Edited and Published by Robert W. McDowell

March 10, 2022 Issue
PART 4 (March 11, 2022)

A FREE Weekly E-mail Newsletter Covering Theater, Dance, Music, and Film in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill/Carrboro Area of North Carolina Since April 2001.


On March 9th at UNC's Memorial Hall, Percussive Movements
Condensed into Moving Human Sculpture in Grace and Mercy

Carolina Performing Arts presented Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, with Meshell Ndegeocello, in Grace and Mercy: A 35th Anniversary
on Wednesday, March 9th, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall (photo by Ernesto Mancebo)

The venue, alone, drew me to Carolina Performing Arts' Wednesday, March 9th, presentation of Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, with Meshell Ndegeocello, in Grace and Mercy: A 35th Anniversary Celebration in Memorial Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We parked by UNC's Coker Arboretum and walked down Cameron Street, past the famous Old Well, to UNC's Memorial Hall. The giant colonial-style columns at the Hall's portico entrance glowed majestically as we approached the large and diverse crowd out front. I hadn't seen this many people at a live performance since Covid-19 made its appearance.

There was energy was in the air well before Ronald K. Brown's dance company EVIDENCE bounded onto stage. First was a piece called Upside Down, which is exactly how it felt. Red or blue light emanated from a giant door-like opening in the black curtains along the back of the stage as 1, 2, then 8 dancers performed rapid and physically demanding movements in perfect unison, their grace matched only by their ferocity.

The costumes, designed by Omatayo Wunmi Olaiya, bathed the dancers' statuesque bodies in flowing red and purple hues, accentuating muscular arms, legs, and torsos as they glistened and moved. The dance and music, also composed by Wunmi Olaiya, communed with such propulsive synchronicity that I didn't have to comprehend the African lyrics to hear the ancestral voices conjured.

After a well-deserved intermission, a formidable female dancer in flowing white began Grace, a popular piece that Brown choreographed for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. From Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" to Roy Davis' "Gabriel" and the "AfroPop" beats of Fela Kuti, the choreography moved from gentle fluidity to powerful eruption and back again, showcasing each dancer in ways that made it impossible to question their talent and dedication.

At times, the dancers' percussive movements condensed into a moving human sculpture, draped in red and white. The garments were all white by the end of the piece, as if the blood-red trauma of individual human suffering had evolved into the pure white peace of "The Promised Land" toward which the dancers had progressed. No wonder The New York Times described this piece as "something to be sensed as well as seen."

Carolina Performing Arts presented Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, with Meshell Ndegeocello, in Grace and Mercy: A 35th
Anniversary Celebration
on Wednesday, March 9th, in Memorial Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The final dance, Mercy, was co-commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts and is Brown's first collaboration with singer/songwriter/bassist Meshell Ndegeocello. A group of musicians appeared on the back left of the stage, and Ndegeocello's heady lyrics wafted into the audience on live sound waves that vibrated throughout my body: "have mercy on me," "look at all the light I bring."

The white attire that concluded Grace was replaced with fluid black costumes in Mercy, which began with a single female dancer whose crown-like headpiece made her appear especially tall and regal. The other dancers joined her in singles and in pairs as they made the "physical journey towards justice and redemption."

Unlike the previous two pieces, the dancers practically levitated around giant columns against a backdrop drenched entirely in vibrant red, then blue light. The result was an audio-visual symphony of funky beats, mantras, and movement that physically revealed the "joy found in redemption."

Given the themes of Brown's pieces and their blend of modern dance and West African idioms, one cannot ignore the significance of this performance in this place at this time. The first "Memorial Hall" was built in 1883 to honor "notable North Carolinians" and the University's Confederate Dead. Though that building was replaced in 1931 and renovated in the early 2000's, the original memorial tablets still hang on either side of the auditorium stage, albeit far above the audience and somewhat hidden by the room's decorative framing.

Meanwhile, #BlackLivesMatter has become a worldwide movement to end the violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilante white supremacists. Although more than 200 Confederate monuments have been removed across the country since 2019, the slabs of Confederate names in UNC's Memorial Hall still stand, rendering the Carolina Performing Arts' presentation of Grace and Mercy an act of justice in and of itself.

Carolina Performing Arts presented Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, with Meshell Ndegeocello, in Grace and Mercy: A 35th
Anniversary Celebration
on Wednesday, March 9th, in Memorial Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, with Meshell Ndegeocello, in GRACE AND MERCY: A 35TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION (In Person on Wednesday, March 9th) (Carolina Performing Arts in Memorial Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill). TRAILERS: https://vimeo.com/446536506 and https://vimeo.com/446513405. 2021-22 SEASON: https://carolinaperformingarts.org/current-season/. THE PRESENTER: https://carolinaperformingarts.org/, https://www.facebook.com/CarolinaPerformingArtsUNC, https://www.instagram.com/carolinaperformingarts, https://twitter.com/UNCPerformArts, and https://www.youtube.com/user/UNCPerformArts. CPA BLOG: https://carolinaperformingarts.org/blog/. TICKETS: $20 and up, plus taxes and fees, except $10 UNC students. Click here to buy tickets. DIRECTIONS/PARKING: https://carolinaperformingarts.org/parking/. CPA COVID REQUIREMENTS: https://carolinaperformingarts.org/health-and-safety/. INFORMATION: 919-843-3333 or carolinaperformingarts@unc.edu. PLEASE DONATE TO: Carolina Performing Arts. [RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]

EDITOR'S NOTE: A Durham, NC resident for 20 years, Melissa Rooney is a scientific editor, freelance writer, and author of several science-based children's picture books. She has published children's stories and verse in Highlights Children's Magazine and Bay Leaves. Rooney earned undergraduate degrees in English and Chemistry from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA; and she earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1998 from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Her stories Eddie the Electron and The Fate of The Frog form the basis of two workshops offered through the Durham Arts Council's Culture and Arts in the Public Schools (CAPS) program, through which Rooney teaches elementary- and middle-school students about electrons and atoms or sustainability and rhyme, respectively. When she isn't writing, editing, reading, teaching, or experiencing theater, Rooney volunteers as an Associate Supervisor on the Durham's Soil and Water Conservation District. Click here to read Melissa Rooney's reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.


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