Spellbinding moments in Kosoko’s chaotic Seancers

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Séancers is Jaamil Oswala Kosoko’s performance piece, part memoir, part physical theater happening, a public séance as a transformative artistic journey. Kosoko is touring ‘Seancers, most recently in Europe (Olso, Zurich & Brussels) and last weekend at Fringe Arts in Philadelphia for three performances, where Kosoko continues to enjoy a strong following.

Kosoko has developed it in a much different way than the excerpts he previewed at the American Dance Abroad concert last summer at the Performance Garage in Philly. Gone are the guest dancers as Kosoko makes this a more intimate, mostly solo performance piece in collaboration with composer-sound designer Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste.  And Kosoko invited guest ‘séancers’- Brenda Dixon-Gottschild Ph.D., Sosena Solomon, and Christina Knight, Ph.D. – to facilitate, give cultural context and briefly interact with Kosoko as guest séancers.  The FringeArts house reconfigured to a more interactive audience space, so Kosoko can establish performance intimacy.

He was already on the FringeArts stage, his hands reaching toward a sculpted glass chandelier and dressed in a sheer ceremonial robe over a second skin bodyglove with symbolic African symbols, and mirror aviator sunglasses.

And echoes of his J-Love character from past Fringe events, Kosoko charms this audience with humor and camaraderie. He comes close to the audience and starts chatting with the front row and he is body mic-ed so we all hear.  It is an invocation and a gathering of energy in the room, it is a para-séance as performance art and without we are under a theatrical spell.  He offers a beautiful recitation of lesbian poet Audrey Lorde’s “Power,” but only fragments of his own poetry.

Centerstage there are shredded garments, masks, a shackle, busted wigs, an Elvis blowup doll and other scary debris. He picks up shredded glittery material and spins it around his body, in a cyclonic frenzy.

As he escorts us to his most private space – A chromatic portrait of his father hangs on the wall (later his voice is heard in on Toussaint-Baptiste’s soundtrack in his final voice message), three house dresses float above, an upright piano, there is a small table with books, a silver tea set, candles and a black Barbie doll and a framed photo of his mother.

In its current version, this work seems very much a follow-up companion piece to Kosoko’s 2016 “#negrophobia” which paid tribute to his younger brother, who was killed in 2015 “through senseless violence” Kosoko said and called the piece “very much a memorial site, of grief.”

“Nobody cares about your tears…“I’m the only one who cares about your tears and I don’t want to see them.”  Kosoko channels his mother, as he peels on her wrap and pours tea, she starts to spasm and he enacts her bi-polar breakdown with the haunted refrain “I just want to be somebody else.”  Kosoko moves around the stage in an ever more agitated state, which reaches an emotional climax and vanishes.

Later, Kosoko is in gorgeous diva wig, gold lame unitard and stomping the runway in diamond platform boots.  A red ghost light is on as he moves to the piano, and is cast in silhouette by the illuminated keyboard, as he plays and sings his own song “Entertainer.”  One of many visually stunning moments by lighting designer Serena Wong.

The song ends with the flash of a trancelike dance and how perfectly those edited out dances would have fit into this “Seancers” toward the end of the piece. As he finishes the song, Kosoko digs out the orange horror nylon mask with grotesque red lips and jaundice hair, which he flings around grotesquely.

Toussaint-Baptiste’s sub-bass rumble builds to sonic waves, it is a mesmerizing effect visually and aurally, the detritus becomes a moving monster, that Kosoko turns into a performance dragon breathing polemic fire.

What didn’t seem to fit was Kosoko’s flawlessly lip-syncing of social activist Ruby Sales’ radio interview monologue “Where does it Hurt” in which she talks about racism and posits the question “Where is the theology” among the ‘leaders’ to lead us out of the dystopia of our current political landscape.  This extended segment actually made more sense in the more overtly political excerpts of ‘Séancers’ last year.

Kosoko is an award-winning poet, curator, performer and scholar, a Nigerian American scholar who grew up in Detroit. In his program note, Kosoko explains, “I seek to examine shifts through charged social, emotional and political fields.”   Indeed, this is a dense, chaotic work, befitting a virtual séance.   “Séancers journeys into the surreal and fantastical states of the Black imagination to traverse the “fatal” axis of abstraction, illegibility and gender complexity.”    Even though it is so easy to get swept up in the piece without all of the dramaturg and background, the entire audience remained for Sosena Solomon’s post-performance conversation with Kosoko.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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