Ralph Lemon at BAM
“How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?” is a question posed by Walter Carter, a 102-year-old ex-sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta, to a human-sized rabbit played by Okwui Okpowasili in a bunny suit. At least that’s how Ralph Lemon recounts it in the first section of his show by the same name – let’s just abbreviate it from here on out and call it HCYS. The show is a fractured and disjointed assemblage of scenes that is at once deeply personal and alienating, a challenging multidisciplinary exploration of how we make meaning out of loss.
The first section of HCYS is perhaps the most satisfying. Ralph sits on a chair under simple spotlight and narrates a film that he constructed over the course of the research/rehearsal process. The film is stream-of-consciousness, exploring intimacy and alienation by overlaying three couples: Walter Carter and his wife Edna, the characters Hari and Kris Kelvin from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris and Ralph Lemon and his partner Asako Takami. In the film, Lemon tells us about Asako getting terminally ill and the ways they spent their last days together. He intercuts that with images from Tarkovsky’s film and re-stagings of the Tarkovsky film using Walter and Edna. At the same time he is recounting the challenges of creating this piece with the dancers he used in 2004’s Come home Charley Patton. He shows a clip of them performing a 3-minute sequence of what is supposed to be ecstatic movement and says, “I could watch this for twenty minutes”. The performers, exhausted from their exertions, feel differently. He shows us a duet that he and Okwui Okpokwasili performed at Danspace, inspired by Walter and Edna. Occasionally the film flashes text-only epigrams and ideas, as if bursts of thought were coming through a sea of memories and images. As Lemon narrates we get the feeling of listening to someone read their diary and personal musings, complete with the visual imagery that accompanies their internal thought process.
This first section is followed by a pause after which the dancers take the stage and, essentially, do the ecstatic dance that we saw in the film, only this time for about 20 minutes. It looks exhausting. Although it has the appearance of a structured improv, it is obviously highly choreographed as the dancers careen into and off of each other -first in a large group, then followed by a solo from Okpokwasili, then a trio with the men and a duet with the two other woman dancers.
The third section is just a woman wailing and crying offstage – eventually Okwui wanders on, sobbing, in simple spotlight, picks up a tambourine and wanders off. This is followed by a series of projections on the back wall, starting with a dog, then Okwui in a rabbit suit, then a flamingo – until the back wall is covered with a veritable menagerie of projected animals.
In the fourth section Lemon does a solo and then he and Okpokwasili revisit the duet we saw in the film, only this time it is much more subdued. The final image of the show is Lemon, sitting alone onstage, silently.
It feels unseemly to criticize another’s grief and this work feels, if anything, like part of a grieving process. It is impossible to separate the work from the details of Lemon’s life – the loss of his partner Asako, the death of Walter Carter. Grieving is an intensely personal process and it can feel impossible to reach through one’s own sense of isolation and back into the world. HCYS feels like Lemon is Orpheus, stumbling forward back from the Underworld, grappling with isolation and unable to avoid looking back. He puts is dancers through the exertions of exorcism as proxy for himself but remains trapped with his loss.