliantly choreographed by Tara Miles. The movement was exciting, energetic, provocative, and contagious. Harmony Baniaga was frequently in center stage where she did a masterful job holding and focusing the choreography for the entire cast.

Opening night was very enjoyable but it ran quite long. As a community celebration of triumph over obstacles, it makes sense that it could run close to three hours. (As Judy Garland used to say, “We’ll sing ’em all and stay all night.” It felt like that kind of party.) But for general audiences, it could have been shorter. The website indicates that it will be.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes.

ISM II runs through December 17, 2023 (Thursdays to Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm), presented by Visionaries of the Creative Arts (VOCA) performing in Theatre Lab II at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($35, general admission; $30, seniors and students) online.

COVID Safety: Masks are recommended but not required. The Atlas health and safety policy is here.

Conceived and directed by Michelle Banks
Choreographed by Tara J. Miles

Harmony Baniaga
Tiacia “Tee” Carter
Ameena Dayo
Kaye Fernandez
Jordan Island
Domi Middlebrook

Director: Michelle Banks
Graphic Designer: Kaori “Karry” Takeuchi
Sound Designer: Kevin Dyels
Light Designer: Helen Garcia-Alton
Choreographer: Tara J. Miles
Stage Manager: Mervin Primeaux-OBryant
Projection Designer/Technical Operator: Andrea Vigil
Light Operator: Fatimah Abdul-Rahim


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here