On Buried Ground

Shayla-Vie Jenkins Leads Ceremonial Journey with On Buried Ground

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

The Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia’s Old City was the setting for Shayla-Vie Jenkins’ meditative, site-specific work, On Buried Ground. The performance took place Saturday evening, September 11, and was presented as part of this year’s FringeArts Festival. Subtitled Remember Them, the event beautifully combined performance and ritual. Jenkins, a performer who is eloquent in both word and gesture, served as poet, dancer, and spirit guide.

The Burial Ground is the final resting place for more than 4,000 people, some who are well known – Ben Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence – and others who were buried in unmarked graves. Amongst the unmemorialized are four Black people, and the intention of Remember Them, was to bring them to mind in the present as individuals, to mourn their passing, and to symbolically lay them to rest anew, and in peace.

The audience first encountered Jenkins sitting on a bench in a corner of the Burial Ground, where we joined her in listening to a recording of Frederick Douglass’s stirring speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? We followed her as she strolled intentionally amongst the graves, silently taking note of the marked gravestones, as she led us to a central pathway lined with trees.

She traveled straight down the path, embellishing her procession with outstretched limbs and soft, imaginary embraces. Upon reaching the end of the path, she unfolded a large piece of mesh cloth, then cinched the fabric tightly into a rope, which she arranged in a large circle on the ground. She etched words into the gravel within the circle, pausing briefly to read what she had written. Before moving on, the audience was able to read the words as well, the first and last names of a woman, Violet Plumsteed – memorialized in the Burial Ground at last.

Next, Jenkins beckoned the audience to follow her to another area within the Burial Ground, a square space enclosed in a grove of trees, with fabric billowing from some of the branches. The mood changed to distress as Jenkins figuratively presented three more individuals to us: William Richards, Charles Merchant, and a child known only as Sharpers. Her succinct movements were percussive and repetitive, as she deftly articulated her finger joints and
different sections of her torso. She searched for a place to“lay their bodies,” trying different spaces amongst the gravestones to lie down. At last she settled for shaping small piles of mesh fabric into mounds and placing them symbolically on the ground.

At times Jenkins spoke aloud in addition to dancing, and other times she was accompanied by music; including an original composition by Juliette Jones and other recordings by Michaeln Nyman, Beautiful Chorus, The Melodians, and Bobby McFerrin. Text excerpts were read by Jenkins’ friends and family: Sheila Chiamaka Chukwulozie, Uncle Runninghorse, and her young cousin Kayla Imani Warren, who recited from Christ Church baptism records – painfully stating the details of who each enslaved person was considered to be “the property of…”

The strong formal elements of Remember Them grounded the piece, giving weight to the ceremonial atmosphere. Each section was well-defined spatially – flowing organically from one setting into the next. The passage of time itself was incorporated into the work, as evening moved into night, and the growing darkness lent solemnity to the lighting of candles held by the audience. Jenkins ended the tour through the burial grounds by rolling herself up languorously in a length of fabric stretched on the ground between a row of graves. She emerged from this shroud to say final a prayer – a poetic invitation “to meditate on the past,” as the program urged, “and collectively envision our future.”

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