American Chameleon’s Beautiful Messy Relationships

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s American Chameleon

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal | photo credit: Erik Carter

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s American Chameleon is a continuing remote symposium of text, artwork, research, and discussion about many of the artist’s central themes that inform his performances – social justice, arts, and activism.  The series was well underway on the social-media platforms Discord and YouTube even before the Covid- pandemic hit as an expansive symposium.

Kosoko’s American Chameleon: The Living Installments is one of the curated centerpieces of the 2020 Philadelphia FringeArts series of conversations, think-tanks, and reading groups held each week.

In an interview this past April with New York Times’s journalist Siobhan Burke, Kosovo admitted “Shortly after this thing unleashed itself and we were put on lockdown, something in me broke psychologically. It took me several days to work through the fact that friends of mine were on the front lines of this thing. It was so intense. It still is.”

But Kosoko also said it was an opportunity “for idea sharing, for resource sharing, and hopefully, for healing.” He calls it “a global gesture in listening,” in his conversation with Burke.

“Chameleon…needs to be adaptive. It needs to be able to respond to its audience, to the situation of the moment.” Initially, he presented a re-conceived series, Chameleon: A Syllabus for Survival, with the streaming of a prerecorded conversation between Kosoko and the choreographer Bill T. Jones.

At the Tanz Im August Berlin International Festival, his short film, Chameleon Contingency, the reflective and pragmatic Kosoko offered a film montage around an intimate conversation with his close friend and colleague Dr. Brenda Dixon Gottschild.  

Gottschild asked him if there was hope for artists in this dire time given the seemingly insurmountable global problems and America being at a breaking point.

“I can’t say I know we will get through this, but …what gives me faith-(is) the way I see certain performances of wayward possibility unfolding…the (protest) graffiti becomes art, the protest becomes choreography; all of it becomes strategies and tools and systems to integrating. It has never been easy. Some kind of collapsing walls of power inside of white supremacy culture.”   Perhaps, he explains “we need it to happen outside.”

“What is the theater now? This is a kind of theater now,”  Kosovo observes. “What’s happening is a kind of unraveling of form,…so that something else will position itself, and begin to take shape.  We don’t know what that means….or looks like. We know how politics, war, and catastrophe often time coincide with liberation and creative forms of art-making.”

These themes were already central to his dance works. As electric as Kosoko is as a dancer auteur, he is just as much invested in being fully accessible with his audience about the purpose and intent of his material. He often speaks with audiences as a prologue to performance. 

In 2017, Kosoko’s volcanic dance-theater, #Negrophobia, confronted oppression and cultural assaults on black, trans, and queer lives.  For as much as Kosoko builds dramaturg, his performances have an immediacy and sense of discovery with his audiences.

This was also palpable in Kosoko’s fierce performance in the 2018 Fringe hit Séancers, a cathartic memoir about his relationships with his mother and his queer identity as a Nigerian-American scholar, poet, and dance artist.

However elaborate the dramaturg is for both of these works, it is distilled scaffolding into theatrical arcs narratively, visually, and emotionally. He can journey through socio-political dystopia, and seconds later get to a place of radiant dance warrior imbued with gender fluidity in dazzling couture.

American Chameleon: The Living Installments is a real-time documentary designed as a forum of discussion and engagement among fellow artists, activists, writers, and Kosoko’s academic and theater audiences.

The Living Installment presented on September 16th was a collective of two reading groups – one in Philadelphia and one in Portland, Oregon with writer Lisa Jarret presenting In Search Of Our Mother’s Gardens. Leading the discussion was Alice Walker, author of the Color Purple. Two additional reading group sessions included Malkia Okech facilitating with Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police by Mariame Kaba, and Amalia Dache on the 1619 Project from the New York Times.

Particularly being inspired by Alice Walker, Kosoko offers an extensive exploration of what their relatives and ancestors lived through in a racist and oppressive country and the legacies of structural racism.  The group shared stories of their heritage and desire to know about specific ancestry and the often inherent difficulties of talking about the dynamics of family histories around issues of race. 

Kosoko joined the Portland groups and weighed in – “What this practice of finding an ancestral community that could offer me some means of understanding. Not only the past of what so many endured, but what lay ahead.”

“I remember reading Color Purple…to provide a kind of spiritual healing that sometimes our biological families are unable to provide. “

“I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home full of women. And this was unfortunate. Perhaps a curse. I don’t know what it means to be a young black, queer thing. You’re read often and from very different angles”.

“My grandmother had White Jesus above the door. Would drag me. And in one breath would put things in my hair and in the other correct the way I was holding my wrist. Police my wrists,” he recalled.

“So there’s these sort of beautiful messy relationships. I guess that are reflections of what they knew, I suppose, and what they could offer from that knowing. To a degree, I’m grateful for that.  But also it’s that that’s coming up in my therapy right now.” Kosoko jokes, but adds “really trying to heal, modes of sensitivity or just elements of myself, that I was taught to believe that were lesser than…and now leaning into the magic of possibilities that these sensitivities hold and allow me to ….access in the world”.

“I don’t know if I’m oversharing,” Kosoko concludes with a laugh.  “You know these ZOOM space….”

Indeed, the multi-media heft of Kosoko’s series is challenging for viewers to hang-in for all of the sessions – four weeks in a row over the course of the Fringe Festival. This is indeed a panoramic archive of text, oral memoirs, and a research source from a year of living in isolation. In its finest moments, it is a time-capsule of the too often lost art of conversation.

Follow Me